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Finding the magic in classical music through storytelling

The Music Workshop chats to Matt Parry, creator of The Opus Pocus on how to get kids to discover the magic of classical music…

“What is out there to help kids discover classical music? Especially at the moment with dedicated performances, workshops and group lessons so frustratingly put on hold?  

Of course you can just play this music to children, but getting them to listen to an entire symphony, for example, can be a bit tricky given its length and complexity.  This was actually the driving motivation behind creating The Opus Pocus.

We have had Disney’s Fantasia (1940), Peter and the Wolf (1936), Carnival of the Animals (1886!), Fantasia 2000 (2000…obviously, but yes 20 years old now!) and not forgetting Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945) but to my mind there isn’t a modern, fun series dedicated to helping children discover the magic of classical music: a bit like how Horrible Histories has so brilliantly – and hilariously – introduced a generation of children to history.  (I should also mention BBC Ten Pieces – which is great – but I think falls more into the ‘education resource’ bracket rather than ‘fun series with a sneaky educational aim’ like Horrible Histories does.)

So that was why I created The Opus Pocus.  However there is one question we need to also address: do kids actually like classical music?  

We know that some kids do, having been introduced to this music through learning an instrument, going to concerts, listening at home and so on.  But all of them..?  Well here’s a bold claim: ALL KIDS DEFINITELY LOVE CLASSICAL MUSIC!  It’s even printed in bold so it must be true…

How do we know this?  Well it’s easy to demonstrate: just play them the main theme from Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and you always get an excited and delighted response.  I’ve done this hundreds of times in primary schools and it never fails.  In fact I’ve never seen a child dislike these epic orchestral scores and brilliant tunes!

Okay but is this definitely classical music or just some poor imitation?  I’m sure there are some classical snobs out there who would argue that these film scores don’t qualify as real classical music for some reason, but I honestly can’t see why this is the case. The music of John Williams, Bernard Hermann, Ennio Morricone is as beautiful, powerful and deeply moving as a classic opera or ballet score (which is probably their nearest equivalent of the traditional classical music genres) and indeed unquestionably established classical composers such as Shostakovitch, Prokofiev and Korngold themselves wrote film scores (for The GadflyAlexander Nevsky and Robin Hood being my favourite respectively!).

So I think that’s settled!  Great film scores qualify as real classical music, and kids love them… so yes kids love classical music – phew!     

Next question: why do kids love the classical music they hear as part of film scores like Star Wars and Harry Potter etc?  Sure, the music is great in itself but I would suggest the key thing here is how it is presented: as part of a story.  Humans LOVE stories, whether it’s a bit of local gossip or the multi-billion dollar film industry, we humans can’t get enough of them: I would suggest because they are key to our evolution as a social animal, providing so much ‘useful information’ about how to survive and thrive, or indeed warnings of how to avoid the opposite of this!

So the connection this music has to a story that the child is captivated by – and the associated emotions they experience – I would suggest is why children are so captivated by the classical music score too.  It certainly helps too that the story is presented as images alongside the audio. 

And I think that’s an important thing to remember too when trying to introduce a child to classical music.  It’s not always easy to retain their attention with an entirely audio experience but something with images can really help, which I think is the genius of Disney’s Fantasia: there were only images with the classical music, no voices (pretty much), but it was a brilliant piece of storytelling and very successful in introducing a generation to classical music, as many adults will testify now.  So it’s worth exploring both audio and audiovisual stories to help children discover this music – don’t just give up if they’re not in the right mood for just listening to something!

But of course, depending on a child’s mood, just listening might be perfect: bedtime, long journeys or just some screen downtime spring to mind.  We all need a bit of eye-resting audio time: think podcasts with a nice cup of tea… Not that I’m advocating giving children tea, but yes I am definitely advocating helping them discover the magic of classical music!”

