The Process of Score Composition, Part 1


This tutorial marks the first in a series of tutorials on composition - specifically composition that might be appropriate for film and television. In this piece, we'll talk a bit about the philosophy behind this particular series of tutorials, and get into the process of composition itself.

The main point I'd like to get across before we dive in is that there are an infinite number of ways to compose, and an infinite number of ways to interpret what might be considered appropriate for a scene or film. Much of what we assume to be appropriate is simply cultural influence - consistent use of what has worked well in the past for a given film genre thus makes that style popular for that genre. There is no clear-cut right or wrong way to compose or score.

That said, many composers feel torn between by wanting to create something that is well received, but not wanting to fall prey to what is considered popular. As a result, they often find themselves frustrated when they're expected to (or are forced to) compose in a particular idiom. Even so, what sets a good composer apart from a great composer is this: A good composer is able to deliver a score that is appropriate for the medium and pleases those who need to be pleased. A great composer is someone who can do all of the above and still express his or her own unique voice through the music.

With this in mind, my intention with this series of tutorials is to walk you through the process of one of my compositions. It is intended to offer some new ideas and perspectives and hopefully give a bit of creative inspiration, but by no means should it be considered definitive - even for my own personal compositional process.

Flickr photo by Luchilu

Step 1 - Establish Your Foundation

I respect the man who knows distinctly what he wishes. The greater part of all mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

When working on a film, television episode, or game, the first step is always to establish your foundation. There are many aspects to this process, but some of the most critical points are as follows:

  • Establish the style or genre of your composition. This will usually be strongly influenced by the director, producers and others involved in the project. Occasionally, your musical approach is inextricably linked to the type of project you're on. For example, it may be inappropriate (to some ears) to have a heavy metal soundtrack for a Renaissance Romance film. In such cases, your musical direction will be more or less influenced by the project. Even so, when you are required to compose within a given idiom or genre, remember that you were chosen to work on the project for a specific reason, and remember that you got the gig because there is something unique about your own musical voice. Stay true to your voice as best you can, even when composing under strict guidelines!
  • Establish the sound palette to be used for your score. Once you have the basic musical approach, establish next the instruments that will comprise your palette. As above, this may also be linked with the musical approach (e.g. Renaissance music may want a harpsichord or small chamber ensemble), but it may be possible to stretch the genre a bit by incorporating non-traditional instruments and sounds here and there.
  • Establish the themes (if appropriate). Not all films call for a full Wagnerian approach to scoring, where each character or concept carries a specific theme. However, it may be appropriate to have some recognizable themes return over the course of your score. Talk with your collaborators to explore these possiblities.

Flickr photo by Eridony

Step 2: Find Your Current Target

Moving forward in the composing process, let us say that all of your foundational layers have been set. You've established the genre or musical style. You've selected the base pallette for your instrumental arrangements. At this part of my process it is now time to start making some music! There's no time like the present to get into the studio (or with your instrument of choice) and begin recording some ideas. Perhaps you have, by now, written a couple of scratch themes that might work for the project, or perhaps you just have the basics of the palette selected. In either case, now is the time to begin sowing the seeds of your score.

For me, this process is enjoyable and fruitful - provided I can stay focused. For me, this cycle of composing repeats itself over and over for the duration of the project, and the primary function of this cycle is to simply identify the current musical target. This may be something as simple as 'create a new scratch theme for Character X', 'recapitulate the main theme', or 'score scene 14 in its entirety'.

For the purposes of this tutorial, I'm going to create an imaginary target. Let's say that I need to score a scene wherein the main character is in deep reflection over a recently traumatic experience in his life. There may be some simple voiceover, and a montage of visuals to accompany this section - you know, the usual film montage stuff!

Part of establishing the current target is getting as specific as possible about what kind of final output is needed. The more clear you can get on this stage, the easier it is to stick to your schedule and to deliver a solid product at the end.

Flickr photo by David M*

Step 3: Begin

For me, one of the most difficult aspects of composing is simply doing it. The discipline required for composing should never be underestimated, and you must do everything you can to treat your composition time as sacred. Turn off the phone, close the door, disconnect your internet - whatever you have to do in order to truly focus and 'get in the zone'. This zone will be different for everyone - but it is critical that you find a system that works for you.

Once the time for composing has been set aside, you must simply begin. Start writing as much as possible - keeping all of your ideas as separate files or sheets or cues, whatever you need to get the energy moving and to move through the haze to find the jewel at the center.

