Imagining the Unimagined: Why it shouldn’t sound the way you expected

Words by Keith Bayley, Tuesday 28 Nov 2023

Music born from creative risk can be an exhilarating experience.

But in a world of indistinguishable melodies, off-the-shelf chord changes and generic jingles that dull the senses, how can you stand out? And what does it mean to take a creative risk?

Unearthing the Unexpected

In my school holidays I used to work in a local music shop – that’s where I learned to love analog synths, guitar FX pedals and the unmistakable sound of expensive gear through cheap mics (or vice versa). There was this one regular customer – a guy widely known as a megastar-in-waiting. He could play everything on every instrument, gigged to packed pubs and was generally a bit annoying. 

The story got around that he had landed a meeting with a top record company exec up in London. Everyone was secretly dreading the news of his returning with a big fat record deal and a publishing deal for his songs… 

But the reality turned out somewhat different. An indiscreet mate filled us in one night in the pub. He’d presented his songs, professionally produced, perfectly performed, in a variety of different styles all mirroring the biggest acts of the day. The record exec was unmoved: “I’m not hearing anything I haven’t heard before.” 

Our local hero protested, holding onto shards of self-belief: “But I can do anything. Tell me what you want.”

The exec uttered these immortal words: “If I knew what I wanted son, I’d ******* do it myself.” 

I’ve never forgotten those words, years later. They say so much about the need to be surprised in the search for a creative idea.

Breaking Free from the Shackles of Predictability 

Think about briefing music on a media project. We’ve had music briefs in the past that you could accuse of being over-prescriptive. “Open with hi-hats at around 120 bpm. The the drums should come in after 12 seconds, then maybe bass, piano and guitars. Build a crescendo from 18 seconds with horns and percussion. Big final impact over the packshot.”

Of course we applaud the preparation and the detail (especially on a super tight deadline.) But the biggest likely failing of this brief is you already know what the track is going to sound like. There are presets and off-the-shelf sound libraries out there that’ll give you that exact tune in about 20 minutes. 

But where’s the surprise? And without surprise, how do you expect to stand out? That brief is demanding predictability; and there’s nothing less unexpected for an audience than being predictable. 

The human mind naturally leans towards the familiar. Without the element of surprise, the end result becomes forgettable, blending into a sea of mediocrity. 

Creativity comes alive when risks are taken, rules are broken and unexpected ideas are allowed to flourish. 

A couple of examples, from home and abroad…

A Galactic Symphony of Surprise

A long-running movie franchise usually comes full of guidelines and rules. From iconic tunes to familiar sound palettes – and of course famous names – it’s a classic example  of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Enter ‘The Mandalorian’, the first TV series in the Star Wars franchise. The conventional soundtrack approach (matching stakeholder and exec expectations) would have been to go with the classic John Williams score, but director John Favreau had other ideas. He wanted something bold, edgier and attention-grabbing. 

Composer Ludwig Göransson responded by recording the main theme not on orchestral strings or brass, but on a bass recorder (which reminded him of his schooldays). The resulting sound was unexpected, unique and leftfield. “We captured the soul of Star Wars – in a new way.”

Unconventional Melodies and Instruments

We had the honour of collaborating on a captivating campaign for Standard Chartered, masterfully directed by the legendary Anton Corbijn. Tasked with creating a soundtrack for a beautiful film capturing stories in Africa where self-sufficiency and resourcefulness are ways of life, we got to work. 

The initial music brief initially suggested ‘emotional and atmospheric solo piano; or high-end acoustic guitar.’ So far, so straightforward. However, we sensed Mr Corbijn’s openness to unexplored paths, so we took a leap of faith.

Head composer Paul Sumpter drew inspiration from the film’s theme of DIY and self-sufficiency and incorporated it into the heart of the track. 

Wasting no time, he built an instrument from scratch using a plank of wood, a few screws and old bass guitar strings – and performed the film’s soundtrack on it. The resulting sound was unlike anything the team had heard before: tuning that drifted, unusual melodic intervals, scrapes and buzzes… but utterly unique and in perfect harmony with the sound and narrative of the film.

Mr Corbijn and the whole team loved the track which proudly stood out in the crowded financial sector.

Imagining the Unimagined

In both these examples, an anticipated orchestrally-led score or emotive piano would have delivered outcomes that, using film critic Mark Kermode’s wonderfully cutting phrase, would probably have been “perfectly fine”. 

But going beyond what’s expected is where the magic happens.

That’s where ideas and sounds earn an audience’s attention, making them sit up and take notice. An imaginative composer can and should deliver this, but the process hinges on the project creator’s willingness to embrace risks and shatter conventions. They need to be comfortable letting go of preconceived ideas so the audio expert can soar above the expected and go beyond the scope of the initial brief.

Embracing the unknown can be daunting. But how much more gratifying is an audience response of “I’ve never heard that before” compared to “That’s perfectly fine…”

Why risk-taking is important in creativity 

Willingness to take risks and reject the expected can lead to extraordinary results. 

We’ve witnessed first-hand how embracing the unexpected shapes projects in unprecedented ways. We believe all our clients want results that are memorable, capture a distinct identity and deliver impact that sets them apart. We also understand that the desire to over-manage all the unknown variables in music and sound can stem from a lack of confidence in how they all fit together. 

But if you limit risk, you’ll undoubtedly get a solid and expected end result. It gets made and nobody gets hurt. The danger, of course, is that nobody gets heard either…

I often think of that local megastar and his record exec whenever I see or hear a new creative idea. 

Whether it’s from another composer, a photographer, a graphic designer or a chef, a lot of the time the work is pretty good. 

But – I want to see or hear something I’d never imagined.

Something that surprises me and instantly tears up the shopping list in my head..

Because finding yourself somewhere you’ve never been before is the quickest way to create something truly memorable.

Posted by
Senior Composer & Producer

Tuesday 28 Nov 2023

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