Context Changes Perception and Lasting Impressions… In Music

I was recently asked about my favorite music to listen to while writing.  While I do love music, I find that I usually write with only my thoughts on continuous play.  So, instead of putting nothing as the answer, I put down “Video game music.”  Specifically I would mean Japanese (or Japanese-styled) role-playing games.  I love JRPGames almost as much as reading.  Interactive science-fiction / fantasy?  I’m there!  Favorites include Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, Xenosaga, Atelier Iris and many more.

Linking JRPG’s, and their music, to writing got me thinking about why I like the music and what makes the music different from the pop, rock, electronica and other varieties of music to which I listen on a regular basis.  I realized that it was context and purpose.

In my mind, the music in a JRPG enhances the scenes and reinforces the concepts conveyed for people and places.  An easy example is battle music: never slow or dull, it’s designed to enhance the sense of danger and need for action.  Boss battle music is typically different, adding drama and heightening the awareness of it being a significant battle.  Town and dungeon music will be different depending on the mood of the town.  A laid-back fishing town will have an easy-going melody that’s not too fast, while military town will have a controlled rhythm, conveying power and authority.

As I thought about this, I realized that I always link the music to the scenes, rarely does the music simply stand on its own.  Listening to Kefka’s theme from Final Fantasy VI, I can hear the mischief, the drama and the entertainer.  What the theme music is missing is Kefka’s insanity and the need for chaos.  When I think of the Image Theme of Xenosaga II, I’m stuck on the game’s trailer, which took full advantage of the slow start to the song, the increased intensity in the middle and the soft finish.

This got me thinking about how instrumental and classical music can be pulled out of context from the composer’s intention because usually there aren’t other mediums that reinforce them.  [Side note:  Yes, my thoughts are a ball of many strings that connect in a continuous loop, complete with snags, tangles and occasionally more than one end to follow].

So, I would like to have you take part in a little experiment for me.  I would like you to listen to what is one of the most popular classical songs of the 20th century due to being one of the most played classical songs in various movies, shows and advertisements.  The song is “Carmina Burana: O Furtuna” by Carl Orff.  As you listen to the song, think about what the song conveys to you.  After you do that, look up a translation for the lyrics.  I will tell you now that the lyrics are from a poem written in the 13th century, and likely they don’t mean what you think.  Now, could Carl Orff had pulled it off the same way if the poem (and lyrics) had been in English instead of Latin?  Now that you know the meaning, listen to the song again, does the song convey something different? Do you now get a mixed message?  Or, do you do what I do and ignore the meaning of the poem and only listen to the context provided by the music.

For JRPG music to have the impact it does, the message and the context have to be aligned with the scenes and characters.  Having a depressed character with a happy-go-lucky theme with create a disconnect and make the character less memorable, harder to connect with.

Now apply this same concept to writing, speaking and other forms of communication.  What additional mediums are in play that change the context, meaning, or authenticity of the message?

Thoughts?

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