Chapter 18 of 26 from Ken Burns

The Power of Music

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Learn how Ken uses music as a powerful storytelling tool in order to add layers of narrative depth and spark emotions in his audiences.

Topics include: Record Music Early On • An Establishing Shot in Your Heart • Music + Picture = the Holy Ghost • The Power of Period Music • Aim High When Sourcing • Keep an Open Mind • Case Study: Pairing Picture With “Ashokan Farewell”

Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 15-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.

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Traditionally, music-- which is a hugely powerful force in anything, in life. It's probably the quickest art form. It is. It gets in there like mainlining heroin. It's like two notes and you're there, and something's being felt. Traditionally, in film production, with the exception of some temporary tracks that you might use during editing, music is an afterthought. Music is something that you add to the existing film once it's more or less done, where you hope-- you hope it will amplify emotions that are there, that you've created. And it is very much about amplification. But that, to me, always felt a little artificial, that something as powerful as music should take some kind of secondary-- or at least, some step that came in at the end. We sort of felt that music, because of its centrality and its power, ought to be recorded first. So it has been our process from the very, very beginning to record music either before we start editing or very early in the editing process, so that the music itself is one of the directors of the film, rather than something that's added as an afterthought. And rather than have something scored-- which is, you know, once you've locked the picture, a score is kind of a mathematical term. It's got to be exactly 53 seconds and 20 frames till this hit. We would rather record music that we're drawn to emotionally, that we think fits a variety of needs, record many different versions of it, and permit the music to dictate-- in many cases-- the pace and rhythm as we develop those scenes. So sometimes we might actually shorten a sentence of narration or lengthen a sentence of narration, if that's appropriate, to-- to meet a phrase of music that's ending. It's the exact opposite of scoring. It's baking in this. It's not the icing on the cake. It's the fudge. [MUSIC PLAYING] The power of music is so great that we can actually use recurring themes of music to build a kind of emotional structure, and give more force to the narrative arc that we're trying to-- to create. One can think of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," when those five or six notes-- da, da, da, da, da, da, da-- I mean, he plays it, in a three-hour film, 250 times. I mean, I'm sitting here with editors sometimes and I'll say, well, use that. And they go, well, I've already used it. I say, so? You know, there's something-- it's like an establishing shot. But it's an establishing shot in your heart. You're not seeing it. You're feeling something. And so what happens is as you begin to work with these beds of music, that might be 50 different versions of 50 different songs-- think of the mathematical possibilities. What happens is you begin to gravitate, using a particular theme at a particular kind of moment. And when you do that, then it becomes not incumbent upon you, but it becomes a possibility to use that music again at another moment that's similar in feeling. Or you find out that a character has such a force that their en...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. Learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.

Ken teaches his unique creative process through case studies of his films, original treatments, voice over scripts, archival documents, and more.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Ken will also critique select student work.

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Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking