Daily Film Scoring Bits – Archive 2010

Posted on Dec 31, 2010 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits Archive of 2010.

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12/31/10: One of the most common weaknesses of compositions by inexpierenced composers is the harmonic unclarity. This means that cruicial chord tones are left out over the accompanying structures, like missing the very important third of the chord on some occasions while having them in on others. This creates a very inhomogenous overall sound as the chords with missing chord tones will not create much of sonority whghile the complete ones will. It is important to have the chord fully displayed as this creates a lot more sonority unless you want to go for a more empty undefined chord sound for stylistic reasons.

#composition


12/30/10: Avoid having music cues lap over reel changes. Even with the advent of digital projection, there are still many cinemas equipped with old projectors which use film reels. And even though this projection technique has advanced there still is alot of risk that you’ll have a noise, crack, distortion etc. over the reel change which might sound very ugly when it occurs during a music cue so try to not have cues lap over these moments. Of course, this only applies when you score a movie that is supposed to get a quite big cinematic release. If it’s just a production for the Internet, DVD etc. you don’t need to worry about that.

#technical


12/29/10: It is very important to do proper self promotion, especially when you are starting off as a composer. However you should manage your expectations. There are a lot of filmmaking forums in the internet where it should be quite easy to find projects to work for. However, don’t expect to find big budget blockbusters there who will pay you a fortune. There are also a few unwritten rules of good self promotion: 1) don’t act arrogant and be honest about your work, it’s no shame to mention that you just start off as a composer. 2) don’t spam: there is a fine line between writing friendly reminders and annoying people, don’t write emails every few weeks asking for work or post every few days in forums offering your work 3) have demos online: yes, there is a danger of your music being used unauthorized but it will most likely only be done by people who wouldn’t be able to pay you anyway, so there is no actual loss and even if there is, it should be way smaller than the possible future projects you will gain by having a demo online. 4) don’t use your 25 min concert work as demo reel, cut together a snappy demo which starts off impressive and covers a few styles that you are good at. 5) Participate in the online commiunities that you use to find jobs – it’s a bit annoying for everybody who is a regular poster there to see people just post their adverts 6) Have a simple to navigate and focussed website which leaves no doubt about what services you offer 7) When you present your work in forums, write short and focussed posts, even if you find it very very very important – nobody cares about your idols or when your father gave you your first violin etc.

#general


12/28/10: When you budget for costs, never go for the lowest possible rate just to not “scare off” producers/directors. You should always budget with a buffer as the usual procedure is to cut down some of the budget anyway from the producing side. So you need 3 sessions to record the music, budget for 3.5 or 4 sessions. You want an orchestra of the size of 70 players, budget for 75 etc. There will be unexpected expenses in any production plus you have a better position to negotiate when you estimate a bit higher at the beginning. This is purely psychological as well but it gives the producers a better feeling when you tell them “Yes, ok, let’s cut it down to 3 sessions and 70 players instead of what I originally wanted, I will have to squeeze a bit here and there but it might be doable.”

#working together


12/27/10: A very effective way of creating colourful and exciting orchestration is to leave out the lowest bass register from time to time. This makes the moment the bass register comes back very exciting and attractive to the ear. Usually in typical filmic fanfares you would tend to leave out the bass in the B theme and bring it back in for the repetition of the A theme. Leaving out the bass register in a build-up and bring it back in for the climax can be very effective as well as it highlights the climax even more. Usually it is enough to just leave out the contrabasses and tuba as these 2 create the most volume in the bass register.

#orchestration


12/23/10: Music can help a great deal connecting otherwise quite rough scene changes. In most circumstances it is a good decision to let the music cue at the end of a scene lap over into the next scene and let it end right after the scene change to avoid the feeling of a very hard cut into the next scene. Sometimes, so called scene change cues are even approriate which have the sole function of connecting two scenes and therefore start close to the end of one scene and end right after the cut to the next scene. However be warned to not overuse that as it gets quite annoying and should only be utilized when there is a very hard scene change which could not be made softer by better editing etc.

#film scoring


12/22/10: A very common musical concept to keep music interesting is to use complimentary rhythm. This means, when for example your main melody comes to a rest (e.g. holding for a whole note), you bring in another side line/figure/motif somewhere else. Having a look at the very popular film themes, you will always find a woodwind run, a horn motiv etc. as soon as the melody holds a long note. This is very helpful to keep the energy of the music up as a simple held note for several counts will just create a massive drop in energy and movement of your piece which will feel a bit awkward.

#composition


12/21/10: In an orchestral recording situation you will get a broader and wider string sound when you let your strings sit in the old (German) seating order (meaning 1st violins sitting left from the conductor, 2nd violins sitting right from the conductor). As many hollywoodish string orchestrations tend to double the violins in unison or octaves, you will get a wider and broader stereo field of these lines in the final recording. However, you should clear that in advanced as of course this seating order hast to be prepared in the studio and some conductors/orchestras don’t like to sit like that (mainly because of slightly more difficult intonation between the violin sections).

#technical


12/20/10: Even the most professional scoring sessions are mood dependent. A lot of social interaction and psychology is going on in an orchestra and apart from all the other tasks you have to do during such a session, you should also help keeping up the mood. Nothing helps making your musicians feeling comfortable and play better than the occasional joke from the booth or the conductor’s stand and honest praise for good playing, also for single players or sections. Things like “Great playing on the theme there! Well done!” keep your musicians way more motivated than just saying “Yeah, ok, let’s have another take”. Also taking care of their individual needs will help you keep the spirit up. Ask your trumpets if they are ok to go for another take on the brass heavy cue or if they need a rest and want to come back to that cue later. Of course, everybody is under pressure in such situations but the more routine you get on such things, the more relaxed you can handle such sessions and the more of your good mood will transfer to the musicians and feed back to you. Of course, you should also take care that you avoid any mood killers beforehand. Even worse than writing overly complicated music is having bad score sheets including bad notation, wrong notes, wrong transpositions etc. It is the ultimate mood-killer for every musician if he/she is the one who spoils the take but because of wrong notes on his/her sheet. Occasional wrong notes in the score will happen and you can hardly eliminate all beforehand but you should really put a lot of effort into minimizing their number.

#general


12/19/10: When writing runs for any instrument that is capable of playing runs, you should stick to plausible scales. Instrumentalists practice their whole life to play scale runs in any form – upwards, downwards, starting on different scale degrees etc. However, if you write something that is not a “common structure”, like a chromatic run but somewhere in between is a whole tone step, it will be definitely something that will cause problems as these structures can’t be recalled from the muscle memory as all the other scales so your players will most likely trip over these “odd” tones, especially when they need to play it more or less sight reading so avoid being overly fancy on scales.

#orchestration


12/18/10: During a film production, there are quite a few chances of several arguments coming up, even on the most professional productions. No matter how annoyed and frustrated you are, try to remain objective and don’t get insulting. Sometimes you have to deal with people with lots of temper and you are well advised to try and de-escalate the situation, especially when it tends to become defiant. Usually it works way better to try to calm down the argument and bring up the point again when the situation has settled and everybody can think clear again instead of forcing it to a possibly fatal argument. You also always need to keep in mind, that you probably still need to continue working together on the project which gets a nightmare once the atmosphere is poisoned so you are well advised to keep any arguments on a professional level.

