Daily Film Scoring Bits – Archive Jun – Dec 2013

Posted on Jun 1, 2013 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits Archive of June to December 2013.

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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12/19/13: Brass instruments will always have a natural decrescendo on sustained notes unless indicated by special dynamics. Many sample libraries come with absolutely flat sustains on the brass (in order to be loopeable) and many people use them without giving them a natural dynamic shaping. In order to raise the realism in your midi programming, make sure that you shape the sustains in a more natural way by decrescendoing them. This is especially important on endings of phrases.

 #technical

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12/18/13: It is possible to connect practically every chord with every chord over common tones and still make a musical sense to the audience. Even harmonically very remote chords can be connected with the use of tension notes. E.g. connecting the harmonically very remote chords of Cmajor and F#major works very well, if you connect it with a c which is the root note in Cmajor and the very same c which becomes a #11 over the F# chord. With this principle, and by sustaining that c in every chord you can easily connect chord progressions like C (c being the root), Ab (c being the 3), F (5), Db (maj7), Bb (9), F#(#11) or any combination of that or practically all other chords (with the limitation of G where the c becomes the 11 over the 3, which is not that attractive).

 #composition

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12/17/13: While ambitous film scoring is definitely something that can be very attractive and thought provoking, especially young composers tend to push this a little too far in their search to reinvent the wheel.  The essential difference between writing for film and writing for the concert stage is that your music needs to “work” in a certain way in the movie, while on the concert stage this is not the most important thing (or where ambiguosity is desired). Therefore you need to make sure that your musical choices actually work with your audience which means you need to go musical paths that are essentially established already. It is great to try and give them a new spin but writing music because it works for you or a small circle of other people is nothing that will generally work in the medium of film unless you’re working for experimental films which have a small audience as well.

 #filmscoring

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12/16/13: In the media world, it is very often all just about what sort of projects with what sort of people you have worked on already. So when you’re trying to impress somebody, e.g. getting to know a new customer whom you want to give a profile of yourself, be very conscious about what projects you mention. It’s neither about your most recent project nor about the projects that had the highest artistic value but simply about the biggest projects with the most well known names, even if they have been years ago. It is even okay to “dramatize” projects but make sure to not make up any projects that you haven’t actually worked on as people will probably start to reasearch your stuff when they are interested in working with you.

 #general

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12/13/13: Just as important as knowing the ranges of the instruments that you are writing for you should also have a clear idea about the registers of the instruments and dynamic possibilities of them in these registers. There are a few charts out there which show one or the other, for example in parts THIS ONE. However this chart doesn’t show how the registers influence the dynamics of the instrument (e.g. it is impossible to play a real forte at the lowest register of the flute etc.). Most of this knowledge however can be gathered from orchestration books and be put into an own chart. So make sure that you don’t just know the ranges (which can also easily be looked up in case of doubt) but maybe even more importantly how the instruments behave dynamically and timbrally over these ranges.

 #orchestration

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12/12/13: Even with very powerful computer systems it is very problematic to work with complete video files of whole feature films in any software, especially when you’re working with files in HD resolution. There are basically two ways to handle that. The first being to convert the whole file into a small resolution/data rate file to make it easier to handle in your scoring software and the second one being to cut out small portions of the video to  work with from take to take. My personal preference (especially in Sibelius) is to work with the second alternative. The most important thing is to be able to convert and edit video files on your system. I’ve found a mixture of Quicktime Pro and AnyVideoConverter to be quite effective for my needs so I can create videos to work with from larger video files which works most of the time.

 #technical

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12/11/13: A really effective way to create interesting harmonic structures is to stack two triads on top of each other. This procedure is called polychords, bitonal chords or also upper structure triads. Depending on what chords you stack you can create either quite consonant harmonic structure but also very dissonant sounds. One of the most prominent polychords is probably the Matrix Chord, where a Cmajor triad in the trumpets gets stacked over an Em triad in the horns (starting at 0:05 in the Youtube video). The most important thing to know about these polychords is, the simpler the two chords, the easier to understand they are. In the case of Matrix, our brain can easily distinguish between the two triads because it is very used to identifying and hearing triads but gets the feeling of the interesting overall harmony. What helps to distinguish even further is the dynamic shaping of these chords as well as the two different instrumental colours.

 #composition

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12/10/13: When scoring a movie, always try to see the sound as one whole, just as the audience will experience it later on and compose your music accordingly so that your music works later together with the sound and dialogue. There usually is for example no need to double gunshots, explosions or other loud sound effects in the music by doing stabs etc as you first of all don’t really have a chance with the music against it as well as they will be acoustically extremely present anyway. Rather try to interweave important sound effects and dialogue as if it was a part of your music and try to score for example these gun shot as if it was a percussive hit. In fact, musically doubling especially such precise hits might even feel quite cheesy and if not lining up exactly with the audio effect also acoustically very unpleasent. So when you score a cue, have a look out for especially loud sound effects, but also screams, characters shouting and see how you can interact with them when writing the music.

 #filmscoring

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12/09/13: Very often, business connections are not made in places where they are supposed to be made (e.g. business meetings, trade fairs, festivals etc.) but rather in places where you normally won’t expect them. The simple reason for that is that in situations like film festivals, potential customers are in the mode of expecting people to approach them and to try to make business contacts, which makes it very difficult to stand out from the crowd. In my experience it is way more effective to create business contacts in non-related events. Having a casual chat with someone on the hallway of an event might be way more effective than trying to make a business connection on an aftershow party etc. Always be prepared for that and also attend events where at first sight it might not be the best possibility to make new contacts. And of course make sure to always have a business card with you.

 #gerneral

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12/06/13: While there are many jokes about the triangle and its players, it can have a fantastic effect in an orchestration. Apart from the single hits that are very often used as comedy moments, especially the roll on the triangle can add an amazing high sparkle on top of chords and notes. While the triangle usually has no problem cutting even through the thickest orchestration (because it has a lot of really high frequencies) placing such a triangle roll on a final tutti chord can give the extra sparkle and brilliance .

 #orchestration

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12/05/13: If possible never deliver a final mix for important clients right after you finished working on it but rather sleep over it. Very often, when you work for a long time on a piece you either start to not hear problems or start to hear problems that are not there or in worst case both and work against that in your mix and when hearing it with fresh ears the next morning, it sounds and feels completely different. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a perfect piece. This effect happens very often and can be quite annoying especially in a scoring session when you need to concentrate for many hours and towards the end start to miss problems because your ears are tired. A good strategy is to make frequent breaks as well when mixing. Some mixing engineers I know have a 15 min break after 45 mins of working. This is nothing that is due to lazyness but essential to keep a fairly neutral view on the music. However eventually, everybody needs to find his/her own way of what works best.

 #technical

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12/04/13: There are quite a few books about composition which provide a list of how each individual interval in a melodic motion feels like and also take into consideration the direction. Many young film composers take such lists as the holy grail which is something to be really careful about. While some of these impressions might be true to an extend, it is ALWAYS massively depending on the context. The open and powerful perfect fifth upwards that is very often described in such lists can be quite massively changed in perception when placed in a more dissonant chord. So take these lists at max as a little inspiration but don’t let yourself being forced into believing that you HAVE to write with certain intervals to create certain emotions.

 #composition

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12/03/13: Sometimes it might be helpful to work on a cue or even a whole movie score “backwards”. Especially on quiter movies, it might be a good idea to set the musical climax first, either in a cue or the whole movie. Score that climax appropriately and as big as it needs to be. When you have that set, you have a reference point of what the “maximum drama” in that cue or movie will be and can work down from that. With this strategy, you will not running into the danger of having the music too big before the actual climax and then needing to score the climax bigger as you would want to or works well for the movie. This strategy works best for movies and scenes that have a clear primary climax. As soon as you have some experience with scoring movies, you will get a feeling of how big it will get eventually but especially at the beginning, such a backwards strategy might be really helpful.

 #filmscoring

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12/02/13: As every year, use christmas time to connect to customers again that you haven’t heard of for a while or to remember people that you still exist. Of course, sending out christmas greetings to your business contacts that you work with on a regular basis is mandatory, but especially at christmas you have the time to knock again on some doors. As usual, don’t overdo it by sending a commercial message rather than a season greeting, but pointing out what you have been doing recently etc. might be helpful.

 #general

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11/29/13: Many composers coming from the sample world love to use massively split up string sections. Things like triads in the violas alone, several different violin movements etc. are very common. While this might work in the sample world, in the real world, anything orchestrated like this will suffer from massive substance problems. The general goal (unless you have a very big line-up) is to avoid to divisi strings as much as possible. Any divisi will split the amount of players you have per note into half or worse taking away a lot of the substance of sound. The common misunderstanding is that the strings have a very rich harmonic spectrum and many of the tones you would want to split them into already ring in one pitch. Therefore they have a huge potential of melting together into a homogenous sound and don’t need to have every tone of the chord in every octave. In fact, well orchestrated strings without divisi will sound way better than even a larger string line-up with a lot of divisi when not orchestrated properly. So apart from divisi-ing the cellos (which can sustain a substance even when split into two sections) try to keep the divisis to a minimum and only when you really need it. As a side note: one of the most unneccessary divisis in strings is to split the double basses into octaves which is coming from the piano writing where playing the left hand in octaves adds substance. With basses, that doesn’t happen apart from losing substance from the lower octave and moving substance into the higher octave which automatically rings with the lower octave anyway. So unless you have a really good reason for this split, avoid it.

 #orchestration

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11/28/13: Quite a few composers who want to work for film reject to work on their technical skills. Very often an argument like “John Williams got to where he is by just writing short scores on paper and demoing things on the piano.” While this is true, the “romantic” idea of the film composer working away in his composing room with just a piano and piles of score sheet papers is just not valid anymore. If John Williams wanted to start his career today, he would have not a single chance competing against other composers who are technically skilled and can create convincing sample productions in no time. If you want to be succesful in that highy competetive field of film scoring, there is no way around knowing and being able to use samples and digital recording/production techniques. The good thing is that if you really hate that side of the work (what quite a few composers do) you can start to outsource that again as soon as your career has lead you to some success. But rejecting to deal with these things right at the beginning of your career will very likely not give you a single chance to enter the professional film/media scoring world.

