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How to Score Comedy

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This post is part of a series called Songwriting & Composing: From Inspiration to Execution.
11 Ways to Find Immediate Inspiration for Your Next Composition
Beginner's Introduction to Composing on the Computer - Hardware

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.

One of the basic principles of comedy is the element of surprise. Not necessarily in a "villain jumps out from behind the bushes" kind of way, but more often in an "I did not see that coming" way.

The unexpected is what makes the rule of three such a classic technique in telling jokes. Establish a pattern by listing two related things that are expected, and then you hit the audience with the unexpected on the third item.

"What does a guitar player ask when showing up for a gig?
1. Where do I plug in?
2. What do I play?
3. Can I run a tab?"

In this article we'll look at how both the unexpected (surprise) and expected (cliche) can be used for different effect.

Disclaimer:
All of the examples are taken from my scores to episodes of the narrative series "The FlipSide" from SoulPancake's YouTube channel. I am in no way implying that my scores are the best examples out there of comedy scoring. However I do want to demonstrate the principles being used in real films, and I'm able to explain the actual thinking that lies behind these scores.

1. Establish Contrast

At the height of the unexpected is contrast. Pitting two extremely different ideas against each other can make people laugh, or at the very least bring to their attention that something special is happening.

In the opening to "Lottery", there is a drastic contrast between the score and what we actually see on screen.


At 0:16, after realizing he has the winning lottery ticket, the man on the couch sits in completely stunned silence without even blinking. If you scored this based only on what you saw, you'd have near silence or something with barely any movement.

Instead what we have is big loud drums and a fast jazzy rhythm, which fits much more with the excitement most people might be feeling after winning the lottery!

The comedy comes from the contrast between the shocked motionless man and the fun music.


2. Take Advantage of Cliches

There are probably thousands of cliches in film scoring, and the Comedy genre is not in short supply. From "wah wah" trombones to slide whistles, some ideas have been used over and over and over to the point of being trite.

One of the useful things about cliches, however, is that they can act as a shortcut to communicate to your listener, "Hey, this is supposed to be funny". By using a sound or phrase that the audience has been conditioned to associate with comedy, you can establish the scene within seconds.

Plucky pizzicato strings are one of the oldest tricks in the Comedy book, but they are also a very effective way to the audience what to expect. In the opening scene to "Pre-Date" the pizz strings instantly let the audience know, "this is going to be fun, lighthearted, and you're supposed to have a good time."

It's important to keep in mind that every cliche exists for a reason. In most cases it's because the idea inherently works. A xylophone running up the scale as the cat runs up the stairs fits!

Many young composers shy away from cliches because they want to constantly be fresh and original. This is admirable, but I advise you to not throw away cliches completely. Instead learn from them, figure out what about the cliche is having the desired effect and then see how you can retain the essential character but breathe new life into it.


3. Take Charge of the Mood

A major part of your job as a composer is to tell the audience what to feel, not to tell them what they can already see for themselves on the screen.

In the case of comedy, that means you are responsible for letting the audience know if the mood is fun, exciting, light-hearted, etc.

The opening shot of "First Date" shows the line "Date One" and then slowly pans through a woman's apartment to the door. Musically there are a lot of directions you could go. Dark and brooding strings might suggest that there's a serial killer at the door. A gentle and romantic love song would set the stage for a sweet encounter.

But what the director was looking for here was something upbeat, fun and poppy with a just a hint of throwback to the 1950s.

The mood was created with a fast tempo; an instrument palette that includes pizzicato strings, electric piano, glockenspiel and light drums; simple triadic harmony in a major key; and a bouncy rhythm.

Already within the first 10 seconds we know that the story is sweet and that the couple is happy to see each other, if perhaps just a little nervously excited about their first date.


4. Go Big or Go Home

Subtlety has its place, but many times being over-the-top is what makes something stand out. "Medium" is every day ho-hum, but "loud" is exciting and different!

Part of what makes comedy scoring so fun is that you're free to be big and audacious. Scoring for drama or tension often require a restrained touch, but in comedy you can be outrageous and it's perfectly acceptable.

At 1:46 in "Horrible Job Interview", the score goes way over the top as Jenny realized the man she yelled at earlier is her interviewer.

If this was a serious film the big dramatic swell would be in poor taste, but because it's a comedy we can get away with really hammering home the absurdity of the situation.


5. Use Uncommon Colors

We already discussed how the unexpected is an important idea when making something feel out of place and funny.

A reliable technique in writing comedy music is to use unusual instruments, which includes common instruments that you just don't hear very often, instruments common to one style being used in another (a polka band with an orchestra), or even highly unusual instruments like traditional Mongolian flutes.

To add a fun and tongue-in-cheek mood to "Siri Chicago Tour", I featured harpsichord, which is in particular starting to take the focus at 0:54. Harpsichord is an instrument not usually associated with the jazzy style, so it stands out here as a fresh color.


6. Use Unique Scales and Chords

The idea of using the unexpected can be applied to melodies and harmonies as well. Everybody knows the boring old major scale, if you want to add some unique character to your piece you should expand your harmonic vocabulary and use pitches and chords beyond the basic major.

Personally I am a big fan of using the Mixolydian mode in comedy. You get the happy feeling of the major third but the b7 instead of maj7 takes the edge off a little bit and makes it a bit smoother. Mixolydian can have a slightly bluesy feel to it, even in a non-blues style.

Both the openings scenes to "Time Travel App" and "College: What Do We Do Now?" take advantage of the Mixolydian mode to keep the mood happy but not overly saccharine, the mellower feel in big part thanks to the b7.


Conclusion

Beyond these ideas there are many more aspects of comedy scoring that can be discussed in the future, including the importance timing, suspense and the incredible useful silence.

What are some comedy scoring techniques that you've picked up? Any favorite comedy scores?

Share with us in the comments your tips for writing great comedy music, and don't be shy about sharing examples of your work as well!

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