We’re not talking music videos here; we’re talking visual music.
Like composers of music, videographers paint on the canvas of time. Over the course of a musical
performance, the notes change; over the course of a video screening, the pictures change. The feelings of
listeners and viewers change with these changes. Both these arts rely on the passage of measured time.
Since both video and music are time-based, we can employ musical techniques in the making of video.
If we apply musical techniques alone, without mixing them with, say, the techniques of narrative video, we
can produce video of a new genre: video abstract art.
In music, the basic building block is the note: a sound with a given pitch and duration. In video, it’s the
shot. This is an image with a given appearance and duration. Sequences of notes make music; sequences of
shots make video. If we construct sequences of shots with care only about their appearances and durations
we begin to make visual music.
Try using colors the way musicians use pitches. Take a shot, say, of each of the colors red, blue, yellow
and black. Make those the notes of your scale. You can “compose” with these notes by creatively editing
them together. Vary the order in which you show the colors on the screen and the durations of the various
shots to make a visual melody.
Experiment with rhythm. You might use the color red to set the pulse of the composition. Alternate half-
second shots of red with half-second shots of black. Like a bass drum strike, the color red now sets the
pulse of the composition. To open this piece, let the red-black alternation “play” for two “measures” of
four beats each. After that, begin to cut in either a blue or a yellow shot where some of the black shots
would have appeared. Keep those red shots on the downbeats and vary between blue, yellow and black
shots on the off beats. The resulting piece will establish a color mode, a pulse and some rhythms: simple
That’s nice, but so far you’re singing only unison: call it Gregorian Chant in Red, Blue, Yellow and
Black. A great deal of the pleasure we take from music, however, arises from the harmonious playing
of several notes simultaneously, as in four-part harmony. To achieve this with video, we need to see more
than one picture on the screen at the same time. If we want to “score” soprano, alto, tenor and bass video
lines, we need a four-input special effects generator (SEG). A video duet requires an SEG with only two
video input channels. The SEG lets us show more than one stream of video on the screen, through various
effects: split-screen, superimposition, picture-in-picture, luma- or chroma-key.
We can build multi-part video compositions by employing the conventions of any of the musical forms.
Say we want to compose a visual “canon” for example. This is the form which employs a single melody
sung by two or more voices, one beginning later than another. A “round” like Row, Row, Row Your
Boat is a simple canon. We can begin a two-part video canon by splitting the screen horizontally.
“Play” the Gregorian sequence we created in the lower half of the screen. Let four “measures” of
four beats go by and start the same sequence on the 17th beat in the upper part of the screen. Voila:
Two Part Canon in Red, Blue, Yellow and Black.
You can use a super instead of a split screen and watch new colors appear. A flash of green will appear,
for example, whenever a blue shot supers a yellow one.
You can build on sonata form or any other musical form instead of the canon.
You can use video shots instead of simple colors. Wherever you used the color red in the first example,
you might instead use a half-second shot of a pie hitting a face; wherever you used blue, substitute a tree
waving against the sky.
Just as “pure music” does not rely on pictures or dancers; pure “video music” would have no sound
track. Bring it in anyway. If we hear the pie hitting the face as we see it every second, we feel the beat in
Hear the picture?
Stephen Muratore is Videomaker‘s Editor in Chief.