An Introduction To Film Scoring

Posted by Aaron Davison on Thursday, August 2, 2012 Under: August 2012

Today’s post is a guest post from the Houston, TX based film composer Dave Merson-Hess.  Dave and I recently collaborated on a course all about film scoring which I’ll be releasing details about soon. Dave has been scoring films for over ten years and has scored a variety of short films, ads, games and the feature film “Presence”.  In his spare time, Dave also runs the fully digital net label, Reverse Engine. 

In this post, Dave provides a great introduction to the world of film scoring. As you’ll see, scoring films differs greatly from writing “artist music” or “production music”.  There’s still an opportunity to make money via performance royalties in some cases, but it depends on the project you’re scoring and where it’s used. 

Ok, with that introduction out of the way, take it away Dave…

When writing music for picture, it's useful to think of what you're doing as creating "functional music", or music that serves a specific function within a specific context, rather than what Aaron has in past blog posts referred to as "artist music", which exists as a unified expression of emotion in and of itself. Keep in mind that audiences will receive your score as one piece of a much larger puzzle that will include cinematography, editing, the actors' performances of the script, art direction, and the myriad elements that make up a completed feature (or short) film. As an introduction to film scoring, I'm going to talk about how to approach writing functional music in terms of structure, instrumentation and emotion.

1. Structure & Film Scoring

Film music is often vastly different structurally from artist music. Rather than using tried and true song forms, film music typically borrows its structure from the scene it is written to support. Film scores often respond directly to the ebb and flow of each scene. Unlike artist music and even production music which use repeated sections (verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, etc.), film music is structurally fluid. Unlike songs, which typically rely on repetition to catch a listener's ear, film music is often through-composed, meaning that each section introduces new musical material and no section ever repeats.

An especially action-heavy scene may require stop-on-a-dime musical changes that would never work in a pop song. As a result, film scores can sound strange out of context. When writing for action scenes, for example, it's useful to throw out any preconceived ideas about musical structure and think of the scene as a sentence and the music as its punctuation. Though musical sections may not always repeat within the same film cue, you may choose to write brief melodic themes that stand for different characters or emotions and use them as hooks that appear again and again throughout the score as a whole. ). Using thematic material to refer to other scenes that have already occured or even that have yet to occur in a film is a powerful tool to add to your arsenal, and the foundation of the Romantic film scores associated with Classical Hollywood Style.

2. Instrumentation & Film Scoring

When writing artist music, genre often determines instrumentation. A straight-ahead rock song will most likely use electric and or acoustic guitars, electric bass and drums. A typical reggae song written according to genre conventions might include electric guitar and organ or electric piano, a bass strung with flatwounds for a darker sound, drums and additional percussion. But when choosing orchestration for film music, simple genre conventions for ensembles of instruments are often thrown out the window and instruments are chosen on the basis of their emotional impact or even cultural associations with certain instruments and combinations of instruments.

When I scored Bryan Kramer's sci-fi short "Cosmonaut", which the director described to me as a space shipwreck film that is essentially a story about a blue collar guy in extraordinary circumstances, I latched onto "blue collar" and wrote some brief ideas that were very folky for a scene where the cosmonaut wonders about his wife and kids back home on Earth. I thought about mining families, and the lm Harlan County, USA and settled on Travis picking as a guitar style. But watching it back, it didn’t seem quite right. It didn’t really feel all that folky,  probably because of the ubiquitous nature of Travis picking in the post-Elliot Smith/Iron & Wine/Devendra indie landscape. My solution was to break down the idea of “folk music” into “simple music” played by a folk instrument. I decided to use dulcimer instead of acoustic guitar. Dulcimer is brighter and a little twangy, and I like the way the notes resonate.  It’s not as common as acoustic guitar, and that makes it striking.  It’s also hard to play anything very complicated (especially if, like me, you've never played a dulcimer before), which ts in perfectly with “simple music”. So my concept for the family theme became a piece with multiple dulcimers playing very simple gures on top of each other. In the final score, dulcimer, electric bass, cello, toy piano, backward vibraphone and prepared piano appear in the same cue. Reading back that list of instruments, I know I never would have come up with that combination if not for looking very closely at the film and making creative choices based on the story rather than musical genre (i.e. rock band, jazz combo, etc.).

Even the frequencies occupied by the existing dialog and sound effects in a specific scene may suggest instruments to use or avoid. For example, if you have a scene with a child actor with a particularly shrill voice, you may want to avoid using flutes or other instruments playing in the upper registers so as not to step on the frequencies occupied the actor's performance. Or if you have an emotionally charged scene between two gruff-voiced criminals speaking in hushed tones, you may want to avoid cello, bass and other instruments in the lower registers to keep that frequency range as empty as possible.

On the other hand, maybe the sound supervisor and director want you to have instruments playing in the low registers to reinforce an explosion or a director with a formally experimental approach may want you to write music that mimics, or even acts contrapuntally against the melodies of a group of birds chirping away at each other. The bottom line is that every creative choice you make music grow organically out of the storytelling needs of the scene at hand and of the film as a whole. So whether you write music that reinforces or gets out of the way of the existing sound elements, it's important that you consider them and how the music you write will interact with them as a fundamental part of your writing process.

3. Emotion & Film Scoring

Remember, the music you write for film is ultimately meant to be functional. What you write will directly affect an audiences understanding of a scene. There are a three major modes when it comes to choosing emotions for a film cue: writing music that closely matches the emotional content of the surface of the scene (i.e. happy scene + happy music), writing against the scene to create tension (e.g. happy scene + dark music = ominous and foreboding; sad scene + happy music = bittersweet, ironic, or even sarcastic) and a combination of the two (e.g. an upbeat piece of music with a single dissonant element that adds emotional complexity to a seemingly happy scene; an emotionally heavy scene with dark music that has a single light element, for example an upbeat melodic motif played by a toy piano or xylophone, can add an element of hope or even naivete to the equation).

An excellent first exercise to try before jumping into film scoring is to take a silent film in the public domain (many of these are available on Crackle and and import it into whatever non-linear video editing software you have available to you (even something as basic as iMovie or Windows Movie Maker). Choose a scene and begin slugging in different pieces of music you've written until you find something that fits. This is exactly the process many directors and editors use when selecting temp tracks — temporary music often used to assist editors and convey stylistic instructions to composers. Take careful notes on when important events and lines of dialogue occur within the scene, then rewrite your composition to match the highs and lows in the scene even more closely.

In : August 2012 

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