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Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Lesson 20 of 21

Get to a Finished Piece: Music

Alex Blumberg

Power Your Podcast with Storytelling

Alex Blumberg

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Lesson Info

20. Get to a Finished Piece: Music

Lesson Info

Get to a Finished Piece: Music

Music. I want to talk about music. We got a lot of question about music-- Yeah, I'm sure we do, just hold on for a second. Let me play and then we can do that. So... There's a lot of reasons that we use music. And, like I said, sometimes it is to sort of get this sense of something new is happening, moving things along, sometimes it's just to make a transition where there's a mood shift and you don't really have anything to say, you don't have a script to write, you need to sort of transition from one thing to another, so you just throw some music in there and it moves you from section to section. And then sometimes it's to enhance a mood. And whenever I was teaching a course at Columbia, people would always want to use music and I would always not let them, because it can be such a crutch. We use it as a crutch all the time at This American Life, I think often that happens. And so it's also sort of dangerous, and you also sort of rely on it, it's sort of like-- It feels very power...

ful, it's like when you first learn magic like in those fantasy novels, you know? It feels like, oh my God, I made that sound so profound. If you're making something sound profound with music, it's probably not that profound, so it's a very dangerous thing, but I'm gonna talk about how do you use it well. And I want to show you how it can be used and misused. So I'm gonna go back to that mailman clip, and I'm gonna play a couple different. So there was music under that when we first aired it on This American Life, but I'm just gonna play you through and sort of show you what it looks like. So again, here's the mailman clip right here, and this is the music track down here. And these things are volume controls that just sort of... Just sort of like keeps it, and then the clip ends and the volume controls go up, so when they're going up that means the music's getting louder. When they go down, that means the music's getting softer. And if you see, I dropped this volume control down right here because the music got louder in this section than it was in this section, right? So I put this in here, I did this yesterday or two days ago, I slapped some music under this clip just to show you what it sounds like. So I'm gonna play the clip with a couple different pieces of music under it, so you can just sort of see how it feels different, alright? So here's the first, and I'm not gonna play the whole clip, I think I start it around here. He had some questions that I still had the check. And what's he saying to you, specifically? Well, he's telling me, you're going to give me my check, you're going to give me my check. And I keep telling him, well, it's been forwarded to your new address, told him it would probably be there tomorrow or the day after. And he says, well, he can't wait. And it looked like he was gonna whoop me or something because he was taking his jacket off. And when he came to me, the boys in the hood surrounded him, told him, "That's my mailman, you don't mess with him." You know, so he went on about his business, no problem. So what did you say to those guys? Oh, I just thanked them. How you doing dear? I just thanked them for what they did, they told me wasn't no problem, said because you've been around here too long for anybody to be messing with you. (grand instrumental music) It's weird, right? It's like, I'm feeling all these things. Should I be feeling them? I don't know, so what do you think about that piece of music, let's talk about that. So this is what I'm constantly wrestling with. Is the music feeling right? Is it feeling wrong? What feels right and what feels wrong about it? What do you think about that one, what do you think? Yeah. Honestly, I think it took away from the audio. Sorry. No, no, no, that's fine, this is just one, we're gonna go through a couple different ones. Oh, and my question is, you may discuss this later, is like, where did you get the music? Yeah, so this was actually a friend of mine, a guy named Tyler Strickland composed this for another thing that we did, but we have... Like, when I was using music at This American Life, we had this like-- Public radio has some sort of arrangement with ASCAP and BMI so that we don't have to get licenses, but now that I'm in a for-profit world it's all different, so I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing with all that. So now I've been just trying to use music, but eventually we're gonna... It's gotten to the point where, if we're generating a little bit of money, we can pay for the music that we're gonna use. What else, do other people agree, disagree? Thought it was right? Did it add anything, take away? Yes, Stella? I kind of wondered why it came in at that moment. Like, I don't know if it was just because I could visually see it or if it was really... I thought it came in maybe a little bit too early, like I wasn't ready to leave the story yet. To me, the music kind of signals, this is gonna be the end, and it's the end. Right. And he was still kind of taking his jacket off when the music-- It didn't, it came in after. Really, right after? Yeah, it came after. Yeah, I don't know, it just felt-- It came in right here, so this is where-- Believe me, I've looked at this so many-- This is where he's like, the boys surround him, said that's my mailman, you can't mess with him. Sound of, like, the mail cart rolling, and that's where the music is coming in, right there in the sound. And I remember when I did this story, I actually put in extra mail cart sound just to create a space from that into the next. What else? The music seemed to be something that... That you would play after someone comes to a realization. Something big. Whereas he was just-- Whereas it was like, he was blithely unaware, like yeah, this just kind of happen, and like, yeah, you don't mess with the mailman, and moving right along. It wasn't... It sounded more like there it would be something that's-- Where things really slow down. Yeah. And then something-- Someone comes to a realization, and then it kind of trails off. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, it was a little bit too dramatic, a little bit too big, yeah I agree. No, there's a couple, people from-- The chatroom actually did not like the music. By and large, most people preferred the story with the music. Paul says he prefers it without the music. Raphael says, "Not this music, it should be something different." And Kelly says, "The music was pensive, but the story was heartwarming and it just wasn't a fit together." Alright, let's try the next one. Okay, good, I have another piece of music in here. Let's see if this one works better, what do you think about this one? Looked like he was gonna whoop me or something, because he was taking his jacket off, and when he came to me, the boys in the hood surrounded him, told him, "That's my mailman, you don't mess with him." You know, so he went on about his business, no problem. So what did you say to those guys? Oh, I just thanked them. How you doing dear? I just thanked them for what they did, they told me it wasn't no problem, because you've been around here too long for anybody to be messing with you. (twangy guitar music) (inaudible under music) What do you think about that, anyone like that one? What do you think, Anne? It was a little bit too upbeat, it made everyone laugh at that moment you weren't supposed to laugh. Exactly right, it felt a little bit false, right? I think both of them felt a little bit false, right? Like the one felt too grand, too sort of revelatory, the other one felt too comic, you know? I'm gonna play now-- And I don't have the actual session file from when we did this story back in the mid 90s, I guess it was the late 90s, but I do have the clip-- I'll play the clip of the music that was actually in the piece, and then let's talk about that. So this is the sound that we actually ended up using. Looked like he was gonna whoop me or something because he was taking his jacket off. And when he came to me, the boys in the hood surrounded him, told him, "That's my mailman. You don't mess with him." So he went on about his business, no problem. So what did you say to those guys? I just thanked them. How you doing dear? I just thanked them for what they did. They told me it wasn't no problem, because you've been around here too long for anybody to be messing with you. (soft orchestral music) What do you think about that? Was that the right choice, the wrong choice? I don't know, I honestly don't know. What do you guys think? I felt it was like the end of a Waltons episode, so I really didn't like it. Yeah, yeah, yeah, other people? It didn't match the mood. Yeah, Morgan? I like that it was a little slower when it came in, because there's a line that you say when you're off mic a little bit that I think's important to hear, so you can sort of still hear it. Of the three that we heard, I thought that was... It resonated better with me, but what I liked about that was that it seemed to be a musical manifestation of the character of the mailman. That's how I thought about it, yeah. Yeah, Kristy, yeah? I felt like there was a little pathos to the music, and there was kind of pathos in the story of the mailman and the hoodlums and it just kind of mirrored that a little bit to me. And maybe if we didn't know all that other backstory that we went through earlier this afternoon, it may have seemed more authentic to it or something. Yeah, totally. I didn't like it, and I think I didn't like it because I was waiting for you to pair it with a clip that felt how it feels like to walk down your neighborhood, like a little bit more upbeat but not as comical as the other one. Cause in the middle, there's a car that drives by and he says hi as he's talking to you, but he says hi to that person. He really is a part of the neighborhood. And none of the music felt like that. Right, right, right, right. Yeah. I mean... I remember, I played this for a class of high school students at one point, and one of them asked me, "Why did you put that piece of music in?" And the answer I gave at the time was that, which I still think is sort of true, is that every... There's not always just one emotion, right? And there's a dominant emotion and there's sort of like, overtone emotions, where something else that's going on. And that's why I felt like-- I tried, there was a lot of like, I needed to move-- I remember mixing this piece and I remember there was a lot that I had to-- We're moving on to a new section, so we needed music there, and I tried a bunch of different pieces of music and all of them felt weird. And when I finally hit on this one, this was a weird one, but it sort of, like... What it did is it sort of pulled out this, like... There was some pathos in this idea of these two disparate groups of people coming together for a second and then sort of dispersing again, and so it wasn't the dominant emotion but sometimes when you play to the dominant emotion it's overwhelming, and so sometimes-- And we would often end up doing that, where it would be a very, very sad, something very sad, but you don't want to play the saddest music you can find. You want to play something that sort of pulls at some other emotion that's underneath it. So, I think that's why I ended up picking that music. But, I think it's... That's what tricky about it. They all feel different, but it really-- The main thing I wanted to do with this exercise is just sort of get across just how radically it can at least attempt to alter the feeling of something. Did you feel that? Did you feel like, when you were listening to the-- Did it feel different? Like, it felt very different with the different music under it, right? And that's the thing