#working together


12/17/10: Attractive melodies find the right balance between fulfilling expectations and surprising the ear. You should have this in mind when writing music. It happens quite often that inexperienced composers want to be very innovative and not go along already used paths and tend to write music, which goes unexpected ways all the time. While bringing surprises in music is a good thing in general, you should be warned to not overuse this as it will leave your listeners quite confused. The ear longs for a certain amount of fulfillment of expectations. The other way around is writing music that always goes exactly the way you expect it to go which will be very boring after a while. So think out of the box when writing but don’t try to invent the wheel again all the time (unless you rather want to compose avant-garde music but this is a whole other story…)

#composition


12/16/10: You should be aware that if you end a music cue quite hard, it will create almost the same highlight on that moment as it would do when starting a cue. Usually however, when you end a cue, all the events you wanted to score have passed already so any highlighting after that would feel a bit strange. Your big explosion has just happend, your main character has just left the room, the big kiss is just over – so that usually doesn’t leave much room later to have any plausible highlighting moment. That is the main reason why most film music cues tail out (usually with a sustained string (chord)). There are however situations (mostly in suspense, horror and action moments) where a hard end works just perfect but usually you might want to go for the tailing out.

#film scoring


12/15/10: When preparing audio click tracks for a scoring session, make sure they use a click sound without destinctive pitch (e.g. no Xylophone) and have a very short decay. Very useful is the so called UREI-click or anything that sounds similar. Usually you can define which click to use in almost any recording programme. Another important issue is to make sure that the downbeat of each bar has a different sound than the rest of the clicks so that musicians who got lost somewhere will still be able to find their way back in. If you use very quick tempi you should think about only clicking every downbeat or half bar (which should be communicated beforehand) as it will be easier to play to and not as annoying. And almost as important as all the rest: adjust the click volume during the recording so that it doesn’t spill on the mics and tell every musician who is not playing to unplug their headphones or put the volume down. Nothing is more annoying than having a constant click noise on an emotional soft cue but as lots of big hollywood blockbuster scores show: sometimes it happens even there.

#technical


12/14/10: It is a very common film orchestration clichee to put chord tones in the low brass and often they are the only section to provide harmonies. This applies even more for typical sweepy, fanfaric film cues. The Star Wars Main Theme for example has in some of the theme statements only trombones providing chords while woodwinds doing runs, horns/trumpets playing the theme together with the high strings and contrabasses together with tuba providing bass notes. Also thinking about the big string sweepy film music themes, you usually have violins 1, 2, violas and sometimes even celli in octaves playing the theme (woodwinds often doubling on that as well), while the chord material is presented in long sustaining chords in the trombones/tubas (+horns). Basically most of such cues can be reduced to not more than 3-4 elements going on at the same time, so try to not over-orchestrate when you want to get this typical thick film music sound.

#orchestration


12/13/10: Rewrites and changes are part of the every day’s business of film scoring. Even best preparation and communication with the people in charge sometimes can’t save you from this. Of course, it always is annoying when a cue or part of a cue get rejected and you have to find another way to make this work but you have to learn how to deal with it. You shouldn’t take it as critizism on your artistic personality or your general abilities but rather as a matter of taste decision. When it happens, try to find out exactly what the director does not like so you don’t change the wrong thing. You have to understand that as a film composer you’re paid for doing a service, so put your ego to the side (and write concert music if you want to have full artistic freedom). Of course you always can argue for your idea but you should be aware to not do it in an annoying or even insulting way. And last but not least, some of the even most painful changes can turn out to end up in much better music so cheer up by knowing that every film composer has to get through this.

#working together


12/12/10: In orchestral writing, especially in a filmic style, parallel fifths and octaves are most of the time no problem. Not only because octave unisons of melodies are very common but also as it can be used as a stylistic device. The reason why parallel fifths and octaves were/are problematic is their high potential to be perceived as one note due to their high consonance. Back in times where it was important that every voice can be perceived individually it needed to be avoided that two seperate voices tend to be perceived as one so parallel fifths and octaves needed to be avoided. As one can’t perceive every element of a big orchestral score individually anyway and you usually even want e.g. “brass harmonies” to sound as a homogenous event, parallel fifths/octaves are ok when they happen. Of course, you should still avoid them when you write something contrapuntal and too much parallel movement will just sound very unbalanced.

#composition


12/11/10: This might seem like a no brainer at first but it usually isn’t: When working on a tight schedule and days get long, take care of your nutrition. It is very easy to lose track of time during work and forget to eat and drink properly which might go ok for a few days but is very bad over a longer period. Develope some self discipline and actively take care about that. Put a bowl of fruits and vegetables right into your sight, if needed even next to the monitor or piano. Spread a few bottles of waters around in your “working zone” so that whenever you get up to walk around a bit a bottle will be in your sight. And avoid eating just unhealthy stuff. Chips and fast food will not help you being concentrated through long days. Your work output will be much better if you sustain a decent level of blood sugar and take care of proper food and enough water.

#general


12/10/10: Unless there are open strings involved, double or multiple stops with perfect fifths might cause (sometimes heavy) intonation problems especially on the higher string instruments. Reason for this is, that the player has to position 2 fingers on the same position of each string on the fingerboard which might be very tricky considering the dimensions even for people with fairly thin fingers. Intervals “near” a perfect fifth are much easier in this way as the fingers don’t have to be right next to each other on the fingerboard for these.

#orchestration


12/9/10: It will not work to record a solo violin 16 times and layer all the tracks on top of each other and expect this to sound like a 16-violin section. The reason for this is on the one hand that in a real acoustic situation the vibration of the instruments will influence each other and the typical homogenous section sound is being created by the slightly different instruments with slightly different players and slightly different intonation. The digital addition of 16 violins does not equal the real acoustic addition of these violins so when you’re planning such a thing, you might get a somewhat satisfying result if you plan it well (eg record with different distances to microphones) but it will never sound anywhere close to the real thing and most likely not even better than just using violin section samples.

#technical


12/8/10: Pursuing high stylistic diversity and promoting yourself with such a statement might seem like a good plan at first but actually is one of the worst ideas to get yourself a working profile. It is absolutely impossible to master any style of music and the arrogance of saying something like “Even a monkey can produce techno music, so I can definitely do that, too, even if I don’t listen to techno at all” is just plain wrong. It is true that you might produce a bad half-baked techno track that might fit somewhat but there will be thousands of professional techno producers out there who make such music all day long and know anything about it will be able to produce a cue that will be a million times better than yours. Every professional production wants the best score they can get. They will not ask someone who “does everything” including the style they are after, they will ask something who only writes in that style and knows everything about it. Specialize on something that you are really good at. Bring yourself to a level of competiveness in that style that allows you to compete with a few in your special field rather than millions in every field. You will actually get more gigs after a while when specializing than when offering everything . You will gain a reputation like “X has done that style a few times and he’s really good at it, let’s call him/her.”

