The Challenges of Subtitling Music
“And your first question in the music round of this Subtitle Quiz coming up, here goes... ‘De-de-de-derrrr de-de-de-derrrr’.”
Any takers? Well, it was the First Movement from Beethoven’s 5th... I know, it’s obvious now, isn’t it?
But it illustrates a challenge faced regularly by Red Bee’s subtitlers and stenographers on a typical day in conveying not just the speech content of video but also the music, sounds and mood portrayed on-screen.
Subtitles should convey every piece of dialogue and every piece of the soundtrack relevant to what’s going on visually; whether that’s a slamming door that makes Nicolas Cage jump approaching a film’s suspenseful climax, gunfire in a news report , or Damien Rice’s wistful lyrics underscoring a couple’s parting glances.
In general, this can be done simply by identifying a particular piece of music, such as song title and artist, and/or transcribing any lyrics and labelling musical themes or moods. When words are sung, as opposed to spoken, they’re phrased as a poem and labelled with a hash character:
# I got chills
They’re multiplyin’ #
But the presence of music in a soundtrack poses its own problems:
1. RappingThe lyrical speed of rappers and MCs will often overtake that of most readers, but truncating the lyrics can undermine the vocal flow and dexterity of the performance. As it’s not being truly sung, we tend not to label rapping with a hash.
2. When music is key
How do you convey moments of virtuosity, such as an exemplary guitar solo, or a show-stealing vocal performance?
3. Labelling the piece
Is it more appropriate to identify a piece of music in a scene, transcribe the lyrics or convey its mood? Would “EERIE VIOLIN MUSIC” give a better impression than labelling that obscure Prokofiev sonata? What fits better with what’s being shown?
4. Wrong-footing the audience
Conversely, while music can sympathetically underline the action, it can also be used to great effect when it’s deliberately incongruous. For example, see the brilliant Big Train music editor sketch or David Fincher using Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” to disturbing effect in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
In the latter case – is it the tune’s jaunty, innocuous, New Age feel or the escapist, yearning lyric “# Sail away, sail away, sail away” that jars most effectively with the gruesome action?
5. Expressing phonetics
What about when people imitate musical instruments, like the intros round of Never Mind The Buzzcocks? This is where subtitles often revert to phonetics, as in the opening paragraph with the 5th Symphony.
So fully conveying a soundtrack without music is tricky, but not impossible.
But will the availability of music recognition apps, streaming and production companies ever keen to use The Next Big Track in their films lead to an expectation to identify more subliminal music? Will companion technology allow a viewer to bring up the sheet notation on their tablet, or download the track and lyrics? And will artists demand to have their work increasingly labelled to subtitle users? After all, artists want their music to reach as big an audience as possible, even if they can’t hear it – which brings us neatly back to Beethoven.
Do you have any questions about subtitling and music? If so, feel free to ask in the comments below.
Benn Cordrey, Subtitler
This post is part of our on-going blog series on access services