Legend of Korra Soundtrack: Music as Storyteller

Korra soundtrack

The Legend of Korra soundtrack will be released on July 16th. This marks a huge milestone for the show. Bryan and I (among many others) have been trying to release an Avatar soundtrack since the early days of A:TLA. Dedicated fans even began circulating a couple of online petitions over the years. We knew that people wanted this music, it just took some time (and a lot of patience) to get the juggernaut of Nickelodeon to get behind it. But once they did, things moved very quickly. And as of this writing (a month until release), the soundtrack is already #3 in soundtracks and #24 in all music on Amazon. Pretty amazing.

Jeremy Zuckerman’s score has been such an intergal part of both A:TLA and Legend of Korra so I’m happy and excited that fans will finally be able to listen to the score on its own.

Since the early days of the Avatar world, the music has added a whole level to the storytelling in the show. Although I was certainly aware of soundtracks for movies and TV, I never really understood how vital they are to visual storytelling until I had my own show. The composer has a difficult job of creating music that supports the visuals without overpowering them. When done well, music often blends into a scene and becomes part of the story, so much so that you don’t realize it’s there. This isn’t a negative thing. It’s similar to how the right actor can blend into their animated character. If a character is matched with the wrong voice, it can be very jarring and take you out of the story. The wrong music can have the same story-killing effect.

Listening to Jeremy’s score for an episode is always a treat. By the time he gets his hands on an episode, we’ve lived with it for about 10 months, in all its various incarnations. We know the story inside and out and have scrutinized every shot and drawing. So it’s difficult to see the show with fresh eyes. But every time I watch a music preview or sit in a mix for an episode, I do just that. It’s like watching the show for the first time. Emotions become clearer, drama becomes more intense, and action becomes more exciting. The whole story is augmented and pushed to a new level that the visuals alone can’t accomplish.

Research shows that music affects our brain activity in various ways, but the most intriguing (as it relates to this post) is that music can activate our visual cortex.  I also came across this research that suggests our senses aren’t so compartmentalized — the different senses are more interconnected than scientists first thought.  I think this might help explain why listening to the music for Korra helps me see the show with fresh eyes. I’m hypothesizing here, but it seems to me that after repeated exposure to the same story and visuals over many months, I experience a kind of visual numbness. Add music to the mix, and now my visual cortex is being activated in different ways and I’m able to watch with a sense of newness.

The music for the show is also magical for me because it’s the only part of the process where Bryan or I are not intimately involved. We meet with Jeremy (as well as sound designer Ben Wynn and foley mixer Aran Tanchum) to discuss the episode and what we envision for the music and sound. We only check back a couple weeks later, after they’ve done all the heavy lifting. After working in animation for almost 17 years (yikes!) I have a pretty solid understanding of how the writing, storyboarding, design, and animation all get made, but music composition is completely foreign to me. I appreciate and love listening to music, but I have a limited understanding of how Jeremy goes from an idea for a score, to actually composing it. I see him jot down ideas for musical phrases the same way I might write a note for a story idea or sketch a storyboard panel. We speak different languages, in a sense, but with the same goal — to tell a great story.

While you’re waiting for the soundtrack to be released, you can listen to one of the tracks here. Enjoy the music!

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25 thoughts on “Legend of Korra Soundtrack: Music as Storyteller

  1. Great post Mike. I wasn’t sure about buying the soundtrack until I listened to that Republic City track. It reminded me of how unique the music in both A:TLA and Korra are, this mix of eastern and western styles much like the show’s animation style.

    My all time favorite Track Team composition has to be the theme that plays during Zuko and Azula’s final battle. It’s got some of the instruments from the previous Agni Kai music, but it’s so slow and sad. It reminds you that this is a fight to the death between two siblings who should have loved each other; not something to celebrate. You guys also seemed to love that piece given how it overwhelms the sound mix and makes the fighting noises much quieter.

    1. Thanks Alex! Yes, the Agni Kai duel is one of my favorite musical moments too. Often it’s difficult to balance the music and sfx (because both are so great). In that case we made a creative decision at the mix to bring the sfx way down and focus on the music, to heighten the emotional impact.