#working together


12/7/10: The general function of dominant chords is to create tension that resolves (or sometimes doesn’t) into the tonic. Therefore you have a wide variety of possible “tension notes” you can add to a dominant chord as you can add more ore less tension by adding those to the chord. However, you should always stick to a certain scale in order to stay tonal. Most common dominant chords are: 13 chords (9 and 13 to the dominant 7 chord, using mixolydian mode), sus13 or sus 9 (adding a minor 7, 9 and 13 or just a minor 7, 9 to a suspended fourth chord (sometimes even non resolving to the third), also using mixolydian), 7b9sus4 chords (adding a flat 9th and a minor seventh to a sus4 chord, using phrygian or the 2nd mode of melodic minor), 7(#11) chords (adding a #11 and sometimes additionally a 9th and 13th, using the fourth mode of melodic minor), altered (using the 7th mode of melodic minor or altered scale, giving you the tension notes of b9, #9, #11 and b13, the voicing is just an example) and b9b13 (adding a flat 9th and flat 13th to the dominant seventh chord, which could also use the altered scale but usually uses the 5th mode of harmonic minor). There are many more variations of dominant chords which could fill books but those are the most common ones. Recently in film music writing, dominant seventh chords tend to sound a bit old fashioned, especially when they are very “straight” like the 13 chord. Many dominants in film music tend to be some kind of sus4 chords.

#composition


12/6/10: You need to properly plan a score before you start composing. Determine which themes and motifs will be needed before you start writing. Lists help to get an overview about what needs to be done. Lists which sort cues by function or thematic material might be helpful (e.g. put all love scenes together) in order to later write cohesive music for these sort of scenes. Decide beforehand which themes and motifs need to be used where and double check on the time line, whether certain themes might be over- or underrepresented. Of course, you need to watch the movie quite a few times beforehand to get that overview and feeling of how certain scenes a placed. Also have a look at the overall dramatic bow. For example is there a big action scene somewhere before the even bigger ultimate battle at the end of the film? You would not want to be anticlimactic there and score the earlier action scene more intense than the final battle. Either remember such things or more safe: make notes. Even charts with arrows showing thematic relations might help. The most important thing is that yoou keep the overview and not get lost in the small cue you’re working on today which might easily happen when you work on a project for several months or weeks.

#general


12/5/10: When orchestrating, you should usually avoid minor and sometimes major seconds between the respective highest and the next lower voice. A voicing like THIS will sound melodically very unfocussed and as the ear usually perceives the highest line as melody, such unfocussed voicings will confuse the melodic impression. Major seconds work in most cases but should also be used with caution. If you want to make absolutely sure that your melody is not obscured, you should transpose the second voice of your close position chords down one octave, resulting in so called “drop-2”-voicings. This might be needed sometimes in order to remain melodic clarity. In the end, you should trust your ear and instincts on that but in general, it is a wise idea, to at least avoid minor seconds. Also, crossing the melody line with another line will be quite confusing for the ear, especially if both lines have a similar sound colour (eg in strings).

#orchestration


12/4/10: A little extra reverb on the spot mic signal during an instrumental solo gives you a very nice, filmic touch without losing the definition. It even doesn’t neccessarily need to be the same reverb that you use for your general reverb. However, use a quite bright reverb. Dark reverbs might just make it muddy. Also, make sure to only add this reverb during the solo passage and not all the way through (while the instrument is participating in the ensemble sound). The same concept can be applied to sample productions.

#technical


12/3/10: You can “advance” any harmonic progression by extending the chords with additional tension notes. Basically there are only 3 types of chords: major chords functioning as stable I chords, minor chords and major chords functioning as dominant. You can extend any of these chords with an additional ninth (e.g. C-E-G-D, C-Eb-G-D, C-E-G-Bb-D). Major chords that function as stable I chords can be extended with a major 7 (C-E-G-B), a major sixth (C-E-G-A), in more advanced harmonic cases with a #11 (C-E-G-F#) or combinations of the above. Minor chords can be extended with a minor 7 (C-Eb-G-Bb), a minor or major 6 (C-Eb-G-Ab, C-Eb-G-A), an 11 (C-Eb-G-F). Major chords functioning as dominants can be extended with almost anything. More on this in one of the next daily film scoring bits.

#composition


12/2/10: When negotiating a contract which includes a fixed rate for your work, make sure to have a fixed time span for the project included in the contract. Sometimes, projects stretch over a way longer time than initially claimed and if you do not have a fixed time span in your contract you might end up spending way more time on the project for the same money which might end in a financial desaster. If you include that fixed time span into your contract and the project still extends, you have a fundament of argueing for more money.

#working together


12/1/10: Apart from emphasizing certain scenes/actions/lines etc., music can also do the complete opposite and de-emphasize. This might be needed especially when you have to help over bad acting, which might occur even in very professional productions. Sometimes, reactions of actors or of the visual language might be excessively stated and might in certain situations even seem unintentionally funny. As composer, you can tone down these situations by scoring it in a calmer, more subtle way than you would actually do,if you took the acting serious.

#general


11/30/10: Trombone glissandos can only be executed over the maximum span of a tritone (the range the slide covers between first and seventh position). Additionally, you need to be aware that the harmonic scale of the trombone builds on top of the Bb 3 octaves below middle c and only notes included in this Bb harmonic scale can be produced in the first position. E.g. if you want to glissando downwards from a B 2 octaves below middle c on a regular tenor trombone, this will not be possible, as this B can only be produced with the slide full out. However, trombone glissandos don’t need to cover a huge range to be effective. Most really effective glissandos don’t cover more than a third.

#orchestration


11/29/10: Voice overs are even more delicate than dialogue. As the lips of the speaker can’t be seen, it generally is more difficult to understand the words so as a composer you should be very cautious to be acoustically very sparsely whenever there is a voice over. Also, be aware that in some working cuts you might receive, voice overs might not be included in the sound track yet, so make sure to double check with the script when you get to score something that appears to be a montage at first but actually is a voice over situation which can make a huge difference regarding the scoring approach.

#general


11/28/10: Good chord voicings can make a huge difference about how your music sounds. This is especially crucial when you work with complex harmonic situations. You should really invest a bit of time in finding nice voicings. For example take a Cmaj9(#11) chord. In a quite straight forward voicing like THIS, the chord sounds ok but quite thick and compact. Just by revoicing it you can create chord sounds that sound absolutely awful like THIS to fantastic sounding open, breathy, shimmery chord sounds like THIS. Notice that all of the 3 voicings contain the same notes just in different order. Invest some time especially on sustaining chords to find good voicings!

#composition


11/27/10: Filmmusic nowadays is often highly produced. There are only rare examples where there is no EQing, Compressing etc. involved as it still is being done with most classical recordings so don’t hesitate to make use of these possibilities and get comfortable using them when you want to create this filmic soundscape.

#technical


11/26/10: When writing score sheets for a scoring session situation, be as clear as possible regarding dynamics. Give every hairpin a starting and target dynamic. A hairpin that looks something like pp< might crescendo to p or fff or anything in between. When you got musicians on the stage who read the music for the first time, it will not be clear to them right from the beginning where to go to, so eliminate these time consuming issues by writing as clear as possible.

#orchestration


11/25/10: Before you go to record music with an ensemble or orchestra where you don’t have much time to spare, make sure you got an experienced recording engineer or a second pair of trained ears in the booth. If you conduct yourself, make sure there are people in the booth whom you trust. It is not possible for one person alone (meaning you) to pay attention to the musical interpretation, the recording quality and the way it works with the pictures at the same time. You will be sitting there for probably something around 8 hours a day, listening highly concentrated. You and your ears will get tired after a while and mistakes and other weird things might slip through, which might be very frustrating when you listen to your recordings later.