 #technical

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11/27/13: Great composers are not measured by the amount of ideas they have but rather what they do with a few ideas. Very often, young or unexperienced composers tend to write pieces that play out one idea just to move on to another idea etc. while losing a continuity in their piece and making the composition feel like a “suite” (which in this particular form is desired). However being able to sustain an idea for a longer period and still keep it interesting is what makes a great composer. Probably THE most well known example where this strategy is obvious is the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The key motif (3 short notes followed by a long note) is not what Beethoven gets praised for. Actually that idea is so simple that probably everybody could have invented it. However what makes Beethoven a true master is the fact that he bases a whole ca. 6min movement practically on this very motif alone without getting boring for a second. That is management of ideas to the extreme but the essence here is that he managed to make it seem effortless to maintain a momentum in a (almost) 1-motif-piece. So whenever you feel the need of moving on to a new idea in a piece because you feel like you’ve exhausted what could be squeezed out from your initial idea, think about Beethoven and if you could make your piece more stringent by sticking to the initial idea a little longer. By the way, the argument of “this is classical music, what do I care” is invalid. The Raider’s March from Indiana Jones by John Williams is practically a one motif piece as well as long as it stay’s in Indy’s theme (this time the main idea is dotted eight followed by 16th followed by a target note/figure).

 #composition

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11/26/13: Try to avoid having too many musical accents exactly on cuts. A cut is something that doesn’t match with the way how we perceive things in reality so a cut automatically interrupts a visual or even a dramatic flow. This interruption is nothing that you normally would want to make even stronger by accenting it with the music. If it accidentally happens to have an accent on a cut, it’s not a problem but with several of these highlights in close proximity, the sequence will start to feel very chunky. However as a stylistic device, you can use it for a specific contrasting effect as recently seen so brilliantly in GRAVITY, where huge musical buildups end several times clean cut (visually and acoustically) into the absolute silence of space which is a fantastic effect there.

 #filmscoring

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11/25/13: Quite often customers will be pleased already with quite mediocre products and many composers develop a habit of saying “The customer’s happy, that’s all that counts.” While from a purely business-related viewpoint this might be true, it is not something that is really adviseable in order to stay positive on your job. The question is always how far beyond your customer being pleased you go. My personal approach is to always try to get the maximum out of what I’m working on and especially to be happy about it myself. I would lose the joy if I always had the feeling that I’m not giving my best. The other side effect of course is always the possibility of another more picky potential customer hearing your work and not really being excited about the mediocre product you delivered or being excited because you delivered something beyond what needed to be done. So, in the end it is down to your own working attitude and sometimes one has to make compromises, but being content with mediocre results will eventually only land you in the mediocre field of composers.

 #general

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11/22/13: In order to create a warm and hollywoodish sound for example in string but also trombone chords, you should try to place the third of the chord (especially the major third) pretty low in the range without getting into the muddy range with it. The third helps to create a lot of sonority in that register. Theretically, balancing a chord means to even out the volume between the individual chord tones (e.g. root, third and fifth) so to make sure that for example in a string chord you have each of these notes in roughly two instruments (with other less homogenous instruments involved it gets a little more complicated) as opposed to having a chord that has 4 times the fifth, twice the root and only once the third or something like that. However even with a nicely balanced out chord, if you have the third of the chord appear only in the higher register, the chord will sound empty as only in the mid/low register the third can generate that warmth and sonority.

 #orchestration

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11/21/13: Unless you get a chance to listen to your score in a mixing cinema when doing the film mix (which is usually soemthing only higher budgeted movies do) you should be prepared for your music sounding quite different in the cinema than it sounded in your studio. The size of the room in a cinema has some effect on the overall acoustics compared to a near field monitoring situation as you have it in most studios. Whenever you have the chance, you should attend the film audio mix when it’s done in a mixing cinema to be able to take some influence on the sound in case you don’t like it. And even though it has gotten better over the last years, there can still be quite a bit of difference in sound within different cinemas. Most bigger cinemas nowadays have a quite good sound (as there are also standards that need to be met) but some of the smaller cinemas will be having some older sound systems where your music (and the sound in general) sounds horrible. So be prepared as a composer to sometimes be unpleasantly surprised about how your music actually sounds in the end.

 #technical

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11/20/13: The human brain gravitates quite heavily towards certain musical concepts. Certain chord progressions, melodic paths, motifs etc. that keep appearing over and over again in music are a very good proof of that. The highly entertaining Four Chord Song by The Axis of Awesome is another great example. This has not really something to do with composers being lazy but more with the fact that we simply like certain musical configurations. Therefore that desire to reinvent the wheel that many young composers have is really making things a lot harder, apart from the fact that is highly unlikely to find music in the tonal world that hasn’t been written before and still sounds halfway musical. Especially in the film score world, there are also highly established musical cliches that keep repeating everywhere. So as long as you give a new spin on something that sounds familiar and is not a direct rip-off, you shouldn’t worry too much about that particular fact. That is one of the inherent principles of how music works for us (and also one of the reasons why plagiarism trials very rarely end with a clear result).

 #composition

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11/19/13: One of the biggest arguments for hiring a composer instead of using library music for a project is a general musical concept. Choosing library music will always feel like a patched together score due to different musical styles, thematic ideas etc. Use that advantage as strongly as possible when being hired for a project by giving the music a strong uniform language. Most important in this regard is always to not just score the movie scene by scene but always keep your musical language uniform. Especially on scenes that stand out from the rest of the movie and may imply a very clichéd scoring approach (e.g. kissing scenes, scenes where people sneak through houses etc.) you should take special care to mold them into the rest of your score. In the end the score and the film will feel more uniform and leave a stronger impact than a score without a strong unifying concept.

 #filmscoring

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11/18/13: Most customers/directors are not musically educated enough to speak with you as the composer in musical terms. So the problem lies very often in finding a common base to communicate with. My (and probably many other composer’s) favourite way is to ask things like “How do you want the scene to feel?” or “What do you want to tell the audience that is not necessarily in the visuals?”. It might also be helpful to talk in temp tracks, though be careful with cues where your customer says something like “I could imagine something like the cue x from that other movie with that but it shouldn’t be as y as that particular track.” Very often there might be misunderstandings on what “y” will be as you as a composer might have a different understanding of what this might be. If it shouldn’t be for instance as “dominant” as that track, there is a huge field for misunderstandings. You as a composer might think things like “dominant frequencies, intrusive musical patterns, repetetive rhythmical structures” while your director actually just doesn’t like the “masculinity” of the low trombone sound and interprets that as “dominant”. It gets even worse with words like edgy, emotional, old fashioned etc. so always try to ask from another perspective to understand what your customer really means. This of course also applies for feedback on your own tracks later on in the process.

 #general

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11/15/13: Using mutes on string instruments has some important things to consider and remember. Mutes as seen on this picture have no influence on the vibration of the strings but simply alter the way how the vibration of the strings is transmitted over the bridge (the wood “blade” where the mute sits on) into the body. Therefore, string mutes have only a very small influence on the volume of the instruments. The essential effect of a mute is to give the instruments a more covered, less bright sound. There are a lot of different types of mutes (metal, rubber, wood etc.) though you should leave it to the musician to pick his/her favourite mute. Important to know is that when you need to rush to put the mute on or off, it will be quite noisy, so it is always a better to leave enough time to change to or from mutes to do this silently. The sound of string mutes is constantly being used in emotional warm string pieces in scores or similar passages for example this theme from CAST AWAY, but also the very agressive main theme from PSYCHO uses the whole string sections under mutes for sound texture reasons. Unfortunately, most sampled muted strings don’t transport the warmth and texture that real muted strings can create so they’re often underused in sampled music.

 #orchestration

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11/14/13: Whenever you record live instruments, no matter if it is just a soloist or a whole orchestra, always go for “safety takes” if time allows. Those are takes that you do after the point where you are happy with a take. It can and will happen that you don’t spot problems in some takes, like noises or intonation problems in an instrument that is too low in the monitor mix to catch it. In such cases, safety takes to fall back to are incredibly valuable. In several instances safety takes have saved cues for me and I know from many colleagues also for them.

 #technical

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11/13/13: The mass of rules, possibilities and concepts in music theory can be overwhelming or even intimidating for your own writing. However don’t give music theory a higher value than being a tool. Changing your music for the reason that it is theoretically not correct even though you actually like it is probably the worst thing you can do. The important thing to understand with music theory is that many concepts are overlapping and there are many viewpoints on the same thing, sometimes with the effect that some concepts partially simply contradict each other. Music is an art form and not a science, which makes rules flexible or even changing completely over time. If you try to approach music from the scientific standpoint only, things will quickly become very frustrating. Music theory can be helpful in certain situations to get you through moments when you’re stuck or things seem a little strange but it can not be stressed too often: your ear and your intuition should always have the highest priority. If it sounds good, it is good. Period.

 #composition

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11/12/13: When making musical decisions on how to score a scene, always look at the big picture. Sometimes a scene might suggest a very different way of scoring in connection with the plot than the actual scene might indicate. A very good example is the opening sequence from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS where we see Jodie Foster’s character doing a training run through the woods. While from a microscopical level this scene indicates a rather energetic “work out” score, composer Howard Shore wrote a quite dark and ominous score on top of it indicating the general mood of the movie as well as setting the tone for what’s about to follow. While the images only slightly imply what this movie is about (foggy, darkish atmosphere while she does the course), the music very clearly tells us where this movie is going to and enters this unsettling feeling right at the opening credits.

#filmscoring

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11/11/13: There are several sites on the internet that supposedly have a network of contacts in the business or projects available that need composers but charge you in order to get to the contacts or pitch for a project. From everything that I heard about such sites (never using the services myself), I haven’t heard a single success story or even somebody establishing a working relationship on such sites. Aquiring business contacts cold is probably one of the trickiest things in the business and it doesn’t really matter if you do it by googling up production companies or through such sites. The success rate is incredibly low. So if you think about spending money for paid networking sites, do a google research on them or ask colleagues. Usually, they are a waste of time and money to people who try to benefit from the desperation for getting paid high profile work that is unfortunately going on in that field.

