Daily Film Scoring Bits – Archive Jan-Jun 2011

Posted on Jan 1, 2011 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits Archive of January to June 2011!

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6/30/11: Triplets are very common rhythmic values, especially in march-like score music but also in action scores etc. and they have quite a few special properties. The first one is, that they create a subjective tendency of a slow-down and more emphasis on the notes, e.g. when you have a row of 16th notes and suddenly bring in eighth-note triplets, it will give a quite dramatic effect of “stepping on the brake”. Also, long rows of triplets give a more “rolling” rhythmic feeling (for example see swing music which is basically based on rows of triplets, which has a special rhythmic flow) so when you base your piece on triplets (or on a 6/8 or 12/8 feel, which is basically the same) it will feel more rhythmically flowing than binary rhythms. Another fantastic effect is the layering of straight notes and triplets which gives a nice rhythmic feel and makes your music rhythmically more intersting, switching around between a binary and a ternary feel within a melody/phrase etc. can create very subtle but interesting rhythmic effects, however is highly a matter of style.

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6/29/11: When conceptualizing a score, it often helps to find a distinctive direction or tone when taking geographical settings into account. This may for example be the location where the movie is playing or the heritage of the main character(s). This of course works mostly in movies that are set in reality. However, this should only be done when there is actually a relevance to the heritage or location, for example when the story sometimes involves dialogues about heritage or if the location where the movie is set in has a very unique atmosphere. In some occasions, it might just be too much to “localize” the score and might feel very redundant. A good example for this is John Williams’ score of “Angela’s Ashes”, which is set most of the time in Ireland of the 1930s. Still, he decided to not have a distinctive Irish idiom in the music as it is obvious anyway and the drama rather weaves around the inside feelings of the main character. As an opposing example, “Far and Away” by the same composer deals with a Irish couple of Emigrants who “take” their heritage also musically to America.

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6/28/11: When working for media, you’re often in the dilemma of working for people without lots of musical knowledge. And especially when you’re starting off, you’re very often in the situation that your customers might be pleased or even enthusiastic about weak musical ideas or tracks. As a consequence this might lead yourself to thinking that you can please your customers even with music that you don’t think is your best effort. Thinking like that has several high dangers: a) you will get stuck on your level of musicianship as you don’t challenge yourself to improve, b) you might lose future projects from people who are musically more demanding and don’t see that you could potentially do much better and therefore c) you might get stuck at your level of professionalism getting only work from less demanding customers. Just have a look at the big names at the top: none of them is someone who got there just by writing mediocre music (and even if he/she did, the fame will not last long as seen with many “one-shot” composers who do one big score and get forgotten after that again). As in practically every field, in the long run only quality prevails and even if you might seem to be able to please your current customer with playing a C-major scale up and down, you should still try to put your best effort into any project.

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6/27/11: Horns at their lowest register are very hard to control and don’t have much carrying power. The epic low horns you often hear in scores are achieved by using eight or more horns. If you use a regular orchestra with four horns, it might be tricky to get a real epic low horn sound unless you have excellent players. Still, it will be tricky to balance them against the rest of the brass and still make sure that line comes out. Also, the lowest register is not really suitable for fast playing. The less control in the low register often results in intonation issues which get even worse, the faster you go. In most “regular” cases, the trombones are better suited to carry the low brass lines.

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6/25/11: Depending on the action that you need to hit on the screen it is quite important to hit it dead on. The human perception will be able to notice a discrepancy of two frames between visual and musical accents and therefore, you should not exceed that and try to be as dead on as possible. Discrepancy is especially noticeable on very short visual actions, like a flash. However actions that last for a while on the screen (like an expolsion fire ball which builds up, reaches its maximum and vanishes again) has a bit more tolerance concerning the timing of the musical accent.

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6/24/11: In practically any chord type and progression you can add fantastic sounding inner voices by relying on the 9-1 resolution. When you for example use a C major chord and want to use it in a string setting, it will give you a lovely inner voice when some instrument (apart from the bass of course) plays a melodic phrase from D (which would be the 9th of the chord) to C as long as this chord sustains. You can use this principle on almost every chord and when done cleverly you can create long inner melody lines over several bars which will enrich your music a lot. Of course, use your ear to determine whether it is going too far with these resolutions and make sure to not have these resolutions all the time in the same instrument.

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6/23/11: Film music can have a quite tremendous effect on the focus of perception. Imagine a sequence where a couple in love walks hand in hand through a park at night. In this case you can focus with the music on two things: a) the couple and their emotions – writing a romantic music or b) the surrounding park, which at night might seem quite dangerous and scary – writing suspenseful music. Of course, you can also write music that incorporates both. But depending on what dramaturgical reason you have, you can go either way. If for example we continue with a scene where the couple comes home and a romantic scene follows, you would probably not want to take the dark park into account on the scoring, however when in this park something ominous will happen, then of course the focus should rather be on the surrounding.

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6/22/11: When you negotiate on a deal or a contract, always make sure that the the crediting is agreed on and included in it. It should include HOW you want to be credited (“music by X”, “original score composed by X” etc.) and where you will be credited (Main Titles? End Titles? Single Card Credit (the ones that fade in and out) or part of the Rolling Titles?, but also: on posters/banners/flyers etc? on merchandise products?) Sorting these issues out right from the beginning will save you a lot of hassle and possible conflicts. Of course for yourself as a composer it is frustrating to see a poster of your movie without your name but for the makers this could easily happen and for them you’re just one name of many so sorting out these issues is one of the first things that should be done.

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6/21/11: The Glockenspiel is a fantastic intstrument to highlight soft chords or double a melody. It works especially well to play the highest note of a pointillistic chord or line on the Glockenspiel. Also, when doubling very active melodies on it, you should rather prefer to play just the important notes of the melody there as otherwise you will get a lot of annoying high frequency mud. However, you should try to avoid to have the Glockenspiel play a melody on its own in the orchestra. Even though it stands out quite well, due to the fact that it has a lot of high harmonics but less carrying power on the actual tone, it will obscure the melody it is playing when it is not doubled somewhere else.

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6/20/11: When writing music to images, nowadays you will most likely see and work with a video time code in the format rr:mm:ss:ff (r=reel, m=minute, s= second, f=frame), which is the most logical way to set a timecode format for working with video. Depending on the film format, you might have frames counting up to 24, 25 or 30 each second. Any movie that has been shot on 16/35mm film will most likely run at a frame rate of 24 frames per second. The TV Format PAL runs at 25 frames per seconds and the TV Format NTSC runs at 30 frames per seconds. You should set the software you work with to the proper film format but most software has all possible options available. Of course, you should not confuse different frame rates when working and while you might not notice that your software counts 30 frames each second while the video file you use only counts up to 24 frames each second in its printed in timecode it will create quite a tremendous difference when you need to communicate with people who work on the movie as well regarding timings and your timings differ a few frames from theirs.

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6/17/11: The human western ear is very much focussed on structures formed out of 2, 4 ,8 ,16 ,32 or 64 bars and will perceive melodic phrases that fulfill this form as very logical and natural. Usually there are even substructures in larger forms, so for example an 8 bar melody can be structurally split into two four bar groups which by itself can be structurally split into two two-bar groups. As effective as this might be to give structure to a composition overusing this principle makes music very forseeable and less interesting. Sometimes, it is very interesting for the ear to for example hear a structure that contains an odd number of bars, actually there are even in western civilisations a lot of folk tunes that sound very logical with a “catch” and when looking at the structure you might find 5-bar melodies etc. Another surprising way to create an interesting structure is to write in an even form of bars, however slightly extending or shortening the last bar, e.g. 7 bars of 4/4 and the eighth bar is a 7/8 or 5/4. Of course, this needs to feel logical by the phrasing but it is just a nice way to catch the interest of your listener again which might otherwise get lost a bit on too forseeable structures.

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6/15/11: Emotional manipulation is one of the “every day’s” business of a film composer and even though it might seem like a not very respectable thing to do, practically every score does this. Emotional moments are filled with sad strings to push the tears etc. However, depending on the style and genre of the movie, this can be a very sensitive matter. While it is perfectly okay and expected to score the death of a main character in an epic space sci-fi saga with hugely dramatic music, full symphonic forces and high intensity, doing such a thing in a drama where one main character just died of cancer or something like this will be one of the worst things you can do. Generally, in any “serious” genre, dealing with topics that are more reality-based you should go much easier on the emotional manipulation. The audience will feel that the music is pushing their emotions and it will react very irritated on being so blatantly forced into feeling certain things. It is more appropriate in dramas to go very soft on the emotions and score very sparesley. If the mentioned drama scene from above needs any score at all, it should be very light, piano, soft strings etc. and avoid anything that might feel like a forced emotion.

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6/14/11: Critizism is something that is hard to digest for any artist but it is also something every artist has to live with. It is impossible to please everybody and sooner or later every composer will meet someone who hates his work. However, dealing professionally with critizism is crucial, especially in the networked world of the internet. Never ever react insulting, offended or in the way of “Well, do it better then!”. This is just highly unprofessional and will probably cause way more damage to your reputation than a negative critic. First of all, think about whether it is wise to respond at all. If you actually feel like you need to respond in order to make a few things clear, then always react friendly, even if you’re biting your teeth at that time. Also, avoid acting arrogant, at least leave the impression that you’re taking the critizism seriously. There’s no use in blowing off steam, it will just worsen things so discipline yourself. Also, of course, some or all of the points of the critizism might be valid and valuable to consider on the next occasion.

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6/13/11: The sound of the double basses section is tonally quite unfocused in its very low register. It is hardly possible to determine the exact pitch. That is not a big problem when you put a quite easily understandable chord on top of it which by its harmonic series logically narrows down the pitch of the basses for the ear but when you use a bass note that is not the root/3rd/5th/7th of the chord on top or write a solo bass line, it gets a bit more tricky for the ear. The most common solution is to double the basses an octave higher (or at pitch (Contrabassoon, Tuba)) with another instrument. This will stabilize the sound and give a clear pitch impression. Most commonly you would double with the celli, however basically ANY doubling an octave higher eliminates that problem. Of course, the “unfocussed” sound of the low basses can be used as a nice special effect.

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6/12/11: When you record music with live musicians bring someone with another pair of trained ears into the booth (as long as you’re not conducting). When you’re recording music for 8 hours a day you start to hear ghosts or serious problems slip by. It often occurs later in the mix to find spots where you ask yourself “Why didn’t I hear that, I should have done another take.” Basically, you have to count in for that, you can not concentrate on sync, orchestration, interpretation, wrong notes, noises and bad tuning at the same time. Someone who has a good pair of ears will be very helpful, especially when you instruct him/her to listen to specific things. Usually your recording engineer will specifically listen for clippings, noises and make sure the recording quality is good. And while you read along with the score sheet to see whether all parts are there and present, you just need someone else to have a look at the picture or just listen for the interpretation. The bigger the production, the more people you will have in the booth but it’s not a rare case that you might end up being alone in the booth with the engineer which will just not be enough to ensure that all aspects of the recording are fine.

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6/10/11: Writing music for film often has a danger of just writing “bridgeing” music that just fills time until the next hit point. While sometimes it can’t be avoided to just fill bars between hit points in order to not have an overly cluttered start-and-stop cue, it should never feel like you have nothing to say musically in between. There is always a certain self control needed of asking yourself “What am I saying here?” and actually putting effort into such sequences and not just into parts where the music clearly needs to do something. One dull idea while writing a “bridge” can really feel very out of place and spoil the whole perception of a cue.

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6/9/11: Source music is music that can be heard by the characters in the movie (radio in the hotel room, band playing etc.) and is usually also written by the film composer. However, many inexperienced composers treat that music just as a neccessary thing that has to be done somehow. However, source music can be just as important and effective as score. And it can be just as wrong as bad scoring. In a tragic scene which has a radio in the background, you wouldn’t want to have happy music playing on it but music that somehow guides the emotions as well. Source music is not just “any” music but music that also needs to fulfill a dramatic purpose. There are also possibilites where the source music can transform into score music or the other way around which can create a fantastic effect of “pulling the audience into the movie”.