#working together


11/24/10: When you need to score a scene that has several points you need to hit and highlight, it is a quite effective way to lay out your sketch the way that you score these important moments first one by one and later find a way to connect them. It happens quite easily to get lost when “bridging” such moments when you don’t know where exactly you’re aiming for and the “moment to be hit” might come a bit as a surprise (and feel that way when listening to the music as well). The other extreme would be the danger of writing music to “bridge” which clearly feels like it is waiting for the moment and just wasting time. So it is much easier to know what targets you need to hit and write that “bridge” music with that in mind.

#general


11/23/10: When you want to create a homogenous sound for example in the string section, take care that adjacent voices don’t exceed an octave. This is just a rule of thumb and sometimes, voice leading etc. justifies for larger gaps but in general, voices that are further apart than one octave will be perceived as individual elements rather than one homogenous unit. The one exception for this rule is the bass function which is fine to be further than one octave apart from the next voice.

#composition


11/22/10: Timpani sound best between the f below middle c and the f one octave lower. Even though their range exceeds that limit, in the very lowest register the membrane needs to lose so much tension that the sound gets muddy and unfocussed. Unexperienced orchestrators tend to favor even the low C 2 octaves below middle c which is a very muddy, unbrillant sound and creates by far less “Zimmerish” punch than the c one octave higher. On the other hand, the really high notes need to be played with so much membrane tension that the sound starts to lose its characteristics and to get somewhat “pingy”.

#orchestration


11/21/10: Recording an orchestra in sections might give you more freedom in the mix, however you lose a lot of the “orchestra feeling” as lots of the “ensemble” sound originates from the instruments interacting with each other and setting each other in resonance while playing which doesn’t take place when you record everything in sections. Also, you will most likely be confronted with intonation issues especially from the brass section as well as an artificially ambient sound because of the room signal of every section which you sum up. Also, you might get a much more musical interpretation when everybody is playing and feeding off each other’s energy.

#technical


11/20/10: When preparing the score sheets and parts for a scoring session, make sure, that every page has the title of the cue written on it. Some musicians tend to throw already recorded cues from their stand to the floor in front of them and when there’s a situation where you want to go back and re-record a cue (for example because you have time left) it might end up in a long search, when not every page of the part is labled properly.

#general


11/19/10: A lot of nowadays film music relies harmonically heavily on working with modal interchanges. This means, that you borrow chords from scales which are related to your “root scale”, e.g. you write a piece in C major but borrow chords which are part of a C minor scale (e.g. Eb, Ab, Fm, Gm, Bb) to broaden your harmonic possibilites. You could also for example borrow from C lydian and throw in a D major chord, or write a piece in minor and borrow chords from the related major. Many of the clicheed chord progressions of film music rely heavily on this concept (eg: Ab – Bb – C, or the well known Fellowship motif from Lord of the Rings which is played over these chords C – Eb – C) and there are hundreds of examples.

#composition


11/18/10: Loud trumpet chords sound best and most brillant when they are simple triads in close position. Don’t put complicated chord structures into the trumpets as some of the rich harmonics of these instruments might clash in such situations making the overall sound lass brillant. Also, triads in trumpets sound mich more full bodied than only two notes. This of course doesn’t apply when you’re after a cluster sound.

#orchestration


11/17/10: As a composer, try to be present at the final sound mix of the movie you scored. Usually music gets mixed unneccessarily low by many sound mixers as they focus more on the understandability of the dialogues etc so it is always good to have someone in the mix who jumps in in favor of the music. However, don’t be overly picky and make remarks about volume on every cue as this might be highly annoying. Save your “spots to discuss for” for the really important music moments you want to be present in the mix. Being there also saves you from surprises like wrong starting times of music cues etc which might occur even with the best preparation.

#working together


11/15/10: When scoring a scene, finding the right tempo for the music is crucial and sometimes quite tricky. First of all, get rid of the temp track in case there is one as soon as possible and watch it without music. For me, the best way is to watch the scene a few times and just get an impression of how this scene generally feels tempo-wise. Might there be any changes in tempo during the scene? Usually this might seem quite obvious (e.g. your hero gets to a rest after a big chase – you obviously slow down the tempo there) but sometimes, even small tempo changes make sense. Also orientate yourself on the cutting frequency as it works as a quite strong tempo indicator and of course the tempo of the action that is portrayed might be a good indicator as well. Be warned about slowing the tempo down by a small amount (a few bpm) in a certain passage just to hit a sync point which might come too late with the old tempo especially when you’re scoring an action sequence as it might very quickly feel like dragging the pace.

#general


11/14/10: Just as combining too many colours when painting results in an indefinable gray mud, combining too many instrumental colours results in a similar problem. It is especially dangerous to put too many instrumental colours together in unison in the middle range as this will create in the worst case an indefinable, thick organ like sound without any characteristics. Combining in octave(s) reduces that danger a bit but you still might get an overly thick sound. Make sure that you remain instrumental clarity by orchestrating your music so that every instrument involved gets a clear function and reason to participate in that sound and avoid overusing the middle register.

#orchestration


11/13/10: When you use prerecorded elements on top of an ensemble that you’re recording live, you should have these elements prepared before recording and bring them along, especially when it’s additional drum grooves or general band parts so it can be played back to the musicians together with the click over their headphones while they are playing. Give your musicians an “as close as possible to the final” impression of the music they’re playing. It is difficult for them to play for example just string pads to a band track without hearing the band. You’ll get a nicer overall performance when your players get an idea of how they have to fit into the music.

#technical


11/12/10: Don’t expect your director to have enough musical knowledge to be able to communicate in musical terms. Find a way to make communication with him/her clear when presenting your concept or ideas. A good way is to talk in emotions like “It needs to be a bit more sad here” instead of “I think it needs lots of minor chords and an English Horn solo here.” It also a good plan to present examples of what you want to do, even if you’re not yet in the state of presenting demos. Find movies, scenes, music pieces which roughly illustrate what you have in mind and talk him/her through. The better you sell your concept in the meetings, the better the chances are to get through with it. However always remain open for real critizism and other ideas.

#working together


11/11/10: Musical silence can be extremely powerful and work highly dramatic. Some scenes get much more impact when they DON’T have music rather than having it. You can apply silence in small portions for example in comedy scoring where you leave moments for points and slapstick situations silent or you can apply it to a whole sequence that usually would have music. Music-less action scenes for ecample always have a very special feel about it and sometimes drag the audience deeper into the scene and make it seem somewhat more real and documentary like – eg. Saving Private Ryan: the first 20 minutes don’t have any music at all. Imagine the very same scene with music: it would give you much more the feel of “it’s just a movie” than what this scene does in the original shape, just showing these intense images and the soundscape. It is of course important to work closely with the sound department on such situations to gain the most effective impact in such scenes.

#general


11/10/10: When harmonizing melodies, it usually sounds way more musical interesting to position key notes of the melody higher up in the chord structure (like 7th, 9th etc.) than playing around root, third or fifth. Eg. you have a melody sequence of D-B-G: underlaying a straight Gmaj chord (D=5th, B=3rd, G=root) will sound pretty boring. What would be more interesting would for example be Cmaj9 (D=9th, B=maj7, G=fifth) or even more fancy Fmaj7(#11/13) (D=13, B=#11, G=9). You set the melody in way more interesting relation to the chord and even quite simple melodic sequences can sound very sophisticated like this. In this way, a huge palette of harmonization possibilities open up. However, you should be aware that writing like this implies a certain musical colour palette and you should remain in there for a while. Jumping around between the above mentioned and some “basic” harmonization during the same melody will make your musical section lose integrity.