#general

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11/08/13: One very simple question I keep asking myself when orchestrating is: “Would I enjoy playing that?” when looking at the individual parts. In the heat of orchestrating things it happens quickly to simply not see when a part or several parts are dead boring to play, have a completely stupid voice leading or are just not musically pleasing. The ideal orchestration should have musically plausible and good lines for every musician involved and I try to get as close as possible to that when doing my orchestrations. You will also get a better result from your musicians but also even from samples if the lines that are being played are all musically plausible. So when you’re done orchestrating, go over it once more and check whether there is a possible unattractive line somewhere that could need some more attention.

#orchestration

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11/07/13: Most orchestral recording studios record on protools which means that at least when you’re preparing a recording session you should have a basic understanding of how this software works. While it might be possible to prepare a recording just with audio click tracks and additional audio tracks to quickly import into an empty protools session, it is way easier and have some striking benefits to actually prepare a protools session when you go to the studio. Working just with an audio click makes it very tricky to jump to a certain bar and record from there as well as doing changes in case they need to be done. While this seems like not a big deal, it will actually make a big difference in the recording process. When you just need to fix a small spot where there was a wrong note, with audio clicks you most likely will need to record the whole cue once again while with a pre prepared session you can just do an insert for a few bars. So even if you don’t own or know protools, I would try to find someone who could set up all the session files in protools before you go to one instead of trying to solve everything with audio files. It is even more important if you want to have a video running against the playing of the orchestra which is practically only possible if you prepare a real protools session.

#technical

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11/06/13: A lot of what makes today’s style in commercial orchestral music is actually defined by the limitations of samples. Certain things clearly can be pulled off more realistically with samples than others. This was even more true a few years ago when it was even more tricky to for example get a decent sound out of high soaring violin melodies. Instead it was easier to just play low string chords or staccatos in the low/mid register and add some percussive grooves to that. While it is perfectly fine to write in a way that you get out of the way of sample limitations when you write for stuff that will not be live, you should never forget to improve your craft beyond the sample world. Music can become very boring to listen to and play if these limitations are being translated to a real orchestra. Also, with sample libraries these days it is possible to get practically everything done somehow. Don’t fall into the position where you constantly just write in a specific way just because it is most convenient like that.

#composition

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11/05/13: While the tempo of a cue very much has an influence on the intensity of how we feel it, it is not necessarily an equivalent of musical energy. Very quick tempi can feel very low on energy and slow tempi also high on energy. So in order to score for instance an action scene appropriatly it is not enough to have a quick tempo but then have instruments play at low dynamics in weak registers in a sparse orchestration. Instead you also need to make sure that the feeling of energy is transported also on other levels than the tempo. It can however have a very interesting musical effect to have the tempo and energy level not really have the feeling of matching which can create a lot of tension and suspense, like the feeling of a “sleeping lion”. In this regard, tuttis in soft dynamics are also very effective. So the bottom line is to be aware about and get control over these things and how you can manipualte the perception of your music and of course also the scene with such simple concepts.

#filmscoring

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11/04/13: The media world is full of people who make a lot of empty promises or try to sell themselves and their project way above value. You need to devlop a sense for such people an generally be very sceptical. Usually, when something seems fishy, it is fishy. A few general advices in this regard: never let yourself being talked into working “this time for free, but on the next project we will have the big money” unless you are really convinced or trust the person on a personal level because you know him/her etc. Do background checks. If somebody seems to be no big deal but acts like one, be sceptical. Insist on a contract practically on every bigger project and especially on first projects and don’t invest anything (time or money) before you don’t have this contract sealed (apart from reading scripts etc. and the usual things to figure out whether you’re interested). No brainer but never sign anything before you haven’t properly read and understood it. No serious business person would want you to do this. In general a good portion of healthy scepticism is always appropriate, don’t let yourself be manipulated or just being talked into something just because the person is very eloquent and seems like a cool guy.

#general

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11/01/13: One of the standard orchestration problems with learning composers/orchestrators is to write too many details in a too short amount of time. There are often two reasons for that. One being the  feeling of leaving too much empty space on the score sheet which can be very misleading at quick tempos and might make you believe you need to fill up more details even though the bars pass by very quickly. Another one is the fatigue of from hearing your own music. When the effect of you finding your main melody interesting wears off eventually you will automatically feel the urge to add something that makes it interesting again and when that wears off the same happens again. But you keep forgetting that your audience didn’t have that effect yet and will be overwhelmed by everything. So it always helps to take a step back from your piece and think about how much more spicing up is really necessary.

#orchestration

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10/31/13: Buying and deciding for a sample library can be a very frustrating process especially when the budget ist tight and you need to make a conscious choice. The biggest problem is that official demos are usually written exactly in the way to not show the weaknesses of the library and due to the fact that there is usually no money-back and a no-resale policy for libraries, you basically have no chance to really test a library before you buy it. What helps to make decisions is of course to read reviews  but also to read forums about other user’s experiences. What is also a very good way to get a better idea of what you’re going to expect is to talk with someone who owns the library about potential weaknesses etc. Be aware that there is no perfect it-can-do-everything library out there so if you’re looking for that, you will never find something. Also, don’t trust what you read on forums blindly. In the recent years there has been a group of people developing who could be defined as “sample collectors” who usually have a non-musical well paid day job and buy practically every library that is being released and enjoy talking about that but have practically no real-world relation and no pressure to write a certain amount of music in a given time or even don’t write music regularly at all. This combined with the occasional esotheric attitude regarding sound and music will not give you a really good idea of what you can expect. So my personal first go-to way when I want to know something more about a library is to talk to colleagues whose judgement I trust who own it.

#technical

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10/30/13: When providing an emotional reason in the movie and due to the fact that not the full audience’s attention lies on the music, the average audience is way more tolerant regarding modernistic approaches in film music composition than they would be in concert music. Especially in the horror/thriller genre where there’s the feeling of discomfort or being scared a wanted effect, the audience will accept really avantgardistic writng. One  of the recent examples where this has worked very successfully was SHUTTER ISLAND where for example Penderecki’s 3rd Symphony has been used as score for the arrival on the island. In spite of the modernistic writing style (at least compared to regular film music) the audience generally reacted with the appropriate emotional response to that music without rejecting it.

#composition

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10/29/13: Hit points in the music should never feel like you added an element at random on top of a music bed just to hit an action. Great film music manages to give hit points a musical plausability. If you listen to that music alone, you definitely get that there is obviously something happening at a certain moment but it feels musical. Very often, inexperienced film composers simply try to accent hit points without really writing the music accordingly but just placing a snare drum hit, a horn rip or whatever at the point in the music. This might still work in the movie but will feel very random when listening to the music alone.

#filmscoring

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10/28/13: One of the downsides of being a film composer is very often the lack of social interaction during your work. When deadlines are tight and workload is high, it happens quite often that you need to “disappear” into your studio for quite a while. Whether this works for you or not is of course highly depending on your personality and some people have no problems with this. But most people need some social interaction to remain healthy and positive. In my personal experience a long lack of social interaction (and facebook being not an adequate substitution) has quite a few negative effects. I try even during toughest deadlines to set aside some time for friends, family etc. The great thing is that being away from work just for a few hours having fun and simply enjoying time will very likely give you new inspiration and energy to solve problems that you were dealing with before. Another great solution is to set up a “studio community”. Whether you work in a team or in a facility with several other people is really helpful to not become a studio zombie.

#general

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10/25/13: Mixing instrumental colours is roughly like mixing colours when painting. A mixed colour is never as bright as the brightest of the colour that is in the mix and if you mix too much, you will end up with a muddy gray. In orchestration that means that unmixed instrumental colours are usually the most brillant sounds you can create. As soon as you start mixing trumpets with something else (which means to double at pitch or in octaves) , their sound will get darker and less brillant. This happens with every rather bright sound colour. If you start adding more instruments to a solo flute (even if more flutes) the sound will become less bright. This can of course be a desired effect to create a more “muted” sound quality. However where it gets really problematic and which is an often seen problem with unexperienced orchestrator is to double too much, especially in woodwinds. Due to the heterogenity of the different sounds of the woodwind family, doubling there creates very quickly an overload of lower harmonics in the sound which make the sound very thick and gray for us as it loses every contour. It is great to create unusual sound combinations but you really need to be careful when it is getting out of hand. Doubling in octaves helps to counteract that problem for a while but still be careful with doubling too much.

#orchestration

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10/24/13: The popularity of certain libraries (e.g. Project Sam’s SYMPHOBIA) results in some effects that are very often debated and where there is no definitive answer. Due to practically everybody having and owning certain libraries, certain sounds are so often used that one starts to recognize them. Especially with the orchestral effects that have a very distinctive sound, it is very easy to hear them even in a complex arrangement. Even worse are popular sampled phrases etc. For anybody who works in that field, hearing soemthing where you can point your finger to where it comes from is a pretty unpleasant as it always throws you off a story and the desired musical effect. However, a standard listener will not have that problem with such things. So, you could handle these problems either way. My personal approach is to fulfill my own creative demands to myself and not use anything out of lazyness or for a cheap effect. I always try to come up with a solution that hasn’t been done many times before and try to use samples in a more creative way. But when time pressure is high or there is absolutely no way to get around a certain “signature sample”, I also would use it. In the end everybody has to find his/her own answer about how much more effort you should put into something beyond pleasing the customer/audience in order to please yourself.

#technical

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10/23/13: In the media music world, being very aware of musical style is massively essential. You need to be able to deliver “something that sounds like Elfman” or “something that sounds very modern” or “something that brings back good old memories” etc. Such things are constantly being asked for and you need to know quickly and precisely how to create that style. So apart from working on your craft and absorb everything musical, you should also start to sort it in your memory into boxes. Spend some time figuring out what makes the sound of Elfman etc., try analyzing how golden age music works, figure out what chord progressions “modern scores”. It is not just about knowing what musical solutions are possible in genera, but what musical solutions to gravitate for in certain circumstances. Train your ear and your stylistic sense by listening to and analyzing a lot of different music. There is hardly a worse situation when you need to deliver something very quickly and have no idea how to pull it off.