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6/8/11: It is quite important to keep your name in the rotation with important business contacts, even when you’re currently not working with them. Especially people who are very busy quickly forget people they worked with after a while and need a small reminder of your existance from time to time. Good ways to keep the contact is to send over emails or cards for birthdays, christmas or other such events (avoid any e-cards!). Also following their projects and congratulating to successful releases etc. is a good idea. It is NOT a good idea to write messages every few days, to permanently call, to keep posting “funny” stuff on their facebook etc. Still, a little sign of life every once in a while might be tremendously helpful to get you a possible next job. However, it is important to not make the impression that you’re obviously only contacting in order to get a new project. Make sure that your messages don’t seem too obviously goal orientated at first sight.

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6/7/11: If you want woodwinds to come through in an orchestral tutti, you need to write them very edgy. It is not uncommon to see practically every woodwind doubling (in octaves) on a melody line that needs to compete only against strings and a little brass. However, this will not work at all when you have a loud tutti going on in the rest so basically, putting a melody in the woodwinds works at max in medium tuttis. Anything louder/bigger needs doubling somewhere else. Basically, the only woodwinds you will be able to hear in a loud tutti will be the piccolo and high flutes so make sure to write them in their bright high register if you want them to have a chance. Still, even though the woodwinds might not be distinctivly audible, they add a lot to the ensemble sound and size of the orchestra, so you should still put effort into writing good parts for them, even though you might think that this part will not be heard anyway.

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6/6/11: When you produce prerecorded tracks before recording an orchestra/ensemble it will help your musicians alot to have them on their headphone mix together with the click. This is especially important for any percussion track which will help them to play tighter and more rhythmically focussed. However take care for the headphone mix to be transparent and only include the most important things (e.g. like percussion), there’s no need to put in sfx swooshes or anything else that just works for the effect as it will not give your musician any more guide and most likely be something that might bleed over on the microphones.

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6/5/11: Building towards a climax requires also your melody to increase tension which is not only possible by “going higher and higher”. When analyzing melodic structures that build towards a climax, usually several characteristics of the melody push it towards the climax. Apart from the already mentioned “higher pitches” which obviously create the feeling of a buildup, successful melodic buildups start to create tension also on a rhythmic level by using more rhythmic activity. What also helps tremendously is to increase the intervals the melody spans towards the climax. One of the masterful examples of how to build up melodic tension towards a climax is John Williams’ “Leia’s Theme”. Have a listen to the string melody close to the big climax and how much it increases subjective speed by using smaller rhythmic values and how much the melody becomes more and more restless by spanning larger and larger intervals. Analyzing this melody shows that every single character of it “pull on the same end” to bring it to the climax.

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6/3/11: When scoring a quite busy scene with lots of hit points, mood-changes etc. you might need to “sacrifice” some musical reactions in favor of writing music that does not feel chopped up. For example, when there’s a big car chase and you have a brief cut at the face of the protagonist who just looks over to his wife on the passenger seat with a loving expression, you might want to react on that with the music in some kind, but depending on the speed and action of the sequence, it might be wiser to ignore it or just react very briefly in order to not chop up the pace of the music.

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6/2/11: When you’re on a tight music budget and still want to record an orchestra, it is a good plan to set up orchestral sessions with a so-called A-, B- and sometimes even C-orchestra, meaning that you specifically write certain cues for a smaller line-up to save musicians. For example, you do all the heroic, big orchestra, full-blown cues in one session with the A orchestra (your largest line-up), the next session you book without trumpets, less percussion, less woodwinds, smaller string line-up and record all the cues that don’t need the “full force” in that session and in the third session you only book strings and record all cues that need only a pad sound. Of course, this needs some planning in advance to book the right amount of players, but it is helpful to specifically set up a line-up for each orchestra size and sort in the cues for each session. When this is done cleverly, you can reduce the session cost quite a bit.

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6/1/11: It is a very typical scoring device to double all string instruments apart from the basses in octaves on the melody. John Williams has done this very often (for example the very well know sweeping string main theme of E.T.). This orchestration creates a very rich and sweeping string sound. Usually you would spread the strings out in 3 octaves (1sts in the octave below the C 3 octaves above middle c), seconds an octave lower, violas another octave lower and cellos another octave lower, however constellation spanning two octaves work as well. The critical point in such orchestration is to make sure the cellos don’t get too low (approx. the c one octave below middle c), otherwise they will start conflicting with the basses and you will create a lot of mud. Also be aware that by orchestrating this way you have practically no harmonic material in the strings which of course needs to be compensated in other sections (usually trombones & horns).

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5/31/11: When you’re doing an orchestral recording session, make sure the balance between section is as good as possible already on the stage. It is very tricky to “recover” drowned instruments later in the mix. Unless you have no really strict acoustic separation or you record in sections, there will be practically every instrument on every microphone. If you later want to recover a too soft oboe solo, you might get a chance to adjust the level of its spot microphone, however at the same time you will most likely pull up the instruments sitting around and behind that oboe as well. Also, you can only pull up the signals from the spot mics to a certain level as it will have an effect on the “depth” of the sound when you suddenly hear a close-miced oboe sound sitting right at your nose while the rest of the orchestra feels way more in the back.

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5/30/11: Cluster voicings are another possibility to add interesting harmonic structures to your music. As opposed to “normal” clusters, cluster voicings follow a certain scale structure incorporating only notes of the current scale into the voicing, as a result a cluster voicing might consist of minor and major seconds (and in rare cases augmented seconds). Cluster voicings are formed out of adjacent scale notes, for example a lydian cluster voicing might consist of F#,G,A,B and C. Still, as these voicings rely on a certain scale, they imply in spite of a very dense structure, a certain tonality. Such voicings work great when building towards a climax with lots of tension, e.g. writing a phrase that starts with open voicings that get denser and denser towards the climax where it reaches a cluster voicing. It also works to use cluster voicings in a whole passage, especially action drriven scores benefit highly from such voicings. Another technique, that comes more from modern Big Band writing but nevertheless is very useful in orchestral writing as well is to harmonize a melody in cluster voicings (preferably doubling the melody line at unison or an octave to make sure it stands out on top of the dense structure).

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5/29/11: Writing a theme/motif for one or several characters of a movie can help a great deal to dramaturgically connect important things, however, a lot of unexpierienced composers tend to write too many themes. A theme/motif should be neccessary and not obligatory. For example, a theme/motif is often used when the character has an iconic characteristic, meaning for example that he/she stands for the evil in general, or for the longing etc. or when the character’s presence or influence needs to be made clear even though he/she is not on screen. However, you don’t need a theme just for an evil guy who appears once in the movie or anything like this. Working with themes also often creates a very operatic feeling which is not really suited for all movie genres.

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5/28/11: Recently it is more common as a composer to get a budget for the music and be responsible for paying everything from it, including orchestra etc. This is quite a delicate matter as of course you have to make sure that at the end there is money left for yourself or you don’t even go over budget. You need to very carefully budget any costs and plan very carefully where you spend money. There are also some things that tend to be easily forgotten, like copyist costs etc. Make sure to always budget with a bit of buffer as there always will be something coming up that you didn’t plan in beforehand.

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5/27/11: Large skips on string instruments are possible and easier performable as for example on a piano. However, it is not possible to do it seemless. When the player needs to skip from the lowest to the highest string, he/she needs to lift the bow and “carry” it over the 2 strings in between. This action needs a fraction of a second. Such issues might come up when you change the function of the strings between sections, e.g. first violins doing an active and busy string figure in 16th in the low/mid register and suddenly need to take over the melody in a very high register. Doing that skip within the last 16th to the next downbeat is practically impossible and you might either lose the last note on the figure or have the melody come in slightly late. The solution for this usually is writing the transition with a small deliberate gap, e.g. adjusting the last 4 16th notes to 2 16th + 8th note and give the formerly last 16th note to the woodwinds or something like this.

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5/25/11: When you’re mixing music that will be under a dialogue in the movie, try mixing it as “spacey” as possible in the critical freuqency range (low mids). If you clutter this frequency range too much by for example bringing up the trombones, bassoons etc. it is very likely that it will get mixed very low in the final mix in order to guarantee for a clearly understandable dialogue. If you want your music to still be heard, make sure to mix in some space for the voice. This can even go as far as feeling slightly “something missing” in the pure music mix which will be no problem in the movie as this frequency range will be covered by the voice anyway.

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5/24/11: One of the main principles of tonal music and how music works is the duality between tension and resolution. This applies in micro structures (like a melody tone that sets up tension and resolves to a non-tension note) as well as in large structures (a whole part of a movement which builds up towards a massive climax followed by a resolution). Harmonic structures very much rely on the resolution between dominant and tonic as well, meaning that dominants build up tension (by incorporating dissonances like the tritone between third and seventh of a dominant 7 chord) which resolve to a consonance in the following tonic. Film music relies often on using tonic chords which are quite rich in their intervallic relations, especially any modal-based composition (often action scores). A lydian chord works very well as tonic chord, however incorporates for example the dissonant tritone between root and #11. Using a plain dominant 7 chord as dominant which has the tritone as maximum dissonant interval in such situation gives understandably no chance for a resolution. Therefore you need to create stronger dissonance in your dominant in such cases in order to remain in the basic principle of tension and resolution. Very often in film music a dominant is based on the scale of HM5 (5th degree of harmonic minor) which is a mixolydian scale with a flattened 9th and flattened 13. With these harmonic options available, you can create a very strong dissonance (two b9, tritone,…) which gives the impression to properly resolve when being followed by a lydian chord.

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5/24/11: One of the main principles of tonal music and how music works is the duality between tension and resolution. This applies in micro structures (like a melody tone that sets up tension and resolves to a non-tension note) as well as in large structures (a whole part of a movement which builds up towards a massive climax followed by a resolution). Harmonic structures very much rely on the resolution between dominant and tonic as well, meaning that dominants build up tension (by incorporating dissonances like the tritone between third and seventh of a dominant 7 chord) which resolve to a consonance in the following tonic. Film music relies often on using tonic chords which are quite rich in their intervallic relations, especially any modal-based composition (often action scores). A lydian chord works very well as tonic chord, however incorporates for example the dissonant tritone between root and #11. Using a plain dominant 7 chord as dominant which has the tritone as maximum dissonant interval in such situation gives understandably no chance for a resolution. Therefore you need to create stronger dissonance in your dominant in such cases in order to remain in the basic principle of tension and resolution. Very often in film music a dominant is based on the scale of HM5 (5th degree of harmonic minor) which is a mixolydian scale with a flattened 9th and flattened 13. With these harmonic options available, you can create a very strong dissonance (two b9, tritone,…) which gives the impression to properly resolve when being followed by a lydian chord.

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5/23/11: The intensity of hitting an action or a certain moment in a music cue is a quite delicate matter. Inexperienced composers tend to over-accent such moments most of the time. Minor actions sound like highly dramatic moments and even while the mood of the overall cue is less “dramatic”, over-accenting a hit point can feel very over-scored and out of place. Determine whether the moment that you’re hitting really needs to be heavily accented or whether it is just a small accent and reduce the forces that you’re using accordingly. Also, check how much the accent you’re hitting is already highlighted in the movie. If there’s a dialogue going on and in one of the sentences a really big revelation is made even though the visual language or scene pace doesn’t change, you need to step in stronger with the music as in scenes where the same revelation takes place by a sudden slow motion, flash-back montage with heavy sound effects. Doubling this will rather cause a feeling of redundancy.

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5/20/11: Play a fair game. Ripping off people you work with is definitely one of the worst ideas. In the media world, reputation and the word of mouth are very strong factors. Once you get a reputation as someone who doesn’t play fair business, you’re likely to hardly get rid of this again. This applies also for one-time-contacts or small deals who might seem to have no big business relevance at first. They can easily grow to a reputation killer, especially with social media connecting people (of the same working field) so close together. And you might never know if that small musician that you just ripped off by paying too late, tricking him/her into signing bad agreements etc. doesn’t have connections to one of your major contacts etc. Being a fair player, trustworthyness, friendlyness, loyality and reliabilty are things that might at first maybe take a chance from you to somehow get a few extra bucks. But this is way worth it over the long run.

