A General Guide to the Nature Documentary Music Score


Having to stay put through two instances of chicken pox gave me the opportunity to introduce my kids to the wonderful world of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet (warning: anyone watching this with their kids must also be willing to have in depth conversations about the food chain). 

After watching a couple of episodes, I couldn’t help but pay attention to the score. You’ll find that most nature documentaries go for the same type of sound. Hell, I recorded and overdubbed some tracks for one a couple of years ago, and it also followed the same rules. After briefly analysing these patterns, I decided to roughly outline what is going on, so that the listener and/or budding composer can have a musical reference point. 

I. The Sound of Nature: 

Generally speaking the nature documentary wishes to have its audiences in awe. So much beauty! So much wonder! Our planet! What a blessing! That sort of thing. Awe always needs a rich tapestry of strings. No strings, no nature documentary. At least not a very successful one. You want your basses really grounded for a bit of oomph, a lovely mid-range cello, and close-knit violas and violins, eventually pitching the first violins an octave higher*­­ once the theme repeats itself for an extra portion of wonder (*for the non-musician that means playing the same thing but with the very high whingy notes). Once the majestic wide shot scenes begin - you know, the earth from space, or the aerial shot panning over cliffs (usually at the beginning or ending of the documentary) - you’ll add some earthy horns sustaining chords under the strings’ more flowy melodies, and cascading flutes here and there for extra texture. All of this builds up in a long crescendo (= getting louder) wave, and in many instances, features a soloist (more often than not the oboe interestingly enough). The percussion section indicates each new wave with a resonant cymbal roll and crash combination, and a brass fanfare towards the end rounds everything up quite nicely. Overall you want to stay in major keys (the happy sounding music), with some slight modulations* to minor (small visits to sad sounding music) here and there for greater contrasting effect. Remember, harmonic contrast = more awe. It is not a bad idea to borrow or repurpose some excerpts from romantic era symphonies, think Mahler or Bruckner, although rummaging through the oeuvre of Tchaikovsky is not ill advised either. Be cunning and hide your source just enough for it to seem merely coincidental, and you should be in the clear. 

II. Instrumentation and Natural Surroundings: 

Music is very useful in highlighting landscape changes. Here some possible pairings: 

Caves/dark, alien looking habitats: the dark horse in orchestral scoring it seems, the piano is the most likely contender for this type of scene. It will usually play sparse notes in the upper register, in a sort of tinkling, chime-like fashion that says “ooh, this is kind of spooky but not in a horrible way”. It will be played over an ambience sound of strings playing tremolo (really shaky) and sul ponticello (really scratchy) high notes, often harmonics (windy, tinnitus-like notes), all made to illustrate rays of light making their way through the cavern or ice. If you pay attention, there is probably an underlying major triad (happy chord) played by violas and cellos to suggest that the atmosphere is not threatening. If the chord goes minor or diminished (read: sour, Hitchcock-like), beware! There’s something lurking in the background. Fancy cave work may also include mild electronics and/or a singer singing pentatonic lines in shaman fashion. 

Underwater: this is very much a woodwind job. Most definitely in a 6/8 tempo (groups of threes, flowy rhythm). The flutes will take care of the theme, while the clarinets, oboes, bassoons provide the necessary bounce. This accompaniment is preferred for underwater river scenes. Should the river become a waterfall, you’ll need to get your strings geared up again. If it’s a big, majestic waterfall, you want a solo trumpet crowning it all. If it’s only a stream, you can discard the flutes and use a single violin instead. For open sea underwater scenes, you need the big guns again: a bit of timpani here and there, more bowed basses, and cymbals for crashing waves. But if you’re in the deep end, where all the weird looking fish are, a clarinet with an accompanying plucked bass playing far apart dissonant intervals will do just fine. 

Glacier/Icy plains: the best way to demonstrate how cold it is in these parts of the world, is to eschew music completely. Enhanced wind sounds will do the trick. Come to think about it, deserts fare a similar fate. There is no music in extreme weather conditions. Period. 

Jungle/Rainforest: Invariably anything in a warmer climate will give the composer some leeway to become creative with instrumentation. This is a time to use all those flutes you bought while on holiday. Also bring that pentatonic singer in again. We want to give the jungle an eerie back to the roots feel, this is nature as it’s supposed to be. Voluptuous, wild, exuberant. Go all out with fortes and pianos, set the strings wide apart so you have vibrant basses and celestial violins. Don’t forget the chimes. And then put your soul into writing a beautiful oboe solo. I don’t know whose idea it was – maybe Ennio Morricone, then again maybe he stole it from a nature documentary -  but the oboe is a staple of the jungle. 

