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Diving deeper into Blue Planet’s mesmeric soundtrack

Posted by Robby Stone - Head of Music and Voice at PHMG on

Blue Planet 2, David Attenborough’s latest series is wowing audiences across the globe – taking them on a journey through the deepest, darkest realms of our oceans. What makes this voyage so spectacular however, is based not only on what we see, but what we hear. We’ll be exploring exactly how the composers created the soundtrack for this worldwide phenomenon, diving into the distinctive techniques used to conjure up the sound of the seabed.

Never before has a nature documentary been met with so much anticipation – and this excitement peaked when the world-exclusive prequel video to Blue Planet 2 was released a month before the show was set to air. As described by the BBC, the intro contained “some of the most awe-inspiring shots and highlights from the new series”, and featured special footage not included in upcoming episodes. While it was impossible not to be awestruck by the incredible visuals, we were equally captivated by its entrancing music – sound-tracked by legendary composer Hans Zimmer and Radiohead’s Grammy-winning Thom Yorke. Together, they produced an orchestral reworking of Bloom, from Radiohead’s 2011 album ‘King of Limbs’, which was in fact inspired by the original Blue Planet series. As Zimmer himself quoted: “Bloom appears to have been written ahead of its time, as it beautifully reflects the jaw-dropping lifeforms and seascapes viewers are introduced to in Blue Planet 2”. Stripped of its driving bass line and percussion, the track instead focuses on a disparate piano melody, an undercurrent of strings, and of course, a rerecording of Yorke’s hypnotic vocals. As expected, the collaboration between both legends resulted in one of the most mesmerising pieces of music ever to grace our ears – the perfect backdrop for David Attenborough’s trip into the blue.

To create the feel of the show’s vast oceans and submerged habitats, Zimmer and his production company, Bleeding Fingers, were brought in to create something truly unique. But with no sound at the bottom of the ocean, how can one create an orchestral style that musically mimics the sea? Well, the inspiration behind achieving this sound is every bit as unusual as it is fascinating. Zimmer and his team turned to the impressionist paintings of Claude Monet; which brought together lots of tiny brush strokes to form a complete image. This is how the ‘tidal orchestra’ came to be – a musical effect created by each performer playing their notes only when the person next to them isn’t playing. Consisting of short plucks and tiny bows these small bursts of music are then built up into one huge soundscape. And the results are truly fascinating – an ebb and flow that reflects the motion of the sea.

It makes perfect sense why Hans Zimmer – a hugely renowned, Oscar-winning composer – was chosen for this mammoth task. Blue Planet 2 marks 16 years since the BBC’s natural history unit first set out to explore the unknown that lies at the bottom of our oceans, and their return was highly anticipated. Even with Zimmer’s past experience in major Hollywood films, the pressure was immense. Some of the creatures captured on film had never been seen before by human eyes, and the portrayal of natural underwater soundscapes had to do this justice. As he pointed out, matching a sound to every little thing is easy, but giving the visuals space to breath was something else. Both Zimmer and the Bleeding Fingers team worked tirelessly at the music for a whole year, arranging the footage loosely into stories based on the themes of each episode. But as we now know, all their hard work clearly paid off – earning them an Emmy nomination, and giving viewers a rare glimpse of the deep.

The soundtrack is an integral part of Blue Planet – it helps create atmosphere, a sense of place, and immerses us into an undiscovered underwater world. From the infra-sound of blue whales, to the ultra-sound of pistol shrimp, all sea creatures hear and use sound over various frequencies. In creating a soundtrack suitable for our viewing experience, the sound team are reflecting nature itself; tuning into the noises that help us make sense of our world.

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