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Stories are powerful. In the past, human societies organized rituals and sung epic poems in rhymes, later transitioning to theatrical events. Nowadays, the art of storytelling has taken the form of film, television, and even videogames. There is one element that all these art forms have in common though, and it’s the music.

We asked Tommaso Annoni about this topic. He is a music composer for movies and videogames and was recently Assistant Conductor and Music Preparer for the Award-winning documentary Sky Blossom, created by Richard Lui.

How did music become so important in modern media?

“Music has always been crucial for storytelling. In early cinematographic projections they would have a musician play a piano or an organ and they would improvise music while watching the movie in front of them. You can imagine a silent Charlie Chaplin film needing some music to create atmosphere, while adding rhythms to the physical gags. It was only later, when the technology was available and when European classical composers started moving to New York to write musicals, that Hollywood studios started recognizing the potential of recording full orchestral music. This is an important connection which shows that even in modern film scoring there is a very old tradition that is rooted in European Operas and beyond.”

What is this historical link, in practice? And how does it relate to the emotions of a story?

“Technically, a good film score utilizes various themes, which are melodies or musical textures that “attach” themselves to a character, or an event. Those melodies appear every time the same character experiences an important moment, and every time, those melodies are transformed. The music is consistent, but it also evolves with the story. In this way, it becomes more powerful and meaningful, even if unconsciously. This “thematic writing” comes directly from classical Operas, which was a practice later formalized by Wagner who called those “themes” leitmotivs. The direct link from writing for Operas to writing for movies was Erich W. Korngold. In fact, it is not a coincidence that Korngold was the biggest “inspiration” for John Williams. And even the more modern electronic music, when applied to movies, functions in the same way."

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"Digging even further in history, the Greek myth of Apollo and Marsyas is very poignant. The two engaged in a musical duel: Marsyas played the flute, and with his wild melodies could gather all sorts of animals around him. Then, Apollo played his lyre, and already people and animals where entranced. Then, unexpectedly, Apollo also started to sing. This union of emotions (through music) and reason (a story, through words), granted Apollo the win. It is interesting how stories can benefit from having music accompanying it, and how music can only really be complete when it works in conjunction with a story. A conjunction that creates the most “elevated” art, the most effective stories, and that can reach us completely, heart and mind.”

What makes movies and videogames socially relevant today? What projects did you enjoy working on the most, and why?

“Personally, I think that stories will always have an immense power and I love to work with those that open our cultural and societal understanding. And I can see that these kinds of stories are becoming more prevalent across all forms of media. For example, it’s been an honor to work on Sky Blossom, a documentary that gives us uplifting insight into the lives of millions of unsung American heroes: children and millennials that become caretakers to their parents very early in life. In this case, having orchestral music was important to express the virtues of the interviewees and the emotionality of the stories. And while documentaries may seem the more obvious place where we can find socially relevant stories, it is not the only one."

"I’ve learned that videogames can also use clever game design to question our culture and society in different ways. Two Interviewees (a videogame winner of the Treccani Award for Excellence in the Italian Web) deals with gender discrimination at the workplace by putting the player in an active role that allows them to experience how different genders are treated in job interviews. Instantly losing a game as a result of an unfair bias from the job interviewer allows the players to experience different emotions. And adding real data on gender bias after each game allows people to reflect and realize that the “game scenario” they just experienced is actually based on real statistics. It makes you think. Writing music for this project was both challenging and important because I had to balance the emotions of irony and a sad reality. Different music can substantially alter the perception of a story. Ultimately, music and stories are strongly bounded: they create meaning by working together.”