Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

Persuasion, Representation, and Emotional Heightening

The Ethical Implications of Music as a Creative Practice in the Contemporary Social Documentary

Music, Sound, and the Moving Image (2021), 15, (1), 71–93.


Synthesising real events with creative treatment, increasingly emotive and cinematic documentary presents now more than ever an ethically challenging dichotomy between factual broadcasting and fictional entertainment. Within the discussions of documentary ethics, this dichotomy is largely explored in relation to visual and editorial decisions which might be accused of manipulating or reframing the ‘truth’. However, within both ethical guidelines for documentary production, and academic debate around documentary ethics, reference to music is somewhat scarce. Potential challenges faced by non-music academics in asserting the role of music within documentary, a perceived precedence of visual over auditory components, and the notion of the documentarist as an ‘artist’ all participate in defending and deflecting the ethical responsibility of music in the contemporary audio-visual documentary. Through exploring the use of music in three different documentaries, this research proposes a typology outlining music’s areas of ethical concern, including persuasion, representation, and emotional heightening. Music’s ethical precariousness emerges in recognising its capacity to influence audience perception of ‘reality’ through emotional and semiotic capacity, and crucially, in the degree to which its influence often remains unnoticed.

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