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Music

An Introduction to Film Scoring

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This tutorial is for people who are relatively new to the world of Film Scoring. Whether you've never scored a scene but have been considering learning more about it, or even if you've done a little bit of scoring on your own and want to explore getting into the field, this tutorial will introduce you to the basic ideas and concepts you'll need to begin writing music for film.

I'll introduce some basic terminology that you'll need to know and discuss some early considerations to make about when and why to use music. I'll also touch on a few points about choosing the right gear to get started.


What is Film Scoring?

Simply put, film scoring is the art and craft or writing music in sync to visuals. This means writing music not just for "films" in the context of feature length movies of short films, but also TV shows, commercials, industrial/corporate videos, and any other medium you can think of where music serves a supporting role to a visual element.

Film scoring is a very rewarding field for a musician, both artistically and financially. Creatively it has all of the rewards of full engagement and fun that comes with writing music with the added benefit that your music has an outlet to actually be heard and enjoyed by others. Financially it is one of the few surviving areas where a composer of instrumental music can still expect to make a living. There are millions of projects every year in need of original music, and although it is an extremely difficult and competitive field to break into it can be very rewarding for those who put in the right amount of effort (with an added touch of good fortune).

I will not go into the entire history of film scoring in this article. If you intend to be a film composer, it is absolutely crucial that you understand both the working methods and also the stylistic choices of your predecessors. Only by knowing how it was done in the past can you forge ahead into the future. For an in depth history of film scoring I encourage you to check out the Complete Guide to Film Scoring by Richard Davis. Richard was a professor of mine at Berklee and his book serves as the textbook for Berklee's Film Scoring major.


Basic Terminology

Here is a non-comprehensive list of some of the Film Scoring related terms you will be running into:

  • Cue - either an individual piece of music, or a specific moment that the music needs to hit (see hit point).
  • Cue sheet - a list of every piece of music used in a project, including the Performing Rights and Publishing information for each composer and lyricist involved.
  • Framerate - The number of frames per second (fps) in a video. Different regions and projects have different standards (see PAL and NTSC).
  • Hit point - a specific moment, such as a cut or a line of dialogue, that the music acknowledges.
  • Library music - music not specifically written for the film but licensed as a complete track and then cut to picture.
  • Music editor - person responsible for keeping the music in sync with the picture. Acts as a liaison between the composer and the post production team and deals with technical issues like framerates, spotting notes, cue sheets, etc.
  • NTSC - the US standard framerate, 29.97fps.
  • Orchestrator - person who takes a composers sketches of a cue and fills it out for a full ensemble. Also sometimes called an Arranger but that can have different connotations.
  • PAL - the European standard framerate, 25fps.
  • PRO - Performing Rights Organization, such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, responsible for tracking performances of a composer's music and paying out royalties.
  • SMPTE (simp-tee) - Timecode measured in hours, minutes, seconds, frames. Used to make sure everyone is in sync and talking about the same frame.
  • Source music - music that is coming from a source on screen, such as performing musicians or a radio
  • Spotting - the process of deciding when and why to use music
  • Spotting notes - a list of every cue in the film and where it starts and ends. Usually includes notes about style or intent.
  • Temp music - Music synced to picture before the composer writes original material, usually to serve as a guide. Controversial.
  • Theme - a recurring melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic motif that accompanies a character or concept. Also called a leitmotif
  • Underscore - music used in the film that is not coming from a specific source but is added as an extra layer. Most scoring fits this category.

The Music

Obviously the most important aspect in film scoring is the music itself. You can own the greatest gear on the market and still be unsuccessful if your music doesn't hold up.

Unfortunately many young filmmakers don't appreciate the value of music and how it contributes to their film. If you think about the fact that when you watch a movie you are both seeing and listening, then you'll realize that the audio makes up for 50% of your experience. This means that the music is not only important but actually a crucial element in any film.


Why Use Music

Music can serve many purposes in a film, and often the uses overlap. Some reasons you might use music in a certain part of the film:

  • To establish a setting of time and/or place, such as Mozart style classical music for 18th century France or middle eastern instruments with an electronica beat for contemporary Iraq.
  • As a blending tool to smooth things out, for example as a transition from one scene into another. This transitions often help with the illusion of the passage of time or setting.
  • To tell us something about the characters, such as an evil Darth Vader type theme or even a Taylor Swift song in the background of teenage girl's room.
  • To keep up the pace. If a scene is slow and dragging, the music can be used to keep things moving and add interest in the dead spaces.
  • And finally and perhaps most importantly, to affect the way the audience feels about what's happening on screen.