#composition

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10/22/13: Watching movies several times, as you need to do as a composer, can be quite dangerous not only in the way how emotional aspects start to wear off but also in the way how the fact that you know how the story will evolve influences your way of scoring the movie. Even though it seems like a simple thing to avoid, it happens very easily to give away things of the story too early due to knowing how it will evolve. Whenever you score a scene, ask yourself what the audience actually knows and whether the way you are scoring it right now gives away something. One of the common moments where inexperienced composers give away too much too early is the introduction of the villain. Unless it is staged very obviously as “the bad guys enters”, ask yourself if the audience already knows whether he/she is the bad guy and if you need to colourize the music that way already or if it might be dramaturgically more clever to not give that away yet. Of course, your director will also have a say on this but there are more subtle things where you also need to ask yourself whether the way you understand this scene has been spoiled by the fact that you know already what is going to happen.

#filmscoring

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10/21/13: Working for somebody doesn’t mean that you have to agree with him/her all the time. Don’t be afraid of arguments when discussing about the path a project should go musically. Many directors/producers I met prefer a composer who has a strong own opinion on what the music should do over a composer who just says “yes”. Even if your client seems intimidating and you don’t want to seem like a jerk doesn’t mean that you should not express your point of view. Not just because from such things sometimes the best ideas might arise but also because it is psychologically way healthier. If you keep working on things where you just say yes but don’t really agree you will eventually begin to feel really frustrated. So while harmony and agreement is something that feels better at the moment, sometimes a professional and constructive debate can ba very strong creative spark.

#general

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10/18/13: While undoubtedly having one’s music performed by a real orchestra is probably the best way to learn how things work, there is a cheaper yet almost as effective way to learn about orchestration and how an orchestra works which is going to orchestra concerts. Listening to recordings is fine and reading along with the score sheet also but the best recording can not capture the sound of an orchestra playing in a good room. Even if you are not too much into classical music, you should simply go there and watch the musicians play. Also, when buying tickets, don’t necessarily book the tickets with the best sound but where you see what’s going on. What has helped me a lot when I was younger and which I was doing at least once a month and what was a great learning experience was to get score sheets of the concert that I was about to see, listen and read through at home, to get an idea what is about to happen and then go to the concert watching as closely as possible what the musicians were doing. You can see when a musician is playing something difficult, you can also see how the interaction between other musicians and the conductor works and you can also hear how balance and texture works with an orchestra. If you seriously want to write orchestral music, you should see and hear an orchestra live. If you haven’t done that yet (which interestingly is true with many orchestral composers who work with samples), you will most likely have a massive epiphany the first time you do it. So the bottom line is to not be too reserved to do that, even if you don’t like the “standard” classical music, there is a lot of classical music out there which will also be enjoyable for film/game/trailer music guys.

#orchestration

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10/17/13: Keep your working environment streamlined and focused. Many people like buying all sorts of gear or sample library they can get their fingers on and believe it will improve their output quality but in reality, the more you have the worse it gets. Working your way through many different libraries basically covering the same instruments and trying to learn how to use all these libraries and what strengths and weaknesses they have will eat up so much of the time you could otherwise spend writing music or getting really good at using what you had already. The same applies for gear/software. Unless you don’t have the feeling that you are really lacking something or you think that buying the new library/software/gear MIGHT give you a better result but you don’t really know how, you should really think about whether it is worth getting it. In the end, you need a streamlined working process which you will not be able to aquire if you keep doing massive changes on your setup. As with writing music, very often the most fascinating results arise from limited possibilities.

#technical

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10/16/13: Have an eye out for how quickly you return to the tonic chord. Almost in every case, returning back to to the tonic chord feels like “closing off” a phrase, so every time you reach that chor, your listener’s perception will give him/her the feeling of finishing something off. Due to unexperienced composers very often overusing the tonic chord and reaching it every few bars, the musical impression always becomes a little chunky. You can not create a soaring melody that has a feeling of epicness and grandness if you keep sneaking around the tonic, so whenever you have the urge to return to it, ask yourself if that melodic arc is doing what you want it to do or if you couldn’t do a side-step to another chord instead to extend it a little more.

#composition

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10/15/13: Sometimes, it might be a very effective scoring device to cut the music off without even ending a musical phrase and without leaving a reverb trail. Especially on scene changes that are supposed to be as contrasting as possible, this effect is very often used. Recently the dramatic effect of this device could be seen in the movie GRAVITY, where the sound/music build up to a massive sound wall just to cut off into complete silence. This works highly effective to make the contrast between the terror that is going on in the scenery and the absolute silence in space even bigger. So, music cuts don’t always need to be musically fulfilling. Also on comedy moments, this device is very often used.

#filmscoring

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10/14/13: There is no standard way to find an entrance into the film/game scoring world. The essential thing to understand is, that it is a highly individual way for everybody and just because it worked for one person doesn’t mean it will also work for you. There will most likely not be any event that jump starts your career but it will be a long way up. Also, there is a lot of luck and circumstance involved. One thing that can probably be boiled down to being an important factor on a career is to be lucky enough to be part of a project that turns some heads or becomes successful. Such a thing is quite guaranteed to generate follow-up projects by the same or new clients. So, it might be a wise choice to rather look for exceptional projects that have potential rather than well paid projects. But of course, success is often down to sheer luck. So, you can hardly plan with it.

#general

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10/11/13: When you’re writing a score sheet, especially when for a  film score, rather prefer to use the word “simile” or “sim.” (meaning “in the same way”) where you can instead of articulating everything. This has a massively practical reason for sight reading. If you for example have a long section where a string section is supposed to play staccato 8th notes ostinatos, marking the first bar with staccato dots and use “sim.” on the next bars without any more articulations is easier to read than having staccato dots on every note in that passage. The reason for that is, that your player would need to look way closer at every note when you use the dots because there could be the theoretic possibility that suddenly there’s one note without the staccato dot or a different articulation. When using “sim.” the player knows exactly that it should continue in staccato and needs to only read the notes properly. In more extreme examples the overload of repeating articulations can cause real problems in sight reading as it might just ask too much of your players to process at the same time. On the other hand “simile” helps to unclutter the score sheet which is always a great thing on sight reading scores. Many people have the feeling that using “simile” is an excuse for lazyness but actually it helps alot when used properly.

#orchestration

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10/10/13: When recording real musicians, always plan in some set-up time at the beginning of the session. Even in big studios you will need to spend some time when everybody is in the room to adjust some things. I usually tend to start with a medium tricky, loud but not massively important cue so that practically everybody plays, gets a chance to warm up and the engineer gets a chance to adjust levels, fix microphones etc. This will always happen and inexperienced composers get nervous in these first few minutes quite often because you don’t really get a lot of music recorded in that time but once everything is set (and your musicians have warmed up) the recording speed will increase. It also helps to start with a loud tutti cue because if you start with something soft, there will need to be some adjusting done in the later cues when more instruments join in. I prefer to have that done in one go and then be able to record without many more interruptions.

#technical

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10/09/13: One of the strongest factors in music is the duality between tension and resolution, which can be found in the smallest musical units (e.g. V-I cadence) to the largest extents (big structure of symphonies etc.). However the ear of the 21st century listener is way more tolerant to dissonance than just a few decades ago which also reflects in the literature on composition. This can be a source for confusion for learning composers. Traditional literature on composition has a very different understanding of dissonance than what we actually have nowadays (and what is used in film music). For our ear, it is no problem to accept a chord with a major seventh (e.g. Cmaj7) as a stable chord that doesn’t neccessarily want to resolve while for traditional understanding, the maj7 is a massively dissonant interval that can hardly be left alone without a proper resolution. In this regard following the rules learned from books versus what can actually be observed in current music can be quite contrary. The only interval that we still find massively dissonant is the minor ninth (which create a stronger dissonance than the minor second which consists of the same notes). All other intervals can be part of chords that don’t neccessarily need a resolution. A quite extreme example for our tolerance for dissonance is a lydian chord (e.g. Cmaj7/9/#11) where we find major7, major 9 and a tritone as part of the chord structure and yet, it doesn’t have the massive urgency to resolve for most of today’s listeners ears. Keep that in mind when you study composition and when you once again are confused by classical music theory versus current reality.

#composition

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10/08/13: Even though source music (music that has a source in the scene, e.g. a radio in the background) is nowadays very often not the business of the composer, in some cases you might be asked to write that music, mostly when it roughly falls into the style of the score (dinner music string quartet in a restaurant etc.). When you write such music, make sure it is not just some randon music you put together in the last moment. Even though the music is on the screen doesn’t mean that it can’t portray the mood of the scene appropriately or even react on certain emotional shifts. It doesn’t need to be authentic “background” music but works way better if it serves a dramatic purpose and also has some score properties. Also be aware that score can morph into source music and the other way around which is always a very cool thing when it happens so look out for possibilities where this might be possible. Also, make sure that the source music roughly musically fits the score cues in close proximity as you don’t want to have a too sharp contrast where it is not really appropriate.

#filmscoring

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10/07/13: Work for hire, especially in the media world, is always a compromise. You can not and should not expect to be able to completely pull through your own musical vision. Of course every composer would very often say “I think I could have done better if it weren’t for all the compromises I had to do” but this is part of the game. If you have a hard time accepting somebody (possibly even somebody musically uneducated) pushing you to make changes or go musical paths you wouldn’t want to go, you either need to learn to handle it or leave this business. Of course, you always have the chance to use good arguments for your vision but nobody likes working with someone who insists on his/her vision without wanting to do any compromises. So if you are massively protective of your own art, the media world is probably not your way to go. On the other hand, some compromises that you are forced into might also open up your eyes and give you some unexpected musical inspirations.

