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.