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Dec 10 / Ruth Montgomery blogspot

BBC 10 pieces commission: Hans Zimmer’s ‘Earth’

Sign language by Layla Fitzgerald-Woolfe with narrative written and created by Ruth Montgomery for BBC Ten pieces

‘Film music composer Hans Zimmer wrote ‘Earth’ for BBC Ten Pieces inspired by looking down at Earth from space. It uses the sounds of the orchestra layered with electronic sounds, and children’s voices. The music is so imaginative; Hans Zimmer uses music as a language to tell a story. In this film you will see Layla describe the music story of the piece in sign language. You will also see the narrative on screen and subtitles of the children singing….’ viewable in the UK only – contact me if you are outside of the UK).

It may appear a bit curious that a young, profoundly deaf child is appearing on the screen, next to an orchestra and communicating the ideas of the ‘Earth’ piece in sign language.  Also since that the narrative isn’t Hans Zimmer’s words, but mine, how on earth (pun intended) could I have ‘dreamt them up’ apart from the choral texts?

Layla standing by the green screen ready to start

I was excited when the BBC gave me the creative licence to lead this inclusive film project with Deaf and hard of hearing audiences in mind, and to create an accessible education learning pack for teachers and deaf students. With all the questions posed above, I think it is important to start by briefly giving a little context about the world of professional classical music then about the narrative and sign language in the film.

It is known that musicians broadly carry two types of skill, which are both technical and expressive. Technical skills are all those which allow musicians to provide accurate performances. They include the physical act of motor co-ordination and fluency on the instrument which allow rapid musical passages to be played evenly and without hesitation. They also carry perceptual skills such as pitch acuity and fine tuning. The expressive parts are the emotional aspects such as the changes in the timing, speed and dynamics; shaping melodies and the emotional quality of successive notes.

When utilising the two broad types of skills above, the musician’s job is not simply making the music more interesting but actually revealing and highlighting important aspects of the musical structure itself. So when an audience is ‘listening’ they are aided in understanding the music. Orchestral musicians and conductors convey and accentuate important parts, revealing the underlying tonal and rhythmic structure in the performance framework in their written scores.

For me as a deaf person, the score is the yellow brick road to all the musical information. By reading the score the signals in my brain are ignited, processing all those musical elements and structures, including sound textures and its layers.

When analysing Zimmer’s Earth score (or any music score with a wide range of genres for that matter), the whole framework is shown. I can identify motifs, patterns, reappearing themes, changes in key signatures/tonal ideas which form an understanding of the language using only notations.

As musicians can enhance the emotional effects of expression by exaggerating their emotion-bearing features on their instrument; the movement of the arms, hands, fingers, bow strokes, embouchure control and body language can all channel the powerful expression that is felt within. The absolute same can be said for sign language.

Although music by definition is imaginative, the underlying technical and expressive skill is paramount. The orchestral sounds give shades of colour (through the wild use and range of dynamics), the sense of the mountains, rivers, cloud patterns and visual beauty that are often beyond words literally but understood through impression. The BBC 10 pieces website also contained some information about Hans Zimmer’s music (with the composer talking about it himself – BSL translation provided) showed pictures of the mountain, rivers, skies etc. You are close to the earth yet so far away too. The music has a sense of showing outside perspective and reality. With sign language we can shift seamlessly, change emotional colours, add many layers and subtleness to the meaning, just like music and musicians can. Layla is a native Sign Language user and she had all the skills ready for this level of project.

Just like music, sign language is a technical, cognitive and expressive communicative skill. Our hands and body language are the instruments. When we use our hands, we are already music. I’ve always known this from the moment both music and sign language were given to me over 30 years ago. The two can click very naturally and fall into place.

At the end of the introductory clip Hans Zimmer says: “The piece of music I’ve written is just the beginning of the sentence. I want you guys to finish it!” It is my hope for the future that there is a strong, renewed sense of understanding that every deaf person is ‘musical’ in their own conversation, whether it is playing an instrument or using their hands to express themselves.

Working with the BBC music staff, I’ve also added a classroom resource for deaf students in mind which will give them the same learning opportunities as their hearing peers. I am looking forward to taking this project to my workshops next term. I am looking forward to seeing, hearing and learning from the reactions of those involved, and bringing both music and sign language together at the highest level.


Thanks to BBC Music teams, Ramon Woofle at Drip Media, Thaisa Hughes (interpreter), Andrew McCaldron (texts) at BBC for their support in this creative development.

You might like: My blog post on music teaching methods which the link can be found here:


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