that's so dangerous about it, I think. So it feels very dangerous, but then also it feels different, but sometimes as a listener you feel like you're trying to be manipulated with the music, and then you can feel it. Stella, yeah. Is there anyone who you think uses music really well? Like, some people are better interviewers, is there someone who's good at it? Generally, if you don't notice it I think is when it's done really well. I don't think there's like... I think it's also what you're comfortable with. Like some people... Like I happen to like-- There's a show called RadioLab that I happen to like, I happen to like the way they use music. Other people feel like it's too much, it's too produced, it's too claustrophobic, and I feel like I can totally get that. And I think there's also an evolution of shows, like in the beginning of This American Life we used a ton of music, and we sort of gradually, like, "We're doing this too much. We gotta back off a little bit." And now we've gotten a lot more spare and I try to do that now... With StartUp, that was my goal. I was like, I'll use music a couple places, but what I'm not gonna try to do is use music to cover for something not being that interesting, basically, yeah? So, along the lines of using music, I think another effective auditory tool is the ambient sound around, and when you're doing an interview of a mailman in the city do you also kind of hang around and capture additional city sounds? Oh, yeah, absolutely, yeah. You go out and you go-- So this piece, right here? That's the mail cart sound. That was the result of me walking around with him and pointing my microphone at the mail cart as it was going around, and I got like 30 seconds of that sound and then when I needed it, I put it right here to separate what he said here from what he said here, cause I knew I wanted music to come in right there. We actually had a similar question from the chat that I thought I'd phrase here, and the user says, "When I put together the radio stories, I struggle with including natural sounds. Can you talk a little bit about creating--" And they use the term, an ethical audioscape? An ethical audioscape, wow! I've never heard that. I gotta sit down for that one. Yeah. Well, I mean... We do have rules. We used to have a mythical fight with the CBC at This American Life because they would allow a foghorn from some other place even if your foghorn... So, you know, if you have a story where you need a foghorn, we always like... Whatever, this is ridiculous. But some people would talk-- Can you just take some foghorn from somewhere else and pretend that it actually came from the place where you need your foghorn to be? And we would never do that. If it was a foghorn in the story, it was a foghorn that was recorded at the location of our story, and honestly it's a little excessive. Nobody will ever know, you know? But, if it's a bird? And you've got some ornithologists listening they might know, you know? They go, those birds don't live there. And then you're like, well yeah, and then everybody's like, well, wait. If you're lying about that, what else are you lying about? So I think it makes sense, you know? I think our ethics were if we used natural sound, it had to be actual natural sound that was actually happening at the place we were recording. So yeah, and I think that's a good policy. That's how I do it now. Other questions, Manny? My thoughts about the music... Well, none of them worked, in my opinion, but I have a different perspective about it because I'm listening to it from a different perspective than maybe some other people might be listening to it. I'm listening to, clearly, an African-American man talking about his experience in the African-American community, so I'm thinking that the music should also be aligned with that same idea. Now that's my initial thinking about it. Of course, with that being said, I'm thinking Marvin Gaye, but I'm thinking, well, you can't use Marvin Gaye. Like I'm thinking Marvin Gaye, What's Going On, because that's talking about what's going on in this neighborhood. That's immediately what came to my mind. And of course, we can't use that because that's copywritten music-- Well, you could, I mean-- I don't know, but that's what I want to ask you about. I mean, we could have. I think you gotta be careful. I have no idea-- He absolutely is an African-American. I have no idea what kind of music he listens to, right? (stuttering) So I don't want to presume what your musical tastes are based on, obviously... But I think, more to the point, I feel like, again, it's just a judgment call. There's a lot of things that can feel false when you do it, or too on the nose. And that strikes me as sort of, you've got a story about an African-American mailman in an African-American neighborhood, and you're playing African-American, mowtown music. In a certain way, that could almost come off pandering, or false in a way. So, I don't know, it's tricky. But exactly these issues are exactly why I say don't do it, try to do all the other things before you can do it, because you gotta go through... I mean, I know, when you're doing music, I would try piece after piece after piece after piece, and it's just about what feels right. And when you finally get to something that feels like, okay, that can work, then you use it, because a lot of them just feel wrong from the get go. Did you use this more for a transition to another part of the interview? Was this ending the interview? No, this was another part. This was another part of the story we were going towards. Yeah, there was another thing that was coming up. And there have been-- I think it did make more sense, like, you've heard one clip but there was stuff that had come before and there was-- It was part of a larger story, so I think it made a little bit more sense in the larger context of the story, but I don't know. I don't know if I'd use that piece of music again. I don't know if I'd do any of this the same way. Again, this was a long time ago, you know?