Matt Parry, Creator of The Opus Pocus  

The first release from The Opus Pocus is out now: 1001 Arabian Nights starring Brian Blessed & Rory Bremner:  www.TheOpusPocus.com

Additional images,

Jonas mohamadi and Mpumelelo Macu

Kubrick and the Timelessness of Classical Music

2018 is the 50th anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The narrative follows a voyage to Jupiter with a sentient computer called HAL. It explores themes of human evolution, technology, existentialism, artificial intelligence and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The film features scientifically accurate depictions of spaceflight, ambitious imagery and groundbreaking special effects.

However, the aspect that arguably makes the film so memorable is the use of sound. Dialogue is sparse – there are only 40 minutes of it in a two and a half hour movie – and rather than the constant underscoring to which film audiences have become accustomed, almost no music is used in scenes with dialogue.

When there is music, the choice and use of music is significant. Whilst two composers, first Frank Cordell, then leading Hollywood professional Alex North were engaged to score the film, Cordell never got off the starting blocks, and Kubrick abandoned North’s score, deciding instead to use a selection of pieces of classical music – pieces that have now become synonymous with the film – marrying music from an age with which we might feel detached with an exploration of an age we have not yet lived.

In 1968 the use of classical music in films was not new (for example, David Lean used Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto to great effect in his film Brief Encounter in 1945) it had been standard practice since the dawn of the ‘talkies’ to score music directly for each film. In fact, a major part of the appeal for movie audiences was the chance to hear new, original music.

And film music had been as original as it comes from the start. For the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bernard Herrmann pioneered an early form of multi-track recording, laying down the sound of two Hammond organs, a vibraphone, an electrically-amplified violin and a pair of Theremins. ‘

Seven years later, in 1958, Louis and Bebe Barron generated the world’s first all-electronic film score for Forbidden Planet. The score was so modernist that the studio billed them as creators of “electronic tonalities” rather than as musicians.

Despite his very different approach, Kubrick’s use of music was breathtakingly innovative, both in the illustrative power of music to support visual effects and in the way he managed to create such originality with pre-existing music.

Take the “stargate” sequence near the end of the film. It’s nothing more than a mosaic of brilliant colours rushing past and would have been completely ineffective without the music of György Ligeti, yet the scene was not conceived around the music any more than the music was written for the scene.

In this scene, the vast loneliness of space is wonderfully expressed in Khachaturian’s Adagio from the Gayane Ballet Suite.

Ligeti was understandably shocked on attending the Vienna premiere of the film to discover that four of his compositions had been used without permission. He was later to receive a modest payment from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) and substantial royalties. However, by acknowledging Ligeti’s work in the final credits, Kubrick made the composer world famous and the two became friends over subsequent collaborations. Alex North was equally shocked to discover that his score had been totally dropped.

Although MGM Studios were not advocates of the ‘unoriginal’ soundtrack, they were perhaps instrumental in its existence. In March 1966, the studio had become concerned about the progress of the film. Kubrick put together a show reel of footage to an ad hoc soundtrack of classical recordings. The studio bosses were delighted with the results, and Kubrick abandoned North’s score in favour of his ‘guide pieces’. 

Kubrick explained his reasoning in an interview with Michel Ciment:

However good our best film composers may be, they are not a Beethoven, a Mozart or a Brahms. Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time? When you are editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene…Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary tracks can become the final score.

The most easily recognised piece and the one perhaps most associated with 2001 is the opening theme from the Richard Strauss tone poem, Also sprach Zarathustra(Usually translated as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” or “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”.

The theme is used both at the start and the conclusion of the film.

While the end music credits do not list a conductor and orchestra for Also Sprach Zarathustra, Kubrick wanted the Herbert von Karajan/Vienna Philharmonic version. Decca executives did not want their recording ‘cheapened’ by association with the movie, and so gave permission for its use on the condition that the conductor and orchestra were not named. When the movie was a massive success, the label tried to rectify its blunder by re-releasing the recording with an “As Heard in 2001” flag printed on the album cover…

The full track listing comprises only six pieces of music:

  1. Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss         
  2. Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra by György Ligeti
  3. Lux Aeterna by György Ligeti
  4. The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II
  5. Gayane Ballet Suite (Adagio) by Aram Khachaturian
  6. Atmosphères by György Ligeti
  7. The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II
  8. Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss

It’s notable that Kubrick’s spaceships waltzed to the Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II while NASA was girding its technological loins to put the first man on the moon.

