7 Must-Follow Rules for Captioning & Subtitling Music

In Smells Like New Mayonnaise To Me: Captioning/Subtitling Music, I talk about how, when I first started captioning and was peer-reviewing a co-worker’s work, I saw this go by on the screen:

I feel like my head is gone

And what the hell is going on

And it smells like new mayonnaise to me

This was the editor’s best guess at the lyrics of the song in the show. Not good.

Over 20 years later, I continue to see mistakes in music captioning. As anyone who has ever misheard a lyric knows, it can be hard to catch what people are singing. In captioning, we can’t skip words that we don’t understand, as you commonly do when you’re casually listening. Dropping words here and there is just not acceptable for captioners.

With 2 decades in the industry, this is what I’ve learned:

Kelly’s 7 Must-Follow Rules for Captioning Music

1. Don’t Guess. Always use lyric sheets with producer sign-off. If there is no lyrics sheet, ask for a transcript of the words. If none is available, search Google for the lyrics. Also compare several transcripts to make sure that mistakes aren’t just being perpetuated over and over.

2. Make sure you are parsing the phonemes correctly. Did you hear “oh, the buzzards and the bees…” or was it possibly “oh, the BUZZING of the bees…”? The same applies in different language contexts: is that a non-English word, or just something you’ve never heard of before (possibly said with an accent)? In a film about China with an Australian narrator, we encountered a NAH-SO cart (presuming that NAH-SO was Chinese for… something). The correct term was NIGHT SOIL cart. An English term, just a bit uncommon!

3. If you can’t determine 100% what the lyrics are, leave phrases out. You can’t provide viewers with nonsense.

4. Although the internet has improved how we perform our work tenfold, a second (or third, or fourth) set of ears is still invaluable. Especially those with genre-specific knowledge. Phone a friend or relation. Call your Dad.

5. For incidental music (or background music), check for producer and broadcaster preferences. Some producers/broadcasters request that every word of incidental music be included, and some request that incidental music be left out. If it’s left up to you to decide, consider whether the music comments on the action, or detracts from it. Do you think the director really wants you to think about what the lyrics are, and reflect on what they are saying about the situation?

6. Make sure you have the final music. In the past, we’ve completed captioning… only to discover that the music has changed. Be especially careful about the difference between broadcast and DVD music, as different music licenses may apply. This may mean that a high-profile hit song, which could be licensed for only a small number of broadcasts, would need to be replaced with a different song for the DVD version.

7. There is no excuse for not captioning music performed by characters on screen. As captioners, we are meant to provide information that a hearing viewer would have access to and that a non-hearing viewer would miss. This includes music! That’s what we’re here for.

Do you have more captioning and subtitling questions? Get in touch with us!

June Recipe: Watermelon, Cucumber & Mint Salad

Photo by Eric Petruno by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photo by Eric Petruno

One of our favourite summer combos: watermelon and cucumber and mint. This can be a refreshing drink if you throw the ingredients in the blender (with some ice and water or your favourite liquid)! Or add a few more ingredients and it can be a salad:

1/4 watermelon, chunked
1/2 cucumber, chunked
Lime juice or your favourite vinegar
Olive oil
Dash of salt
Mint leaves, crushes and ripped

Toss all ingredients together. And if you’re feeling like it add feta, pumpkin seeds or pistachios. Enjoy!