From a purely practical perspective, there are a great number of tools at our disposal as composers that can aid us in the quick capturing of musical ideas. For some, a sheet of manuscript and a pencil is all that is required to begin expressing ideas. For others, time at the piano or guitar and perhaps a portable recorder. Still others, like myself, use software systems such as Logic Audio to take us through all phases of composition. In Step 4, I'll give one example of one tool that can be used to help us in throughout the composition process.

Flickr photo by Bunello

Step 4: Multiple Takes

One of my favorite tools for sketching out ideas in Logic 8 is the 'Takes Folder'. Essentially, this tool allows you to record multiple takes of a given line, and select among the best takes. Logic has special provisions for both audio and MIDI takes - so it can be useful for tracking live audio or using software instruments. For the purposes of this tutorial, I'm going to use MIDI Takes, since most of my initial sketches are done using a software instrument (usually a simple piano patch).

  • From the File Menu, select Project Settings -> Recording (or use the key command - option+*).
  • In the MIDI section, select 'Create Take Folders' for the 'Overlapping recordings:' field.

Setting MIDI Takes option.

Step 5: Recording Takes

Next, we'll set up the cycle record functionality of Logic by dragging along the Bar ruler at the top of the Arrange window. You should see the Bar turn green in the areas where you're now set to Cycle record. Additionally, the Cycle transport icon will turn green.

As you begin recording you'll notice that at the end of the cycle, the time slider loops back to the beginning of the cycle, creating a new take that is 'encapsulated' in a folder. Before 'unpacking' the folder, your track will look something like this:

Packed folder of MIDI Takes

By clicking on the small arrow in the top right-hand corner of a packed folder, you can select which take you wish to audition, rename a take, delete a take, or unpack the folder into individual tracks. There is a lot of flexibility here for capturing ideas for your next cue!

Unpacked folder of MIDI Takes

To Be Continued...

We've only scratched the surface of one possible compositional process. In our next tutorial, we'll dive more deeply into thematic development and arrangement!

Related Posts
  • Music & Audio
    Music Theory
    Writing for Orchestral InstrumentsOrchestralpreview
    Some composers still enjoy the amazing privilege of working with a live orchestra to record their work. Imagine having a 60-piece string orchestra just sitting in front of you, ready to play your latest composition. A full woodwind and brass section right there, waiting to do your bidding! So how do you create your musical ideas in such a way so that each part sounds perfectly tailor made and ‘just right’ for that instrument? Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Music Theory
    How and Why to Modulate to New KeysWriteathemepreview400
    In music, modulation is the process of changing from one key to another. If a piece of music starts out in the key of F major but then changes, either immediately or gradually, to they key of Bb major, we would say it modulates from F major to Bb major. A piece is considered to be in a "key" if the root of the key is the tonic, also called "home" or the "gravitational center".Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    How to Write a ThemeWriteathemepreview400
    Many composers and songwriters run into the same problems when they are just starting out. They are often very good at coming up with ideas and getting started, but then they don't know what to do next. In this tutorial I'll show you how to take an initial idea and develop it into a theme.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    How to Write Effective IntroductionsWritingintrospreview400
    The introduction is one of the most important parts of a song or composition. It's your moment to grab the listener's attention, make them want to hear more, and set them up for what's to come. Too often I've seen singer-songwriters begin every one of their songs by strumming out the chords from an entire verse, as if that's just what they're "supposed to do" without any thought to how boring that is to listen to. In this tutorial we'll examine introductions across a variety of styles, from pop to classical to film scores, and learn techniques for crafting introductions that do more than just take up time.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    How to Score ComedyScorecomedypreview400
    Every genre in film and TV has a scoring style to go with it. Horror fans have heard high screechy violins a thousand times and you'd be hard pressed to find an action film without at least one pounding drum rhythm. Comedy comes with it's own set of cliches and characteristics, and in this article I will explain a set of approaches you can use when scoring to help get the intention of the genre right.Read More…
  • Music & Audio
    Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - HardwareComposition on computer pt1 400
    I’ve been involved in audio production for well over 12 years, but just like everybody else I had to start somewhere. However, I didn’t have the benefit of having somebody show me everything there was to know for a beginner just starting out. Nor did I have the benefit of a rich content field Internet that I could use to teach myself. In this article I'll give you the helping hand I didn’t have when I was first starting out. I'll help you understand what lies before you, as you begin composing and producing music. I hope it will be a fun and enjoyable hobby and/or career.Read More…