#general

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10/04/13: As a learning orchestrator and composer you should practice a lot to work with limits, especially if you want to eventually work with real musicians. While it is great to know how to write for a huge orchestra with all instruments anyone can imagine, realitiy and budget constraints regularly force us to cut corners and still deliver something impressive. Additionally for a learning composer, it is essential to be forced to not hide behind impressive orchestration. A good learning effect is always to ask yourself whether your piece would still be cool if it was played on the piano. But essentially, in order to be prepared for the real world, try to write a piece with limits. Can you write effectively for strings only. What would you do if you only had a few brass players and still would need to write something epic and grand? Can you handle woodwinds alone? What if you only had a string quartet? The more flexible you are with that, the better. Even on big budget productions, directors sometimes like to limit the sound to a specific line-up and you don’t want to stand there then not knowing what to do.

#orchestration

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10/03/13: Mastering orchestral tracks is becoming more and more common in the recent years. Originally, orchestral music was hardly mixed let alone mastered, which is still the case with many classical recordings nowadays where the target is to reproduce an as natural as possible sound. However with film music getting more and more “produced” as we’ve seen the development over the last decades, things like mastering are becoming more and more common. Especially on library tracks that are mainly having a lot of trailer music in their catalogue, mastering is practically applied to every track. Mastering means to process the final mix again to enhance the sound. Usually it is best to have a dedicated mastering studio do that as they will most likely have a lot of expensive outboard gear which can hardly be reproduced sound wise with plugins. Remember that mastering is only useful for tracks that are being released on CD as well as being put in music libraries, for film mixes, you don’t deliver mastered tracks as the music will be mixed again with dialogue/sfx anyway.

#technical

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10/02/13: The use of samples often causes a very mechanical use of articulations. Of course it is way more convenient to stay for many bars in the same articulation instead of keyswitching or changing the track to another articulation too often. The result of that are for example endless bars of mechanical staccato string figures. While this is appropriate for certain styles, it usually makes a musical phrase way more interesting and musical to vary note lengths. A short legato phrase in an otherwise staccato ostinato will make that ostinato way more musical. So don’t lose yourself in the lazyness of simply not wanting to add a keyswitch or in the convenience of putting just staccato dots on top of the notes of a phrase but think about where you could bring in notes of different lenghts to keep the phrase alive.

#composition

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10/01/13: Remember that music has the power to manipulate emotionally and therefore alter the perception and eventually opinion of the audience. Very often this happens even on a subconscious level for the audience. This is why music has and is being used extensively on propaganda movies. So, while this can be a great tool, it also puts a bit of responsibility on the composer’s shoulders. As long as thing stay fictional, such maninpulation is often wanted and sometimes even neccessary to “sell” the exotic locations/worlds sometimes depicted in fictional movies to the audience. But as soon as you’re scratching the surface of scoring real life events, especially on socially critical or political documentaries, you should radically tone down anything emotionally manipualtive. Many people are quite aware nowadays when they get musically manipulated and simply shut off completely for the messages transported by the movie (and eventually they will hate the movie for trying that) while others will react on that manipulation. While this may sound a little dramatic, but especially with emotionally manipulating music, you’re undermining their chance to make up their own mind about what the movie tries to say by clouding their perception with emotionality. Most likely the filmmaker/director will stop you anyway from going that path as he/she will probably want that the audience have their opinions on the arguments presented by the movie rather than emotional manipulation. On the other hand, just very few documentaries are completely free from attempts to manipulate. So be really careful about what your music is doing in any documentaries. As a side note: “feel-good” documentaries, like most animal documentaries that live from big landscape shots etc. are an exception of that. They can very often be approached with a quite filmic and opulent musical language.

#filmscoring

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09/30/13: Many young and learning composers struggle also with their quantity of musical output. Being competetive in the business of media composing also means to be able to deliver music quickly and if you struggle to write 30 seconds a day, it’s not really gonna be easy to get a job done in time. There might be principles of how to speed up your writing process, mainly based on the “never look back” principle, meaning that you just keep going without revising sections several times. In my opinion, that strategy is not really effective as it also forces you into remaining under your potential quality level. Sometimes, checking again and writing revisions is essential to get a piece to the point where it needs to be. The good thing about speed is, that with most other things when learning to compose is, that it comes with experience. When you are experienced enough, you simply know what needs to be done and you practically eliminate the trial and error factor which is mainly the reason for slow writing. The more you do it, the quicker you will become automatically, so there’s nothing to really worry about. However, I also learned that many young composers also don’t even know what “normal” writing speeds would be. John Williams once mentioned that he writes 2-3 minutes of music a day (obviously on score, not in a DAW) which is still a quite healthy benchmark. More is possible, especially when working in a DAW and writing less symphonic stuff but often a quicker writing rate also means compromises in the quality.

#general

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09/27/13: There is a common misunderstanding about the stamina of brass players and questions like “Why do I have to put so much attention on not overusing the brass players while the strings play way more and nobody complains there?” are quite often heard. There are two main things to understand to answer that question. 1. Creating a tone on a brass instrument is in general physically more demanding. Pressing air through your closed lips is a way more exhausting thing than dragging a bow across a string or pressing down a string on a fingerboard. The other important thing is to understand that the arm is a way more complex unit that involves a lot of muscles. It is possible to generate the same movement from several sets of muscles: the bow movement can be generated with a movement of the wrist, a movement of the elbow and in some cases even a movement from the shoulder, but most often it’s a mixture of all of the three so there is a lot of sharing the workload between different groups of muscles which also leaves the chance to alternate between these muscles to give rest to tired muscles while still executing the more or less same movement. For brass players, there is just one pair of lips and also the pleura is not really a good replacement muscle for the diaphragm. So there is no chance to fall back on another set of muscles and while playing it is always the same set of muscles that are used. Also understand that a tired muscle gets more and more hard to control and the embouchure is sometimes so marginally different between different notes that just a small change of it causes a different note to sound. A similar thing applies for woodwinds, however, the pressure of the lips as well as the air pressure is usually a little lower (apart for maybe oboe players) as well as the tone generation not happening by lip buzz thats need to be controlled as precisely as with brass instruments. So the bottom line is: if your brass players say they need a break, give them a break, no matter what.

#orchestration

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09/26/13: Due to actual film projectors being more and more replaced by digital projectors, many of the things in film scoring that were depending on reels in earlier times often don’t apply anymore today. The rule that existed before of not having musical cues over  reel changes because the chance of an audio glitch was too big is not valid anymore today. If the movie will have only a digital projection, you shouldn’t worry at all about this anymore. However, make sure that there is really just going to be a digital projection and not maybe in some smaller cinemas an analogue one. Another factor influenced by disapppearing of reels is the naming of cues. In the past, film cues were named for instance 4M6 meaning that it is the 6th music cue on the 4th reel. Today there are two ways to adjust for that to the “non-reel” world: either just a consecutive numbering without the leading number (e.g. M1, M2….) or the leading number refering to dramatic acts rather than reel while the act changes are not always completely obvious.

#technical

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09/25/13: In spite of all music theoretical rules and knowledge you can achieve over music, remember there is always the grey zone where music works while breaking theoretical rules. After all, music is not a science so some rules are more than flexible. One of the recent times where I stumbled across something that theoretically shouldn’t work was in the animation movie RIO (scored by John Powell). When arriving in Rio THIS TUNE (starting at 0:10) is being played. The chord progression that repeats on the acoustic guitar is G/G+/Cmaj7/F13. While this is a standard Latin chord progression, the interesting parts happens in the vocals where d and b are important notes of the main melodic motif. While these two notes fit perfectly into the G chord, they are also being sung over the G+ chord where the #5 from the G+ chord theoretically doesn’t work with the regular 5 (D) that is being sung. In fact, when the vocals switch into harmony, they also completely ignore the #5 from the harmony. Every standard theoretical rule forbids a natural 5 and a #5 to co-exist in such a way. The whole-tone scale that is being most likely implied by the #5 chord (as it is dominantic leading to Cmaj7) also does not include a natural 5. (For the sake of completion, there do exist scales that could work on that chord and include the natural 5 as well where the #5 would become a b13 instead (e.g. 5th mode of melodic or harmonic minor), but from the way we hear this chord progression on the guitar, we definitely hear it as the 5 moving from its natural to its sharpened state between the first two chords) So, from every music theoretical standpoint, what is happening there is theoretically “wrong”, yet the second chord in the way it works in this cycle is probably the most interesting and intrigueing sounding chord with the vocals on top. The bottom line is to know that sometimes things in music work even though they are not supposed to work. As always: what sounds goood is good.

#composition

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09/24/13: One of the more technical considerations when writing music to picture is to think about what frequency ranges are still free to place some musical material in. Sound design, dialogue and other sound effects might take up quite a bit of the frequency spectrum where it is not really a good idea or might be even a really bad idea (compromising the understandability of dialogue) to place your main musical material in. Always try to consider what is already on the sound track or what might be there in the final mix and rather try to work around that. You got a scene with engine noises – stay away from having too much important and sustaining instruments in the low register. These considerations will help your music to have a chance to come through or not be mixed too low finally because of its interfering with the dialogue.

#film scoring

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09/23/13: Very often in your career as a film composer, you will not be able to prepare for the challenges ahead of you but rather you will be thrown into the cold water. This can be a massively scary thing but very often you simply have to fight through this. This might be anything from a project wanting you to do things that you have never done before or just something that is out of your comfort zone. In my own past, without any chance to prepare myself, I have been hired for a cinematic feature giving me the chance to record a full orchestra for the very first time at that scale at the age of 21 being just two years into my composition studies. Without never having done that before, imagining the responsibility and possible things that can go wrong, of course this was one of the scariest times I have ever gone through but I didn’t hesitate a second to accept that challenge. Sometimes you simply have to trust in your abilities to be able to pull it off somehow. Looking back at this experience, I now see all the things that I did wrong there but I still was able to deliver a decent result. And the bottom line is, that this seemingly overwhelming challenge has opened all the doors for the things that I’m doing now and that are exactly where I wanted to go to and enjoy massively. So, don’t shy away automatically from things that seem scary cool at first but take chances. As said above: you will never be fully prepared for what your career development may throw at you.