  2. I’m so excited to get the soundtrack! I was always a big fan of the A:TLA music, and the Korra music is just as good!

    Still waiting for an A:TLA soundtrack to be released, though. Any chance of that happening??

    1. The Track Team posted on their facebbok page that if the ‘Korra’ soundtrack/s do well enough, the A:tLA soundtrack is still a possibility.

    2. Thanks for visiting the blog, Kelsey. The more people who buy the soundtrack, the better chances there will be more Avatar music releases — and maybe even from A:TLA. But we have to prove that people are willing to pay for the music (I’m confident they will.)

  3. Great post! Music is to me an important part of the creative process. I cannot draw or write without some kind of music playing. Often what I am listening to will inspire me. I sometimes listen to music while I am reading and it makes the story all the more real.

    One of the many great things about A:tLA and LoK is the music and the voices. They are so powerful and amazing. I am so excited about the soundtrack’s release. It is a wonderful thing for both longtime fans and those just discovering the A:tLA and LoK universes for the first time.

    1. Thanks! Usually when I write I’ll listen to a soundtrack or classical music. I like to have something in the background, but I can’t seem to write to anything with lyrics. Too distracting, I guess.

  4. Will be buying this amazing soundtrack
    Also would like you to know that if a A:TLA soundtrack comes out you havemade a sale right here.

  5. I can’t wait to listen to the soundtracks while driving! So calming. Music is a powerful thing, so powerful it can control the mind. There’s music out there to destroy, but also music that builds and Avatar is that type of music! Music is power! :)

  6. I totally agree on the role of music in storytelling. The best and most emotional scenes in films, TV, games etc are mostly a great balance of visuals, expression, acting and, of course, music. As you pointed out, music involves another sense which can change you awareness and enhance your perception of the visual. And when done right, music released as a soundtrack can be listened to separately and still evoke the scenes and/or be catchy enough to just enjoy purely on its own merits (John Williams comes to mind in this regard).

    The music of both ‘Avatar’ and ‘Korra’ was just this kind of magical blend of themes, backdrop and storytelling. I love many of the themes used throughout, especially ‘The Last Agni Kai’, ‘Peace Excerpt’ and the ‘Avatar’ theme (and I love its use in that pivotal last moments of ‘Korra’) amongst many others. It’s a great pleasure to see the music finally get the recognition it deserves through a proper soundtrack release. Definitely getting it (if I can find someone who can ship it to my country).

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful response. The soundtrack will be on itunes as well — not sure how it works with international distribution, but hopefully you can find a copy easily.

  7. Great post, thanks for sharing! I definitely enjoyed listening to the music on the show, it deeply moved me! I agree music is so powerful, I found myself at times feeling emotional because of the music and how it was perfectly orchestrated with the acting and animation. Music has the ability to sway us, it definitely helps to awaken parts of us that we don’t even know exist! The Legend of Korra though, wow I am just loving the music.That was one of the best parts of watching both shows. Excited for the album to come out!

  8. I have noticing and learn from behind the scenes I watched on DVDs of movies where music is important to tell the story and watching animated movies, some others, animated series, it can be said that music in visual storytelling is the soul of the visual storytelling, it’s gives an awareness, as if it enhances the the story, the moments, the characters and their emotions that can’t be transcribed without music, only music can do it. interesting enough it always existed, when visual storytelling since on theatre (ballet and opera).
    the Foley mixer, it takes a good deal of imagination to come up with the sound that best transcribes specific movements, I’m always stunned with what they come up with it.
    By the way, great post.

  9. The different musical themes for each character also helps flesh out their personalities and similarities. *spoilers ahead*

    For example, the last episode, when Korra finally connects with Aang and gets into the Avatar State, we hear Aang’s Avatar theme played with the erhu and strings that are consistently associated with Korra, throughout the first season. Though this was obvious in the story and in the scene, it made the thread that connected Korra, Aang, and all the other Avatars, that much clearer to me.