I'll discuss this idea further with the Spotting section below.


Stylistic Choices

A score is most effective when it adheres to a rough set of stylistic "rules". When you create a score you are creating a musical landscape, and so you must be careful to keep everything together in the same world. If you have been using acoustic guitar and strings for the entire score, you can't just throw in a tuba halfway through because you feel like it. The tuba would feel like a foreign element, and unless it serves a specific dramatic purpose (perhaps a new character entered the film?), it will betray the established world of the film.

There are obviously countless exceptions, but it is usually best to establish for yourself a palette of instruments that you'll be using as well as any melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, etc. styles you'll be using. If you're using all seventh chords and jazz harmonies it would probably disrupt the flow of the score if you all of a sudden started writing atonally. This is not a call to make every cue sound the same, but simply to keep everything cohesive and sounding like it belongs together.


Picture


Picture is King

The most important thing to remember in film scoring is that "Picture is King". It doesn't matter how brilliant your composition is, if it doesn't support what's happening on screen it isn't good. The needs of the drama come first, the needs of your creative ego come second.

One of the more difficult parts of the job can be a director telling you they don't like a cue that you just labored on for days. You poured your heart and soul into this music, how could they possibly not love it? The director doesn't care about your clever counterpoint or the way you modulated using an Augmented 6th chord or anything like that. The director cares if the music is supporting the drama.

You have to learn to develop a tough skin and understand that the director is not criticizing your worth as a composer, only the way they feel the music is interacting with their film.


Spotting

Spotting is the process of deciding when and how to use music. Typically a composer and director will meet for a "spotting session" in which they will watch through the entire film and discuss their ideas about how music can serve the movie.

Spotting sessions can last a few hours or even a few days, depending on the level of detail to be discussed. Some directors like to give a few general comments but leave the creative ideas in the hands of the composer. Others will come to a spotting session with very specific ideas about what they want the music to do and sometimes be as specific as which instruments they want at certain times. It all depends on the style and personality of the director, but usually you can expect it to take a few hours and to mainly only discuss the general points.

Besides discussing when to use music, it's also important to have a conversation about why you're using music. Is the performance from the actors a bit lacking? Do you need to help establish the setting in the audience's mind? Perhaps a scene needs to be funnier or more serious. These are among the kinds of things you want to talk about with the director when spotting the film.

It's also important to figure out the "perspective" of the score. Because music is so intangible, it often connects with us on a more psychological and emotional level than anything else. It's important to establish guidelines for what the music represents in the film. Do you want to always stay in the audience's perspective, never giving anything away until we see it for ourselves? Or maybe you want to take a specific point of view, such as that of the hero, and the music will always reflect the reactions and feelings from that angle. Establishing a basic understanding of what perspective the music is taking early on will help you solve many scoring issues down the road.

Unless the music is serving a useful purpose, it probably doesn't need to be there. An important rule of thumb to keep in mind is the more music you have in a film, the less impact it will have. Wall to wall music is very ineffective because eventually our ears grow very tired of having to keep up with music, even if we aren't completely aware of it. The tendency becomes to ignore it. If you want your music to have impact, you need to be conservative about when to put it into use.


Hit Points

To hit or not to hit?

As you begin to study film scoring one of the best things you can do is study great scores in the context of the film. Listening to a soundtrack might help you learn about orchestration and melody, but only by watching a great score in context will you really begin to develop a sense for how the music reacts to and influences the drama.

Choose one of your favorite films and scores and study it with a notepad in hand. You might not think that you need to write your thoughts down, but by forcing yourself to do so you will actually be paying even more attention and learning more. Watch the same scenes several times in a row to make sure you aren't missing anything.