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5/19/11: The orchestral bass drum can create fantastic effects and is the only intrument in the orchestra which can create a sound that can also be felt. However, you need to be aware that, as opposed to a drum kit bass drum, the orchestral bass drum will ring out quite a while after a loud hit. As this instrument moves so much air, it easily covers your low register and creates mud there as well as obscuring the rest of the bass instrument. When you need a precise and well articulated bass register, this ringing out phase is quite tricky so you should notate in such circumstances to dampen the membrane right after the hit.

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5/18/11: Always ask for working copies of the movie that you score that contain a visible time code in the video. So many things can go wrong regarding the sync of music and movie (e.g. wrong framerates, weird video codec glitches etc.) that you should not leave any chances for them to happen unnoticed. Once your scoring software timecode and the timecode printed on the video are in sync (also still at the end of the video) chances are good that actually everything is running at the correct speed and correct frame rate and you can start composing.

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5/17/11: Composing on a piano is a great tool but can also limit yourself quite heavily. For example, chord voicings that sound good or decent on a piano don’t translate too well to orchestra. The biggest problem with such voicings usually is the gap between left and right hand and the limited spread of the left hand. You will end up with quite hollow chord structures and muddy low registers when translating piano chords 1:1 to orchestra. As a consequence you should never record complete chord sequences by playing them on your master keyboard but rather prefer recording them in several run throughs. It is important that you try to develop a inner ear and imagination for orchestral structures instead of relying on what you can play on your piano. It helps quite alot to sometimes rely on notating things instead of playing them into your sequencer even if you might find it much harder at the beginning.

#composition



5/16/11: It is incredibly important to have a strong discipline regarding naming, sorting and organizing versions of music cues. Sometimes you need to write several versions of a cue, sometimes you just need to change small things several times, and every time, you need to be absolutely sure that you’re working on the right version. The first important rule: always save a new version. Never overwrite or even delete an old version, you might need to come back to an old version later. Also, be absolutely clear about naming these versions. I’m using a system of giving consecutive numbers to major version changes (like complete rewrites or complete new sections) and consecutive letters to small fixes (like switching around an instrument etc.) so my cue versions look something like 3M5-3b meaning it’s the cue 3M5 which has been rewritten for the 3rd time and this version has had small changes for the second time. This is of course just my system and you can come up with any other system that helps you. Another good way to keep the overview is to have a cue sheet which always has the name of the latest version on it and it is also tremendously helpful to write in the version in the score sheet when you’re recording it with an orchestra to make sure absolutely nothing gets mixed up. This might seem like an overly redundant system but there is nothing worse than sitting at the scoring stage and just realizing that this is the wrong version which got somehow mixed up in the last few crunchy days composing.

#film scoring



5/14/11: When working with solo musicians or small ensembles where you have a very close personal interaction with the musicians, avoid being bossy, arrogant or overly buddy-like. It is important to keep a relaxed but focussed atmosphere. Also, you need to know in advance what you want, how you want the musician to play, what sort of sound and atmosphere you want him/her to create. It feels very unprofessional for your musician when you give no hint of which way to go. Especially in solos, notes can be interpreted in so many different ways. Think about how you want it in advance. Also, be open for proposals. Your musicians want to get the best out of this and might make suggestions where to improve and to make certain parts more idiomatic. It can be very frustrating for them when you unneccessarily insist on things just out of the feeling that you don’t want to give away your “authority”.

#general



5/13/11: When you want really crunchy low brass stabs (e.g. on every downbeat of a driving action sequence), you should avoid going to the lowest register with the bass trombone and tuba. In this register, the instruments are not as responsive and the notes created are less controlled. Rather prefer keeping them in the comfortable low register where the attack of the note is more aggressive and better “in time” and double this with vigorous cello/contrabass staccatos, timpani and/or percussion.

#orchestration



5/12/11: When you’re doing 5.1 mixes yourself or work with a mixer who is inexperienced in 5.1 mixing, you must make sure that the front center channel remains as free as possible. That doesn’t mean that there should be NO music at all but the level should be quite low compared to the L/R-channels. The center channel is more or less reserved for dialogue and as soon as you ramp up the music volume there, chances are high that your music gets mixed in very low in the final mix as the mixing engineer has to make sure that the dialogue remains clearly understandable and he’ll simply do that by pulling down the level of all 5 channels of your music.

#technical



5/11/11: When building towards a musical moment that is supposed to create an effect of a “shift”, a new part, a modulation, a climax etc. – short: something that is supposed to provide a new musical information, it is more effective to not anticipate this new information close before that. Let’s say your passage targets to a chord of C major with a melody note of a high C, played by trumpets, it is wisest to not have a C major chord or that high C in the melody or the high trumpets close before that target. It will sound way more like a new musical information when it actually is a new musical information. The effect gets anticlimactic when the “target” is already ringing in the listeners ear from close before.

#composition



5/10/11: Be aware that at least 75% of the audience’s attention during a movie lies on the images. As a consequence, writing too subtle (e.g. bringing a hint of the main theme in an accompanying figure etc) when it needs to have a dramatic effect (you need your audience to be aware that this is the main theme) might be a problem. It is great to “hide” musical gimmicks for anybody who wants to listen to the music seperated from the movie but as long as you need to have an effect in the movie, you should rather be more on the nose in order to reach your audience and create the desired effect.

#film scoring



5/9/11: Make no excuses. Acting professional involves sometimes swallowing bad working conditions. Nobody cares whether you just couldn’t get the five mins score done in one day or whether your cat has been sick or if your computer crashed every three clicks or your stupid director is the reason why your music is not great. What you present or publish needs to stand for itself. There’s nothing wrong in commenting on things that are still obviously work in progress though (like sketches that you present to directors), however it is not professional to whine on any issues that probably everybody working in the same field has to deal with. Don’t just go for “If x was happening, my music would be way better.”, just make it better or don’t mention it.

#general



5/8/11: Remember that your musicians are humans. If you want to get the best out of them, give them something interesting to do. Stupid repetitive patterns, sustained held notes for minutes etc. is nothing that is a real joy to play. The ideal is to have a voice for every musician that is musically interesting and fun to play. Of course, this ideal is not always achievable. Sometimes you simply need to write “boring” parts for certain musicians in order to get the musical effect you want, however it helps alot imagining your players and keeping in mind that they are human beings and not just “sounds”.

#orchestration



5/6/11: When recording with click, you obviously need a count-in click for everybody to settle on the tempo and get the right entrance. Depending on the tempo, one or two bars in advance should be enough for everybody. However when tempos are really fast or time signatures like 2/4 or 3/8 are used, you should think about doing even 4 bars of count-in. There are different ways of bringing the number of count-in bars across to the musician. 1.) Just tell them during the session – not the greatest solution as it will waste time and possibly not everybody will listen so some entrances might be spoiled. 2.) Write it into their parts (next to the tempo). I prefer this way because it usually eliminates any questions. In such cases, a tempo mark looks something like: quarter = 120 [2 bars count-in]. 3.) Leave one/two empty bars at the beginning of the score sheet written in. Also a way that works quite nicely, however you still might get occasional questions of “How many bars in?”.

#technical



5/5/11: The more singable a melody is, the catchier and easier to follow it is. The inner ear and brain relate best to melodies that have a shape that can be sung. An important factor of making a melody “cantabile” is to stay within a “plausible” range. Melodies that have a range of several octaves feel quite detached for the inner ear. Such melodies can make a great “special effect” and create a dramatic highlight, but in order to make a tune memorable, it should stay more or less in the range of one and a half octaves (the range a human voice usually covers easily). Another factor which makes melodies feel natural and catchy which relies on the same principle is to sub-divide them in to phrases (so you could breathe in between if you sang them). This gives the brain clues of logical order of the melody as well as a natural feeling of “humming it along”. Of course, there are many melodies which don’t fullfil these “rules” which are still great but chances are good that your melody gets more memorable when you follow these guides.

#composition



5/4/11: Melodies have become a bit old fashioned in film music recently and there are a lot of film scores in recent times that rely on motifs, sounds, chord structures etc. When writing a film score, you need to be aware of this tendency. No matter whether you decide to still write a melody driven score or you go for a percussive loop score, you need to know how expectations by your business partners are. Having a long extent love theme in a movie might quickly cause reactions like “this sounds too 80s” with your director/producer etc. and most likely with the audience as well as hardly any movie nowadays has such music. However, there are certain film genres (e.g. animation movies) where big melodies still fit perfectly and nobody questions the stylistic road. However, think about action movies, thrillers etc. Bringing in big melodies there nowadays needs you to have a lot of persuading power to actually get through with such a plan. And even though it migh be quite painful, be prepared to NOT be allowed to write a big theme tune.

#film scoring



5/3/11: There are two ways into making a living out of writing music for media. The first one, and probably more comfortable one, is to grow into it while you’re still young (being supported by your parents). By this way, you can build up contacts, and your professional profile and eventually make a living out of writing music. The second way needs quite a lot more of courage: save money to surivive a few months, a year or even several years (depending on how much professional resumee, experience and contacts you already have) and go for it. To my knowledge it is practically impossible to have a fulltime job and build up a composing career on the side for a longer time period. The problems will eventually be unsolvable once you’re asked to score a bigger project in a tight time frame. Of course, the time for this step needs to be chosen wisely but you need to be aware that especially at the beginning of a career you need to struggle full time to get jobs and eventually get paid jobs. There’s also no guarantee that you will make it after all, especially when you need to work on your craftmanship as well but as in every sector – in the end quality will prevail.

#general



5/2/11: Playing tremolos or trills on the strings can be a fantastic effect and create very interesting sound textures, however these techniques have a physical limit. You can not expect your violin players to hold that high suspensey tremolo note for a whole three minute sequence. It will push your players to their physical limit. On tremolo, louder dynamics are more tiresome than softer ones, trills are equally tiresome in every dynamic. It always helps to imagine your players, try to mock the movement they have to do and try to do it for as long as they have to do it. When your muscles start to ache and start to move less controlled, it’s a good sign to maybe think about giving your players a rest as well at that point.

#orchestration



4/30/11: As opposed to classical recording/production it’s very often seen and heard to use different types of reverb on different types of instruments in a film music mix. There might be quite a few sound engineers from the older days who claim that this is an absolute no-go, however you get such mixes in hollywood all the time. Of course, when incorporating busy percussion or rhythm driven elements, you don’t want to drown them in reverb and use less reverb or a more focussed one. However, such decisions can also be made purely from a sound esthetic point of view. One example that comes to mind is the (in my opinion) fantastic, yet quite uncommon sound mix from James Newton Howard’s Signs Main Title, where there is a huge range of the depth of reverb. While horns and brass are mixed with a lot of reverb and room ambience, the solo violin(s) are practically dry and very focussed upfront. You would never get anywhere near such a mix in a concert but for the matter of creating an eerie, aggressive violin sound, the decision was made to mix it very present.

#technical



4/29/11: So called upper structure triads can create a very rich harmonic sound and a feeling of bitonality without losing the tonal center. Depending on what scale you use there are more or less possible upper structure triads. Let’s say you’re in a lydian setting. A nice upper structure triad in C would be to put a D major chord on top of your C major basis, looking something like THIS. By creating clear structures like major chords you get a very brillant sound out of this upper structure and still create a very rich harmonic colour. Less successful sounding are minor, diminished or augmented triads as they don’t create as much resonance.

#composition



4/27/11: When scoring a quite long movie, there is a danger of losing the focus for a proper dramaturgy. Sometimes you work your way up to the climax of the movie but when you reach it, you notice that you scored the few preceding build-up scenes quite big and you need to score the climax bigger than you actually planned to in order to still keep it as a climax which might result in a feeling of overscoring. A good way to work against this is to score the climax scene quite early and set the “maximum music size” with that scene, or at least have a very precise concept in mind how you want to handle the climax scene. It is much easier then to score to and from this scene without running into danger of being too big or too small somewhere before or after.

