With closed captioning, music can help tell a story

John Kelly
Columnist July 24, 2013

If you’re not a person who uses the closed captions on your television, you’ve probably never thought about how music is depicted on a show or DVD. Well, like this: Little musical notes appear on the screen along with a description of what’s being played.

Rockville’s Stephen Weiner has had time to ponder these descriptions. His wife, Madeline, is hard of hearing, so the closed captions are usually turned on. For the past year, he’s been compiling a list of the words that come on the screen when music comes from the speakers.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Sometimes it’s a basic noun:

Rock

Reggae


A sample of close captioning of music, by caption provider CaptionMax, from a NASA video. (Courtesy of CaptionMax)

Jazz

Sometimes it’s an adverb or adjective:

Lively

Melancholy

Mysterious

Sometimes it’s a combination of the two:

Muffled jazz

Strutting jazz

Sultry jazz

Sometimes it’s not the type of music, but the type of instrument:

Imposing organ

Sinister organ

Suspenseful piano

Upbeat piano

And sometimes it is something so oddly specific that Stephen wonders whether deaf people can actually process it:

Discordant, ambling melody

Flute fluttering bird song

Flute playing sweet, yearning

Piano and clarinet playing mischievous melody

Whistling upbeat pop

Stephen noted 27 descriptions of music that began with “Orchestra playing,” most from the French silent movie “The Artist.” They include:

Orchestra playing accelerated frantic

Orchestra playing blustering discordant

Orchestra playing bright fanciful

Orchestra playing halting, forlorn melody

Orchestra playing light dramatic

Orchestra playing light dreamlike

Orchestra playing quiet, pensive

Orchestra playing slow bittersweet

Orchestra playing slow melancholy music

Orchestra playing warm, ambling melody

Orchestra playing whimsical, ambling music

I spoke with Jason Mitchell at CaptionMax, a captioning company with offices in Minneapolis and Burbank. “We generally like to try and describe either the style or the instrumentation, whichever is more relevant, and then have some sort of adjective — it can be as simple as ‘upbeat’ or ‘instrumental’ — especially if it’s relevant to what’s going on in the story,” he said. “Then people try and be more specific.”

For some shows — “Glee,” for example — such descriptions are critical.

“In shows like that, the music is part of the story,” Jason said. “If it’s something like auditions and someone is singing really badly you want to describe that it’s not good singing. Otherwise you wouldn’t understand what was going on.”

These descriptions allow the captioners to exercise a little more creativity than they employ when merely transcribing dialogue verbatim.

“I hope that it helps people who can’t hear what it sounds like,” he said.

Christian Vogler, director of the Technology Access Program at Gallaudet University, said that in the past, closed captions were pretty poor overall. He found descriptions such as “tense music” to be patronizing.

But captions have gotten better. “And in the context of good quality captions, I appreciate a description of the music,” he said. “Sometimes it serves as a clue that something is about to happen. If a hearing person can determine this by the type of music, then I think we have every right to expect that we will be able to tell, too.”

Music isn’t the only extra aspect captioners must contemplate. Accents must be conveyed. “If a character will adopt some sort of accent for a joke, then we’ll describe that they’re talking differently than they normally do,” CaptionMax’s Jason said. “With kids’ shows or cartoons, if someone speaks with a lot of weird emphases, we might spell it phonetically.”

Jason has been doing captions for five years and tends now to view things through a closed caption lens.

“A lot of times if I’m watching something, I’ll think about how difficult it would be to close caption it and I’m glad I’m not close captioning it,” he said. That includes certain reality programs where characters talk over one another.

Jason said he no longer suffers from a side-effect common among his colleagues: “People do talk about how they dream with closed captions on. That maybe happened when I first started. It doesn’t happen too often anymore.”

Send a kid to camp

We’re not down to the wire yet, but I do see the wire up ahead. My annual fundraising campaign for Camp Moss Hollow ends Aug. 2. Our goal is $500,000 for the camp, which provides a nature experience for at-risk kids from the Washington area. Our total so far: $191,989.65.

It looks like we’re nowhere close but I suspect many people who have been planning to donate just haven’t gotten around to it. I confess that includes me.

But I’m making my donation today and I hope you are too. It’s especially critical that we give now, as a donor is matching all gifts made between now and the campaign’s end, up to a total of $100,000.

Clyde’s Restaurant Group is offering an incentive, too: If you donate $150 to $249 before the end of the campaign on Aug. 2, you will receive a $25 gift certificate for Clyde’s. Donate $250 or more for a $50 one. (Certificates will be sent in September.)

To donate, simply go to washingtonpost.com/camp and click where it says “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15251-0045.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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