#composition


11/09/10: Most of the very silky soft string cues we hear all the time in film scores are played with mutes on the complete string section. Also, most string pads in jazzy cues are played with mutes as well. There is also a tendency to leave the contrabasses unmuted in order to have a bit more substance on the low end which is important for soft cues to be perceived as balanced. Mutes sound best in the middle register, very high muted violins tend to sound a bit thin and unbrillant which can be a great effect if you want it but usually you would want the highest register to be unmuted. Be aware that putting mutes on and off takes some time and can can also be quite noisy, especially when it has to be done quickly and it is more noisy on the larger than on smaller instruments (another reason to leave basses unmuted).

#orchestration


11/08/10: When the budget is tight and you cannot afford a full lineup, you should consider where to save your money. It is perfectly fine and hardly noticeable to have sampled percussion put on top of the recording later. Also, beefing up a small string section with samples works quite reasonable. However, it is extremely tricky and hardly convincing to add a sampled brass section later, so you should try to get your forces to have a reasonable brass and woodwind sound and some decent “leading strings” recorded real. Of course, it depends on the style of music that you’re writing as well but generally this is the safest way to go in such situations.

#technical


11/07/10: One of the most delicate things is argueing for your ideas if the director or whoever is in charge doesn’t like/want it. Depending on what personality he/she is, you’ll find yourself somewhere from no chance at all to convince him/her to being him/her in the state of “of course, you are the composer”. Usually it’s somewhere in between and involves a lot of psychology. You most probably get only a few spots to successfully argue for so pick wisely which music you really WANT to be in there that he/she doesn’t want and which music you are willing to let go. Collect plausible arguments for your music and if they don’t help, try using things like “Ok, I’m willing to rewrite scene A even if I don’t think that’s the best choice if you let me keep the music as it is in scene B.” You have to feel when you push him/her close to feeling undermined in his/her authority and take care to not step over the point when it gets to something like “I’m the director, do what I say!” as this is a horrible situation to work in for both parties.

#working together


11/06/10: A very easy way to gain more sonority in your chord voicings is to “drop 2”, “drop 2+4” or traditionally called “open chord”. These are pretty simple procedures to spread out close position voicings to fill the range better. Usually for anybody coming from the keyboard side, this is pretty awkward as most of these voicings can’t be played on a keyboard but for example in a string orchestra, they sound amazing. Take your close position chord(s). The first step to spread it out would be to drop the second voice from the top one octave (drop 2). If you want to spread it out even more, you can additionally drop the (originally) 4th voice from the top an octave as well (drop 2+4). You create quite wide spaced voicings there which however sound fabulous in an orchestral context. The only thing to take care of is to not create a voicing which has high tension notes quite low or has a minor ninth somewhere in the voicing.

#composition


11/05/10: When scoring dialogue scenes, don’t overwrite. Usually smooth legato textures work best with dialogue scenes. Also, unless there is a really important point during the dialogue, it is not neccessary to react with the music on every sentence that’s being said. Avoid accents or instrumental solos as they can be quite distracting.

#general


11/04/10: Contrabassoon is great to create a really “black” tone and can play incredibly low. However, it is easily masked and doesn’t have much carrying power. Actually in a medium tutti situation you will rather hear the key noise than the actual tone. However in woodwind only situations or sparse orchestrations, it can create a very dark, ominous sound, especially in combination with Bassoons and Bass Clarinet.

#orchestration


11/03/10: When you receive a working copy of the movie, make sure it has a visible timecode embedded in the video file. There can be quite a desastrous mess when there is a mix-up with framerates, encoding etc. When you set up your working station to work with the video, also check if your programmes run in sync with the video and you have the correct frame rates. Even you running on 24fps while the video is at 25fps can make a difference on sync-points that need to be hit dead on.

#technical


11/02/10: One of the most general ones but still done wrong quite often by inexperienced composers: Don’t give away major plot points with your music unless intended. Be aware, that you as a composer know how the movie ends, who wins etc. but the audience doesn’t. You practically lose every tension if you create an atmosphere of “the hero wins anyway” in the final battle by supporting him with triumphant music all the way through.

#general


11/01/10: When you want to modulate or want to reach a certain chord, it is a good way to harmonically work backwards. Start off with the chord you want to reach and work your way through to where you start from. With this principle you can easier set up dominant (or dominant substitutes) chains as well as creating logic ways from chord A to B, taking a nice bass line movement (e.g. descending or ascending) into account etc.

#composition


10/31/10: Do not overuse musical “horror-shock-stabs” when writing a score for a halloween or horror movie. It works great and very effectively when used with care but can feel very annoying when done too often. Also, every time you use it, you reduce its overall impact as the audience will begin to expect such moments after a while so pick the moments where you want to use it with care. Also, if you’re having music with a clear rhythmic structure before it, make sure to not make this shock moment fall on a heavy (down)beat as it will weaken the impact as the audience already expects a pulse at this moment. Make sure to orchestrate that moment properly. Nothing feels more pathetic than a half-baked shock-moment, however it depends heavily on the genre and style how heavy you should go with such effects.

#general


10/30/10: When you want to create dissonance in an orchestra, it is easier for everybody to let sections or groups play as easy as possible understandable structures while creating the dissonance between the different sections/groups. Good orchestral players always listento the other players as well, especially the ones sitting next to them and try to intonate properly within them. Of course it is much easier for example for a trumpet player to find his place in a simple triad he/she’s playing together with his neighbours than to find it within a complex musical structure. Of course that doesn’t matter if you just want to have a cluster sound etc. but when you have a very distinct complex sound in mind and you want it to be intonated properly, this is the safest way to go. Example: You want a sound structure of C-Eb-E-G-Ab-C by trombones and trumpets. It is MUCH easier for everybody to give the trombones C-E-G and the trumpets Eb-Ab-C than giving the trombones C-Eb-E and G-Ab-C to the trumpets and expect them to intonate the minor second properly in both groups.

#orchestration


10/29/10: You need to plan in quite some time into your work schedule for communication and organization. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can compose/produce music without interruption during your “scoring weeks”. It might not seem like much on first sight but in the sum, these “quick phone calls with the production”, “short emails just to send over demos”, “quick organizational meetings”, “short skype sessions” eat up a huge amount of time. It gets especially worse when you’re a person who needs some time to find his way into the work and gets ripped out every time the phone rings. Be prepared for that and try to find a way to deal with it. I would not recommend things like plugging out the telephone etc. as this might upset quite a few people and can even cause desaster when there are some important changes made on short notice. One way to deal with it is to move your main working times away from “regular office times”, so work late at night or early in the morning. I know many colleagues do it but of course, it depends on whether you can deal with such times and also if you can arrange it with your private obligations.

#working together


10/28/10: Pedal points are very common in film music, meaning that you change chords over a sustaining bass note. Even very dissonant chords in relation to the bass note work under such circumstances. Pedal points are great for buildups, in a busy sequence where there is lots of chord movement going on it feels like breathing in for a climax when you suddenly reach a pedal point over several bars, this is especially effective on a pedal point of a chord that could work as dominant. Also, pedal points work great standing alone and help making simple cadences (IV-V-I) more interesting. A kind of extended pedal point would be an ostinato in the bass, which works great as well, pushing very much forward. You can justify almost any chord on top of such an ostinato as well. Just think of John Williams’ famous Duel of Fates from Star Wars Ep. I.