Celestial phenomena: footage of the stars or aurora borealis or anything happening in outer space is to be scored with the use of Enya-like electronic sounds exclusively. Alternatively, use any old meditation music you may have lying around. 

Seasonal changes: Winter to Spring, mostly fast motion shots of blooming flowers, are a job for the harp. Perhaps even the only job for the harp. It’s a very satisfying “I’m a fairy, look what I can do with my magic wand” kind of sound. It’s also full of positive energy. Summer to Autumn is more subdued, and relies on a fuller, dark velvety sound that will often be written for the cello section. This will then be thinned out and taken up by anyone who can play softly in a high register to announce the arrival of Winter – on occasion the glockenspiel. No one does ice and snow better than the glockenspiel. 

Storms: percussion’s time to shine. A few abrupt breaks come in handy for dramatical build-up. A base of intense unruly string chords will come up at some point, usually material the diminished or altered scale (downright scary scale – think action thriller soundtrack). Muted trumpets are the cherry on the cake. 

III. Instrumentation and Cultural Landscape: 

Documentary composers want to give us a bit of local colour from time to time. Examples include: 

Latin America: there is a clear distinction between high and low geographical terrain. I’m going to put the divide at around 2000m above sea level. Heading to the mountains of central South America, whip out the pan flutes. Staying in the Amazon basin or cruising the coast, it’s guitar and maracas time, maybe some clave and congas as well. It’s peculiar, but a calypso type rhythm seems to be the default groove for these vignettes. Visits to the Caribbean require the composer to use steel drums. I believe this is in every documentary scoring contract. 

Indonesia and South-East Asia: this calls for real exotic stuff. The connoisseur will make good use of the gamelan. The modernist could add some vibraphone to the mix. 

India/Pakistan: obvious choices are sitar and bansuri (Indian flute) underlined by a slight tabla groove. Basically, the sounds that the Beatles discovered during their Maharishi phase. 

Asia: expect a gong at some point. 

The pentatonic, shaman singer is always a good choice for setting a cultural tone, no matter where you are in the world. For added interest you may also want to consider or listen for overtone singing, or simple chanting. Another multifaceted tool: fast-paced, rhythmic drumming, works brilliantly for anything in either Africa or the North American plains. Sometimes even Japan. 

IV. Instrumentation and the Animal Kingdom 

This provides the most creative freedom of the nature documentary score, as animal sounds and personalities are very much left to individual interpretation. However, there are certain rules one can adhere to, in order to speed up the composition process. 

The whimsical animal: these are usually short sequences depicting a creature going about its usual business, but made humorous by the narrator’s anthropomorphic description. Very often it’s a bear or other “fat” animal being clumsy. An animal performing an absurd mating ritual is another favourite, as are amphibians (mostly toads). Funny looking fish and birds also belong in this group. All these fall under the “clarinet and plucked bass” category. The bassoon or tuba are other go-to instruments for the whimsical animal. 

The chase: the predator/prey action sequence. Classic chases will have strings playing rhythmic quaver (eighth notes – that fast “dum dum dum dum” sound) passages, usually following a melodic line in fifths or fourths on top of minor/major 7th chords (the spooky, suspense chord). Percussion will rely heavily on thundering timpani, toms, the bass drum, and the occasional snare roll. If the prey manages to escape, all of this will dissipate into a relaxed, major key vibe. If the predator wins, you will hear a cymbal crash, which will inevitably lead to… 

The mourning: cue the sad violin solo. This melody is supposed to carry all the heartbreak the now childless mother feels about losing her little slow and careless caribou calf to the big bad wolf. 

Birds in flight: much like the majestic panning shot, these impressive feats of flight are given the “goose bump/awe” treatment. Birds are almost always scored with an oboe, plus mellowed out strings and woodwinds in the background. Sometimes flutes, but that’s an obvious move which is better avoided if you want to look like a pro. If you’ve read until this point you’ve probably realised what I did after watching a lot of these documentaries: “wait a minute… the oboe gets a lot of action around here!” There’s a lot of love for the oboe in this genre. 

Insects: creepy crawlers are voiced by, you guessed it, plucked strings and/or weird percussion instruments like the guiro. 

The noble giants: mainly elephants, but may also include whales, sometimes resting hippos or rhinos. Slow, large animals = French horns. That’s just the way it is. 

And there you have it. This is of course just a cross section of the magical world that is the nature documentary score. I’m sure the attentive listener will come across more structural similarities within this musical format. All in all, you’d be wise to keep the following basic principles: 

- Strings are essential. Use them in any way you can think of. Repeat after me: no strings, no awe. You want awe. 
- Choose the clarinet and bass combo for comic relief. 
- Percussion means danger. 
- Ditto muted trumpets. 
-  When in doubt, use the oboe.

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