Nature Documentaries And Their Composers

Nature documentaries are known for their emotional cinematography, however, this would not be the same without the score playing in the background of almost the whole documentary. The score can emphasise this emotion the audience is meant to be feeling in such a way that almost nothing else could do this as perfect as the score. As nature documentaries can have so many emotions such as joy and triumph or sorrow and mourning, the composer needs to create scores that emit these ranges of emotions perfectly, using a plethora of instruments that are true to the classical feel or even, in some cases, are quite unconventional.

As documentaries have a narrator (like the amazing David Attenborough), the scores need to accompany both the voice and the cinematography. When something dramatic happens on screen or is talked about (like a fight between two animals), the music needs to really kick in. This could perhaps consist of fast-paced strings, stabs and rolls on the timpani, heavy bass notes and hearty and hard-hitting brass sounds. There should be lots of dynamic changes, for example, the whole composition could be an elongated crescendo up until an animal is killed or they run away, then the texture could become very thin again, going to just a soloed piano or strings. A lot of the form could use minor and diminished chords, as this suggests the audience should be feeling tense and worried about the animal.

All of this should contrast with the happy scenes in the documentary, where a family has been reunited after days of being lost, or the animals are all together, being joyous and blithe. The score should turn to a much calmer major key and the tempo could be more leisurely. A great example of a happy composition from a nature documentary would be ‘Surfing Dolphins’ by Hans Zimmer.

Hans Zimmer is an incredible modern composer who has worked alongside film, TV and documentary writers. He is known for his integration of both classical and modern instruments and ways of composing, to produce amazing and never heard before scores such as the ones from the Planet Earth and the Blue Planet series’, in which ‘Surfing Dolphins’ is from. This specific composition is from episode one, ‘One Ocean’. In the scene, dolphins can be seen having fun in the huge waves in the ocean, playing with each other ‘For the sheer joy of it’ Attenborough says during this part. Throughout the whole score of this scene, there is diegetic audio coming from the noises of the dolphins and the waves crashing. This keeps the audience immersed into the documentary, without removing any importance from the non-diegetic audio (the music).

It starts out with an intro; violins and horns start playing slow major chords in harmony, setting the mood for this lively part of the documentary. Some of the horns are playing a simple melody that keeps the introduction moving. The tempo is then built up when the crescendo ends and the song really kicks in at 0:43 seconds; the A section. A xylophone, strings, horns, bells and eventually a choir can be heard. The xylophone adds a joyful and somewhat cheery sense to the composition, which relates greatly to what is happening on screen. Also, a timpani joins the mix, playing stabs and some rolls which keeps the score swelling. Most of these instruments (except for the xylophone in some cases) are conventional for a classical documentary piece.

Section B starts at 1:08, in which the violins play melody lines and the bass drums and timpani’s play triplets. The texture is fairly thick here, however, it is made even thicker at the 1:30 mark, section C, after yet another crescendo. The strings are very loud, as are the horns and drums and the cymbals join in for the main structure, not just as a feature for the end of a crescendo. The cymbal crashes here might represent the waves crashing during this scene which adds even more immersion. The violins play a harmonised, higher-pitched melody, which is played in staccato to add to this already clearly triumphant and fast-paced sound that Zimmer was intending, which again represents the cinematography. Contrasting to this, the lower strings like the viola and cello, the horns and the choir are playing in legato to embody the graceful moves from the dolphins a well as keeping the central body of the composition tight and highly present.

A dramatic change in dynamics progresses into the outro at around the 1:52 mark, and the louder instruments ring out. Lower pitched string and horns, a harp, bells and the choir take this part and lead it into a diminuendo which eventually fades into nothing, ready for Zimmers next composition. Before the fade, the strings, horns and choir harmonise with each other and play the same rhythm line. This harmony creates a mystical chord progression for when the dolphins go back underwater in the scene and start travelling to somewhere new. This, along with the harp generates a conventional sound for formulating an enigma for the dolphin’s story arc. The audience will wonder where they are going and what they are actually doing.