I’m not talking about synthesized music here, well not exclusively anyway. Many composers, at least those with some training or long experience, start with small musical nuggets with which they construct and realise their final vision. These can be motifs, melodies, chord sequences or even rhythms. In my own musical thinking I view these granular components as a form of musical modularisation because it helps to inform the way in which musical elements are used and how they relate to each other; they’re like bricks in a building. Of course putting all these constituents together to create a musical ‘story’ and take the listener on a journey takes skills and experience. Media composers have an additional challenge which is to strike the right mood and to resonate with what the director is striving for in the scene. The media composer’s master is certainly the director but perhaps as importantly the film, game, tv show or video itself.
Good composition tends to constantly refer back to itself as it progresses. This can be verse, chorus, verse, etc., as in a pop song. In classical music themes and variations thread themselves through a piece, often transformed in some way but recognisable nonetheless. This is all necessary to keep the listener tuned in and interested; they know they’re on a journey. If the sections that make up a piece are too disparate or different or make no reference to what has come before then the composer runs the risks or losing engagement with the listener.
My first memory of music being used to help tell a story was in Prokofiev’s Peter and The Wolf. Each character has their own theme which not only musically defines who they but invokes the ‘right’ feeling in the listener, e.g. the ‘bad’ wolf, the ‘comedic duck’, the ‘bold’ hunters, etc. So Prokofiev’s score was modularised in a sense and glued together with the artistry of his composition and the orchestral sound palette he used. Media composers use the same technique. Sometimes leading the mood of the scene, sometimes trailing it, sometimes just underpinning, sometimes taking centre stage. Always of course supporting what’s on screen. More often than not making unapologetic reference to what has gone before. Perhaps a snippet of a melody, altered in some way, major to minor, to adjust the mood. Sometimes the back referral looks to an earlier film, think of the Star Wars or Jurassic Park franchises.
The layering of the sonic pallet is also an example of modularisation in action. A full score with everything running at full tilt will sound big and assured, whatever the emotion that the composer is trying to invoke. Take away some of the bombast, change the instrumentation to something more intimate, slow the tempo a bit and you’ve got something with an altogether different feel. Same music but different treatment and different end result. Subconsciously the listener remains engaged with the musical and sonic world that has been created. They’ve heard it before, in a different context perhaps, but it’s lodged in their memory and it helps them remain immersed in the story. This is not about playing it safe, film music needs often to radically change mood and feel within a single beat. What it is about is supporting the world that the film maker has created. Step too far away from that world and it will probably jar horribly with the audience. By modularising the musical elements we start with we can at least give ourselves something of a foundation for creating a musical world that is easier to compose to, feels cohesive and has integrity.
To be honest I’m relatively new to the world of scoring music to picture. However, through my studies, real world engagements and discussions with film makers and composers there are a few key tenets which I try to make sure that I stay true to. I list them below and they’re sort of in order of most important first.
The music must always ‘ALWAYS’ support what’s going on ‘on screen’
Directors of films, TV series, corporate videos, whatever the genre, usually have a clear vision of what they’re trying to achieve. They at least have a message to impart and more often than not a story to tell. They’ll take their audience on a journey, scene by scene, moulding the dramatic and emotional landscape as they go. And of course, ultimately they are the boss! As the composer our job, just like the lighting guy or camera operator, is to help make that story as true to the director’s vision as possible. Sometimes this will require soaring themes, sometimes the merest hint of a musical undertone and sometimes no music at all of course. Where music is used is must enhance the mood and emotion of the scene and generally speaking should not pre-empt the action still to come, but hold that thought.
Pace and space
Music cues must not only support what’s happening on screen at that precise moment. It must be in sync with the emotional and dramatic arc of the scene. This can take a bit of planning and thinking about tone colours, rhythmic structure and matching the changing energy levels. In general, as stated above, it should not pre-empt what’s to come as that quite often does not support what the director is trying to achieve. However, sometimes the music is there to set the mood for the next scene, or maybe the audience already knows something that the protagonists do not. The music in this case can be in cahoots with the audience. Horror and Sci Fi make extensive use of this technique and one of my favourite music cues is in Alien where, at the beginning of the film, Jerry Goldsmith creates that wonderfully unsettling ‘Oh we know something terrible is going to happen!’ feeling with the simplest of motifs using staccato flute. Inspired and quite different from the music, almost bombastic at times, that he creates for the rest of the film.
Mozart supposedly said ‘music is not in the notes but in the silence between’. Never more true than in media music. The music must breathe in and of itself and it must give space and support to the scene, particularly where there is dialogue which the director wants underscored, in which case less is usually more.
There’s only room for one ego and that’s the director’s
Like any creative type composers can be very protective of their work. They may have sweated blood scoring a scene and have an almost parental pride over their creation. Sadly the director thinks it’s all a bit ‘meh’! Nothing for it but to go round again trying to understand what the director felt didn’t work and, as importantly, what did work. Sometimes the subtlest of changes can rescue a music cue. Many aspiring media composers, and I include myself in that group, often produce music that is too busy, too concerned with itself as a piece of art, intruding rather than supporting the moving image. For example underscoring dialogue can be quite tricky and I’ve seen countless examples of, not just rookie, composers stamping all over the dialogue with over loud, over busy music. In short the composer cannot afford to be overly protective about what they’ve written. If it ain’t working for the director then it’s time to think again. But the composer should never, ever throw away what they’ve written. Sometimes the ‘Can we hear again that piece you had last week?’ conversation will happen.
Do something new and original!
Media composers are torn between regurgitating something scarily similar to what the director already has in mind, the infamous ‘temp track’ and creating something new and original. New and original is often hard to come by but it’s sort of essential not to fall into the morass of ‘fake’ orchestral scores that are great but which everyone aspiring composer seems to produce. For myself I tend to fall back on my classical training in guitar and to some extent piano and think back to how the composers who inspired me created mood, pace and space.
My view is that compositionally and sonically it’s important to try and stand out as much as you can. With modern sample libraries it’s relatively easy to sound like an orchestra if you spend some time studying how the different parts and instruments work together. I’m not saying orchestral composition or arranging is easy but technology has made it easier than it was. I like to use real instruments and occasionally analog synths alongside all those wonderful sample libraries. Where I can I use professional musicians to add that extra sonic dimension and authenticity. For myself I feel that I am on the way to having my own palette of sounds and compositional underpinnings which give me a voice. Whether that voice is sufficiently unique is for others to say.