    Having a specific instrument signal each character isn’t entirely new, however I’ve come to associate Korra’s character with the versatile string sound of the erhu. From the vigorous tune in the Firebending Test, to the grand sound we hear when Korra rides out on Naga, the strings have become synonymous with Korra’s own character, sometimes quick, impatient and impulsive but also capable of immense depth and maturity.

    Kudos to Jeremy Zuckerman and to the rest of your team, Mike, for blending the score, story, and characters so well.

    1. Great observation! And thanks for commenting. Yes, we didn’t use Aang’s theme until that moment for that very reason. Jeremy has been really conscious about connecting certain instruments/themes with specific characters.

  10. Hi Mike

    As a fellow animation director of the same generation than you (but nowhere near your achievements), and a former Taiwanese apprentice martial artist (but, like … really apprentice), AND (of course) a big fan of ATLA and LOK, I can’t thank you and Bryan (and all the people working with you) enough for having put up a show I would look so much up to.
    It gives me a good milestone for what kind of story I want to tell and animate, and a good hope that, since you show exists and is hugely popular, mine might as well have its chance one day.

    As for the music, yeah, totally agree with your view about the fact that if done well, it enhances the depth of the visual side. It’s kind of a marriage, or even better, an alchemy that has to work by pair.

    And as unfair as it sounds like, even though music takes much less time to make than animation, it is at least 50% of the importance of a movie, animated or not (and don’t get me wrong, I totally know it IS a tedious work that requires lots of people, efforts and time, and sweat and blood… but come on, when it comes to compare it to animation…)

    My former sound teacher even told us that it’s actually closer to 60% of importance, regarding the fact that animation is a “fake” media by definition, since there is no “real” actors, but only a pile of drawings, so not only you have to draw them more lively than life (in order to make the audience believe in them), but you also have to make it sounds more real than real to counterbalance their fakeness.
    Thus, you can have the world’s most beautiful animation in your movie, if your sound is crap, it just ruins everything, whereas you can have a crappy movie and have a killer music and sound environment, and you still might get away with it !

    I’m not a musician per se (never done any solfege), but I still pay a lot of attention to music and it seems like I have quite a good musical ear, and I definitely pay attention to every details coming out of musicians that I’d like to potentially work with.
    I’ve done several MVs before, and it’s quite a fun experience, since I’m animating on a finished music already, so I can play directly with its rhythm, and really aim to make a perfect combination (the work that defines me the best being the one I made for a talented Taiwanese DJ friend of mine : http://vimeo.com/38456284 )

    I don’t know if you guys can sometimes work like that, like having the music wayyy beforehand and create a storyboard-animatic out of it.

    Coming back to the Track team, sure you guys found out the right alchemist for you !
    It’s like the Miyazaki’s of today finding their Joe Hisaichi ^^ !
    Their abilities to blend together Asian and Western instruments and melodies is definitely not something that most composers are able to do,

    But at this point, as an animator of chinese descent and a huge fan of chinese culture and traditions myself, I should add that there are probably even fewer animation directors that can blend so masterfully Asian and Western culture such as you 2 AND make it not only understandable for the broad audience but even more, take it to the next level and make it in an entertaining, funny, thrilling and spectacular way, that leaves people wanting for more !

    And once again, for that, you have all my deepest gratitude.

    Looking up to you guys future works, and definitely looking forward to anything ATLA or Korra related (damn, I’m wishing so hard you could do an animated features film trilogy of ATLA for theaters ^^ !)

  11. This is a fantastic post. As a musician myself as well as a huge A:tLA fan, one of my favorite things has always been the amazing music. I actually cried during the Korra finale for how they paced the music in with the visuals as Korra came into her own as Avatar because the music underscored everything. (And yes, the Last Agni Kai music is one of the most tragic and amazing scorings I’ve ever heard.)

    Already preordered and can’t wait to get my hands on it! I look forward to any other music releases as well as more Korra!!

  12. As a long time fan of A:TLA and Korra, i am looking forward to owning the wonderful music composed by Jeremy. I am wondering if the soundtrack will be released in the Australian iTunes Store???

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