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Reeling in the Years: Why the soundtrack of every episode sends us over the edge

‘Why was footage of a protest in 1980s Dublin causing me to choke back tears?’

UP UNTIL VERY recently, I had yet to make it through an episode of Reeling in the Years without crying.

rity Source: RTE

Considering the fact I don’t tend to cry at the Six One News or current affairs programmes, shedding genuine tears over reports – sometimes more than a quarter of a century old – came as somewhat of a surprise.

Yes, the events documented were often distressing or emotive, and tears were undoubtedly shed at the time by those involved, but if I’m not crying at today’s reports – difficult as it is sometimes – why am I crying at old ones?

Why was footage of a protest in 1980s Dublin causing me to choke back tears and why was an aerial shot of a polling station in 1990s Belfast reducing me to a sobbing mess?

And then I realised that it often came down to the music.

adele crying Source: Giphy

For those unfamiliar with the format, the RTÉ show accompanies its reports with the biggest hits of the year it’s featuring.

I should have known it all came down to the soundtrack: whether it’s a film or a funeral (or, as I eventually learned, footage of a historical event), it’s the music that always moves me the most.

That’s not to say that I don’t cry at the above in its absence, but its addition will make for a much swifter onslaught of tears.

In other words, if Sharon Ní Bheoláin’s nightly reports were accompanied by a tearjerker of a track, there’s a much higher chance you’d find me whinging into my dinner on a daily basis.

And why was this? What is it about adding music to a piece of footage that accelerates a person’s emotional response?

keith urban Source: Giphy

According to Joel Douek  in ‘Music and Emotion – A Composer’s Perspective‘, music is associated with a part of our brain vulnerable to certain emotions.

Vibration sense, sound sense, is ancient, visceral, and inextricably linked to old and deep emotional centers in the brain, a fact that allows composers to access and dialogue with their audience at a deep level.

Reinforcing the point, he added:

As a veteran film composer once said: “In a film, the dialogue and action tell us what the characters are thinking and doing, but the music can tell us what they are feeling.”

This goes a along way towards answering my question.

In today’s reports and interviews, I see the event and I hear the stories, but I don’t cry.

In Reeling in the Years, I empathise with the subjects more readily because the musical accompaniment allows me to.

And again, Douek is here to confirm as much:

One thing that film composers learn quickly is that when it comes to emotions, humans beings are much more music-driven than they are visual-driven. The immediacy with which we react to a film’s soundtrack shows that at least emotionally, we are much more prejudiced to the sound than the images.

For anyone familiar with Reeling in the Years, you’ll know that the narration comes in the form of text along the bottom of the screen.

And while interviews and speeches are included in the footage, a viewer’s understanding of the event is drawn mostly from the facts provided in this text.

So I muted Reeling in the Years.

All in the name of science, you know yourself.

And I didn’t cry.

dead inside Source: Giphy

The events remained the same, the footage played out in the same sequence, and while I was no longer privy to words spoken during interviews, I understood the significance of the events documented, and I didn’t cry.

In Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder sang:

Music is a world within itself, it is a language we all understand.

And often times, it helps us to understand on levels we mightn’t have anticipated in its absence.

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About the author:

Niamh McClelland

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