Music is a powerful tool that drives us to feel in a very unique way. A strong melody can move us to gain a new outlook on our day or recall a sad memory that brings us to tears, even if the lyrics are dull and shallow, or all-together absent. Audio essays, though, I believe are their own kind of music. As Jonathan Mitchell writes, “Every radio story can be thought of as a piece of music — the talking, the location sounds, even the silences — these are all musical elements.” This type of composed musical piece can have a profound effect on the listener, but in a very different way than music in the traditional form. If listeners are moved as they tune in to an audio essay it’s because of the words and the meaning behind them, the melody and rhythm of a speaker’s voice, accent, posture as they expel the “lyrics.”
As John Biewen discusses the power of pace, pauses and silence, we can feel the minute effect of letting sound stand on its own. This “music” of independent voice and movement, unconnected to images, so that the single auditory sense is fully engaged, is a unique sonic experience that doesn’t need to be bolstered or complemented with traditional music. Though these sounds may be only of daily life, in this time where we, as listeners, totally engage, we hear things from the world fashioned in a way that we can fully access them. Perhaps really for the first time, we can hear the sounds of labor—of a 65-year-old farmer wrapping his flowers so they’ll survive the winter. We can hear his southern accent—its highs, lows, and rhythm—and value it, because it’s almost all we really know of him. Without any other senses engaged, we’re forced to value the voice and the sounds of life—edited or unedited—as things with great material value.
I’m anti-music when it comes to audio essays not because I dislike music or even that I feel Jonathan Mitchell is wrong in saying music can give the story being told “deeper meaning, resonance, and clarity.” I’m anti-music because I think the audio essay is one of the few places where people stop and value voice and (unmusical) sounds of the world on their own, without a musical build in the background to “move the story along” as the Kitchen Sisters search for. I think, instead, the best music for an audio essay is the sound of the speaker’s breathing, sighs, accent, movement, intonation, and silence.