The Soundtrack: Your Emotional Tour Guide

I see there’s a sequel coming out soon to How To Train Your Dragon. I enjoyed the movie. I really enjoyed the soundtrack.

How is it that movie soundtracks capture the feel and texture of the movie so well? And why is it so important that the musical underscore is there at all?

Glad you asked.

The score for a film, the soundtrack, helps us figure out how we feel about the scene we’re watching without making us think about it.

At the heart of this is the notion that music and emotions are both states of tension. How emotionally invested we become as the story progresses is a primary function of the underscore, the background music.


Tell Me How To Feel

To get a handle on how important this is, find a 30-second segment of your favorite movie where there is no dialog. Now, this experiment isn’t perfect, but you should get the idea. Watch the scene with the sound turned off. This will seem unnatural partly because you’ve just turned off all of the incidental sounds of movement, the breeze, traffic, doors closing, ad infinitum. But you’ve also turned off the music.

When you’ve finally gotten bored with the soundless film, turn the sound back on. You should not only hear the sfx and dialog; the music can make the scene emotionally become 3-D, it will come into vivid focus now as you watch.

The soundtrack is telling you how to feel from one moment to the next, telegraphing your emotional response before you feel it. An artfully constructed soundtrack gives you emotional confidence – what you think you feel due to the action and dialog, the music confirms.  A 2-hour movie may change moods continuously, the music leading you from the moment it starts.


Dipping My Toe In

photo (c) 2013 Andy WolfLast year, I had the privilege of working on a documentary project with my friend, Andy Wolf. The project was called “Monster Mansion Memories”, and took a historical and behind-the-scenes look at a local Central New York TV show from the 60’s.

Andy had done a marvelous job getting clips from “Monster Movie Matinee”. He conducted interviews of the cast and crew, piecing together the genesis and production of the show. And though it was a stretch for me both in genre and medium, I took a stab (puns intended) at writing some of the score.


Excerpts from Monster Mansion Memories

Listen to each of the following clips. Each one emotes in its own way. If you’re curious about where they fit into the whole production, you can purchase a DVD from Andy’s site.


Dear Guest ((from Monster Mansion Memories


Dance Of The Macabre (from Monster Mansion Memories)


Cameras Rolling (from Monster Mansion Memories)


We’ll go into some of the mechanics involved for communicating emotion through your music in future posts. When you follow some simple principles, you can very deliberately convey the emotion you’re aiming for.  It really is both an art and a science!

What’s your favorite movie soundtrack moment? How does it pull at your emotions when you hear it? You can comment below, or email me any questions about music, theory and next-step musicianship at [email protected].

Don’t miss another post! We will do all the heavy lifting for you and deliver them right to your email inbox. Just go to the top right corner of this page and fill in your email address. You have my promise that I will never share your email address with anyone.


© 2014 Steve Case

To Repair Or Replace, That Is The Question

guitar money pit 2

Most music stores I’ve ever visited have been inviting and inspiring.

Some have been huge mega-stores, others small and intimate. I remember a guitar shop from years ago, created from this fellow’s garage, where there was a single path through the store among all the amps and guitars, boxes and stands. Top notch gentleman who owned it too, a real classic who made me feel welcome.

Great guitar shops have an atmosphere that feels to me a little like you’re mixing a high end jewelry store with your uncle’s attic. And I really like it.

The downside is they make me (very intentionally) want to spend money on new guitars, and I usually don’t have enough to buy one.

Every once in a while, I do have enough. Or something will happen to a guitar I own, and I’ll need to replace it. And that’s when I go to my local music store, owned by a guy I know and trust, and we have a heart to heart. I’ll be telling you more about this guy I go to and his store in upcoming posts.

For now, let me offer some insight into the big question I hear from my students: do I buy a new guitar or repair the one I’ve got?

That First Guitar

When a guitar player is first starting out, if a new guitar is a possibility, my advice is to buy it. The beginner is looking for a student-grade instrument, and most guitar stores will have them. Not tons of money, but they play well, look good and feel good.

When the guitarist has been playing for awhile and faces this choice, he or she will probably have pretty clear preferences on how the guitar plays, how it’s built, what the brand is and how it looks. So now it’s just a matter of money.

The student playing a hand-me-down guitar is kind of caught in the middle. The guitar is probably one the family owns or has been borrowed from a friend, the thought being that money will be saved for now by using it.

This is one of those ideas that looks really good on paper, but in reality often creates more headaches than savings.

They All Need A Little Care

Any guitar will need adjustments in time. The neck will begin to warp a little, the strings will be a tad higher off the fretboard, and it won’t quite play in tune anymore. Take it to a guitar shop near you with a good reputation and ask for their opinion. Keep in mind that their primary goal may well be to sell you a new guitar. But if you make it clear you’re looking only for advice at the moment, you’ve taken the pressure off, and now they may feel more free to give their honest assessment.

I personally am no expert when it comes to choosing guitars, and it will be quite helpful to you if you find someone who is. A knowledgeable repairman can tell you volumes about your guitar, and whether it’s worth fixing or not.

