Composing for Film, Part 2: Tips and Tricks for New Composers

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What is childhood? Now hum it. Most people wouldn’t know where to start, perhaps their mind would flicker to memories of nighttime lullabies or morning cartoons, but this is the kind of challenge film composers face daily. Logically, a good starting point would be a rudimentary happy or sad, then build from there. Happy is generally more upbeat, lighter instruments like guitar or piano, while sad is usually slower, deep-sounding instruments like the cello.

But what does nostalgia sound like? Most things in life are not binary, happy or sad, funny or serious. There are a mix and combinations of references, thoughts, and emotions. Being able to mimic this within film, or any artistic medium, is where life meets art and art is indecipherable from life. Tapping into this concept and layering it into a film is the most incredible synergistic combination.

Composing music to fit stories, emotions, and moments on screen is a challenge regardless of experience. Finding inspiration and cultivating a creative process will most likely be an ongoing struggle. If you’re new to composing, it can be daunting, and you might not know where to begin.

While all composers have a different creative process or approach, this series of articles outlines a couple of basics to build from. Starting a music journal, plugin sourcing, smart questions to ask the director, and even using existing songs as a foundation are some great first steps to help get you started down the path of establishing your own creative process.

Music Journaling

Music is usually defined as a combination of sounds to create something harmonious and beautiful, but within the film, a composer needs to think beyond beauty. Films are usually an expression of humanity and reality, and beauty is not the only facet of either. A composer needs to be able to create dissonant sounds, ugly sounds, weird sounds, sounds that reflect the reality of the film. So having an open mind about what music is, is an excellent mental step.

The next mental step is writing musical ideas daily in your DAW, like journaling. Similar to a writer, one common piece of advice is to write daily or as often as possible. You can free play, give yourself assignments or challenges, cannibalize previous ideas, or just play Chopsticks with an interesting plug-in. All this does is create reference maps to plugins and melodies in your mind. While you can record live and write music by hand, using a DAW allows immediate access to different plugins and effects.

  • Create a designated project file for ideas.
  • Mark and date where you begin a new entry within your DAW.
  • Nothing is wrong! Capture chords, melodies, promising plugins, cool effects.
  • Try to associate an emotion or intent to what you’ve written; this can be used as a quick reference for the director.
     

Writing daily creates a work mentality, and whether the idea is complete or not—and usually it’s not—capturing fragments, patterns, discovered sounds, favorite plug-ins, interesting effects, and more is incredibly helpful. Those fragments of ideas can then be added to or subtracted to other music ideas, patterns can be multiplied, notes tweaked, etc., to create a complete idea. And a complete idea in scoring does not always equate to a complete song like on the radio; a complete idea can be an expression of an emotion, auditory background, a catalyst, transitions or punctuation for the film. With music journaling, you are essentially building a collection of music ideas, so when the director shows you their first cut you won’t be starting with a blank music sheet. Instead, you’ll be able to open up your DAW and draw inspiration from the assortment of musical notions captured over time. Maybe, you’ll even watch a film, look at the director, and say, “I already have the perfect song for this.”

Plugin Sourcing and Questions for the Director

Creating a theme or auditory representation of moods and characters is a challenge. Everyone differs in values, thoughts, and philosophies, so the music associated with the corresponding thoughts and feelings will differ as well. But having a common language to describe what you hear can be helpful, as often directors may not know what they want, or have difficulty describing it, a common problem with less experienced directors.

If possible, arrange a sit-down and try to establish common terms, understanding, and language around music and emotions. Certain instruments evoke certain feelings, and knowing the rules or the basics allows you to break them effectively to get the nuanced musical approach you want, so here are some tips when sitting down with a director.