#film scoring



4/26/11: Depending on what type of director/producer you’re working with, the way of presening your work to him/her makes quite a big difference. For example when your director is coming over to your studio to listen to your demos, it might be quite helpful to get him/her into a comfortable mood first, offer a drink, maybe something small to eat, have a nice small talk with a few jokes and then present your demos while he/she is sitting comfortably in a relaxed atmosphere. Such things can make a huge difference in his/her perception and might save you from rewrites just because he/she feels comfortable in the way you set this whole meeting up. When you’re sending out demos, this gets a bit trickier and unless you have to send them one by one you might consider sending them by mail on a nicely labled disc in a nice jewel case with a nice inlay, just so it “feels” like a good presentation when he/she opens it. Also, it’s always better to not just send over audio files and tell them the time code where to put it but send video files where you actually put the music under the movie. And the most important thing is to show confidence when you present your work, even if you are not 100% confident. Expressing doubts, making excuses etc. will set everybody into a mood that you can do better and need to try again. Either just DO it better right before presenting or confidently go with what you have. Anything in between will create unneccessary doubts about your professional expertise with your director/producer.

#general



4/23/11: Glissandos on the harp are more effective the larger the range of the glissando (hence the more strings will be involved). Glissandos e.g. over an octave cover only 8 strings and therefore will not really create much of an effective glissando effect, however, if you cover several octaves with the glissando, the effect will be much better and also cut better through the rest of the orchestra. Stil, such glissandos can not compete with a tutti in forte or louder so you need to orchestrate with care when you want it to come through. Also, glissandos shouldn’t be too long unless you’re glissandoing ad libitum up and down etc. One direction glissandos are most effective (and loudest) when executed over a relatively short time not longer than ca. two seconds over the complete range. Anything longer will make single notes audible which obviously is not the purpose of a glissando.

#orchestration



4/20/11: In action sequences that compete with lots of sound fx etc., for the music mix for the film you might consider bringing up the levels of instruments that push the rhythm (e.g. violas when you have an “engine line” in there) a bit more than you would do when just mixing the music alone in order to give the pushing element a better chance to come through in the final sequence. Generally nowadays, when you see such a sequence coming, you need to write very edgy in order to have a chance to come through.

#technical



4/18/11: A very common device used in film scoring, especially when writing action music that leads to a climax is to spontaneously modulate up a semitone. This works most effectively on ostinato-driven music with few harmonic movement. Good moments for the modulation are of course the ones that fall together with a dramatic switch in the film sequence as well. There are quite a few action scores which rely on this effect and do it quite a few times during a action sequence.

#composition



4/16/11: Music can alter the perception of time quite heavily. It can actually even work like a subjective slow motion. For example imagine a huge battle, the last few minutes of it, the hero is fighting, lots of fast action and instead of bringing in a busy action driven score which pushes forward we hear a slow, elegic, string carried legato piece. Even though we see the action still taking place in “real time” it feels like we are in slow motion just because of the music. The same works the other way around. Examples can be heard an seen in many sneak scenes where the music pushes the tempo and increases the “stress” for the audience even though the images actually are quite slow. Such tempo alterations can have a fantastic effect and high emotional impact.

#film scoring



4/15/11: Working on several projects at the same time is far from an ideal working situation and often feels like juggling with balls and trying to keep them all in the air at the same time but sometimes due to deadline changes etc. such situations can’t be avoided. The most important thing is to keep an overview about all projects and keep an eye on all deadlines. It is quite tricky for most people to quickly switch between projects, you need a certain time to get into the work again etc so in my experience, it is most effective to work one day on project a, the next on project b etc instead of working a little on both during the day, as you can focus much more on certain projects. It also helps to keep notes, write down where you finish in the evening, what ideas, thoughts etc you had in mind for the upcoming bit, etc, maybe scribble down some musical ideas so you can find a quicker way in when you work on it again. However, the most important part is to stay organized, use clear file paths for saving, create a clear naming system and make notes about progress and things that need to be considered later. Avoid anything that creates additional stress in this working situation and can be avoided with a little discipline.

#general



4/14/11: Writing finger tremolos (=trills larger than a major second) over several groups of the string section using chord tones will give you a fantastic, mystical and boiling texture which works great on fantasy moments or anything else mystical. Let’s say you want a C major chord: letting the first violins tremolo between g and c, seconds between e and g, violas between c and e will give you a fully displayed C major chord with a very lovely vibrant character. The advantage over using regular trills is that you won’t get any diatonic notes that won’t neccessarily fit into the chord you want to display. However, be warned about doing finger tremolos too low (e.g. on the Celli or even Basses) as it will get very muddy. Also, be aware that the larger the interval, the slower the tremolo, so try not to exceed a fifth on violins.

#orchestration



4/13/11: One of the most important things when scoring films is – of course – hitting the action at the right time. Even being 2 frames off might be noticeable. Depending whether you want an accent to be surprising or “expectable” you would put them rather at an off beat or downbeat position of your music but usually, hardly any sync point will be automatically dead on where you want it. Basically, there are 4 ways to help: 1) (which is very unlikely) ask the director to edit out (or in) a few frames so it fits, I would only go in the rarest cases for actually asking and when you see no other way to make it fit, 2) change the tempo of the overall passage which might get you in worst case one sync point right and 3 others that were right before wrong leading to 3) slightly adjusting the speed between sync points – which might work when the sync points are just slightly off but may be desastrous when you’re in a ongoing steady action passage and suddenly it feels like it’s starting to drag and the orchestra slightly gets out of sync for a moment etc. Otherwise, if you do it cleverly it might actually be helpful regarding dramaturgy. Slightly speeding up in the action passage mentioned before might add an extra kick. 4) Incorporate odd bars. As long as they feel musically logical, this is a very elegant way to work with that, however make sure to not permanently incorporate them right before the sync point you want to hit but also a few bars before etc. The important thing is, to write them well enough so they don’t feel like stumbling but like a clever rhythmic variation.

#technical



4/12/11: Writing for example four or five part harmony (e.g. a string section) where you want to lay focus on nice voice leading etc., you will quickly run into troubles providing EVERY voice with a nice voice leading. The ideal situation is, that all voices have a pleasing melodic development. In reality, unless you spend hours of time, you will most likely run into one or two middle voices that are far from “cantabile”. Note that every decision you make has concequences in all other voices as you also have to take care about the vertical structure so when you improve a voice leading in one voice it might worsen one in another voice. When prioritizing the voice leading, it is best to take care that the highest and lowest voice have an as good as possible voice leading (e.g. write melody in the 1st violins and the bass line first). These two voices and their voice leading are the ones that are most present to the ear. Hence, it is better to prioritize those two instead of for example take care that the first and second violins have perfect voice leading and the bass line suffers. Later the ear will only hear a small amount of the voice leading quality between 1sts and 2nds but will be much more confronted by the bad voice leading between 1sts and basses.

#composition



4/11/11: It might be very tricky sometimes to find the right level of “musical intensity” on a cue. When you watch a few amateur movies, you often get the feeling that the music is too distracting and active (e.g. on dialogue sequences) and too weak on more active scenes. Think about how much intensity the music needs on a cue before you start writing the music. This of course needs a bit of experience and requires you to be able to have a certain distance to your music to perceive it as a whole with the rest of the movie when watching it in context. Generally, dialogue scenes and anything that might drift off into overly sentimental feelings are most sensitive regarding overscoring, so make sure to get them on the right level.

#film scoring



4/9/11: Writing music for film (or for media in general) requires a lot of flexibility. Sometimes you have nothing to do for weeks and suddenly you get 3 projects at the same time and need to work 15 hour shifts or even more. Often you don’t even have a lot of time to prepare for a project but get a call like “We need a film score by next week, do you have time?”. You need to get a feeling for how much work you can do within a given time without pushing your physical limits. It is always tough to decide against a project which might be a good stepping stone in your carreer but keep in mind that you want to do this job probably for a few more years and can’t afford to risk a burn out or other physical consequences at a young age already.

#general



4/8/11: When writing a solo for a particular instrument or section, you need to know a few certain things. First, any important solo, that needs to stand out should always go to the first chair of the section. You shouldn’t let the 3rd horn player play a solo instead of the 1st horn player. The only exception to that rule that might be acceptable is to save ressources in the brass section, e.g. let’s say you got a trumpet solo followed by a massively demanding, high, loud, fast action passage which needs everything from the first trumpet player (for example as he/she has to play very high). In this case, you might want to give the first player a moment to rest and prepare and give the solo to the second player. However, you should write the solo in cue size in the first player as well in cas he/she wants to play it. Same goes for any solo where you are not 100% sure whether you want a solo or ensemble sound, e.g. you aren’t sure whether to have a horn solo or all 6 horns playing that line. Write the solo line into the first player but put cue notes in all other 5 horns. If you are on the scoring stage and decide you want all 6 but have the notes only written in the horn 1 part, it will take quite some time until all 6 horn players have hand written in the solo passages. With the cue notes, you can save that time and just tell them “Ok, with the next run-through play the cue notes.” Another important issue is to write the word “solo” on any solo line so the player knows that he/she is not playing a filling line but needs to stand out. However, be aware with writing “solo” on a string section as this will cause only one player to play. In such cases I prefer writing “bring out” or “soli” at the beginning of the solo line, e.g. in the celli so the players know right from the first take that it is their spot to shine.

#orchestration



4/7/11: As soon as you involve latin percussion (let’s say guiro, bongos, congas etc.) or any rather high frequency percussion instruments which are supposed to create a groove and need a tight sound, you should think about overdubbing them on top of the orchestra instead of recording them together with the orchestra. The reason for this is, that you will have the complete ambience sound of the venue on the recording which will rather create a muddy, unfocussed noise instead of a nice rhythmic groove. Also, the esthetic sound ideal of these sort of instruments is to have a really close miced, direct sound which is just not possible to get in a recording venue that can hold a whole orchestra. Even if you have spot mics at them, you will still get the whole ambience sound on the decca tree. The only solution to record them together with the orchestra is a really good acoustic separation by walls etc. In one of my first orchestral recordings I fell right into this trap, the result sounds like the example below. Take note at how unfocussed, muddy and less groovy the percussion sound is.

[audio:SAH_2M1.mp3|titles=Latin percussion together with orchestra|artists=Robin Hoffmann]

#technical



4/6/11: When you’re writing music where you have the feeling that it’s getting rhythmically too stiff because it tends to accent too many heavy counts and downbeats one very easy solution to get some rhythmic interest back is to rhythmically leave the downbeat free now and then. E.g. you’re writing a trombone chord accompaniment for a string line, at first you might be tempted to change the trombone voicings together with the chord change for example on every bar which would be the standard way to do. However, this will get quite mechanical after a while so you might think about writing bars from now and then where you leave the downbeat of the bar free and enter with the voicing on count 2. The same goes for melody lines, you can gain a lot of rhythmical interest by leaving free the downbeat from time to time. Another way of not accenting the downbeat is to tie over from the preceding bar, which with chords only works when there is no chord change but can be usually very easily applied to melody lines with note which stay on the same tone over the chord change but change their harmonic function. Simple example would be a chord change from C to F. When you tie over a melody note of C it changes its function from root to fifth of the chord. It will of course sound more interesting if the melody note takes higher functions like maj7, ninth etc.

