For our Listening to Stories assignment this week, I decided to listen to an episode of This American Life, titled “Getting Away With It”. This episode was all about people who committed some kind of crime, whether minor or major, and got away with it. There were four acts in total, and a prologue to introduce the theme of the episode, and all of them were different in the way they were produced.
What I noticed most in this episode is the use of music. Music is consistently played in the background of nearly every act, excluding the majority of the third act, which is a live recording. The music is typically upbeat, but ranges in mood. In the first act, a story about a boy who accompanies his parents on a drug deal, the music can range from exciting, terrifying, relieving, etc. depending on what’s happening in the story.
In something like act two, where listeners were allowed to call in and tell stories about crimes they committed and got away with, the music tends to be more lighthearted. It’s silly and kind of like elevator music, to accompany the slightly embarrassed and giggly tones that the callers use when telling their stories. The music sets the mood for the listener, to give them the idea of how they should be feeling, while not outright telling them “this moment is scary. This moment is happy.”
The absence of music also works in a similar way. Particularly with act one, the music will fade out during certain moments, bringing closer attention to what the speaker is saying. It’s a guiding arrow to tell the listener “this moment is important, and you should listen.” It also can be used to create suspense in a moment, to mimic the tension that a character is feeling within the story.
But, the music isn’t only used for mood. It can also be used as a transitional factor. Whenever the speaker or story pauses, the music volume is increased to fill the space. To bring back the elevator music simile, it’s kind of like the elevator moving between floors (a moment that makes people hyper aware of everything around them). You’re talking to someone, and then you step into the elevator. You guys just kind of awkwardly stand there while elevator music plays overhead, and then you exit on the next floor and continue on with your conversation.
The music is increased during these moments to fill space where there is a pause in the story. It brings the listener’s attention back to the story, as well, if their mind might be wandering, and signifies that the story is moving along to something else.
Music plays an extremely important role in this kind of broadcast, which focuses on storytelling and keeping the listener’s attention. Music can be played subtly in the background in order to communicate mood, theme, transition, etc. without there having to be an outright explanation by the narrator or someone else.