The Process of Score Composition, Part 3


This tutorial is the third in a series of tutorials on composition - specifically composition that might be appropriate for film, television, etc. The 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.

In our first tutorial, we talked about establishing the foundation for your score, finding your current target, beginning steps, and a few tools that can help with the drafting or sketch process such as multiple-takes. In our second tutorial, we looked at the early phases of composition - finding arcs, choosing moments, and using markers to assist in composition. In this tutorial, we'll use the techniques of addition, contrast, and pacing to establish our first draft score for a scene.

A Look Inside The Process

For the purposes of this tutorial, I have used a clip from the open-source movie project, Valkaama.Valkaama is licensed under the Creative Commons by-sa terms. Please be aware that any further use of this film or any of its constituent parts must follow the Creative Commons terms listed above, and the resulting work must also be made available under the same licensing terms.

For this tutorial, I'm going to give you a glimpse inside the process I used to score the last scene of the film.

Step 1: Bring The Clip Into Your DAW

This may seem an obvious step, but I'm trying to give you functional tools as well as some theory and suggestion. Almost all major DAWs now allow you to import a movie file and view it alongside your editing and arranging windows. In Logic, this process is fairly simple:

  • Go to the Options > Movie menu and select 'Open Movie'

From here you have several options — you can view the movie in a small window in the upper left corner in the Inspector Pane, or by double-clicking that same window the movie will expand to its own floating window.

Movie Window in the Inspector Pane

You can also add a Video Track to your Global Tracks section in the Arrange Window by right-clicking on the Global Tracks section and selecting 'Configure Global Tracks...'.

Global Tracks Configuration

Step 2: Pre-Production

In this step, I've essentially worked through parts 1 and 2 of this tutorial using this movie clip as the basis. My working concepts are listed below:

Foundation: I've chosen Piano and Duduk for my primary instruments. The remainder of the sound palette is made up of various pads, accent percussion, and some electric guitar textures.

Arcs: Since this particular scene is relatively short, and lacking in context (i.e. the rest of the film), the Arcs I've identified in this scene are broken out in the marker list below. They are fairly self-explanatory.

Marker List Denoting Arcs

Moments: I've chosen three moments that I feel carry the emotion of the scene. I need the underscore to enhance and embellish those moments. These three moments are highlighted in the marker list above with three stars (***).

This scene clearly contains a range of emotion and expression - sorrow, solemnity, hope, change. These are all powerful images and feelings you can use to change the energy and intention of your score.

Flickr photo by James C. Mattison

Step 3 - The Process of Addition

With our foundation laid, our ideas and concepts steeped in the world of the scene, and our arcs identified, it is finally time to begin the process of Addition. It seems a simple task - to flesh out the theme(s) you've identified and laid down for the scene, to arrange your orchestration or instrumentation, and to begin adding form to the bare structure you've crafted thus far. The process of addition can be an easy one, provided your preparation and pre-production has all gone according to plan.

During this phase, your work should focus on supporting and embellishing the foundation you've laid - supporting your thematic ideas through your choice of instrumentation and arrangement, interweaving your themes with the audio already existing in the film (if any), and ensuring that the work you're doing continues to support and enhance the scene and film as a whole.

Step 4 - Explore Contrast, Play With Pacing

During the process of addition, allow yourself the creative freedom to explore contrast and play with pacing. While some arcs or moments may call for a very specific emotion, you may find that a musical contrast actually enhances the power of the moment. The ascending chords I've used in this particular scene give a sense of hope in what could be a very dark and somber scene.

Likewise, allow yourself to play with pacing. Again - the scene may dictate certain music moments and rhythms, however, you may find that increasing tempo, holding notes, or drawing out periods of silence help to accentuate the underscore. We'll explore this concept a bit more in Part 4.

Flickr photo by neilio

Step 6 - Be Patient With Yourself

As with any work of art, even the best laid plans can never account for the twists and turns of the creative process. Every composer is faced with challenges during every stage of the composition process, and rarely does The Muse respond well to force! Instead, be patient with yourself (within the boundaries of your deadlines, of course!). Trust your instincts and don't be afraid to step away from the studio for a few moments to get some perspective, rest your ears, and refresh your creative energies in whatever way works for you - a cool beverage, a walk around the block, or a few minutes of meditation. Do whatever it takes to stay alert, focused and relaxed!

This advice becomes increasingly important as you move into the addition phase. Chances are, you're now facing deadlines, and working long hours to get things sounding 'just right'. The important thing to remember when working with creative troubles, deadlines, and unforeseen challenges is to keep at it! Relaxed persistence is the surest way to break through your personal barriers.

Step 7 - Add Until There Are No More Answers

Renowned visual artist Alex Ross, best known for his Rockwellian superhero artwork, was asked how he knows when a piece of art is done. His reply:

"I never know...At some point you reach a fatigue level - and I by that I don't mean physically, I mean aesthetically - when I don't see the answers anymore, when I don't know what else to do to it.

So, too, DaVinci said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned."

In a similar fashion, the composer's job is to know when the piece is finished to the point where it succeeds at underscoring the scene. During this process of addition, you will eventually reach a point where nothing else can be added without becoming a glaring distraction, no apparent holes or musical responses remain to the visual cues, and no acoustic space is unintentionally ignored. At this point you are ready to move into the final phase of composition...

The First Draft

The clips below contain my first draft of the score for this scene - an MP3 and a Quicktime Movie. There are, most definitely, some things I will be changing — but we will save revisions for next time. For our fourth and final installment, we will conclude with some ideas and techniques to polish the final draft!

Valkaama Score, Draft 1

First Draft of a Film Score in Valkaama Scene from AUDIOTUTS Video on Vimeo.

Valkaama - Final Scene Score Draft 1

To be continued...

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