#composition



4/5/11: When you’re doing a recording session for any project with real musicians you may try to not have a single person more than absolutely neccessary present in the recording booth. Especially people like producers or anybody else who has another (hierarchically higher) job on the project can be really difficult in sessions. Usually you can’t avoid to have at least the director present but depending on his/her character, this can slow down the process quite a bit. Usually directors/producers etc feel tempted to take influence on the recording, tell their opinion and request things to be done differently and the more people you have in the booth, the more of such opinions you will get. This can be quite nerve-wrecking in such situations where you need to deal with so many things anyway and need to be focussed to listen to the performance etc. Don’t be tempted and think that it will give you more security the more people you have there, it will do just the opposite. You should avoid having too many people there in the first place so when you hear people say “Well, we thought about coming to the session.” you should try to politely tell them, that you don’t think this is a good idea. Sometimes things like “Well, the booth is very small, we only have space for three seats there and need them all, you would need to stand all the time.” or things like “I need to be very focussed and can’t be distracted so I would appreciate if there were as few as possible people there.” might help. If still people are turning up there, you have two ways: either they will just shut up and listen and watch and give a thumbs up from time to time – which would be perfect and not really distract your session, or – which is more likely – they will start with doing what I mentioned above. In this case, you need to stand it at least for a while. If it has been going on for quite some time, you can politely tell them something like “Guys, we need to record 12 more minutes of music in this session, it’s perfectly fine for me to keep on discussing these things but if you don’t want to pay for an extra session, we need to keep it going now and just do it my way.” Usually, this helps. Unfortunately not always…

#film scoring



4/4/11: Get yourself some good looking business cards. It leaves a professional impression with every potential new customer if you can just give him/her your business card instead of writing down your address etc. There are quite a few cheap business card printing services available online which you should check out beforehand. Some will deliver quite cheap looking cards but others may print quite good looking ones. Make sure your business card leaves a professional impression and clearly tells what service you’re offering. It doesn’t help much if you just write down your name and address. It’s a good plan to write down your website URL quite prominently on it so everybody who wants to listen to your demos can find it quickly when looking at your card. Also, some trade fairs etc. which are open for people who work in the business only might even require you to have a business card in order to validate that you’re a professional.

#general



4/2/11: It makes music more lively and expressive to give any longer sustaining note a dynamic shape for example adding a small crescendo-decrescendo on the note, hitting it hard, dropping to piano and crescendo again etc. Notes that sustain just on a flat dynamic level tend to sound quite boring after a while, same goes for music which uses alot of such notes. If you’re for example writing a slow, emotional string piece with lots of sustaining notes, you will get so much more emotion by adding dynamic shapes to longer notes. This whole concept applies for real musicians but also for the use of samples.

#orchestration



4/1/11: Some orchestras find it very annoying to play to a click or just don’t want to do it. While film orchestras are very used to that, as soon as you record with orchestras that play more concert music, getting recordings to sync exactly with the movie is quite a challenge. One solution that I have used often is to find a conductor who is comfortable with click and get him to conduct after click. Still, when you have a very traditional orchestra, it is quite tricky for them to play on the beat of the conductor. Usually, orchestra musicians would play slightly behind the beat of the conductor. Of course, when you use click, this is not possible so what is important is, to make clear to the musicians to play exactly on the beat of the conductor. But even when you make this clear, it might be very uncomfortable for some musicians to do it as they are just not used to this. Still, it is important to be prepared for such issues and count in for some extra time and definitely discuss any such issues with your conductor, engineer etc. beforehand.

#technical



3/31/11: Releasing a note creates quite a similar event as attacking it. This is especially important when you write music that is rhythmically driven. Placing the releases of chords, notes etc. on points that make sense rhythmically will give your music another level of “groove”. This goes for example for bass notes, when you have a bass line that is written for example quarter note, quarter rest, quarter note etc., releasing the notes exactly at the point where the “rhythmic non-event” of the quarter rest would be, creates another level of rhythmic quality. You can drive this concept quite far and write music that plays heavily with such things, just think of massive brass chords of different lengths to create a nice combined rhythm between attacks and release. #composition


3/30/11: On longer cues with quite a few hit points I find it helpful to not write them chronologically. A good way to approach such cues is to lay them out first, adjust tempos etc. and positionate all hit points on musically plausible spots (e.g. like downbeats of a bar). Of course you should have a concept of that cue in mind already including what tempos and time signatures you want to use. The next step would be to write the major hit points first e.g.: the big battle climax, the enemy dies etc. to be scored first and then write the way to this hit point. With this “backwards” procedure, you make sure to not write anything too climactic too early. Your big climax needs to be your big climax and the music shouldn’t reach a quality 30 seconds before that which you can hardly rise any higher when the climax eventually comes. Also this procedure allows you to keep a structural overview of this cue which helps to stay focused. When writing chronologically there are often spots where you hear the “Oh boy, I have this lovely transition finished but I just figured out there are still 5 more bars till ne next hit point… ok, I’ll just write something that fills the time.” When you exactly know right from beginning (and also see it in the score sheet/sequencer) where you need to aim for, you have less of the danger of “getting lost” in your own cue. #film scoring


3/29/11: Sending out demo reels to companies/producers/directors etc. is, from everything what I heard and experienced, not a very effective way to get jobs. Especially when you send it out to companies that might have a really big job, your demo is most likely to never be heard. Most producers/directors really high up just don’t have the time to listen to demos by someone they don’t know. The more effective method is to send demos after you made a personal contact, which might happen on a premiere night or other film events. If you still want to give it a shot, prepare a demo CD that looks professional. Get a nice cover and put up all information that is important right on it as well as on the CD (for the case that the CD gets separated from the jewel case). Put a track list on it as well, if possible with a few stylistic words regarding the track, e.g. “The Battle (Orchestral Action)”. Don’t put up 20 minute works on the CD, but short cues. Nobody wants to scroll through endless music cues. Start off your demo CD with a track that catches the attention right from the beginning, something that gives everybody who puts the CD into his player a reason to not put it out again after a few seconds. Put it into a nice envelope together with a (short!) letter and hope for the best. #general


3/28/11: In reality, it is practically impossible to seriously balance out a brass section that is playing at ff. There are quite a few rules stating that 2 woodwinds can balance out a brass instrument. Others claim that 4 woodwinds can balance out “heavy brass” (meaning trumpets and trombones) but basically, when a brass section is playing with a really heavy filmic attitude there is hardly anything that can compete. The only instruments you might actually hear are percussion (which are even louder than the brass), high piccolo (because of their piercing highest range) and possibly the high violins. Still you should not go the way and say “Well, my woodwinds can’t be heard anyway, why should I bother writing anything for them.” While you can not hear specifically a clarinet, all the instruments contribute to the volume and the size of what makes an orchestra sound so rich. Many of the instruments can’t be heard distinctively but add a huge deal to the ensemble feeling and the orchestral quality. Lot’s of the sound quality of an orchestra sound is being created by the resonance of the instruments between each other. For example violin resonate with each other building the ensemble sound and so do all other instruments. And even the allegedly inaudible woodwinds contribute to the general orchestral sound. #orchestration


3/26/11: Chord structures consisting of thirds are easier comprehendable for the ear and brain than chord structures consisting of seconds. If you’re implying a certain scale like let’s say the very popular lydian, you could basically build a chord voicing that looks something like THAT. However, it will sound very clusterish and tricky for the ear to hear any structure in that chord, however structurizing it like THAT, makes it much easier for the ear to hear the structure and the mode that is being implied. The ear is very used to categorizing chords in thirds as it get’s trained right from the birth on dealing with triad structures. #composition


3/24/11: Mickey mousing is a scoring technique that accents practically every action on the screen with a musical action. The name derives from the Disney cartoon scores where every eyebrow lift gets a musical accent. In “serious” film scoring, this technique is not really appropriate and quickly becomes very annoying. Take care about the density of your hit points. Nowadays about one hit point approx. every ten seconds feels quite dense already and is rather suitable for action and very busy sequences. Less active scenes should have hit points with more time between them to not make the music feel too intrusive. Of course, when you’re in the genre of comedy or animation movies, mickey mousing is sometimes the scoring device that works best but it should still not be overused. #film scoring


3/23/11: When you want a really filmic/epic snare drum sound, let’s say in marches or action sequences, you should put two players with a snare drum each in the far left and far right corner of the percussion section and let them play identical parts. This gives a nice stereo effect on the snare drums and when you’re playing on click, there shouldn’t be any noticeable differences between the parts (depending on your players) on the recording. One snare drum alone can sometimes sound a bit weak on recording, especially with the film esthetics of percussion sound that everybody has in mind. #technical


3/19/11: One of the most important steps to make a living out of composing is to actually earn money from it. You need to be aware that during the first year(s) you start pursuing a career as composer, you might not earn anything with your work, however as soon as you have a certain reputation, a few projects that you have worked on, it is important to make the transition to paid jobs. You cannot expect this to happen by itself. If you worked for “almost” free until now, people might think you will continue doing that. You have to actively change the direction there. If you built up a working relationship with a director, a team etc. tell them that you’ve worked for free as a friendship service and expect to be paid on the next job. Of course you cannot expect to suddenly earn big money as this will probably scare most low budget filmers off, but you need to make this transition to paid jobs on your own. If you get the reputation of “this guy works for free” and don’t do anything about it, it’s never gonna happen that you get paid. Usually after a while of working as composer you might get enough calls for projects that you can start refusing to work on certain projects for free, which only has advantages: a) either they come back and offer you moneyor anything else or b) they won’t come back and look for someone else who does it for free which proves them to not respect the work of others which is a bad start for a lasting working relationship anyway and you don’t need to bother any longer. Of course, you need to make wise decisions here. You shouldn’t go strictly from “I do it for free” to “I only do it if I get paid”. If there comes along a project that looks like it’s gonna be a great reference and might become quite successful but doesn’t have the money to pay you (a lot) you should still think about going for it in order to build up your reputation further. The main thing is that you need to get active to get yourself to paid jobs and not expect it to happen by itself. #general


3/16/11: When you orchestrate a melody, it is important to make sure it is prominent enough compared to the rest. The most obvious thing would be to orchestrate it in a loud instrument (like trumpets) to make sure it cuts through but also orchestrating it in unison in several instruments (and octaves) will help it to come through. When you want the melody in a quite soft instrument, it is important to reduce the “surrounding” accompanyment, either in dynamics and/or in density. One very important thing to do in such cases is to free up the range where the melody moves in of other instruments. If you, for example, have a melody in the flutes and a clarinet line moves in the same register, you will get a very unclear melodic impression which could make it quite difficult to comprehend, which of the lines is supposed to be the main line. This gets even worse when you keep crossing these lines, meaning that the flute is higher than the clarinet for a while and after a bit the clarinet line crosses the flute line and takes over the higher part. Usually the ear takes the highest voice as melody line but when you want the melody in a lower register and other instruments on top (say cellos playing the melody but violins/violas being involved in the sound as well, you should take care that the cellos have enough space around their melody to move around. Also, in such cases, it is quite important to write “solo” on the line that needs to stand out so the musicians know that they have an important line and need to stand out a bit instead of fitting in. #orchestration


3/15/11: If you have a choice between several recording venues, you should make a wise decision, which kind of sound your music needs. The advantage of a small space is that you get a lot of precision in the sound. This is very useful when you write very focused on details and with lots of accents, e.g. in a comedy score etc. The disadvantage is, that you might get a quite “un-epic” sound where you want it to sound symphonic. The danger with small rooms is, that they can quite easily collapse on loud orchestral tuttis, especially loud trumpet accents etc will get a quite ugly sound and will probably be overly exposed in the mix as they spill quite heavily on the other mics. A larger, reverby space (e.g. a concert hall) will give you a very epic, wide and symphonic sound, however it will cause massive troubles on music that radically changes dynamics very often and music that has a lot of detail work in the orchestrations, especially on loud passages. A lot of the precision will get lost in the reverb and there is hardly a chance to bring it back up in the mix. Obviously, it is practically impossible to get an intimate sound in a large space. On the other hand is it possible to help small stages with artificial reverb, however, you can not expect to get really near to how the sound would be in a larger space and if you have an acoustically bad room, the early reflections from the small room on loud accents will spoil any impression of size, no matter how much reverb you put on there. Below you’ll find an audio example of exactly the same piece recorded twice. The first part is recorded in a relatively small space with added reverb, the second is recorded in a relatively large space with no added reverb. Note how in the first part, especially on the trumpet staccatos, you can clearly hear the small space, no matter how much reverb is put on there but how you can also hear more precision in the sound while in the second part you have a breathier sound with less precision and slightly different balance situations (violins sounding thinner, trumpets being softer in the mix).

[audio:dfsb_smallbig.mp3|titles=Comparison between small and big recording stage|artists=Robin Hoffmann]

#technical



3/14/11: Contrary motion between voices is a very strong musical device. If you have a ascending melody line, it feels musically very pleasant to compensate that motion by a descending line somewhere else. The strongest of these effects can be created when bass line and melody line move in opposite directions as you can hear in the audio example below. But also contrary motion between middle lines etc. create a very nice effect and sound musically very pleasing.