#composition


10/27/10: Hitting sync-points (points where the music hits an action in the movie) properly is quite difficult and has a lot to do with being aware of how the human brain works. If you hit a simple slap stick moment, some clear action, something purely visual, you should make sure you hit it dead on. The brain will already recognize if you are +/- 2 frames out of sync. However, sometimes you need to hit something that involves some thinking for the audience first like someone saying a quite simple sentence which however has big consequences when brought in connection with what has happened before in the movie. You need to give the audience a brief moment to get it and not hit it too early. Usually this “getting it” takes a few frames so being a bit “late” on such moments is better than to hit it dead on. And there are moments you want to hit, which take some time on the screen, like an explosion. You could hit it on the first spark, or maybe when the fireball has the biggest size, or right after it when you see what it has done. In such cases, you have to decide what fits best dramatically. Usually you would go for the beginning of the event (scoring on with the music from before while already everything is exploding might seem a bit strange) but in some cases it fits better to hit the “climax” of the event or the end.

#technical


10/26/10: Having a good workflow in a sequencer program is usually vital for a film composer these days. However there are some dangers involved, especially when writing for “real” instruments. There is great danger in losing overview in a sequencer, like not knowing anymore if the third of the chord is doubled 4 times already while the root sounds only in 2 instruments. You can of course balance this out in the mix but you’ll lose authenticity of sound. Also you tend to write very horizontal (meaning voice by voice) in a sequencer program which sometimes obscures harmonic relations between instruments and generally weakens the vertical structure (which instruments sound when and where together). So the bottom line is: be aware of these dangers and work against it (e.g. by having a regular look into the note editor) or if you can afford it time wise, write your music in a notation programme. Of course, working procedures in creative jobs should not be discussed, but the point is that you automatically put more thought into your music when you’re writing notes rather than just recording instrument by instrument by playing it on your keyboard.

#general


10/25/10: Flutes in their lowest register can have a fantastic and haunting sound. However be aware that these notes are very soft and cannot be produced in a very loud dynamic so they need very sparse orchestration to come through. Particularly avoid having contrabasses too present in such passages as they have a loud harmonic which falls right into that low flute range and very easily masks them. Also, one very strange acoustic issue is that low flutes tend to sound slightly out of tune even when they aren’t. If you want to go further down the road with that sound of low flutes, consider having an alto flute which creates these notes even more hauntingly. Here’s an example of an alto flute at its most lovely register:

[audio:1M8.mp3|titles=Surprise on the Plane|artists=Robin Hoffmann]

#orchestration


10/24/10: Every chord implies a certain or several certain scales and vice versa. These two things can and should not be seperated. E.g. a simple minor triad could imply pentatonic minor, eolian, phrygian, dorian, melodic minor and harmonic minor. However a minor-major chord implies only harmonic or melodic minor. If you work with even more complex chords like let’s say C7(#11), you can only go for lydian-dominant (4th mode of melodic minor). Throwing in any non-scale tone into this harmonic situation needs a plausible reason (e.g. chromatic approach notes, playing “outside”) but usually will weaken the harmonic situation and sound strange if not even wrong. Woodwinds and string runs for example should not use different scales in one harmonic situation.

#composition


10/23/10: Another very common way of scoring certain moments in movies are so called “Red Herrings”. This is one very often used principle in tension scenes where you build up to something that DOESN’T happen. E.g. a woman sneaking through a dark basement, hearing a noise behind some corner. She walks slowly towards it and in the moment where she looks around the corner we and she see(s) that it is just a plastic bag in the wind or something. Still it works very effectively to score that scene according to HER emotions. She probably expects some evil guy/monster/whatever behind the corner and this being supported by the music also makes this scene more tenseful. Of course, overdoing that feels just silly but bringing it once works great. Also, it doesn’t neccessarily have to be such a horror/suspense scene as I described it. Such things work also very neatly in other tension moments.

#general


10/22/10: So called “Temp Tracks” are very common these days and hardly any production works without it. In short, temp tracks are music from different sources which are put into the movie as placeholders for the score, usually showing roughly the way the music should go. They can be quite helpful for the composer guiding him towards the right direction however there are 2 big dangers involved: a) Composing too close to what the temp tracks are and falling into the trap of plagiarism. b) The director getting too used to the temp tracks and wanting more or less exactly what the temp track is. You can’t do much about the latter one except for presenting him/her with something that works better than the temp track and hope he/she notices it, maybe with some additional argument. However be aware to not fall for the first one. That one being said very easy one can sometimes clearly hear even in hollywood productions, what the temp track for a certain scene was. A good way is to drop the temp track as early as possible from your working copy of the movie. Listen to the temp track version once, or maybe twice but don’t have the temp track playing every time you watch the scene.

#working together


10/21/10: The reason why film orchestras tend to have a larger horn section compared to “regular symphonic orchestras” lies apart from the sound differences in the fact that film music is in general very brass heavy compared to classical music. To get an evenly balanced sound within the orchestra on such music, you need to balance out the heavy brass (trumpets, trombones, tuba) on the far right with the horns on the left side. The regular 4-horn-section stands hardly any chance to seriously compete against 3 trumpets, 3 trombones and a tuba, so generally 6 or more horns are more suited to help not getting the recording too “right-heavy”.

#orchestration


10/20/10: One very often used way of scoring a certain important event in a movie is by highlighting it with silence. Effectively you score up to the moment and either stop the music (with an accent) short before or right on the event. Obviously this only works on big events as you can’t keep on starting cues over and over again just to highlight another action with this way. It works great on slapstick comedy moments and horror/suspense but can also be used very effectively on any other genre.

#general


10/19/10: The rhythmic placements of notes can be just as important as their pitch. Unless you’re writing a march, avoid monotonuos rhythmic figures. Hitting every count 1 of a bar makes melodies very firm but also sedate. Tieing over barlines helps alot when you want to create rhythmic variety and get away from the downbeat heavyness. Try to create interesting structures by not being too predictable with your rhythm. Film music often relies on triplets which chreate an interesting polyrhythmic effect in regular binary rhythms and keep your listeners attention. Even the best melodic line can sound stupid if it has an uninspired rhythm.

#composition


10/18/10: Brass instruments have the greatest timbral change over their dynamic spectrum. Therefore swells, crescendoes, sffz, fp are highly dramatic and very effective on them. If you use sustained brass chords on key parts of your score, consider giving them a dynamic life (hitting hard, dropping to soft immediately (sfp/fp) and crescendo again). This will add a lot of livelyness to your composition. Also take this in account when working with samples.

#orchestration


10/17/10: Many directors want to have the feeling of being involved into the process of creating the music and to have “influence” on the composition. Some tend to feel obliged to request a change on any cue you show them just for that matter. Of course, it depends on the personality and musical knowledge of the director but a usually working way around being requested to do changes just for the sake of it is writing a cue until it’s done and then adding somewhere a small thing that obviously doesn’t fit at all. When showing this track to them, it is most likely that he/she will request to take out what you added on purpose and there you go. Of course, your director shouldn’t notice, you’re playing such games with him/her, so maybe don’t try this on the first cue.

#working together


10/16/10: You can extend any chord progression by inserting secondary dominants before its chords. Meaning if you use the chord sequence |C – – -|C- – -|F – – -| you can extend it by inserting the dominant to F before: |C – – -|C7 – – – | F – – -|. This works for any other chord (minor, other dominant chords) as well. You practically create inserted V – I cadences (while treating the chord you want to go to as I). One step further would be to insert a ii – V cadence before your target chord. In our example this would be |C – – -|Gm – C7 -|F – – -|. Such concepts work nicely when you sustain on a chord for a long time and don’t want to get too boring.