Some things for you to consider (with his help):

  • How old is the guitar (an old run-of-the-mill guitar is junk, but an old name-brand guitar may be vintage)
  • What condition is the guitar in (lots of wear and tear usually will lessen the value)
  • Where was it made (certain countries or factories have reputations that affect the resale price)
  • How reputable is the company that crafted it (some lesser known brands are quite fine, while some of the big names are not consistent with their quality)
  • How extensive would repairs be and how much would they cost (depends on the shop and type of repair)
  • How much would a suitable replacement cost (usually translated as “how high does your price range go?”)

I can tell you this: playing a decent quality instrument early on in the guitarist’s career will vastly improve technique, progress and enjoyment. It’s really worth it to spend a little.

What shape is your instrument in? Any advice for those who are looking to buy? I’d love to hear about your favorite guitar shop and how you found it!

Please leave your comment below, or email any questions about guitars, theory, or next-step musicianship to me at [email protected]. And if you find these blogs are helpful to you, we can deliver them right to your email inbox so you’ll never miss another post! Go to the top right corner of this page, fill in your email address, and you’ll never miss another post! And you have my promise that I will never share your email address with anyone.
© 2014 Steve Case

Coffee, Composing and Other Aromatic Adventures

My friend, Rick, starting to roast on the grill

“You can roast these as dark as you want,” Rick told me. “I like them dark enough that the beans start to sweat a little.”

That’s a little too dark for me, but I get his passion.

“But if you stop a little sooner than that, you can taste a lot of great flavors. If you go too long though, they’ll burn and get too bitter.”

Just like songwriting, I’m thinking. Too little roasting and the song isn’t developed yet, flavors have not blended and matured yet. Overcook it, and you spoil it’s simplicity, it’s elegant and profound nature.

You can burn a song with over-thinking and over-production, making it bitter and unpleasant, totally overcooked and utterly worthless.

In Search of the Right Roast

Rick came by Monday morning for a catch-up chat between old friends. A talented guitarist and bassist, Rick’s main pursuit over the last decade has been through Wycliffe Bible Translators, helping translators in the field connect with funding and support from a multitude of sources. I’m really excited about what Rick does, and I thoroughly enjoy his stories whenever I see him.

I love good coffee, and so does Rick. (It’s my personal belief that good coffee and good musicianship are inseparable, and good chocolate is in there somewhere.)

Now I’m usually more of a Central American coffee guy, but we both agree that Ethiopian is really special. He brought me some of

Roasted to perfection

his home roasted stash to try out, and I’m waiting for just the right time to bring it out.

When I buy green coffee beans, I order them via internet suppliers and have them delivered to my suburban home, sealed in plastic bags. I really enjoy the process of roasting them and producing pot after pot of really good coffee.

When Rick gets his, it’s a way different experience.

He’ll buy from village merchants on his trips to Ethiopia. Then he personally goes through a rather extensive process of culling the beans, sorting out stones and dirt, washing and drying the beans, sifting out the chaff, the husks, then maybe washing them again and letting them dry. Next, he’ll put a couple of cups in his cast iron roasting pan and cook them on his grill outside, paying close attention to the variation in color, listening for the first and second cracks as the beans toast.

By the time Rick pours himself a cup a day or two later, he is not just enjoying some coffee.

He is basking in the reward of the complexities of flavor his efforts have produced.

Just like a good song, I’m thinking.

The Roast Is Up to You

As consumers of many, many styles and flavors of music, we can each appreciate a good song. To some, a rollicking country tune with a punchy lead guitar and a deep baritone vocal is just about perfection. To others, it’s a classy jazz trio or an Indi acoustic sound gets their motor going. We have a magnificent spectrum to choose from.

As composers, those of us who write music get to explore the timbres, the rhythms and the tonalities in their most basic forms.

Like Lewis & Clark looking out over the western landscape for the first time, or Neil Armstrong actually stepping out onto the moon and feeling the dust give way under his boots (yes, I believe that actually happened) – we composers get to imagine music in ways that others haven’t yet. We experience the pain and the joy of creation in the hope that others will connect with it.

We get to roast the beans just exactly the way we want them.

Rewriting and adjusting

Time To Roast Your Own?

Are you a composer? Maybe that sounds too formal. Have you ever tried to make up your own song?

It’s not as hard as you think, and it’s way harder at the same time.

If you’ve never composed a song, I think you should try it. Make up a tune that you can whistle or sing, then repeat it.

If you play an instrument, figure out how to play your melody. If it’s on the piano or the guitar, try adding some bass notes or chords that you like. Try lots of combinations. It’s all about what you like the sound of. You can put lyrics to it or not, you can write it in music notation or not.

Whatever makes the most sense to you.

If you are a composer already, now may be the time to ratchet up your expertise a little. Use some chords that you don’t usually go to, try some embellishments that give the chords more color and flavor. Experiment with different rhythmic frameworks, use some syncopation, use some triplets. Listen to a favorite artist until you can write something in their style, then move on to someone else. Take it up a notch. Though Costa Rican is a favorite coffee bean of mine, I’m liking Ethiopian more and more!

