Thinking About Audio Storytelling

It’s amazing how much information we gain simply through sound waves.  Sound can be incredibly powerful.  Patterns/tropes can emerge (think of the Wilhelm scream) and memories/feelings can be evoked (nails on a chalkboard, nostalgia from particular songs, etc.).  Each of the assignments this week reinforced the incredible diversity of sound and the implications associated with it.

For instance, Moon Graffiti clearly demonstrated the variety of audio that can be created.  The piece included alarms, dialogue, announcement/radio crackle, grunts, changes in breathing patterns, camera clicks, and echoes (to name a few), all of which enhanced the story that was being told.  Even small changes in volume and intonation could have a big impact, heightening suspense or creating stress through minute alterations.  This also demonstrated the power of a chronological timeline where the listener can immediately follow what is occurring and when (epic foreshadowing of the advice of Ira Glass…).

The importance of sound as a means to create a specific atmosphere was also emphasized by the pieces we listened to on ds106radio.  These stories all had sections with distinctly different tones (ranging from merely informational to horror).  It was clear that to create an atmosphere of suspense/horror, sometimes all you need to do is alter sound content/quality.  Some of my major observations are provided below.

I also really appreciated the insight of Ira Glass. He emphasized the usage of anecdotes (sequences of actions one after another, stories in their purest form), which have momentum in and of themselves, with a sort of innate destination.  He argued that you need to couple this with bait by constantly raising questions and implying that these will be answered.  During this process, having a moment of reflection allows you to inject meaning into the story.  He also provided some very honest advice, pointing out that it can be hard to find a decent story, and thus emphasized the “importance of abandoning crap”.  He explained that it’s all part of the process.  Being tough but allowing yourself to fail sets you up to cast a net wide enough to stumble across some truly amazing stories.  He also pointed out that there’s often a gap when you’re starting out in your chosen field.  Often you’ve got good taste but what you’re making isn’t living up to that taste.  He reassures the listener that everybody goes through this stage, and the best way to counteract that trend is to create a huge volume of work, which allows you to catch up and close this gap.  Finally, he pointed out two real errors in radio.  1. People will try to talk like people on tv/radio.  2. People will talk too much about themselves.  Her argued that you should be interested in other people and the world, which ultimately makes the story more engaging.  You can be a character, but shouldn’t ever be the center of your story.  This advice is certainly relevant to radio, but also has implications for other storytelling forms, such as writing and film-making.  Storytelling has certain innate qualities that are common across all mediums, which makes his advice particularly practical.

The particulars of radio were further explored in the piece, How Radio Creates Empathy.   This argued that the absence of pictures allows a sort of co-authorship, where the speaker paints the picture but the listener imagines it.  The narrator pointed out that co-imagining allows for a connection between speaker and listener, which is magnified by the power rooted in the human voice.  He speculated that perhaps this is why radio never dies.  I believe he may be right.  Television has existed for decades now, but it has never been able to eliminate radio, which I think speaks to its power as a medium in and of itself.

Finally, I really enjoyed the video on What is Foley Sound?  My main takeaway was “That looks like a fun job.”  Honestly those guys were practically stuntmen, but they simply don’t have to worry about the technicalities of cameras and staying in frame.  It also hints at some of the deception associated with sound, whereby certain things sound similar that in actuality have very different origins.

Overall I felt these readings and examples helped provide a better understanding of storytelling as it relates to sound, and emphasized the power and intricacies of this medium.  Sound is essential to creating mood, which is certainly something I’ve observed in my own life.  Within video-editing and creating movie-trailers, background music is essential.  (Think of how different the Inception trailer would be with something other than Mind Heist?

In fact, the music selection of a trailer is usually determined before any visual editing even begins.  Now I have a better understanding of why this is a common trend.  Its something that derives from the power of sound to craft mood and atmosphere.