2001: A Space Odysseyis widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential films ever made. In 1991, the United States Library of Congress deemed it to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry. Sight & Soundmagazine ranked 2001: A Space Odysseysixth in the top ten films of all time in its 2002 and 2012 critics’ polls editions. It also won joint second place in the magazine’s 2012 directors’ poll. In 2010, it was named the greatest film of all time by The Moving Arts Film Journal (source Wikipedia).

Higher Education: What’s Right for You?

Although the deadline for applying to conservatoires and music colleges has passed, the closing date for university applications through UCAS (UCAS.com) is the 15th January 2018.

This gives plenty of time for potential applicants to consider whether they want to study at university, and if so, which university and which course best suits them.

Alex Baxter, Programme Leader Music Technology Programmes at the University of Hertfordshire advises:

The best degree courses expose their students to the huge range of connected areas which make up music technology as a whole – including those that students may not know even exist when they start their course.  Industry accredited degrees highlight that the broader industry sees the course content as being relevant to current industry practice, and this also offers excellent opportunities for industry input, and live projects where students’ developing techniques can be applied.  Universities which foster collaboration opportunities between courses (ie music technology students working with film & TV and animation students) offer that great extra dimension, as does the opportunity to study abroad or take a work placement.

UCAS offer 1,763 courses with ‘music’ in the title. These range from BMus(Hons) and BA(Hons) in Music to courses in Music Production, Songwriting, Music Performance, Community Music, Music Psychology, Music Technology, Music Composition, Music Business, Musical Theatre, Commercial Music, Digital Music, Popular Music, Sound Design, Composition for Film & Games and Music Industry Management…

That’s before looking at Joint Honours Programmes: Music and another subject.

[Image: Emily]


Supporters of universities suggest that benefits for students include the opportunity to study an area of interest, meeting people with both similar and different interests, making connections with fellow students, lecturers and industry, and improving job prospects.

With current fees in the UK at £9,250 per year for many degree courses, plus the additional costs of study (text books, resources, accommodation, travel etc.), it’s important to consider whether university study is for you.

There is a big difference between studying for A-Levels or BTEC and studying at university. Although universities offer a range of support services, particularly for those with learning needs, university studies are much more focussed on individual study and research. This requires self-discipline and focus.

Choosing the right university for you is also important. Different universities have different specialisms and contacts within particular Industries or Sectors. For example, if you are considering studying Music Business or Music Industry Management, you may want to study in or close to London to take advantage of the opportunities in London for internships and attending Industry events.

Universities also have different ‘feels’. Attending open days where you can meet staff and current students and check out the facilities can help you get a good feel for each institution.

[Image: Ольга Жданова]

The teaching staff are also a key element of your university experience, so research the teaching team. See what research they have been involved in, what their position in the industry is and how active they are outside the university. Also find out about industry speakers and alumni. Developing your network while still at university is crucial to developing a career on graduation.

When selecting a university, key questions to ask yourself include:

  • Do you want to live at home or move away?
  • If you want to move away, does the university have halls and suitable accommodation nearby?
  • If studying music, what aspect of music do you want to study? What might you want to do as a job?
  • Do you want an academic programme or a more vocational one?
  • Do you want to study with particular tutors/lecturers?

Key questions to ask the University include:

  • How much contact time do you get on the course? What wider support is available?
  • What experience do you get on the course? For example performing opportunities, recording, managing live projects?
  • What opportunities does the course give for Studying Abroad or a Work Placement as part of the degree?
  • Does the course focus on a specific discipline or does it give you a wide overview of your chosen area?
  • How involved in the programme are named tutors?
  • How many students are in each cohort / class?
  • What jobs do recent graduates get? Where are alumni working 3 – 5 years after graduation?

