Foot Notes : Boundaries of Symphonic Literature

Symphonic stories are a fusion of music and creative writing. Music videos are a fusion of music and creative writing. Soundtracks are a fusion of music and creative writing. All three of those statements are true, and all three of those fusions yield different results. Symphonic stories are written narratives synthesized from songs. Music videos, barring exception, are visual productions made to complement a specific piece of music. Soundtracks are songs, sometimes those that already exist, used to enhance the impact of a specific visual product. Something shared exclusively by music videos and soundtracks is a large amount of proof of concept. This essay aims to draw a thorough line around what a symphonic story is, and isn’t, through an exploration of that which is already accepted and established.

Music videos interpret their source songs through visual imagery. They can use creative writing as a tool to achieve their ends, but do not have to; some can be as simple as a recorded performance and only require artist, camera, and crew. Some have scripts that, if read sans shooting directions, work on their own as stories, and most are designed to match the length of their source song. The synthesis of source material in their development sees a director guide the depiction in what they believe to be a marketable, and therefore profitable direction. This is not to say music videos are automatically soulless cash grabs, they certainly can be (enough product placement turns anything into a commercial), but can also be meaningful complements to source that also extend its reach/moneymaking potential. Symphonic stories are text-based interpretations of music, with a similarly fluid take on length, that stand on their own as works of creative writing. The synthesis in their development is a writer interpreting the song to communicate an opinion, moral, or feeling; it can extend the reach of source material, but symphonic stories are first and foremost an artistic, personally expressive venture. Music videos and symphonic stories have some overlap but are more distinct than similar, and fulfill different purposes.

Soundtracks, for the sake of this discussion, are defined as music inserted into another medium to enhance that medium’s impact. Consider the initial Looney Tunes animated cartoons for an example. They are the synchronization of animation and voice-acting with music specifically performed or picked to complement them. The results of this synthesis, similar to symphonic stories, can stand on their own but are enriched by the accompanying music. However, Looney Tunes, like music videos, were founded out of creative commercial posturing rather than artistic intent. The series started in 1930, after Warner Brothers purchased 5 different record labels and saw an angle to compete with Disney’s already burgeoning animation empire; the first ever short, Sinkin’ In The Bathtub, used the 1929 song Singin’ In The Bathtub for the sound, title, and as the basis for beginning and ending shot. 

But aside from musicals and slapstick, the Looney Tunes music equals movement meta is mainly for animation; for the majority of live-action media, soundtracks serve to set moods. Horror movies have insidious orchestral suites that bring an audience to an expectation of climax then stop in order for the visual medium to strike when the feeling is hot, usually with a jumpscare. Romantic comedies use bubble-blowing music for their overly happy times, then bubble-popping music for the sad, both atop montages speeding the plot along to get back to the pretty people playing will they or won’t they. These utilitarian uses of music, where once it stops so too does its impact, are the opposite of symphonic stories’ sentimental approach, where form comes from the feeling inspired by song. Even movies with more creative soundtracks like Queen of the Damned or Get Him To The Greek, where most of the music featured comes from the actual world of the story, have songs that were created alongside the narratives, rather than narratives from songs.

Soundtracks are also utilized in video games. Almost everyone I know can hum the Super Mario theme song, but that is traditional usage, setting a mood as it would for movies. And video games, while similar to more traditional media like books in their demands – individual enemies needing conquered are words, the levels are chapters, terrain is page format – also dynamically utilize the player’s choice to create a unique experience on each playthrough. Music is often a literal insertion in that formula, ala Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution where already-made songs are the whole game, and the user accessing them in their entirety depends on correct inputs. Past that there is an entire rhythm genre where music is an essential part of different gameplay loops, for instance in Everhood where the player has to dodge notes or die, or because gameplay modifies the music, as in Bullets Per Minute or Tetris Effect. And that focus on the ability to alter the way music is experienced in game is the major difference between the usage of songs here and in symphonic stories. While the experience the stories provide is dynamic in a way – when listening to the source music the reader instinctively compares their interpretation to the writer’s – the stories themselves are a set record of the writer’s experience. The reader’s interpretation may change due to the story, but the story will never change due to the reader.

Symphonic stories are their own thing; out of the many similarities they share with music videos and soundtracks, most apparent is that each has clear boundaries as creative ventures.

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