#general

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09/20/13: One of the most common problems that come with sampled vs. real musicians is the overestimation of sound substance of low horns. Most brass sample libraries come with a strong, vibrant and epic sounding low register of the french horns, recorded usually with big sections consisting of musicians from LA/London etc. which have a distinctively different sound in that register. If you record with a regular orchestra line-up and regular horn players, you should not expect the same sound. Usually the horn loses quite a lot of substance in the low register as well as increasing intonation issues. So the wiser choice would be to put these low notes in the trombones and save these epic low horn registers for the opportunities where you have a big horn section and record a world class orchestra.

#orchestration

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09/19/13: Whenever you work in a different monitoring situation than the one that you’re used to, spend some time to get to know the system acoustically. Especially on scoring stages or mixing studios where it is really essential to have a good judgement on the sound, you need time to get used to the monitors. What helps me is to listen for 30 minutes or so to music that I know very well on that system which will give you a good idea how the sound differs from your normal monitoring situation. If you don’t do this, your judgement on the first few cues you actually work on on these systems will be very unprecise and most likely you will need to revisit these cues again at the end.

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09/18/13: When scoring to picture, the dramaturgy of a cue is usually dictated by the scene. But even in situations where things change very quickly etc., you should always try to find a bigger dramaturgic arc that superimposes the whole cue. The problem with many cues and especially film cues by inexperienced composers is that they very often are and endless row of dramaturgically quite disconnected 4-bar/2-bar etc. patterns and only support the dramaturgy of the moment ignoring the big arc. So when you’re scoring a scene, always have a look as well as to what the bigger dramaturgy is. Many action scenes that are well staged have a very strong big dramaturgic arc with a clear climax or several climaxes that you also should take into your music. It is easy to get lost in busy hit-point heavy scoring but once in a while step back and have a look at the bigger picture.

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09/17/13: In some scenes, it might be plausible for the film score to be quite “patchy” with a lot of pauses in between musical movement. Especially slapsticky comedy/dramedy moments work very well with that. Most of the time, these cues are structured in a way that they follow a quite steady beat with just empty bars in between. Pizzicato chord in one bar, one bar rest, flutes+pizz basses etc. By that, even though the gaps are quite big, the musical movement still feels plausible because internally we keep counting the beats and it feels like a musical whole when the next musical movement falls into the rhythmic grid. So in case you’re planning such a cue, try to get it to work as one cue in the same tempo and don’t keep the pauses in between too long to lose the tempo. However, also be aware that this kind of scoring is currently overused, especially on reality TV and it can very quickly feel quite TVish.

#filmscoring

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09/16/13: Making a start as a composer is usually very tough and many young people interested in that field worry (for good reasons) about how likely a financially sustaining future in that field is. There is no real answer to that as it is different for everybody and chances are big you end up doing something completely different. Here are two things that have helped me personally: 1. Work hard! Invest as much time as possible into developing your craft and your business. General lazyness is nothing that will bring you any far. 2. Become really really really good at one special thing. For instance: Nobody hires a guy who does orchestral hybrid among a lot of other styles and who offers practically everything but the guy who gets hired is the guy whos THE pro at orchestral hybrid. For me, my specialty has become the work with real orchestra and notation which is something I deliberately picked because I had the most fun with that. By now I get hired on a constant basis by people who heard, I was “the real orchestra guy”. However note that this is just what has worked personally for me. There might also be other ways. On the other hand, I have not seen any composer fail on his/her career who really was committed and worked hard, so if you’re willing to go that path, there’s not a too bad chance you’ll find a place in the business.

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09/12/13: A good way to make loud brass chords in the same family (e.g. a triad in the trumpets) sound more realistic in mockups, is to have the top note playing with a slightly stronger dynamic than the other notes. In real orchestras, this effect will also happen as the first player of each section always stands out a little. Another reason to do this is, because all brass instruments have a “crescending” range, meaning the higher they go, the louder they will become naturally. This behaviour is not always covered sufficiently in sample libraries and most often when playing all notes at the same dynamic, an unnatural amount of “brass buzz” will be created giving away the mockup.

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09/11/13: Even though complexity of film music in general has decreased dramatically over the last 10-20 years from the compositional standpoint, it doesn’t mean that it is enough to be content with one’s own compositional ability not exceeding that level as well. Film music is an ever developing genre and while it is pretty unlikely that  the more complex symphonic writing will get back into the film scoring world in the near future, it should always be your target to be ahead of the game with your skills. Having a big enough knowledge on composition will make it easier for you to understand and analyze new developments and react on it. Additionally, a strong compositional knowledge will also help you on really simple writing as it will help you to put your own spin on such things and therefore make your voice more unique among the others.

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09/10/13: When working on larger projects, be really disciplined about your cue organization. With feature films having lots of cues and versions and revisions, you don’t want to lose track on what is the most recent one and also which cues you still need to write, Be sure to keep everything listed properly and make a habit of updating that list instantly when you change something on that cue. That list should contain things like cue name, version, time code, if it’s a hybrid score any instruments that need to be recorded with it and also a mark whether it has been signed off already or is still in the process of being developed. Make sure that your file naming structure matches EXACTLY what is written in the list. In the heat of  a feature film you don’t want to wonder what you still need to finish up a day before deadline.

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09/09/13: If you’re meeting a potential client for the first time (or even when having a skype call with him/her for the first time), be as well prepared as you can. Invest some considerable time into research, not only about the person him-/herself but also about the company, projects etc. This knowledge will not only help you to get a better idea of what/who to expect but also is very useful to impress. Of course, directors feel flattered when you say something like “Hey, I’ve seen your other movie XY the other day, I really loved it. Especially that scene at…” So these things are great to get him/her on your side as well as giving a lot of fuel for potential slow conversations. Being unprepared at a first meeting is mostly leaving a pretty unprofessional impression.

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09/06/13: The dynamic range of orchestra musicians spans more or less between pp and ff. Triple dynamics, even though used quite regularly especially by unexperienced orchestrators will mostly result in not sounding any different than the double dynamics. Only in extremely rare cases it might be appropriate to use triple dynamics (e.g. triple forte for the crescendo in the final chord of a piece etc.). In all other cases, triple dynamics rather look “desperate” to the musicians.

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09/05/13: The sound of an acoustical instrument is massively influenced and altered by the space it is playing in. Our hearing expectation on these instruments are mainly shaped by what we hear of them over a certain distance in a room. Hearing some instruments close-up gives a massively different sound. This also has a strong influence on recording them. A great example to see the difference is the brass sound in big bands which is usually quite close miced compared to the trumpets/trombones in an orchestral recording. Also understand that no reverb is able to move direct signals more to the back into the room. The scratchy bow noises we have on strings when they are being recorded close-up vanishes after a few feet of distance. Putting a reverb on the close-up signal will just have this scratchy sound with reverb but not the actual feeling of the signal being at a distance. This principle should be taken into consideration when you record instruments but also when you purchase sample libraries. There are sample packages on the market that are being recorded almost dry and very close-up for flexibility reasons which have in their overall sound a massive problem with the spacing and sound of the instrument, even with massively sophisticated reverb processing.

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09/04/13: Invest time in details. Details are what music lives from and what make music better. There’s for example a really big difference between having four sustaining string chords in whole notes that keep repeating and having the very same 4 chords but have a small internal movement of one of the voices throughout. If you simply invest a little time for details and try to find some small things in your music that you can highlight, you will have a more catching, unique and interesting piece in the end. That doesn’t neccessarily mean that you need to add all sorts of symphonic flourishes. Also very reduced music can have a lot of details. Rows of 16ths in the strings can also be made more interesting by incorporating another rhythmic layer of accented notes within these 16th rows etc. Of course there is also the other extreme of having too many details in the music which are simply overwhelming so use your ear and musical judgement to find the right amount.

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09/03/13: Line-up considerations can also be a very strong factor when you’re conceptualizing the music for a project. Be aware that using a standard symphonic line-up also means that you end up with a “generic” orchestral sound, which can of course be great for specific genres and you can also individualize these scores on a musical level. However, if you’re looking for a special quality, also consider to think about a specific line-up. This could also incorporate a featured solo instrument or vocal quality. Also, going to special orchestral line-ups (e.g. Hans Zimmer’s massive trombone line-up for INCEPTION) might give you a special and unique sound. Always consider that you’re being hired as a composer because the customer is most likely looking for a uniform and special scorethat glues the whole thing together and not generic music that he could also find on a music library.

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09/02/13: Making a living from composing also means to accept gigs from time to time that you don’t enjoy. However, you should be very careful with that. As soon as you can afford it you should begin to refuse gigs that you would only do because you need the money. Very often, once you start such a thing, you will be hired again for a similar job as a follow up which if you don’t consciously make decisions against it could spin you into making your living and spending most of your work time on things that you don’t enjoy. The media music field is very often based on “He/She has done that, let’s hire him/her again for something like that.” So make sure that you actually get hired again for something that you enjoy. The big problem here is that if you work in a creative field, your creativity will suffer if you do things that you don’t like for a long time. Things like burn-out and starting to hate your job are not far from this as well.

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08/30/13: As long as you work with samples, it is not a big concern what line-up you want to work with but as soon as real instruments get involved you need to think properly about that, especially when money is tight and you need to decide how to get the best out of your ensemble. There is no general rule on numbers and it takes a lot of experience to get a feeling for what line-up might be right for what you need but there are a few guidelines that might be helpful. Note that these things only apply if you record the orchestra together. If you record in sections you will not get most of these issues (but it will also not sound that great and develop the same energy) 1. You need a quite big string section to balance out even a quite small sized brass section. So if you only end up having 10 first violins you don’t want to have 6 horns or something like that with it. 2. Two of the same instrument will not be twice as loud as one alone. The rule is that 4 of the same instruments are needed to double the volume of one (and 16 to double the volume of 4) so keep that in mind. 3. Woodwinds work good as one each unless you need a symphonic sound but having one flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon is good enough for smaller ensembles. Also as the rule from before applies, having two of each will not help you much with their volume but rather gives you more options on chord pairings. You might want to consider to get extra players for piccolo and contrabassoon as that will give you the option of the extreme registers for the woodwind section. 5. The bigger the string instrument the smaller their number should be. You don’t want to pair 8 first violins with 8 double basses as this will give you a massively unbalanced sound. Things like 12/10/8/6/5, 14/12/10/8/6 etc. are pretty balanced sounds, if you go to smaller line-ups 7/6/5/4/3 is the smallest line-up that still sounds halfway like a string orchestra. If you want a sweepy violin sound, consider rather having the same amount of violins on each section e.g. 14/14/12/10/6. 6. Percussion are a good option to be layerd with samples on top later on. If you want to record trailerish epic percussion, never record them together with the tutti but in a separate session as otherwise you will have huge mix problems later. Regular symphonic percussion players are often not really that used to playing something like this as well as will be lacking the instruments you need (Taikos etc.) so if you need to have a save money consideration, I would start there first. These guides are by far not complete but should give you a good overall sense.