[Image: Danchuter]

The key to finding the right path for you is in looking at the most important aspects of study thoroughly. The most important decisions centre around whether or not to go to university, which course to study and where to study. It’s vital to take time to visit any universities you’re considering, and to seek advice from family, friends and people in your preferred industry.

The author of this blog, MWC’s Maria Thomas, is a Senior Lecturer on the Music Industry Management course at the University of Hertfordshire. 

If you would like to speak to the Music Workshop Company about anything in this blog, or to book a workshop, contact us today:

The Scare Factor: Musical Inspiration for Halloween

Music can play on the emotions very strongly; a phenomenon explored throughout music history but more recently and notably manipulated by composers of film and TV soundtracks.

halloween_vintage_05One of the strongest reactions to sounds can be fear. In the run up to Halloween we take a look at some scary music. What inspired the composers and why do these sounds frighten us?

A 2012 article in Time Magazine describes the result of a scientific study to determine why some sounds create a fearful reaction. The research was carried out by Daniel Blumstein, chair of the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA and an expert in animal distress calls, in collaboration with the film composer Peter Kaye.

Blumstein wanted to explore the link between sounds classified as non-linear chaotic noise (animal screams, babies cries and dissonant chords) and the way scary music plays on the ingrained biological reaction that it these sounds provoke. He discovered that horror movie scores frequently used these non-linear noises. The sound tracks for The Exorcist and The Shining, two of the most terrifying classic films ever made, even use recordings of animal screams.

But composers were making use of scary noises long before film existed.

In his opera Don Giovanni, Mozart creates a terrifying scene as his lead character is dragged into Hell.

Earlier in the same opera, the arrival of the ghost of the Commendatory is accompanied by scary chords with silence in between, which heighten the drama of a father back for revenge.

Saint Saëns’ 1874 work Danse Macabre depicts a tale of Halloween horror. According to legend, Death appears at midnight every Halloween. He calls forth the dead from their graves to dance for him while he plays his fiddle. The skeletons dance for him until the cock crows at dawn when they return to their graves for another year. Saint Saëns illustrates the story with music, using the solo violin to represent death’s fiddle. The work opens with a single note on the harp, repeated twelve times to represent the twelve strokes of midnight. The solo violin enters playing a tritone. During baroque and medieval times, this interval was known as the diabolus in musica – the devil in music. The xylophone is used to represent the bones of the dancing skeletons, imitating the sound of rattling bones.

This short film from Walt Disney’s Symphony is another great example of percussion being used to illustrate dancing skeletons:

Hector Berlioz’s Dreams of a Witches’ Sabbath from his 1830 work Symphonie Fantastique is another piece that illustrates a scary story. In his programme notes, Berlioz wrote of his character:

He sees himself at a witches’ sabbath, in the midst of a hideous gathering of shades, sorcerers and monsters of every kind who have come together for his funeral. Strange sounds, groans, outbursts of laughter; distant shouts which seem to be answered by more shouts. The beloved melody appears once more, but has now lost its noble and shy character; it is now no more than a vulgar dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who is coming to the sabbath … Roar of delight at her arrival … She joins the diabolical orgy … The funeral knell tolls, burlesque parody of the Dies irae, the dance of the witches. The dance of the witches combined with the Dies irae.

This excerpt from Hermann’s Pyscho Suite begins with suspenseful dissonant chords not dissimilar from the energetic dance of Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath. It employs heavy use of the semitone figure which also gives the feeling of terror in Jaws. The screaming violins replicate those animal cries that play on our primal instincts, creating a sense of fear and discomfort.

The opening music for the classic horror film, The Shining uses the Dies Irae from Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath, overdubbed with eerie sound effects. This is really creepy.

Nightmare on Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein also used dissonance and sound effects to create a really suspense-filled, scary soundtrack. In the 1970s and 1980s there was a move away from traditional orchestral scoring, and apart from a few vocal elements, performed by the composer himself and heavily distorted, this film score is entirely electronic.