#composition


10/15/10: In orchestral recordings, the main microphone is the so called Decca Tree, which is positionated a few meters over the conductor. The signal from these microphones is also the one that is used as fundament in the mix. The signals from the spot microphones, which are close to each instrument (section) are used to balance some parts better and to highlight solos. The Out mics (far left and far right) as well as the surround mics (back in the room) are used to influence the “ambience size” of the mix.

#technical


10/14/10: Pairing Woodwind chords interlocked (e.g. C5 -> clarinet 2, E5 -> flute 2, G5 -> clarinet 1, C6 -> flute 1) instead of juxtaposing them creates a more homogenous woodwind choir sound with the “general” woodwind character rather than clearly distinctable sound colours. However, take care with the weak registers of the instruments to balance these chords properly.

#orchestration


10/13/10: When you get a script of a movie you’re going to score in advance, be aware that it is not like reading a book and without experience you probably quickly get a wrong impression of what it’s going to be in the end. Very extensive montage scenes with lots of music might only be mentioned very briefly while small dialogue scenes might appear very big and important. Take care to not fall into these traps and start to conzeptualize your music according to this (probably) wrong impression. Also, be aware that scripts are usually written in a way that one page equals 1 minute of movie later .

#general


10/12/10: Many really effective melodies rely on so called “second bridges”, meaning that the important notes that outline the shape of this melody move in seconds upwards or downwards. E.g. Let your melody reach a C, embellish that C melodically, moving away from it a bit but reaching a D after a while and so on. This is highly effective with minor or major seconds but also works with thirds. (Example: Flying Theme from E.T.)

#composition


10/11/10: When writing film music, your primary goal should always be to not just double what is already visible on the screen but add another dimension to the pictures. In some cases, simple doubling can not be avoided but a film score that purely reduces itself on just being there to say what is already transported by the image quickly feels dull and boring. When you compose, always ask yourself “What can I say here, that is not visible? What actual emotion lies beneath the surface?”

#general


10/10/10: Most orchestra tune to a=442 Hz which is better for them regarding intonation. However, it can get quite nasty when you want to incorporate prerecorded elements. It is preferrable to tune those prerecorded elements up rather than tuning the orchestra down (either on stage oder later in the mix).

#technical


10/9/10: Celli in their high register are incredibly expressive and are great to also take over a melody, especially when you need something to feel really full of passion. They are also great to provide contrapuntal melodies to your main melody.

#orchestration


10/8/10: Collapsing all frequencies below 200Hz to mono helps to create punch when you’re suffering from an unfocussed bass register in the mix. This is especially helpful in orchestral surround mixes where you want a focused punchy bass on the subwoofer.

#technical


10/7/10: Always remember that the purpose of film music is to serve the movie and not the other way round. When writing film music you should put your ego on the side. 75% of the viewers/listeners awareness lies on the images. Get used to not being able to hear every detail or sometimes even major parts of your music in the final mix. Don’t try to do the craziest most awesome music inventions in a simple mood score. Get used to not many people remembering a single note of your score. But also get used to being part of an amazing collaborative effort.

#general


10/6/10: There are lots of symmetric scales, which create very nice soundscapes which fit very well for unsettling action scoring and “unearthly” emotional colours. One of my favourite of these scales is the 1-3-scale and 3-1-scale. The later one e.g. allows you to create quite alot of fantastic sounding polytonal situations as you have for example Cm, Em and Abm triads in this scale. It actually works to base whole compositions on these scales. Composer Oliver Messiaen based quite a lot of his work on such scales, which he called Modes of limited transposition.

#composition


10/5/10: In recording situations, you have to count in that – unless they are seperated by walls – percussion instruments will spill on any other microphone in the room. Later in the mix, you will hardly have any chance to change their volume so make sure they play at an appropriate dynamic level when you’re recording them. Same goes for heavy brass especially trumpets.

#technical


10/4/10: Effective orchestral tutti climaxes tend to bring in the trumpets only very close before the climax. They work great by coming in as a sustained crescendoing chord which reaches a nice beefy sffz chord on the climax and from there decrescendo away again. This is way more effective than using them all the way through, because you safe the rich harmonic spectrum they provide for the REAL climax. One of the best known examples for such an effective build-up is the climax in “Leia’s Theme” by John Williams. The trumpets come in only one bar before the climax.

#orchestration


10/3/10: Comedy scoring is one of the most difficult things to do tastefully. The best effect can be achieved by scoring comedy scenes dead serious to make the absurdity even greater. E.g. a completely ridiculous person who pretends to be heroic is even more ridiculous when you give him a heroic fanfare rather than doing funny music. Also, don’t overdo the mickey-mousing. It works great when used sparsely but is really annoying when it’s been overdone.

#general


10/2/10: Before you start scoring, calculate how much music is needed for the project. The most effective way to monitor your own speed is to set a daily amount of music that has to be written. However, be aware that action sequences generally take more work than for example emotional scenes. So your daily rate might naturally vary a bit depending on what scene you work on, so don’t feel too safe when you’re ahead of time and don’t panic too much when you’re behind as long as you keep the average.

#general


10/1/10: Straight mutes help to fit in trumpets in smaller line-ups. Usually you need quite a large orchestra to balance out trumpets. The straight mute doesn’t alter much of the sound but makes the trumpets softer.

#orchestration


09/30/10: In most music productions for cinema, it is very common to “help” sustained (string) chords to gain body by adding a deep synth pad to the recording (either the whole chord or just the bass note) at a volume where you don’t hear the synth but where it creates that “oomph” sensation you expect from the subwoofer channel in the cinema.

#technical


09/29/10: Be sure about the hierarchic structure in a project. Try to find out as early as possible who’s gonna be responsible for signing off music cues. Usually this should be the director but it’s also possible that the producer or somebody else is in charge of deciding that. The worst case scenario is an unclear hierarchic structure as it sometimes occurs in less professional productions where director and producer etc. fight over the authorities. In this case you should try to avoid getting in the battle line and make clear statements that you want ONE authority to work with. If the situation still does not settle after a while you should make clear that you will not continue to work like this or quit the project all together. DON’T try to work under such circumstances as it most likely will cause you an enormous amount of extra work and be extremely annoying.

#working together


09/28/10: One rule of good melodic writing (which can be confirmed when looking at successful melodies) is that the highest (and also lowest) note of the melody should only occur once in the melody. Also, the highest note shouldn’t be a note that wants to resolve upwards (e.g. the 7th note of a major scale).

#composition


09/27/10: For better intonation, you should prefer to divisi your string sections rather than let them play multiple stops. You will not gain more substance just because you let 10 violins play double stops rather than 5 violins each play a single note. The only multiple stops that are safe to be played by a section are the ones which involve open strings. Also, in certain situations, you might want to call for multiple stops (e.g. short accents etc.).

#orchestration


09/26/10: If you need to write a cue or score in a style that you are not completely familiar with, do some DECENT research. Don’t just listen to one or two tracks in that style. Great sources for research are for example Youtube, iTunes and Napster. And don’t just listen to it while you’re doing something else. Get an understanding of what defines that style, analyze what you hear. If after a while you still feel uncomfortable with that style, don’t feel too proud to ask someone for help. There’s nothing worse than a music cue that sticks out like a sore thumb because one can clearly notice that the composer had not a single clue of what he or she was doing. In the extreme case, you should probably rather refuse to do a certain gig rather than spoiling your name with something that you know you can’t eventually pull off.

