How Do Caption Descriptions Help Tell a Story?

The most fundamental purpose of captioning is to provide a visual experience that as closely as possible mimics the auditory experience of the program. Critical to this process, especially for musically oriented shows like Glee, are sound effects, especially pertaining to styles and tones of music. For instance, poor captioning may include the description [ JAZZ ]. What kind of jazz? A Louis Armstrong solo? A funeral dirge? A better caption would be [ UPBEAT JAZZ MUSIC PLAYING ], which contains the important information as to the tone of the scene. 

Also important: what are we listening to? A sound effect such as [ ROCK ] falls a little short. A rock falling from a cliff? A pebble shaken in a tin can? This probably refers to rock music, but who knows? Clear caption descriptions can mean a lot — one deaf viewer even admitted feeling a caption such as [ TENSE MUSIC ] to be patronizing. “Tense” tells the viewer what to feel, whereas something like [ FAST-TEMPO ROCK PLAYS ] gives the viewer the same feeling, without the heavy-handed editorial. The most imporatnt elements of good music sound effects are a description of what kind of music, and the tone of it — upbeat, low-key, heavy. Yet the captioner should never be too visible, and begin waxing poetic, rather than reporting on the sounds objectively.

Two viewers spent a year recording the music sound effects that appeared in their captions, across every network and caption provider, and shared them with a local news reporter, which we’ll now share with you. See which you think are effective and which are ineffective:

[ ROCK ]

[ REGGAE ]

[ JAZZ ]

[ LIVELY ]

[ MELANCHOLY ]

[ MYSTERIOUS ]

[ MUFFLED JAZZ ]

[ STRUTTING JAZZ ]

[ SULTRY JAZZ ]

[ IMPOSING ORGAN ]

[ SINISTER ORGAN ]

[ SUSPENSEFUL PIANO ]

[ DISCORDANT, AMBLING MELODY ]

[ FLUTE FLUTTERING BIRD SONG ]

[ FLUTE PLAYING SWEET, YEARNING ]

[ PAINO AND CLARINET PLAYING MISCHIEVOUS MELODY ]

[ WHISTLING UPBEAT POP ]

And the lightning round…

[ ORCHESTRA PLAYING SLOW MELANCHOLY MUSIC ]

[ ORCHESTRA PLAYING WARM, AMBLING MELODY ]

[ ORCHESTRA PLAYING WHIMSICAL, AMBLING MUSIC ]

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