Behind The Stories

Breathing Life Into A Superhero: The Role of Music In An NPR Story

Inside NPR, the short bits of music that you hear often between stories on Morning Edition or Tell Me More or any of the other NPR programs are called music buttons.

Generally you'll hear no more than 10 seconds of music, but these audio clips fasten each story to another like buttons on a shirt. The end result is an hour or two of often dramatically different stories pieced together perfectly into a complete program.

If selected correctly, a music button played at the end of a piece is a perfect pairing. Sometimes the music button you hear is also an integral part of the piece itself. And some days it takes a little searching to find a story's musical complement.

This is the behind-the-scenes story of how one song was selected.

The Challenge
Last September, All Things Considered weekend production assistant Brent Baughman dropped by the NPR Music Library looking for "generic superhero music."

Brent told us he was producing a piece on Michael Chabon's new children's book, The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man.

They needed a song with at least 60 seconds of instrumental music (no singing, no speaking) to be used in between spoken segments. Since the piece was about a superhero, the music had to sound, well, heroic. Brent was also looking for darker and edgier music to complement some of the action scenes.

So, while the music had to be triumphant, heroic, fun, and/or dark, it also couldn't be too recognizable, so any music for actual superheroes (okay, you know what I mean) were out of the picture.

The Search
With lots of time to find the perfect piece – about a half a day – we started combing through thousands of tracks of audio of all kinds cataloged in NPR's online music database.

Brass fanfares seemed like a good starting place for a superhero sound – everything from patriotic music to marching bands, from composers of film to composers of classical music. This was one of the first pieces we considered:

This piece met a lot of our criteria. It was triumphant, heroic, and even had segments that could be used for action segments. Main drawback? It was too recognizable.

Next consideration:

Again, it had a lot of the characteristics we wanted. It was certainly heroic. It even had some segments that sounded scary or dark. However, it was too weighty and serious for a children's book and was very recognizable. So we had to pass.

Finally, we thought we had just about nailed it with "Festive Prelude," a brass piece by Stephen Bulla which sounds sweeping, heroic, and fun. This song has nice marimba effects that would make any Saturday morning superhero proud.

At this point, Brent came back to the Music Library and we handed off a few pieces that made the final cut. Then, in a flash of inspiration, one of the music librarians thought of a piece that was edgy and dark with just the right amount of triumphant and heroic.

The Selection
In the end, the piece that ended up on air was a 180 degree turnaround from where we started. Instead of classical, we ended up with instrumental rock. Instead of brass in the foreground, we ended up with electric guitar. In the final edit, it wasn't the most obvious choice but it was the right choice.

Check out the interview here:

The selection was "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" by Japanese musician Tomoyasu Hotei.

What do you think? Did this piece fit the criteria we were hoping for: instrumental and heroic with an edgy twist?

Next time you hear a music button and want to know the song title, album and artist, be sure to check out the show's rundown page on NPR.org. (For example: here is Morning Edition's rundown page).

Jennifer Bromley is a member of NPR's Music Library team. Emily Hellewell contributed to this post.

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