From a hit points perspective, there are three things to pay attention to for every piece of music in a film:

  1. How does the cue start? Is it a big sudden percussive hit that then spirals the cue into action, or do the strings softly fade in from out of nowhere before you even realize they are there? Also pay attention to what prompts the music to come in. Perhaps there is a significant line of dialogue that changes the dynamic of the conversation, or maybe it is more practical like a cut to a new scene.
  2. What does the music hit during the cue? There are both minor hits and major hits. A minor hit might be a chord change on a cut while the rest of the music continues on as it has, while a major change could be an entirely new tempo or feel. Not only is it important to notice when the music changes, but also pay attention to when the music doesn't change. How does that affect the continuity of the scene? Young composers have a tendency to "hit everything", so it's important that you notice how the music can actually be more supportive of the film when it does not do that.
  3. How does the cue end? Is it a sudden hit or a fade out? Much like the questions about the music coming in, what prompted the cue to end?

You will develop a sense for good spotting with the more films you score. By combining a study of the masters with your own experiences soon you'll find questions of in and out as well as what hit points to acknowledge become second nature.


Technology

"Never let your wife prevent you from buying equipment. A house will not buy a synthesizer, but a synthesizer can buy a house." - Hans Zimmer

Audiotuts is a fantastic resource for learning about music technology. Here I will just mention a few simple points to consider when starting out from a film scoring perspective.


Hardware

A common question people ask when first starting out is "What kind of computer should I buy?". Unfortunately the right answer is the ambiguous "The best that you can afford."

The faster and more powerful your computer, the faster you'll be able to work. You can still write amazing music with a low end computer, it will just take more time because your computer will crash more often, samples will take longer to load, you might need to freeze tracks when your processor can't keep up, etc.

The two requirements that have worked best for me are:

  1. Can my current computer handle the music I'm writing?

    If you're scoring commercials in an electronica style, or doing a film score that is piano and a few strings, chances are an older computer can handle a few tracks at a time. But if you're taking on a massive orchestral score with guitars, synth, drums and the kitchen sink, you're going to need a powerful machine.
  2. Can I afford it?

    Just because you "need" a better computer doesn't mean it's the right decision to run out and buy one. Conversely, if you have the cash lying around but your current computer is serving you well, keep the computer and upgrade your samples or software instead.

The exception to this might be the situation I ran into with my most recent upgrade, in which my computer was falling into such disarray that it looked likely that the thing could die before I was finished with my current job. In that case I couldn't afford to NOT upgrade to a more reliable computer!


Software

The most important part of choosing a DAW is to make sure that it's easy to sync your music to video. Logic, Digital Performer, Cubase and Pro Tools are all industry standards for film scoring and you should probably choose one of those as opposed to some of the less common alternatives. Pro Tools is ideally made for engineers and people primarily working with audio, so if you intend to write a lot of MIDI you will probably be better served with one of the other three.

In my experience it is less important which DAW you choose and more important that you just choose one and become an expert. They are all just different tools to get the same job done. I've found that most composers in LA are using Logic or Cubase, but Digital Performer has a strong user base as well. Choose one and then be prepared to learn it completely inside and out. Film scoring is a very deadline heavy field and the last thing you want is to spend 4 hours cutting and splicing audio only to find that your DAW has a function like "Strip Silence" that will do the job for you instantly.

Know your tools!


Samples

There are more sample libraries than I could ever even mention. The important thing to know about them is that different libraries have different strengths. The best advice I can give is to start with your DAW's factory samples and expand from there as your budget permits.

When deciding which instrument section to upgrade you should consider what your current weakest section is and also what you use the most.

If your orchestral instruments are OK but you don't have a good piano sound, it's probably time to put piano at the top of your list. But if you actually use big epic drum samples on 90% of your music, it may be worth your money to keep investing in the best drum libraries available.

The important thing is that your music sounds good. If your flute sample sounds fake and cheesy, don't use it! Be careful that you do not fool yourself into thinking it is passable unless it truly is. Nothing will kill a great piece of music more quickly than a bad performance, and that's exactly what a sterile and fake sounding MIDI mockup is.


Conclusion

This is a simply an introduction to the world of Film Scoring. Every one of these topics deserves a much more in depth discussion and if you are serious about becoming a film composer you will need to devote a lot of time and energy to every aspect of the field. If you are knew to the world of writing music to picture, this tutorial should serve as a guide to lead you in.

Now that you've got the basics under your belt, what aspects of film scoring do you want to learn more about? Keep the conversation going by e-mailing me and let me know what you want to learn.

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