Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rendering news more urgent through music

The news bulletin on BBC Radio 4 is presented without the accompanying introductory music, and without any musical interruptions. This is not true of the news on BBC tv, which is introduced and interrupted by drumbeats. It is also not true of the majority of news broadcasts around the world, whether on radio or tv.

What, I wonder, is the purpose of this?

The visual effect of a scene can be greatly enhanced by music, as is common knowledge to all those who watch films. The neural mechanism underlying this enhancement is not known with any precision, but that there must be some increased activity in the visual cortex when the appropriate music accompanies the visual scene is likely.
Perhaps musical accompaniments to news bulletins have the same purpose, to enhance – what? – the sense of urgency and expectation.

The pre-news bulletin music tends to be somewhat urgent and at times hysterical. Its intended effect, I suppose, is to give the news items that are read some urgency. But the uncritical use of the “urgent” music has, on occasions, a somewhat hilarious and presumably unintended outcome. When I was living in Washington DC, there was an hourly news broadcast, which was preceded by such urgent music, designed to give the news items greater immediacy and importance; it was accompanied by  the words, “News, news, news, three dimension news – every hour, on the hour!”, words which were uttered with much force and gravitas. But the intended effect was often nulled by the top news item that followed, which was often something like, “There is a two mile traffic jam in Hicksville”.

On tv, this sense of urgency is sometimes heightened by the pen that newscasters hold in their hands, implying that they write the news which they are employed to read and implying also that there may be a sudden and urgent need for them to change the news in light of incoming information.

With really important and urgent news, you do not need any musical accompaniment, especially of the hysterical variety. But the dullness of dull news may be alleviated somewhat by injecting a sense of urgency into it through another agent, namely music.

I wonder how much effect such musical interjections have in convincing listeners to stay put and listen to the entire broadcast, and through what neural means – does it make them expect something dramatic to happen? Otherwise, why would newscasters use such hysterical music indiscriminately, regardless of the importance of the news that follows?

As for me, I prefer to listen to the news on Radio 4.


Susannah said...

Dramatic musical or audio accompaniment does give that said sense of urgency - it also gives the presenter, and by this I mean not only the on screen presenter but also the broadcaster and in the case of BBC news, the govenment, an added quality of authority.
This is highly speculative, but perhaps in early man, those who were able to see storms coming had power over others, were able to suggest they had contact with a superior being. The BBC news drum beat remind me of thunderclaps.
Throughout time those able to make the most noise, church bells, carried the authority.
The town crier's bell perhaps set an early association of news & noise.
I feel that in addition to urgency and drama the news soundtrack adds to a sense of authority which they wish to present, not just that they have access to the current news, but that they are in some way in control of it. At the end we are sometimes told we can sleep well in our beds as the government (with its ability to make big bangs)is looking after us.

S.Z. said...

The point you raise about giving the broadcasts added authority is very interesting. But it carries the implication that broadcasters need props to gain authority because....well, I leave the rest to the imagination. SZ