Musical Cliches
February 5, 2005 2:59 AM   Subscribe

Musical cliches: when were they first used? I'm talking about things like a muted trumpet going "wah wah waaaaah" when something comical happens, or dramatic chords going "dum da dum dum, dum da dum dum duuum" as someone creeps along in the shadows, or "dun dun dun dun" when something is revealed. Not the best way of compelling sounds, I know, but it seemed to work for this question so I thought I'd give it a go.
posted by Orange Goblin to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
They were probably first used in stage plays that had a live orchestra, then made the transition to radio. When the talkies arrived, they became codified.
posted by fixedgear at 3:45 AM on February 5, 2005

I agree with fixedgear about stage plays. Specifically, I'd look in the direction of melodrama. But even then, when they were first used, they weren't musical clichés, just heavy-handed ways of communicating to the audience how they should feel.
posted by Jeff Howard at 9:08 AM on February 5, 2005

I've heard them referred to as "musical stings" before on DVD commentaries. Google doesn't help much with that term though.

I found one essay that might be useful:

"Cue music. Because they concentrate on sounds implied by film images, early commentators on film accompaniment rarely make clear distinctions between music and sound effects. Though historians have regularly assumed that film music derives directly from the musical practices of stage melodrama, it now seems likely that sound cues within films constitute an even more important—and far more complex—originary instance. Even the earliest reports of film music involve a characteristic mixing of music and non-musical sound effects, both serving cinematic realism rather than contributing the emotional overtones typical of later film music."


"Half of the country’s musicians, he says, “will pick up a publisher’s catalogue and get names of songs that correspond with the scenes portrayed and they never consider that to make their point, the audience must know what they are playing.”9 Shortly, Martin and his Moving Picture World colleague, critic Clarence E. Sinn, would begin to campaign actively and systematically against accompaniment by title and lyric, preferring matches of on-screen emotion to the rhythm and texture of light classical music. Until their campaign succeeded later in the teens, however, film accompaniment would continue to be heavily marked by popular songs and their titles and lyrics."

posted by jbrjake at 9:56 AM on February 5, 2005

Anthony Burgess wrote a novel called "Piano Players", a semi-autobiographical story of a man whose job was providing the musical accompaniment to the early silent films.

There is a lot of discussion about what kinds of things were played for particular types of scenes, and why. Fascinating.
posted by Aquaman at 10:18 AM on February 5, 2005

This is a really interesting topic, especially because these musical memes then bleed out into non-cinematic life. I've been curious about this ever since I learned that you could refer to that certain note-string as "Shave-and-a-Haircut, Two Bits". And it came up again recently with the growing use of the pr0n music signifier, 'bam-chick-a-bam-bam'. What makes me curious is to note that pr0n started using that type of music in the early 70s, but it's only been in the last 10 years or so that you can slyly drop the aural reference into a conversation and be widely understood.

It's astounding how much can be communicated via this shorthand. And fascinating, on a brain-mechanics level, that any sequence of sounds could make you feel nervous, startled, inclined to laughter, etc.
posted by Miko at 11:07 AM on February 5, 2005

The second example looks like it could be the theme music from the show "Dragnet". Though with this particular form of musical transcription, it's hard to tell.
posted by Luther Blissett at 11:19 AM on February 5, 2005

I've been easing my way into the TV/Film music industry over the past few months, managing to land a few decent jobs but definitely not established yet. To improve my skills and client-appeal, I've been trying to identify every possible cue and cliche, especially modern ones that might be less apparent to non-musicians. There are far more than I expected. Deconstructing soundtracks in this way is already fascinating, but I hadn't given much thought to where these devices first appeared. Figuring out the origins could easily breed lengthy discussion. I'd love to find out who pioneered the various sonic staples of musical accompaniment.

Although more sound effect than musical device, NPR's "On the Media" did an excellent segment on the use of record scratch sounds in current media. A transcript will be up in a few days, too. They interviewed several young folks who are accustomed to the sound, despite having never seen a record player.
posted by yorick at 11:42 AM on February 5, 2005

This is sort of unrelated, but there was a piece about stockbrokers using 'musical shorthand' to keep track of numbers, too - like different instruments stood in for different exchanges/stocks, and notes going up=yay, etc... I didn't get the intricacies of it, but it was a kind of software that enabled the trader to pick up on what his shares were doing without having to intently concentrate on a scroll bar. It was on NPR, also, like that record scratch piece, which was equally interesting.

Not that that has much to do with your question, but the mention of musical shorthand reminded me.

These musical cues, like all cliches, began because someone used it, other people thought, yeah, that really nails the sense we're going for, so they began using it, and then it began to seem hackneyed and cliched, because it was overused, at which point it became more of a reference than an actually meaningful sound in itself. I can't give you specific history on these though... but it's interesting territory.
posted by mdn at 7:36 AM on February 6, 2005

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