This clip of the opening to Tim Burton’s Nightmare before Christmas is interesting in that is includes the music for Disney at the beginning. This is in a major key with no dissonance, with lots of sweet, shimmery sounds and upward scales. It makes the listener feel optimistic and happy, where the music for the song This is Halloween reverts to the scary minor key with lots of low notes and sound effects. This music is not as scary as the soundtracks for The Shining and Psycho – it maintains a light-hearted look at Halloween which works well with the story.

The idea of dead people dancing was used to great effect by Michael Jackson in his famous song Thriller. Scary orchestral effects are used as Jackson turns into a zombie and begins the eerie dance. Otherwise the music is not suspenseful – it does not create a feeling of fear. The main aspect in this is the dance, in which Jackson was a pioneer.

Whereas the Monster Mash by Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers was just a bit of pure Halloween silliness. This song is narrated by a mad scientist whose monster, late one evening, rises from a slab to perform a new dance. The dance becomes a huge hit when the scientist throws a party for other monsters.

The song features some inspired low-budget sound effects. The sound of a coffin opening was imitated by a rusty nail being pulled out of a board, the bubbling cauldron is actually water being bubbled through a straw, and the rattling chains were simply chains being dropped on a tile floor.



Music in Film: Sound Makes the Story

Music has been a big part of film since the early moving pictures, when live music was performed, usually by a pianist, to add atmosphere to silent movies.

When ‘talkies’ were introduced in 1927 with The Jazz Singer, featuring Al Jolson, music was again an important part of the film, and today it plays an integral part in films of all genres, from the opening overture, introducing main themes whilst the credits roll, to gestures highlighting climaxes or emotions and reminding audiences about things the characters may not know about.

Movies often use a mix of pieces, some scored especially for the film and some pre-composed. The first full length movie score was written by Max Steiner for King Kong in 1933…

…but in his 1942 score for Casablanca, he incorporated a range of well known pieces such as the French and German national anthems alongside his own work.

As films evolved, genres developed specific sounds. War-themed films generated music such as The Dam Busters by Eric Coates and The Great Escape by Elmer Bernstein, historical films gave us Ben Hur by Miklos Rozsa, and the wonderful Lawrence of Arabia by Maurice Jarre, Westerns, The Magnificent Seven by Elmer Bernstein and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly by Ennio Morricone.

Bernard Hermann became well known for his scores for Hitchcock films such as Psycho and Vertigo which are still linked strongly to Hitchcock’s images.

Many composers’ work for films is strongly linked to the images they accompany. This is particularly true of Howard Shore’s music for The Lord of the Rings, Hans Zimmer’s scores for Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, The Dark Knight Trilogy and Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps the most famous film composer is John Williams who wrote the music for Harry Potter, ET, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Superman and Star Wars: One of the most iconic film scores of all time.

Listen to The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme) here:

Williams uses themes or leitmotifs to represent characters, emotions and places in the films, reminding viewers of information they know but the characters don’t, or suggesting emotions that have not been revealed. This technique comes from opera – composers such as Wagner used leitmotifs in a similar way!

Alongside orchestral scores, popular music has also been part of film since The Jazz Singer in 1927. From the 1930s onwards musicals from Broadway or musicals written especially for film have been popular from the Marx Brothers films and Judy Garland, the Mickey Rooney films of the 1930s, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music in the 1960s, to the 2002 film of Chicago or the 2014 remake of Annie.

Pop songs have also been used in films, from the disco tunes of Saturday Night Fever, to theme tunes such as Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves or the Wet Wet Wet hit that accompanied the British comedy sensation Four Weddings and a Funeral.

One of the most famous film series to make use of pop songs is James Bond. Hit songs from the films include Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger, Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die, Carly Simon’s Nobody Does It Better, Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill, and Adele’s Skyfall which was the first Bond movie theme to win the Academy Award for Best Song:

No matter how simple, and whatever the style of music, the intricacies of harmony, melody, tempo and rhythm create an irreplaceable emotional backdrop for the story, deepening empathy, raising the heartbeat and offering experiences of familiarity, comfort and association. Next time you’re home alone watching a scary movie, try switching the sound off to see how quickly it loses it’s power to chill!


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