[audio:dfsb_contrary_motion.mp3|titles=Contrary motion between melody and bass|artists=Robin Hoffmann]

#composition



3/13/11: When you see a film you’re going to be working on for the first time, you might easily be lead on the wrong track regarding its dynamics. Usually you get a quite rough cut which might be overly long and might be quite slow in the narration pace. The danger is that you try to get some first ideas and concepts that might fit to the speed and feel of the rough cut but will not work when the movie is in its final state. It happens quite quickly to get stuck in a concept/idea and try to hold on to it even though it doesn’t work anymore. So you should really ask yourself whether your concept still works with the final cut. It’s usually wiser to just “watch” the movie for the first time, try to make notice of your emotional responses and not try to focus on finding an actual music concept yet. Wait for actual discussions with the director or the final cut to seriously think about actual concepts. If you gain a bit more of experience understanding “rough cuts”, you might get a feeling how it’s going to change and base your thoughts on this but in the first few projects you’re better off starting to conceptualize the music when you got a more or less final cut of the movie. #film scoring


3/10/11: Keep track of what your direct competitors do. It is not a wise idea to work in a highly competetive field like film music without knowing where you stand compared to people who do the same things. Many people develop a tendency to become to complacent which is very dangerous and keeps them from becoming better and improving on their weaknesses. They just fall back into their own world without keeping track of what is going on in the world around them. A good way to find out where you stand is to read forums on the internet. I can highly recommend vi-control.net which is a fantastic community of highly prolific composers and lots of knowledge. Even if you don’t contribute on forums – just reading what people are talking about, listening to music by other composers can give you a massive amount of input and inspiration and eventually help you to become more competetive. Of course, you must avoid to develop an arrogance to see your own music as the absolute crown of musical creation but stay self critical. #general


3/6/11: Unless you can get a really good acoustic separation from the orchestra, you should avoid trying to record a drum set together in the room with the orchestra and if possible, record it in a smaller room than the one you record the orchestra in. This has a few massive advantages: you get a way more crunchy drum sound when it’s recorded in a smaller room as you don’t get that boomy, unprecise ambience sound from the orchestra stage. Apart from that, a drum set will mostly be louder than the orchestra and spill on every microphone and also overpower the orchestra on the decca tree which will be quite desastrous in the mix. The best solution, which is not always possible is to record the drums together with the orchestra in seperate rooms and give a monitor mix of the drums on the earphones of the orchestra and a monitor mix of the orchestra on the ear phones of the drummer. With that, everybody can feed off each other’s energy and play together. If that is not possible, you should rather go for recording the drums after the orchestra, or when it is a very simple drum track, record it before the orchestra – but definitely record it not together with the orchestra. #technical


3/5/11: Avoid having 2 solo string instruments (especially violins, violas) playing in unison. The general “section” sound of string instruments is formed largely by minimal intonation differences between the many instruments in the section. However when there are only two instruments that have slightly different intonation, it will sound very wrong. This problem is worst in the highest registers and gets less worse the lower you go (2 cellos in unison would be fine in the lower register). So when writing for very small string line-up, try having at least 3 violins on one line (as the third instrument will already be enough to start canceling out this wrong sounding effect) or keep the solo sound. Be explicitely warned to put the 2 violins on the same line when wrting a string quartet, though! #orchestration


2/28/11: Good voice leading beats any other rule. This was already valid in Bach’s times where there were fifth parallels and doubled thirds in the chord because the voice leading of the individual voices was so strong that it could easily justify for breaking these other rules. A good voice leading dominates anything else, of course the ideal would be to have good voice leading AND still follow the other rules but when in doubt, there should always be a decision in favor of the voice leading. As fifth parallels/doubled thirds etc. aren’t as problematic anymore nowadays anyway, you can feel even more free and “optimize” you music for good voice leading. The most problematic issue you might encounter nowadays is to create bad chord voicings (which can sound very strange in complex harmonic situations) or incomplete chords. If you for example lack the third of the chord due to a voice leading decision, it might be an issue you might try to avoid. Good voice leading can be fantastic sounding but a chord without third can sound very empty and unsonorous. In such cases, you need to decide by ear, what you think is more important. The good thing is, that with a bit of effort, you can usually fix such situations by doing the voice leading a bit differently, rewrite another voice etc so there hardly is any situation where you actually have to decide such things. #composition


2/26/11: Musical silence can be one of the most powerful “scoring” devices you can use. It works especially well in scenes where you want the viewer to be pulled into the reality of that scene, especially if it is a very intense scene. Leaving out music in moments where usually there would be music eliminates that certain “cinematic distance” to the scene. Such moments work best when you have very strong and intense pictures, think of the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan”, which has an extremely intense character. Apart from that music would feel inappropriate in that scene, the complete absence of a “musical comment” pulls the viewer much stronger into the action than it would if there was music. Of course, also the visual perspective from actually being involved in that scene with many shots from the first person view adds alot to the viewing experience. #film scoring


2/25/11: There are probably thousands of discussions on the internet whether you need a musical education to be “a better composer” or not. I have heard fantastic compositions by people who can’t read a single note and heard really bad music by composers who studied for years. The common misconception about “musical education” is that you don’t learn how to be creative, how to have good ideas etc., that is something you either have or don’t have. However, a solid education helps you accessing and translating your musical ideas better and quicker and at latest when you work with real instruments, there are just things you HAVE to know in order to write playable music. You can learn alot by yourself, by listening to music, by trying things out, but it will be quite chaotical in your brain until you find a system how to sort it. The main motivation you should have is: as soon as you want to seriously pursue a career as a composer, you should have the will to learn as much about it as you can, no matter how you gain this knowledge. However, there is one thing, a musical education helps alot with: you have a common language with other musicians that helps you understand constructive critizism better. If you don’t know, what certain things are called etc, it is quite tricky for you to understand critizism by people who speak in such terms. But as soon as you have a base to communicate with your critics, you can only become better, no matter whether you take the critizism seriously or not. #general


2/24/11: When writing parts for mallet instruments that need the player to hold two mallets per hand (like marimba/vibraphone chords) it is very tricky for the players to rapidly play passages that include constant switching between “black and white” and “white and black” keys. This means if you for example want in one hand the notes of F and Bb together followed quickly by Ab and D in the same hand it will be very tricky for the player to bend his hand that quickly (if it was the left hand you would need to bend outwards for F and Bb and inwards for Ab and D). If you go even further and write rapid passages like this, it might easily become unplayable or full of playing errors. #orchestration


2/23/11: The best strategy to record cues is to go for a complete run-through at the beginning, so the musicians get a feeling for the cue, then correct any possible wrong notations/dynamics etc. After questions are sorted out, you should go for a first take. Depending on the complexity of the cue, you might want to repeat that until you got a decent take with only a few errors/not perfect passages. Write down which take this is so you will find it easier when doing editing/mixing. If it’s a shorter cue, you might just want to do another take until all parts are covered with a good recording. It is no problem to insert parts from other takes into a take in order to eliminate all possible glitches. If it is a longer take, you should go for drop-ins, meaning that you only do recordings of the problematic passages (which you of course notated during the take) and start to record a few bars before and let them play until a few bars after the problematic passage. Repeat that for every “bad part”. Later use these patches in the editing to create one final take that has no errors. #technical


2/22/11: If you have less voices/instruments available than the chord you want to display has notes, you have to find workarounds how to still get a clear impression of the chord you want. Let’s say you want to display this quite complex Cmaj7(#11) chord. The first option you have to save voices is to avoid doubling the root. As soon as the root note is present in the bass, you don’t need to double it again higher up. This can be done without any siginificant loss of chord quality. The next chord tone, that doesn’t need to be present is the fifth as long as it is unaltered (meaning no b5 or #5 chords). You loose a bit of sonority by leaving out the fifth but in general you don’t lose any of the chord quality. When you have very close voicings, you might even want to avoid having the fifths in there as it might make the sound overly compact. If you need to save even more voices, you have to start “deconstructing” the chord quality. One lovely sounding but neglectable chord function is the ninth, which you can get rid of without altering the chord function. We reduced a 6 voice chord down to a 3 voice chord by now without drastically changing the chord function. The functions which form a chord and which should definitely be present is the root (which usually is in the bass), the third (defining whether it is major or minor) and the seventh (defining whether its a dominant or a tonic/subdominant chord). If you alter the chord heavily like putting in a #11 as we did above and heavily implying the lydian scale there, of course this defining note needs to be included in the chord as well. #composition


2/21/11: There are usually several perspectives from which you can score a scene and it is quite important to pick the right one. Imagine a scene where a girl walks down a dark alley, listening to music over her headphones, humming along, a few seconds later we cut to a dark figure standing behind some bushes seeing her come. In this case, we have 3 perspectives which we could score: 1) the girl with a happy, relaxed music, 2) the evil guy with a dark, nervous, evil and sinister score and 3) the audience with a scared, panicing score. Depending on the genre of the movie and what exactly you want to achieve, all 3 perspectives might be possible, however the first one will feel very strange but can be highly effective and make the horror even bigger. A happy, relaxed music might feel so extremely contrary to what is (about to) happen(ing) on the screen that it might be hardly standable. More plausible in this case will be the perspective of the audience. This is usually done in such scenes and is the probably most successful way of scoring that. Scoring from the perspective of the bad guy might be possible but might be in this scene a bad decision. The horror of this scene works because we don’t see the dark guy clearly, it’s an anonymous thread which makes it even scarier. Is it a monster, some total mad serial killer or whatever? Fantasy plays the biggest horror factor in such situations and you should avoid working against that by characterizing the “anonymous threat” by playing music that shows he’s nervous and gives him a if not visual but emotional shape. However, in a slightly different setting it might be completely different. However, you should be aware of what perspective you pick and if there might be a more effective one. #film scoring


2/20/11: Premiere nights are not everybody’s cup of tea. It’s usually a loud, crowded night with lots of meaningless small talk. However, as a composer you should try to be present on such occasions. Even though, the film composer is one of the key members of the crew, due to his/her “seperated” working process, hardly anybody knows what person is behind the music. Events like premieres are great for networking. You might get to talk to the producer who plans a new big movie but the only time to spoke to him/her so far was about your contract issues. A big part of networking is based on a personal relationship. You can write the greatest film music but as long as nobody can connect a face with your name or know something like “Ah, that was the guy at the premiere with whom I talked about basket ball” or whatever, you will get easily lost in their memory and might not be recalled for another new project. Also, on such premieres, alot of other business relevant people might be around which don’t neccessarily have something to do with the project. There might be a director friend of your movie’s director etc. Of course, this also needs a bit of courage to approach people and talk to them. Standing around in the corner saying nothing doesn’t help your business relations. Don’t expect a crowd recognizing your face and running screamingly towards you and be prepared for a lot of stupid questions and remarks about the music. And make sure to bring a few of your business cards along. It is highly unlikely to get asked for a new project right on this night but your presence there will most likely pay off eventually. #working together


2/17/11: Watch as many movies as you can! If you want to seriously work in the film music field, you need to know what is going on in the “business”, you need to get an understanding of how music is used in movies and also what current developments take place in the field of film music. It will not work to try and write film music if you don’t go to the cinema or watch DVDs/Blu-rays regularly. It is good to listen closely to the music when you watch a movie and see how it works, what it does etc. You can not study a stylistic feeling by reading books and talking theoretically about it. You can only get it by watching all sorts of movies and see how the music works with the pictures. This is just as important as mastering musical skills. A fantastically written music that stylistically doesn’t suit a movie at all is a bad film music, no matter how well written it is. Film music that sounds as it was written 60 years ago will feel awkward in a modern movie context and just sound wrong, no matter if it is perfectly written. Arguments like “Yes, I did it because I deliberately wanted to sound completely different than what currently is “hip”” are only valid when you ACTUALLY know what you’re avoiding. The good thing about watching many different (even bad) movies is, that you can only learn from it. Try to find out why the score in this movie is bad, try to think how you would have approached it differently etc. #general