  • Sample through plugins; play the same key every time (e.g., Middle C)
  • Play a simple melody or run through chord progressions in different key signatures to see if the director has a preference for major or minor, or if certain notes resonate with them.
  • For efficiency, you can save a template to your DAW with midi inputs of different key signatures and chord progressions. This way, you can easily swap out the plugins and play through. This automated approach provides the director with an equal comparison between the each of the different sounds.
  • If they choose a basic instrument and key signature, create a simple base by breaking up that chord with that plugin and loop it. Now you can start layering additional instruments over.
  • While going through the plugins, ask the director why they like or dislike a sound. You will start to see patterns in their answers and get a better feel for their preference on instruments, timbre, sound effects, etc. They may like echoing sounds, synthetic sounds, natural sounds, alien sounds, soft sounds. You are creating a reference library for your director.
  • You should be associating and agreeing on words for their likes and dislikes. Is this “romantic,” “dramatic,” “mysterious?” Is this sound too “aggressive,” “frilly,” “goofy?” And ask them what they mean by certain words, try to pick out why they associate that word or feeling with that sound. Maybe it’s something subtle, maybe it’s just that they don’t like trumpets.
  • Be sure to try to establish an understanding of the words used in the music summary chart. If they say they want it to be dramatic, sad, or action based, you should try to create music associations to those words during this session.
  • It’s also helpful if you have a sample of the film to drop in and let the director see how different sounds layer over the visuals. They may love violins, but realize guitars fit better.
     

Establishing the director’s preferences through this process doesn't mean you have to use only those plug-ins. Creating the melodies, the repeat patterns, the themes, choosing which instruments to layer, how to layer, etc., will all be up to you as the composer. The director will then have to respond with notes and suggestions.

Build from an Existing Foundation

When first starting out, another great exercise to help get accustomed to melodies and arrangements is to recreate an existing song. This not only helps you sound out melodies, but helps you source sounds more quickly, and forces the exploration of different effects. Emulation is a great tool to familiarize yourself with the creation process, and there are tons of YouTube videos of musicians walking through this exact process. Following along is a great way to learn about workflow, and it can also be a way for you to learn from your mistakes. Mistakes can provide an opportunity to explore a different angle or approach.

Now, another side of this is to take an existing song and use it as a foundation for something new, keeping in mind the distinct difference between taking inspiration from a song and simply plagiarizing. Even the masters walk the fine line between emulation and reproduction. For example, Inception’s score was heavily inspired by Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” Hans Zimmer took pieces and played with tempo and timing. Or, as he explained in Arts Beat, “All the music in the score is subdivisions and multiplications of the tempo of the Edith Piaf track. So I could slip into half-time; I could slip into a third of a time. Anything could go anywhere. At any moment I could drop into a different level of time.”

Other techniques you can use to experiment with an existing song:

  • Change the key. Changing keys is a great way to keep the continuity of a theme throughout the film while making the song different and adding auditory interest.
  • Eliminate or add notes to an existing melody. Having an incomplete melody can be effective, too. It creates a sense of anticipation for the audience.
  • Shuffle different parts of the song around to find a new combination. Not all parts of a song are interchangeable, but finding different ways to combine and use motifs is a great way of exploring a song.
  • Layer two or more different melodies to create something different. Blending bits and pieces of multiple songs is a great exercise that can be applied to melodies captured in your music journals.
  • Change tempo. Tempo can impact energy levels and be a great way to experience the song in a different way.

Dreaded Temp Scores

Why is all of this important? A very common practice for directors and editors is to use temp or placement music when editing. They’ll take a song, oftentimes other film scores, and cut scenes to that music. This helps them establish timing and create a rhythm for the visuals. It can also be a reference on tone, intensity, and tempo for the composer. Yet, a common side-effect is the director becomes very attached to the temp score/music they can’t use. That attachment is every composer’s fear because it leads to the director asking them to essentially recreate an existing score. Now the composer has to negotiate between legal issues/copyright infringement and making the director happy with a score that can never be like what they really want: the original. This fairly common situation calls for the culmination of all of those new techniques. Having excellent communication, completing a plugin sourcing with the director, and being able to reinvent an existing song can crescendo into a successful score that makes your director happy.

Now armed with some techniques for jump-starting musical inspiration and walking your director through auditory options, we can expand into our next piece about creating theme songs and building powerful connections between the audience and the story.

If you are looking to learn more about composing for film, be sure to check out Part 1, for tips on what to do before you score.

Rosie Record is a film and media composer in NYC who breathes emotions into films, web series, and other mixed media with her unique take on scores. She's known for creating stunning, epic and emotional music to accompany any experience captured on screen. To hear and see more of her work, please visit her website at https://www.rcrecordmusic.com/.

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