#general


09/25/10: You can spice up almost any chord with an added ninth. This works particularly well on scoring emotional situations and adds a bit of harmonic complexity to otherwise simple chords. It works particularly well on major, minor and dominant situations. Additionally you can create lovely inner voice movements by resolving the ninths to the chord fundamental.

#composition


09/24/10: Clarinets are capable of creating incredible low dynamics. This is highly effective on (de)crescendos, as they can virtually come out of and go to nowhere. This works great for suspense moments where you have a Bass Clarinet at hand. Be aware, that this is not possible on Bassoons which will always come in with a small accent.

#orchestration


09/23/10: When music is being played very softly (e.g. in dialogue scenes), the ear needs way more bass in the mix than it would need for cues with higher volumes for the music to feel balanced. Take this into account in the mix (be aware about what final volume your cue will have) but also when orchestrating.

#technical


09/22/10: In REALLY dramatic moments in movies, it usually works way better to understate the drama than to go for big. There’s usually no need to double obvious emotions with the music and when doing so, it quickly tends to feel cheesy. Most of the very touching moments in movies are very sparsely scored. You might even consider leaving particular scenes in musical silence.

#composition


09/21/10: For recording sessions to run as smoothly as possible, plan a recording order. Consider that musicians sitting around with nothing to do are just unneccessary noise sources, so if you have cues with smaller line-up, put them to the end of the session and send the not needed musicians home early. Also, don’t put all super brass heavy cues together as you need to make sure that your brass players have enough rests. Another thing that helps is to put stylistically similar cues together in the order.

#general


09/20/10: The volume of instruments does not grow proportional to their amount. To double the volume of a single violin, you need 4 violins, however, to double the volume of these 4 violins, you already need 16 violins. So all in all, the volume of the 1st violins sections is only about 3 times as loud as a solo violin. Keep that in mind when you’re unsure about volume balance.

#technical


09/19/10: Voicing trombones (or rather low brass) in open chord structures gives you a very filmic and broad sound. However there’s a low limit for that (below that it starts to sound muddy) and a high limit as well where the chords start to lose resonance and the first trombone tends to get very high. Also, a combination of open and close structures gives great results (the example would be great for 4 trombones + tuba).

#orchestration


09/18/10: In really tight budget situations, prefer to spice up a sample production with a few really good live players (e.g. one really good violin player layered on top of sampled violins) instead of desperately trying to get a big line-up (e.g. student orchestra, amateur orchestra) for the money. Bad intonation, playing errors etc. will stick out much more in the final movie than a slightly artificial sounding orchestra.

#technical


09/17/10: Try to communicate with the sound department as soon as possible to discuss certain scenes where there might be conflicts between sound and music. Also make sure to talk about any noises that might have an actual pitch (like phone rings, door bells etc.) as some situations might occur where such sounds could heavily clash with the music. When discussing with them, talk about where they might leave frequency ranges free (where you can come in with your music). E.g. when they say “In scene X we have lots of bass rumbling, low engine sounds etc.” so you know you can write something that comes through in the high frequency range. Of course such discussions are mostly effective for action scenes. When you have to leave room free for dialogue, make sure you don’t cover that range!

#working together


09/16/10: Be aware of minor ninths or minor ninths + octave(s) in your chord structure. This interval creates a high dissonance whose harmonics are strong enough to destroy any other part of your chord structure. Especially on sustained chords in the orchestra, this harsh dissonance can spoil quite a bit. Dangerous chord types for this are: badly voiced Maj7, minor9th, #11 chords. However a minor ninth can sound lovely in a dominant situation.

#composition


09/15/10: Directors are usually very insecure during the scoring process of a movie. Most directors have a basic knowledge of how things are done during the post production process. They know basically how VFX are made, they know what’s been done during editing etc. But usually they have no clue of how music is being composed, which is not a very comfortable feeling for someone who is in charge of everything. Count in for these insecurities and do everything to give him or her the feeling of not losing control over the process of creation. This will avoid a lot of tension and possible conflicts.

#working together


09/14/10: The higher you go with violins, the more violins you need to prevent it from sounding thin. When you’re dealing with a fairly small line-up, consider for example doubling the 1st violins with the 2nds in unisons rather than in octaves. Do not divide the firsts in such situations unless you go for a thin sound but as long as you are after a lush hollywood sound, make sure to have as many violins as possible on your top line.

#orchestration


09/13/10: When writing melodies, consecutive leaps in the same direction should usually not exceed one octave as this will create the feeling of melodic disjointedness. Also a melodic leap in one direction, followed by a melodic step in the opposite direction sounds more pleasing to the ear than consecutive leaps. This does not apply for every occasion but is a good rule of thumb.

#composition


09/12/10: Unprepared tempo changes are quite tricky with live ensembles in clicked scoring session situations, especially when you change to a tempo that is not an easy multiple or fraction of the old tempo. You will most likely end up needing at least 2 beats until everybody settles in the new tempo. An elegant way around that is inserting one or two empty bars after the tempo changes which click in the new tempo so everybody can pick it up and start playing tight in the new tempo. Later in the editing/mixing, just edit those empty bars out.

#technical


09/11/10: One bow length on the violin lasts approx. 12 seconds in pp, 6 seconds in p, 3 seconds in mf, 1 second in f and 0.5 seconds in ff. On violas, cellos and basses these numbers are slightly shorter. Keep those times in mind when you’re writing legato passages for strings and you’re unsure where to change bows. (When writing for strings a slur means that all notes under it are supposed to be played with one bow.)

#orchestration


09/10/10: Have a clear music concept for your score. Decide on an unique style, unique elements, sounds, instrumentations and of course themes and motifs for your whole score. Give all your cues a uniqueness that glues them together and lets the complete score feel like a whole. Don’t fall in the trap scoring every scene on its own as this will create a feeling of “random library music put together”. This does NOT apply for comedies which obviously play with stylistic jumps.

#general


09/09/10: When writing for harp, prefer flat (and therefore unshortened) strings as they sound more resonant. Even go for flat key signatures for harp only if neccessary or possible (e.g. Gb-major in the harp even if all the rest is in F# major).

#orchestration


09/09/10: Never ever go for any particular music style just because you personally like it! Do what serves the project best, even if it’s just a harmonica and bass. Nothing feels more awkward than a stylistically half-baked music concept.

#general


09/09/10: Involve your client into the process of creation all the time! a) It will save you time from extensive rewrites as your client can intervene during the process when it’s not going where he or she wants it to and b) you will give your client the feeling of being part of the creation which will calm down possible shaky personalities.

#working together


09/09/10: In dialogue scenes, avoid to solo feature any instruments in the range of the speaking voice, particularly tricky are bassoons with male speakers.

#technical


09/09/10: As a director, do not give your composer orders about what instruments to use or not to use unless you’re 100% sure about that! Every instrument in an orchestra has its role which has grown over hunderts of years. If you want to take one certain group or instrument out you MUST have an absolutely plausible reason. “I don’t like the sound” is no such reason.

#working together

If you want to read the most recent Tips, Tricks and Hints, head over to the other DAILY FILM SCORING BITS ARCHIVES!

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