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Cue the music: Songs help to create a mood

| Friday, Nov. 15, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Mark Brewer illustration
Mark Brewer illustration

Music has always been used in movies or television to signal danger, romance or action.

At sporting events, fans stomp and roar to songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N' Roses or “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. During the game, the action on the field or the ice is punctuated with a running musical commentary that conveys frustration, disappointment or a hard hit.

But the digital revolution has brought music into countless aspects of our daily lives. “The Matrix” has nothing on The Music. We are “Under the Dome” of a colossal music-sphere, composed of trillions of digital musical particles. The seismic shift wrought by Napster near the turn of the 21st century democratized individual musical file-sharing, allowing people to cherry-pick songs.

We choose our mobile phone ringtones. Runners and walkers sync up workout music on their iPods. In hospitals, doctors perform surgery while listening to music.

We love our soundtracks. We demand our own soundtracks.

“I think we're getting pretty close to a time when you could almost dial up what kind of day you want to have,“ says Marcus Fischer, president and chief strategy officer of Carmichael Lynch, an ad agency in Minneapolis.

As an example, Fischer cites a pair of headphones that play music based on your mood. Neurowear, a company based in Tokyo, demonstrated the technology at the most recent South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. Sensors pressed to the user's forehead read their brainwaves and deliver music, through an iPhone app, based on three states of mind: focused, drowsy or stressed.

We all speak soundtrack, conveying volumes of information in a few notes. Think the theme from “Jaws” or those screeching violins from the shower scene in “Psycho.” Or the generic-funk porno music soundtracks from the '70s, used in winking reference to dirty business: “bow-chick-a-bow-chick-a-bow.” They've become musical memes encoded with implication.

Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, offers this example:

Say, you're vacationing in Prague. While taking in the sights, you run into a classmate from your old high school back in Kansas.

“You could say “Isn't this a bizarre uncanny thing? Who would have expected the two of us from a tiny little place to meet in a city across the globe?' ” Thompson says.

Instead, he suggests you simply could sing the opening notes of the eerie theme from “The Twilight Zone” television series from the ‘60s.

“You've essentially got four notes repeated twice,” he says “When you hear that, it communicates what it would take many sentences to communicate. “

Our culture has accumulated a list of movie scores that have transcended their original context and become lodged in our society's collective playlist.

“We all agree culturally what all these things mean,” Thompson says. “All you've got to do is play that and it immediately tells you all kind of information.

If you hear:

• The “Dragnet March” from the 1967 cop television series: You're in trouble

• “Dueling Banjos” from the film “Deliverance:” You are about to audited by the IRS, or your mechanic just found a “big problem” with your engine's crankshaft.

• Music to Myrna Gulch on her bicycle from “The Wizard of Oz”: Your mother-in-law is making a surprise visit.

• Theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”: Today is the day to ask your boss for a raise, or you're about to tell your wife that you're bailing on shopping for wallpaper and going golfing instead.

• “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, from “Reservoir Dogs:” Avoid a phone or face-to-face conversation with that particular individual. They are going to talk your ear off.

• Theme from “The Twilight Zone:” You are approaching the Squirrel Hill Tunnel, where all traffic is “maintaining speed” (not).�

• Theme from “Jaws:” “Get out of the water, you moron!” or, “Do you know how many grams of fat are in that slice of pepperoni pizza?”

William Loeffler is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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