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.

Join Alex Blumberg, award-winning reporter and producer for This American Life and co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, for Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, and learn podcast tips on how to tell powerful, memorable stories through audio.

Storytelling is in our DNA – integrating its principles into a podcast not only helps you tell better stories, it allows you to authentically and emotionally connect with your audience. In this class, you will learn the unique approach to interviewing and story composition, which has made This American Life a fan favorite on public radio stations across the country. Alex will share production techniques you can use to create a multi-layered sensory experience and share tips for standing out in the ever-growing field of podcasts. You’ll learn: 

  • How to develop your narrative instincts
  • How to prepare for an interview to get the best answers
  • The elements of a good story

Alex will teach you how to create a “driveway moment” — that experience when the story is so good, it makes the audience pause what they are doing just to listen through to the end.

Whether you already produce a successful podcast, are a creative entrepreneur looking for a new marketing method, or just a public radio-loving audiophile – this class will help you tell better stories.


Matt James Smith

The best storytelling resource I've come across bar none. I've read all the books, paid for all the online courses, listened to all the podcasts but for me none have been anywhere near as useful, engaging, moving, fun and outright inspiring as this course. If you're trying to tell stories with factual material, whatever your medium, this is as good as it gets. Regarding those reviewers saying it was haphazard and underprepared - huh? He doesn't offer strict formulas and perfectly structured, detailed approaches, but that's because he's the real deal. Those things only exist for snake-oil-merchant online "story gurus" who charge through the nose for "the perfect strategy" (*cough* Patrick Moreau *cough*). Alex offers what he can of tricks and formulae, but where it's about experience and gut feelings, he's honest. Thank god. Superb.

Gregory Lawson

This class is great on multiple levels. Are you interested in interviewing? There are great tips and techniques. Interested in Storytelling? Great insights into the basic structures and tools to test how compelling your story idea is. Interested in podcasting? Great tips and ideas here too... Alex is a seasoned pro, has an easy, approachable style and allows his class (and you) time to really consider and work through the concepts. Excellent all the way around!