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08/29/13: Some film composers develop the habit to score movies by watching the video and simply playing along hitting accents without click on free timing. While this may work as long as you exclusively work in a DAW, as soon as you need to incporate changes or need to bring in live musicians, this can become a huge nightmare. You should in general make a habit of always having a proper tempomap and clicktrack to record to, even if it takes a bit of time. This little bit of more time will save a lot more time once you need to hand it over to an orchestrator or just want to create a chart for the solo violin you want to record over it. Also, while free timing often feels more naturally flowing, it can also become very loose and unpredictable, eventually making your music feel rhythmically random.

#technical

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08/28/13: Writing good melodies is probably one of the trickiest things to do and unfortunately got quite lost in the recent years of film scoring but there are always a few rules of thumb that you can use to try to improve your melody. It is important to see them as rules of thumb and not as absolute rules because there are a lot of melodies that don’t follow these rules and are still great. Essentially, there are three things that I think are the most common problems with melodies by beginning composers: 1.) Overuse of pitches: Very often melodies repeat certain pitches over and over again or get back to it very quickly after it has been used. Check your melody for such notes and if you find “overused pitches”, try to change the course of your melody to reduce them. 2.) Rhythmic staticness: Very often, the same melodic motif gets repeated in the same rhythmic form, often with accent on practically every downbeat. Check the rhythmic structure of your melody and when you find something like this, try to break up the rhythm a bit. Tiening over downbeats or leaving downbeats free can be great magic! 3.) Lacking dramaturgical arc: Very often, melodies simply don’t know where they are going to and where they’re coming from. There is no dramaturgy. Understand that the top notes of your melody and the path these top notes take should ideally create an arc or at least a development as those are the notes that our brain looks for. If the top notes of your melodic phrases have no direction or jump around wildly, try to give them a stronger melodic tendency. These three guidelines do not replace havinga  good melodic idea but they might help to develop that idea into something that is interesting and musically pleasing.

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08/27/13: There is never just one right way to score a scene. Rather most scenes would work equally well with different musical approaches but one of the main problems that every film composer knows is to decide for which way to go. Sometimes, just small things might make one solution more plausible than another. Most helpful on these decisions is  to look at the context around that scene. Did you score a “nearby” scene in a way that would make scoring the scene in question the same way feel redundant? Will scoring it one way help you make the scene that follows more plausible? Another thing that you should have a look at is to not constantly score things the same way as the effect will wear off. Also, always go through the possible perspectives in your head. Scoring it from the perspective of one of the characters or the audience or even the omniscient narrator? Often, one of the perspective gives a stronger point for scoring than the others.

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08/26/13: If you pursue a career as film composer, be aware that it is not enough to be able to write music that sounds like film music. Being a film composer is a way more multi-layered career than being “only” a composer. The most important thing is of course to be able to write music that fits dramaturgically and that needs to be practiced just as much as your writing chops. So try to get involved into scoring to picture as soon as possible. You could even just rescore scenes from existing movies to practice that. Another important thing is to work on your social skills. If you are a naturally shy person, work on this! Being able to do “small talk” and being a communicative person is something that you can practice. Especially communication skills are important when you work on such a collaborative project as film. Also things like business, coordinating a self employment etc. are important. So remember to work on all levels on your skills and don’t just focus on one.

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08/23/13: When orchestrating, writing idiomatically for the instruments is always a big factor to get a score to sound good. This term means to write in a way that suits the instrument best. For instance even though brass instruments are capable of doing pretty quick chord arpeggios, it is quite tricky on them and not really considered idiomatic. They can do it, if they are good but it will not sound that great. Every instrument has things that work and sound better on it than others. The study of this is a long process and is quite rarely covered in detail in orchestration books. It helps a lot to study score sheets by other composers and observe how they use the instruments. As a result of this, you should try to get to the point where you compose parts and melodies already with the instrument in mind that will later play it so doing piano sketches is not the most ideal idea if the piece will ultimately be orchestrated unless you already have clear ideas of the orchestration in your head when writing the piano sketch. This will also make you write lines differently if you have experience in how to write idiomatically and eventually give you a better orchestral result. Even though many orchestrators claim that it is not a big thing to blow up something from piano sketch to orchestra in whatever style, it actually very often is a compromise and struggle and can go wrong even when the best orchestrator is orchestrating it.

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08/22/13: Never blindly trust the offline export function of any DAW. Make sure to listen once again through everything to spot clicks, pops or other errors before you send out anything final. Even though this happens quite rarely, you don’t want to hear an errornous track ending up in a movie or other project.

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08/21/13: When you arrange chords, for example strings or trombone chords, try to move each voice in the shortest possible way to the next note between chords. Often, inexperienced composers wildly jump around with chords and don’t use inversions which can be a wanted effect but usually sounds quite pedestrian as it should always be avoided to have too many voices move in the same direction. If you can sustain a note between two different chords, usually the best choice would be to do it (e.g. sustain the C in a chord progression from C to F). With this procedure, it is also quite easy to make remote chord progressions quite plausible for the ear as good voice leading musically justifies almost anything for our ear. So when you arrange these sections, spend some time working out nice voice leadings instead of simply playing them into your DAW without thinking. This effect goes as far as having the very same chord progression sound very random when done badly and sound absolutely convincing when done properly.

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08/20/13: The use of music in a film scene makes it just by having music there as something less real and more fictional for our perception. Whenever we see a scene and hear music to it, it automatically sets our brain into the “There’s a story to be told” mode. As a consequence, using no music on scenes can make it more real and more immediate. If you follow movies and certain scenes that feel very intense, documentary like and real, they very often don’t have music. Such scenes would for example be the opening battle of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and the plane crash landing scene from CAST AWAY. In both cases, the absence of music makes these scenes more “real” while having a score there would in both cases rather diminish the impact of the visuals and create a sense of “observing distance”. So, the general rule of music being an emotion enhancer is not true in every case. Sometimes, the absence of music can make a scene more real, and if that effect is dramaturgically desired, also more unbearable (often scenes of excessive violence or general depictions of hard to swallow events work without music).

#filmscoring

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08/19/13: As soon as you start working on a bigger project as a composer you should find out who’s the Sound Designer and make contact with him/her. In times with very present sound design in many movies, a composer can not simply work in his own world ignoring what is going on on the sound design side. It is even a good idea to have another spotting session with the sound designer and talk  about how the sound will be and who’s gonna accent certain hit points. Especially on slapstick moments, there is no need to double certain things with music and a funny sound effect. But also on other occasions there’s often a chance of “scoring” things either with music or sound design. Also, makse sure that during your working process, you keep sending things back and forth with the sound designer. Make sure that the agreements always remain balanced between both sides, so be prepared to make compromises as well.

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08/16/13: A pretty recently developed instrument that is hardly mentioned in any orchestration books is the so-called Cimbasso. However, due to several reasons it has become considerably popular in modern film music. While this instrument has been mentioned in score sheets since the 19th century (but refered in general to a low instrument, so the executing instrument of that part changed), the actual instrument of a Cimbasso appeared in the late 19th century. In general, this instrument can be considered being a Contrabass Trombone with valves. For further readings, refer to Wikipedia and the VSL site on that instrument. In recent years, many film scores incorporate one or two Cimbassos into the low brass, specifically wanting to have more substance in that low register. Usually, the  tuba player will switch back and forth between Tuba and Cimbasso. Here’s a picture from a recent score showing the Cimbasso in action. Also, here’s a video from one of the recent Harry Potter Scores showing the Cimbasso in use.

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08/15/13: There are two main reasons why a string section has such a dramatically different sound than a solo instrument. 1. Due to the fact that there are no frets on the fingerboard, the position where to push down the string on the fingerboard is not fixed and therefore varies slightly. The differences between players are minimal but the addition of these many slightly differently tuned notes creates as a whole this warm vibrant sound from a string section. 2. The instruments acoustically influence each other.  Neighbors in the section might not only influence the resonance of each other’s open strings but also each other’s body, adding to a more resonant overall sound. This is not only happening between strings but basically between many instruments in the orchestra. The acoustical result is the feeling of a sound melting together and be one sound rather than 16 individual sounds from 16 different players of the section.

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08/14/13: A really nice textural contrast achieved rather from the composition than orchestration side is to arrange a melody or parts of it into harmony. The general strategy to achieve that is to build a chord (or part of it) downwards from every note that your melody hits that is part of the underlying chord. The non-chord passing tones can be harmonized in several ways. Either have them dominantic, meaning that you build a chord that is a dominant chord of the chord of the FOLLOWING note or parallel moving either in the scale of the underlying chord or have a literal parallel movement following the exact structure of the target chord, just moved parallel. See the following examples for clarification:

passingtones

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08/13/13: Don’t overuse character’s themes. Just because one of the characters that you wrote a theme for is in the frame doesn’t mean you need to ply his/her theme. As with everything in music, if you overuse it, it will lose its impact and when you really need it to be a bold statement, the effect just vanishes. The important thing is to look for scenes that really need the theme, when your character has a strong moment. In between you might want to hint the theme subtly but you don’t want to go to a place where your audience is annoyed by “that theme again”. So really plan carefully when and how to use your thematic material.