2/16/11: When budget is short and you need to cut down orchestra sizes, you should know, where to make the cuts and where not to still keep a halfway decent orchestra sound. One can get along fairly easily with a double woodwind line-up, meaning two of each group, if budget is even shorter, a single instrument of all 4 should do. Remember that you can let your players switch to secondary instruments. Brass is a bit trickier – cutting down horns to 3 instead of 4 or 6 will work, 2 horns will be ok but you will hardly get any epic unison sound out of them. Cutting down trumpets to 2 can work when you don’t need them much, however, you should try fighting for 3 as a full triad in trumpet chords sounds always better and can create a lot of epicness on its own. I would fight for having at least 3 instruments from the “low brass” family and I would tend to rather have 3 trombones than 2 trombones+tuba. The reason for this is, that you are more versatile with a 3rd trombone (you can use it fairly high up as well and it will give you great punch) while the tuba only works in the lowest register as bass instrument. However you should have 3 of the low brass in order to get that nice filmic low-triad sound. Cut down the percussion section and use samples instead, however, if you can, try keeping at least the timpani player, as it will sound better if it’s recorded together with the orchestra in the same room. Unless you write a very pointillistic score, you can try cutting down the harp (and use samples later). Strings: try having at least a line-up of 8/6/5/4/2, anything smaller than that will sound too much like chamber orchestra. When writing for this small string line-up, write alot of unisons and avoid divisi in order to not make the sound even smaller. Of course it also depends alot on your writing style and the genre. One other way to handle budget cuts is to deliberately NOT go for a orchestra sound – try using a string orchestra plus solo instrument or something like that. It will still give you a lot of epicness and create an own world, just by having this “not so common” line-up. #orchestration


2/15/11: Melodic sequences are one of the strongest features of a melody to create structure. Practically every “catchy” melody relies in some part on melodic sequences, meaning it repeats a motif or a thematic part on another scale degree. Think of the E.T. Main Theme or Raider’s March – the very catchy main motifs are being repeated on another pitch, helping to identify it as a central motif but putting some “new” musical information into it as opposed to just repeating it in the same way. However, in both of these examples, John Williams only uses a melodic sequence on the “head” of the motif (E.T. – bar 3 being a melodic sequence of bar 1) continueing differently (bar 2 and 4 are no direct melodic sequences) – which is what keeps these melodies from becoming too forseeable. That is the weak spot of melodic sequences: once the brain gets the principle of what you are doing, it can expect what is going to happen which gets boring very quickly. Children’s songs and traditional folk music relies heavily on melodic sequences, sometimes over several bars. When composing music – relying on melodic sequences in this extend will quickly feel like a children’s tune – which is only good if you actually wanted to write one… #composition


2/14/11: Scoring love scenes can be quite tricky as music in such scenes very quickly tends to feel too “over the top” and cheesy. Especially accenting kisses can cause quite a bit of unwanted amusement with the audience. Usually it works best to have some very sparse emotional music on such scenes and not accenting the kiss unless it is a VERY important situation. If you need or want to accent it, avoid big tuttis and broad orchestration, a small accent will usually be enough already. Of course, a lot of the way how you score it depends largely on the film genre. A comedy for example may WANT to create just this over the top feeling and fantasy and science fiction film kisses might usually be scored a bid broader than kisses in a drama or a romantic movie. #film scoring


2/13/11: Writer’s block can be something very annoying, especially when you’re in a heavy time crunch and need to deliver. However, practically every composer suffers from it now and then and the most important thing is to find a way around it. Of course, everybody needs to find his/her own way to handle this situation. For me, it works to just skip the part for the moment and proceed to the next one and eventually come back when I got an idea for it. It is very important to find a way to relax in such situations, the more you keep on thinking “No, I have to write something now, it HAS to be done, I can’t afford to waste time!” the worse it gets. Do a small walk, watch TV etc. – just do anything that keeps your mind from being stuck in that problem. Another good plan is to compare how other composers have solved such a situation. Watch scenes of movies that are somewhat similar to the ones you’re stuck at and get inspiration by how this situation was handled there. One other very good plan is to just sleep over it. #general


2/12/11: When working with musicians to record your music, be precise about what you expect. It is practically impossible to write everything into the score sheets but there shouldn’t be a recording of a cue that you don’t like, just because you didn’t tell your musicians, what you want to hear. There are so many ways of interpreting music and your musicians want you to guide them into a direction of what you want to hear. Of course you need to be sure for yourself what you want to hear and how you want it to sound in the end. However, you need to have a distinct understanding whether you want is possible or not. You cannot expect a recording to sound really big and epic hollywoodish if you’re recording in a small studio space with practically no ambience. But you can expect your horn players to play with an epic brassy Star Wars-y sound instead of a classical mellow horn sound. Just be clear about your expectations. #working together


2/10/11: Action sequences rely heavily on rhythmic factors. It is usually crucial to keep the rhythmic energy rolling during such a sequence. If you do not rely heavily on percussion or even a drum kit in such sequences, you need to incorporate an “engine” into the music to keep it rolling. Ostinatos work great but also just repeating notes on one or several instruments. The most important thing is to really add and keep drive to the music in such situations, sustaining notes work only if they are on top of busy accompanying figures, rhytmic stops should have a scenic reason. Also, you might want to choose a slightly faster tempo than the images and cuts suggest in order to push the excitement even further. Rely on dense structures, cellos+basses together with trumpets won’t cut it, try to write edgy structures for the instruments. Usually such scenes need a full orchestral tutti to have the impact that is needed and expected. And take into account that working on such sequences takes alot of time – for you as a composer but also for the orchestra in the scoring session. #film scoring


2/5/11: It is very tricky for brass instruments to have a high entrance without any preparation. As the distance between the harmonics gets smaller and smaller the higher you get in the harmonic scale, the less difference in lip tension you need to play between them. So hitting a high note without preparation is a bit like playing lottery as a tiny amount of difference in lip tension can already cause another note to be heard. It is much easier for the players to be leaded to this high note by a melodic line. Of course you can expect professional players to hit the high notes correctly but if you’re working with less professional players it might be a problem. And even with the most professional orchestra, a wrong note might happen from time to time. Be prepared for this. #orchestration


2/2/11: A very nice way to keep your composition interesting on the rhythmical level is to make formal phrases (like a 4-bar theme) metrically slightly uneven. Great ways to not make it as “unfamiliar” as odd meters is to lengthen or shorten the last bar of that phrase for a bit. However, it is important, that the melodic gesture still feels logical in this short uneven moment. It shouldn just feel like you’re in a regular 4/4 and just wait one quarter note longer in the last bar. Another very attractive way is to construct a melody that even though it is in a straight 4/4 , shifts around the accents in this time signature. This works great with themes that are based on small motifs. If you incorporate a rhythmically slightly odd rhytmically repeating motif, it will by itself shift around the accents in the bars, even though you’re still in a straight 4/4 and still by the recognizability of the small motif will be logical to the ear and not confuse too much. #composition


2/1/11: Many scenes can be subdivided into smaller phrases which sometimes need different musical tones. For example, scoring one dialogue might need several shifts in the music which are usually connected with emotional shifts. E.g. a couple talking about what happened during their day, suddenly she say’s “I’m breaking up with you” – of course, this suddenly changes the complete mood in the scene and should have a reaction by the music itself. Any music continueing from this point will probably need a different quality to it than it had before. The relationship, as well as the attitude both dialogue partners talk, suddenly shifts into another direction. If in the dialogue, she eventually picks up her bag and walks through the door, this would be another shift in the quality of the emotions etc. It would not work to keep the musical mood in the same way all the way through that scene. #film scoring


1/31/11: It is a good idea to group similar small cues together in bigger cues when you’re preparing for a recording session and cut them into several parts later again. This saves a lot of recording time which would otherwise be wasted by musicians searching for the correct sheet, the audio engineer loading up a new protools-session, concentration level dropping due to the possibility to have a chat during the cues etc. In my experience, the perfect recording cue length is something around 1-2 minutes. The opposite should be done for long cues. Seperate them into smaller pieces and cut them together later. It is most likely to get a good take of 1-2 mins but more unlikely to get it spotless in longer passages so you need to record certain passages again which takes extra time (e.g. communicating which bars to record again etc.). #general


1/30/11: When negotiating payments, it is most common to negotiate installments. Usually one would do a 50/50 deal, meaning that you get 50% of the money at the beginning of the project and 50% upon completion. On longer projects it is also common to split the payments in even smaller portions mostly connecting them to certain “milestones” like 25% at the beginning, 25% when all raw sketches are done, 25% after orchestral recording and 25% after the final mix etc. These things should of course be mentioned in the contract. This procedure is very common and any production that doesn’t want to pay a part of the money upfront smells fishy and you should be skeptical about it. The main argument for having installments is that you have money available while you work on the project and this is an argument that any production should fully understand if it doesn’t want to do it this way right from the start anyway. #working together


1/29/11: A triangle roll can be highly effective to highlight climaxes or passages. The very high and unharmonic frequencies of this instrument add a sparkling, shimmering effect on top of big orchestra tuttis etc. Also, you should be aware that it will cut through the even loudest orchestra tutti. A good example of its effect is the first statement of the theme in the STAR WARS Main Theme where it is coupled with trills in the woodwinds to add a glistering effect on top of this passage. Also, single triangle strokes work great to highlight pointillistic passages (like woodwind chords, pizzicatos etc.) and can also be used as a comedy device. #orchestration


1/28/11: When mixing, and even when writing music for media, have in mind where your audience will hear your music. Only when you are fortune enough to work for productions which will be shown in cinema, you have the full dynamic range available. If you write for TV or web videos, you have to count in for people listening at low volumes on bad speakers or even mono sound TV sets. So the first conclusion is, to limit your music on the dynamic range. If you get too soft, people will not hear it in low volume, if you get too loud, they will reach for the remote and turn down the volume even further. Of course, big parts of optimizing the sound for the medium is part of the final sound mix but you can already take care of that when you work on your music and avoid overly dynamic writing in such occasions. Also, you have to count in that any low bass drone/rumble etc. might not be heard at all due to the listener’s bad speakers, so you might want to not base your thriller score on such elements. #technical


1/27/11: Repetition is one of the strongest possibilites to create structure in music. Repeating themes/motifs works not only as a film music device for identifying characters/situations but also creates a certain grade of “this is important” within a musical cue or even smaller musical structures. Repeating motifs within a theme creates a way stronger structure than building a theme out of lots of motifs. One of the best known film music examples is the theme from Indiana Jones, which builds itself more or less out of a 3-note motif, which is altered by changing the pitches, however remains it’s rhythmical structure most of the time. The general rule of thumb is, that one exact repetition (may it be a theme or just a motif) works for the ear (to say “OK, this is important”), however, when repeating something for the second time, it usually is a good idea to introduce something new (like a new ending phrase etc/new melodic conture/slightly different rhythm.) Of course, this rule does not apply for minimalistic composition approaches. #composition


1/26/11: If you have/want to make a geographic/ethnic statement in your film score (e.g. the movie taking place in a foreign country etc.) and want to make a reference to that, you should do a bit of research. However, it is most important to fulfill the viewer’s ethnic expectation. So called quasi-authenticity means that you write ethnic music as you audience would think it should sound. When you actually research quite a bit on e.g. far eastern music, you will quickly learn that it doesn’t sound as any of the clichee musics that you have in mind. However, as you want your audience to geographically connect to a certain location by throwing in ethnic references, you should rather stick to music that clearly identifies the location for them and not music that might be actually authentic but just sounds like some strange, unclear music to the general audience. #film scoring


1/25/11: Standing in front of an orchestra or working with it for the very first time can be a horribly intimidating moment, especially when you are still young and insecure about how the things you write will turn out. Humour is always a good ice breaker, say a few words when you introduce yourself and let them feel that you don’t take yourself too seriously. Try not to be too “I’ve done this a million times” when you haven’t. There’s no shame in telling them that this is the first time you do this. You should know that the musicians will be nervous as well, not sure what to expect, anxious whether you have written overly complicated music which they can’t pull off etc. A good plan to avoid having a black-out in front of the musicians might be to to prepare for what you will say. Just try to enjoy this rare opportunity that you have been given to work with an orchestra and let them feel that. If you have done your homework properly there are only few chances that things might go horribly wrong. #general