Where are you growing as a composer? Will you take me up on my challenge to write where you’ve never written before? Try out a new country, see what it tastes like. Then let me know what you did, I’d love to hear your stories!

Please leave a comment below, or email any questions to [email protected]. And if you find these blogs are helpful to you, we can deliver them right to your email inbox. Go to the top right corner of this page, fill in your email address, and you’ll never miss another post! And you have my promise that I will never share your email address with anyone.
© 2014 Steve Case

The Gift Behind The Talent

Potting a plantThis past week, I wanted to re-pot a plant. It was not doing well, I had not done a very good job of taking care of it.

So I asked my wife, Sue, if she would help me with it.

Now it’s not really that complicated a process. Thing is, I know that if I do it, the poor plant has a chance of surviving. But Sue is great at this stuff, you should see our backyard gardens!

When she does it, the plant will thrive.

Sue is gifted at many things. She is quite a fine musician, an accomplished decorator, a wonderful cook, just to name a few.

And some time ago, she discovered that planting and cultivating flowers was something she enjoyed.

She has gotten quite good at it, and it’s amazing to me! The colors that burst forth all around the outside of our house in the spring are wonderful. And though the colors change, things keep blooming all through the spring, summer and fall! She is talented at gardening.

But what she is really gifted at is making her surroundings beautiful.

Now to her, it just makes sense. She does whatever is necessary to provide the right conditions, the right soil, the right space, the right color combinations, and so on. To me, it is a wonderful mystery!

But that’s how it feels when we do things that align with our talents. To us, our actions don’t seem like a big deal, there’s no mystery, it just makes sense. And it makes us happy.

The Gift That Drives The Musician

For a musician to know if they are talented or not usually depends on other people. If listeners keep hanging around so that you’ll play one more song, that’s a good sign. And if they listen to a few bars and politely excuse themselves from the room, that’s a different sign!

As they work at their craft, musicians will get better. The music will become more cohesive and colorful, with fewer jarring moments than when they started.

Talent doesn’t have much to do with making music at first. But as time and efforts progress, talent is what takes the mechanical and makes it beautiful.

And then the real gift just might shine through. The gift behind the talent that mystically answers why the musician plays might show up. Because the gifted musician not only plays because she can, but she plays so that people might hear and be blessed by the experience.

Sounds pretty altruistic, doesn’t it? What about the musician’s ego? Don’t they play to inflate their sense of self-worth?

Sometimes. But at the heart of it, if a musician’s goal is to create something beautiful, or significant, or worthy, there has to be someone one the other side of it that appreciates its beauty, its significance, its worthiness. The goal of the musician is to bless someone with their art.

Gifts I Am Thankful For

As for me, I am good with music. I love the medium, I really enjoy playing around with song structure, melodies and harmonies, grooves I haven’t tried before. Even writing lyrics. I work at my craft, learning and honing, writing and practicing.

But what drives me to keep creating, in addition to my own need for self-expression, is the joy of getting other people involved in hearing and playing it. Watching their reactions to my music is fun (usually); but having others learn my songs and play or sing them for an audience – what a trip!

But although my pride is involved, if I am to be totally honest with you, the thing I love to do is to encourage people to find joy in life by using their God-given gifts.

One of my favorite things to do is find people with a little ability and a timid heart and bolster their courage as well as build their skills. Then I step back and watch them fly! Time and time again, I’ve watched this happen, and it brings me joy every time.

Sue loves to plant things and watch them grow. That’s what I love to do with people. Get them out of the familiar, limiting confines of whatever pot they’ve been living in, pour in some fresh dirt, supply the water and fresh air – then watch them turn their face up to the sun and thrive.

What Gift Lies Behind Your Talent?

Gift within a gift

You may know already what you’re good at, where your talent lies. But the real gift is being able to use your talent in the service of others. There is great joy in it on both ends! If you haven’t thought about it much, or if you need some ideas on how to benefit others with your talents, here are some thoughts to get you started:

  • Examine your skills – what are you good at and what have you learned to be good at? Can you imagine it as a skill you would employ with someone or for someone?
  • Examine your interests – what medium do you like to work with? Numbers? Music? Conversation? Wood or metal? Are you a talented cook? Do you love to build things? Who would benefit from your knowledge and expertise in this area?
  • What have you had success at in the past? How have others been touched by your efforts? What good things happened when you operated out of your strengths, doing what you have been hard-wired to do?
  • What do others say you are gifted at? And how might you use your talents in new ways? Ask family and friends, they’ll tell you. Make sure you ask people who will tell you the unvarnished truth, however.

How have you found joy in using your gifts to benefit others, in music or something else? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Please leave a comment below, or email any questions to [email protected].

And if you find these blogs are helpful to you, we can deliver them right to your email inbox. Go to the top right corner of this page and fill in your email address, and you’ll never miss another post! And you have my promise that I will never share your email address with anyone.

© 2014 Steve Case