1/24/11: There is always a possibility of not finishing a project because of discrepancys between the parties involved. It happens more often than you would think. Composers get fired or quit their job on a project and get replaced by someone else. Of course, getting fired is a really frustrating issue, but usually it is not due to personal reasons but just because the approaches regarding the project don’t match etc. Try to not take it as a critizism on your ability but as a matter of taste. If you see a possibly fatal conflict between you and the people in charge coming, you should consider quitting the job before you get fired, which always leaves a better impression on your CV. The most important thing: take it in a mature way. You might maybe work with somebody involved later again and it will be quite embarassing if he/she remembers you doing a dirt war after quitting the last project. Act professional, any sort of revenge might give you a short time of relief but might damage your reputation more than you would think over the long run. But of course, the best thing would be to avoid getting fired or quitting the job. The most important thing here is as always: COMMUNICATION. #working together


1/23/11: As opposed to a piano player, a harp player only uses 4 fingers per hand to play the instrument. Therefore, typical piano 5-finger figures are quite tricky on a harp. You should prefer 4-finger figures, e.g. when writing chord arpeggios etc. However, as there are only 7 strings per octave on a harp (instead of 12 keys as on a piano) the hand can stretch over a larger span. Tenths, elevenths and sometimes even twelvths are possible to be played in one hand, however, to stay on the safe side, you should not exceed tenths. Another important factor is, that due to the harp being leaned on the player’s right shoulder while playing, it is usually not possible to reach the lowest strings with the right hand, so you should avoid any fancy 2-hand figures in the lowest register. #orchestration


1/22/11: In order to get the typical orchestral soundtrack sound, you should rely as much as you can on signals by microphones that are more distant from the instruments. The problem with signals that are recorded very close to the instruments is that you get a lot of “noises” which decrease a lot over a few metres already (e.g. air noise on brass/woodwind, bow scratching noises on strings). These “noises” decrease a lot of the “big sound” impression that one usually wants with a film orchestra sound. There are quite a few sample libraries which come with different microphone setups. The close mics are great for ADDING a bit of precision or getting a chamber orchestra sound. However that typical hollywood orchestra sound (e.g. epic sounding horns etc.) are being produced by making use of more distant microphone signals (e.g. the Decca Tree). Of course, there is always a danger of getting too much mud into your mix, so you should find a right balance between these signals. #technical


1/21/11: Atonality can be a great colour when writing music for films and can create a unsettling, almost painful feeling. However, as it is already extremely demanding to “understand” the structure of this music when you hear it even without a movie, it is even trickier to follow it when your perception is focused on the music only by a fraction. Atonality works great in scenes where you want to express fear, pain, anger, danger etc. There are indeed quite a few movies in history which had film scores with a lot of atonal elements but it takes a bold concept and filmmakers with lots of courage to actually try and go this way. Most usually you will be stuck with directors who fear that the audience will feel too alienated which such – at least for film – radical concepts. There can be endless discussions whether going down such a way really works as a general concept for film scoring. However, even in movies with a more “traditional” sound, there are quite often hints of atonality. Usually atonality works best when you weave it around cells which have a trace of tonality. Lines that move for a moment as if they were part of a chord and divert from that again. The big advantage this concept has is, that you still create that unsettling feeling atonality has but still give the audience some small things to hold on to which will in general help following the music. #composition


1/20/11: The placement of so called hit points in your music can make quite a difference in perception. Apart from obviously placing them right there is a difference between placing them on a downbeat or a beat or placing them on a off-beat. If the event you hit is somewhat expectable it works best to place it on a downbeat of a bar or a beat. If it is a surprise moment (e.g. the evil guy jumping out of a dark corner) you might want to place it on an off-beat in your music. In fact, placing such a moment on a “regular” count might weaken the impact of the surprise as the listener expects some kind of accent on such metric moments in the music. The other way round, placing hit points “randomly” in the music in a normal scoring scene might feel distracting and weaken the flow of your music. In such cases you should try to get hit points also on points in the music which make sense to have an accent. #film scoring


1/18/11: Even though a project might appear too small to bother or you are great friends with the people who are making it, as soon as you work for it, you should press on having at least a small contract. Handshake agreements are great but might cause quite a bit of possible conflicts and not even due to anybody wanting to rip off the other but due to pure misunderstandings. A small but clear contract will settle most of these issues and make life easier for both parties. Apart from the obvious things (dates, compensation etc.) you should take care, that the following points are mentioned in the contract as well: Licensing – how your music is allowed to be used, who owns the right to license it, how license fees are distributed etc. Crediting – how you are being credited (Music by…, Original Score by… etc.), where you are being credited (Main Titles, Credit Roll, Single Card Credit), whether you are mentioned on PR material and how (does your name have to appear on posters?), Expenses – who pays for travel costs, hotels, other expenses etc., when you are needed for several days somewhere, will you get so called per diems (Cash money you get on a daily basis to compensate for your living expenses like food, taxi etc.). Those are the usual main factors which are easily forgotten in agreements and usually cause a lot of trouble when they are. #working together


1/15/11: When working in the film music field, time pressure is a very common thing you have to learn to deal with. Unless you are working for small budget “for fun” movies which can afford to have an extensive post production span because nobody gets paid properly anyway, there hardly is any project you might come across which doesn’t have a certain amount of pressure. You have to find a way to deal with the pressure rather than “locking up” creatively when it occurs. The worst case scenario that nobody likes but happens from time to time is when the pressure is so big that you have to make compromises in the quality. Even though it hurts alot to go below one’s standards, sometimes it has to be done in order to get the job done. The good thing to know is that hardly anybody will notice. However you have to take care to not let it become a habit. One other important point that has to do with that is to know when something is done and then let it go. You can improve on your work forever and you’ll always find things that could be improved but you have to develop a certain ability to say “Ok, this is done, next one!” without feeling guilty or bad about it. A certain amount of work routine and serenity concerning your work is important in order to be able to get things done in the field of “creative industry”. #general


1/14/11: When you write woodwind/string runs towards a downbeat of a new bar which includes a chord change, you have to decide whether to use the scale of the new chord for these runs or use the scale of the old chord. Generally, this is a matter of the length of these runs. If they are very short (short meaning something around a quarter at 120bpm) it is better to use the new scale. However when they are quite long and lap quite a while into the preceding bar, you should go for the old scale. Also, it is a matter of how important this chord change is. If these runs go towards a new section, a new key, etc. it is quite preferable to use the new scale as well, as this introduces the new section better. As always, however, this is no definitive rule and you have to trust your ear about what works best. #orchestration


1/13/11: When scoring a scene, you need to decide from which point you want to play the scene. There might be dramatic differences in the approach whether to play it from the character’s or from the audience’s point of view. The important thing to take care of is to not permanently switch the point of view within a cue as this will be dramatically confusing. Of course, there are also situations where these two points of view might be identical but most of the time either the character or the audience knows “more” which influences the reaction on certain situations. You should be clear and aware about whose point you are playing with the music. #film scoring


1/10/11: Much of today’s tonal music relies heavily on modes rather than just major and minor. Still, modes can usually be classified into minor and major modes depending whether it contains a major or a minor third. According to their musical impression, the “major” modes can be used as “different colours” being from bright to dark: lydian, ionian, mixolydian (all containing major thirds), dorian, eolian, phrygian, locrian (containing minor thirds). The different grades of brightnesses result in having accidentals going towards the flat-direction with every step (eg. in C: lydian: F#, ionian: no accidentals, mixolydian: Bb, dorian: Bb, Eb, eolian: Bb, Eb, Ab, phrygian: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, locrian: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb). So in order to put more colour into your compositions, you should try and play around with these modes. One of the most commonly used “film music” mode is lydian, many soaring fanfares and themes rely on that scale (eg. E.T .Main Theme). To advance even further into the field of modes, you can use different modes of melodic and harmonic minor, which give you another set of fantastic sounding scales (e.g. 7#11, +maj7 etc.) which provide a nearly endless field of “harmonic colours” to play with and will harmonically enrich your compositions. #composition


1/9/11: Today’s film music is usually mixed in 5.1 surround sound. Sometimes even low budget productions mix their movies in this standard. There are several approaches to this mix: 1.) Mix it from the position of a listener in a concert hall, having the music come from the front and have only surround reverb coming from the rear speakers. 2.) Mix it from the conductors point of view using the rear channels as extensions to the left and right. 3.) Mix it from the position of inside the orchestra placing the instruments around in 360°. Nowadays most commonly used is the first method which also gives you the least “intrusive” sound. If you want an instrument to have a particular wide stereo field, you might want to place its L/R signal slightly to the left rear and right rear speakers but usually you would stay in the range of the L/R-speakers. The other two mixing concepts are more extreme which will tend to get annoying after a while. Also, even if you have a 5.1. range available, you should not use too much “surround gimmicks” like snare drums panning between left rear to right rear and back as this will get confusing. Save these possibilities only for certain moments. Be warned of trying to mix your music yourself on your home cinema system etc. especially when it’s supposed to be played in a cinema later. Home cinema systems tend to be badly calibrated and balanced as they are designed to work in small spaces like living rooms and you will most likely be dissappointed by the mix when you hear it in a cinema. If you HAVE to mix it, make sure to leave the center channel as free as possible as it will have all the dialogues which you don’t want to cover with the music. #technical


1/7/11: When you demonstrate a cue to the director/producer/whoever is in charge of your project you usually do it as a mock-up nowadays, meaning that you create or let create a sampled version of your cue. This is what is generally expected nowadays and you shouldn’t expect to find someone who likes working like Williams/Spielberg in the old days only relying on the presentation by the composer on the piano. In small budget productions, usually the sampled version is the last step. However, there are quite a few traps to avoid: don’t put too much time and effort into polishing demos as this will take lots of time for something that might be rejected and rewritten. Save the time for polishing the final mockups. If you have a real orchestra at hand, it is always a good idea to present the people in charge a comparison of an earlier project between samples and real at the beginning. I usually deliberately pick a quite badly sampled cue in order to properly justify having a real orchestra to present at the beginning. During the working progress, it is quite important to explain cues when you present them, even when they are quite decently sampled. Don’t rely on just presenting the cues. Some directors might mistake a bad sounding sample for a badly written cue, so explain to him that what currently sounds like a foghorn will later be a noble brass fanfare or things like that. #working together


1/4/11: Joining a performance rights organisation is an important step on the road of becoming a professional composer and making a living of it, however it should not be rushed. As soon as you join such an organisation it gets more tricky to get jobs from the low-budget, student or independent film makers as most of the very small budgets don’t allow to pay for royalities later, so actually joining such an organisation at the very early stage of your carreer might not be very constructive. You should look into joining them as soon as you work for projects that are going to be commercially released or are supposed to reach a big audience (Youtube videos don’t count as they have special deals with performance rights organisations). You should also be aware that royalities don’t pay immediately, it might sometimes take years until they reach your bank account. #general


1/3/11: Certain instrument sections have certain “favourite keys”. Due to the tuning of the open strings on string instruments which resonate more in certain keys, the string section sound best in the first few sharp keys (G, D, A, E major and relative minors) while brass instruments due to many of them (trumpets and trombones) having their base harmonic scale (the harmonic scale which is produced when the tubing is not altered by valves or slides) in Bb and horns having it in F or Bb, the first few flat keys (F, Bb, Eb) sound most resonant and brillant on these instruments. Woodwinds are pretty much capable of playing any key with good sounding results. Depending on which section you lay focus on, you should favor certain keys. Great examples for this can be seen in the compositions by John Williams. While the brass heavy STAR WARS Main Theme is written in Bb major (by the way: just a transposition of a minor second up to B major would sound way less brillant), the sweeping string heavy flying sequence from E.T. is written in wonderful sounding D major. #orchestration


1/2/11: You should never start a music cue out of the blue. There has to be a reason to come in with music or it will feel quite strange for the viewer. Be aware that starting a cue sets quite a big highlight on that moment, so it should be on a moment that has a certain importance such as a new emotional emphasis – visual or in dialogue, a reaction to something or a new action on the screen – e.g. a car driving off etc. Even if you start a cue a bit before a moment you want to hit, set the starting point to a plausible moment. #film scoring

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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