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08/12/13: The internet is full of possibilities where you can post your music to get feedback on it. However, many young and unexperiences composers take every mindless Youtube comment as personal and important input to their music. The most important thing is to separate real critizism from people who have a point and explain that point properly from trolling. It is important to have exposure of your music even when you’re just learning but make sure to not let comments and opinions on your music get to you that are just coming from people who compensate their own problems in the anonymity of the internet. That doesn’t mean to only listen to comments by musically educated people but also layman’s opinions can be great when they are actually profound.

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08/09/13: It is often desired in film music to make the horns sound brassier than they actually sound, especially in single line themes where all the section is playing an “epic” melodic statement. To achieve that, there are basically two tricks used. First, you could double the horns with one trumpet at pitch which will give a little bit more brightness to from the trumpets to the horns. John Williams likes doing that and the result can be heard in the Star Wars Main Theme where the third trumpet doubles on the horns, just “colourizing” the sound rather than creating a mixed texture. Another possibility is when you have a large horn section (6+), to split the section in half and let half the section play normally and the other half either stopped or muted. The stopped/muted horns will have a brighter but softer sound than played normally which will in the mix of the sound make the horns in general sound brighter.

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08/08/13: Consider that the understandability of dialogue or monologue gets worse when the speaker is not seen on screen. A big portion of understanding spoken word comes from watching the mouth of the speaking person so if that is missing, it gets a little trickier for us. You should take that into account when you write music for a voiceover scene and be even more careful to not overpower the speaking register of the voice with music. Handle the speaking voice as if it was an instrumental solo that you want to free up in your orchestration texture as well.

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08/07/13: The structure of having a chord consisting of root, third, fifth etc. is nothing that is written in stone. Alternative chord structures may have a very interesting and useful sound and still sound like a fully working chord. A nice field for experimentation is building chords from intervallic ideas. Breaking up the standard of structurizing a chord in thirds might help to find interesting sound. Probably the most commonly used alternative structure is to create chords from fourths. But also constant patterns like M2-M3-M2-M3 (e.g. C-D-F#-G#-C) might result in interesting sounding chords. The interesting thing with such chords is, that they most likely will be ambiguous (the chord above could for instance be perceived as a Cadd9(#5#11) or a D7(#11)) which will result in interesting musical possibilities. There are practically endless possibilities finding interesting harmonic sounds with these strategies.

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08/06/13: The term mickeymousing in our times usually has a negative meaning and refers to scoring something in the way that almost every action or movement is accented by a musical gesture. The name comes from the old Mickey Mouse cartoons which were scored exactly like this. Many directors/producers as well as composers find that technique not appropriate anymore going as far as trying to avoid anything that could be seen as mickeymousing.  While this is really outdated and annoying when overdone it can be a fantastic and funny counterpoint when placed thoughtfully. Especially genres like animated movies and cartoons, as well as comedies really work well with some mickeymousing, especially on rather slapsticky scenes. So don’t see mickeymousing as an absolute no-go.

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08/05/13: Never develop an arrogance towards any musical style. Even if a musical genre seems super simple and like it could be pulled off instantly with a bit of musical knowledge, it takes a considerable amount of time to master it and do it decently. If you develop an arrogance saying something like “Oh, that genre is so simple, I can do that without any research for any project.”, people who actually know and listen to that genre will most likely find your approach pedestrian and un-authentic. The important factor that is often overlooked by musicians who develop such an arrogance is the question of style. For instance a lot of electronic genres are indeed musically quite simple, but knowing the style of music, what sounds to chose, what structures to build takes knowledge and experience. For score composers who do mainly orchestral music, a good comparison would probably be to think about people who have a deep knowledge of composition and orchestration and still can’t get anywhere near the “film music” sound, just because they don’t have experience in that style. That applies to ANY musical style so as an intelligent and open minded composer, you should bite your tongue for any deprecating comment you want to make about any musical genre. My personal approach to any style that I’m not comfortable with involves either a thorough research or bringing someone in who’s proficient in that genre.

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08/02/13: Orchestrating for orchestra and choir in a non-trailer context is actually quite challenging. Especially when you want the lyrics to be understandable also in softer dynamics. All the practical rules that apply for writing for choir alone are also valid here (avoid tricky intervals in succession but also between the sections etc.) The most important thing to consider is the dramatic crescendo of the human voice over its range. While it is impossible to sing loud in the lower register of every group it is also almost impossible to sing soft in the top register. So when you combine the choir with an orchestra, you need to be very careful of that and for example do a very sparse orchestration when you have them singing low. In general, even a very big choir can quite quickly be overpowered by a medium orchestral tutti unless everybody is practically shouting (trailer music). You would want to tone down the orchestra most of the time if you want to make sure people understand the lyrics. What is also often done is to support the choir as a whole or single lines with instruments. Cellos are great to support the low end of the choir. In general, you might want to avoid putting too many orchestral instruments in the register of the choir. The general tendency is to leave a gap between more or less the cello register and violins in the high register to give the choir a chance to cut through.

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08/01/13: Combining sample libraries or recordings that have been recorded in different rooms with different ambiences in one piece is usually not that much of a problem as some people think or make believe. Especially in more tutti situations it is very tricky to hear the different rooms anymore (unless you’re combining pratically dry samples with samples that are very wet from the beginning, in this case you might want to use a reverb on the dry ones). If you’re combining room sounds in a more exposed way (e.g. solistic lines) it becomes a little more tricky but helps to add the same reverb to all signals (and adjust according to how wet the individual signals were) which is also something that helps in the tutti situation to give it a bit more of a uniform sound. Be aware that that argument of “You should not combine different rooms because it might sound problematic” is mainly an argument that sample developers like to use in order to have a selling point to make you purchase a whole line of samples that have been recorded in the same room. In reality, I haven’t experienced many problems from combining different libraries.

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07/31/13: While the rule of not using parallel fifths and octaves is not that strictly to be followed anymore today as it has been in the past, there are still problems that can arise not only from parallel fifths and octaves but in general in too obvious parallel motion of several voices. It will feel musically pedestrian to move several lines into the same direction (even if they don’t move all in the same interval). A general guideline is to compensate a motion upwards in one voice by having another voice move downwards. This will feel more musical to our ear than moving everybody into the same direction. Of course, heavy parallel movement can also create a specific musical style and be a desired effect (think about all the parallel moving chords in Debussy’s work) but in “normal” writing, you should try to avoid having too much parallelism.

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07/30/13: A good approach to score a scene or an emotion is to think about whose perspective you are scoring. Depending on the context, taking the perspective of one of the characters might be a way better decision than  just musically commenting what is happening (and therefore simply doubling the visuals). Of course, also the perspective of the audience is a possible and often used one (e.g. in situations where the audience knows more than the characters and can connect the dots). Also, shifts of perspective within the same cue, even within just a very short time are possible and work very effectively. So when you’re scoring a scene or a movie, think about whether you can add more depth to the situation by taking on someone’s perspective.

#filmscoring

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07/29/13: There is no shortcut or trick to learn how to compose music. There is not THE heroic chord progression or THE scale to use for love themes. Of course, there are certain tendencies or preferences when going for a particular style and there are also a few effective simple concepts to approach certain musical problems but without an understanding of the big picture, using them will always feel like parroting. Again, the comparison to learning a language is very effective here. You can of course learn to say a few commonly used sentences and phrases in a new language that you could use in certain situations but that doesn’t mean that you can actually speak that language let alone using it eloquently. Just as with learning that language, the factor of time and experience is key with learning to compose music as well and there is no real way around that.

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07/26/13: The fundamental difference between orchestrating for a large orchestra versus orchestrating for a small one is the approach how to distribute your forces. While for a large line-up you make more colour choices (“Let me put some harmony in the trombones”) for small line-up you need to think more about how to get everything that you think needs to be in the orchestration actually into it (“Let me put some harmony in the trombones. Oh wait, I only got 2 trombones, but I need to have a 3-part harmony in there, let me get one of the two horns to help out on the harmony there.”) So most of the time for smaller line-up you end up with more mixed colours just out of the necessity. Sometimes, especially with very small line-ups it is quite challenging to get everything, still get a balance and a decent sounding mixed colour. This doesn’t only apply for brass/woodwinds but also for strings. With large line-ups you can simply divisi sections and will not lose much of its substance while with small line-ups, a divisi might even be a no-go, so you might need to think about whether that one note that you have left can not be put into a woodwind. As a little secret trick: with very small line-ups get a Bass Clarinet. It’s a fantastic instrument to help out practically everywhere as it has a large range and can blend very well. It can help out in string chords, but also brass (low and quite high) as well as woodwinds of course.

#orchestration

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07/25/13: When arranging string instruments to a pop/rock/etc. track, which is probably the most common way of having orchestral instruments in such a production, there are basically two different ways of how to approach this technically and orchestrationally. The more traditional way is to leave out the Double Basses when orchestrating as to not interfere with the bass track that will already be in the track which would otherwise result in lots of mud. Several books and arrangements from past decades state this to be an important thing to do. The more modern way is to write a full string arrangement (with Basses added) and not being particularly cautious about how the low end will interfer with the other instruments. Later in the mix, it has become common practice, to simply low-cut the strings nand therefore EQ the low frequencies out that might interfer at that register. The strong advantage of this technique is that you still have the higher harmonics of the String Double Basses and Cellos in the overall string sound, giving you a richer and more full-bodied texture.  Depending whom you are arranging for, you might want to go for either of the two directions but the important thing is, to talk to the mixing engineer and/or producer beforehand to find out which way he/she prefers.

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07/24/13: One very common problem with learning composers is the unclarity in their musical language. When you write music, every single element of your composition should add to what you’re trying to say. You want a buildup? Then have every element build up and not only the dynamics. One of the best examples for a build-up from film music history is John Williams’ LEIA’S THEME. Be careful about how every element add to create tension and build up towards the big tutti climax: The dynmic gets louder and louder, the orchestration gets denser, the instruments get moved more and more into their strongest register, the main melody line goes higher and higher, becomes rhythmically more and more agitated, incorporates more and more larger intervals, the harmonic language targets strongly towards the climax. All the elements line up to bring across that build-up. Inexperienced composers and orchestrators might often get one or a few of these elements to work but I often see something like a build-up in dynamic and maybe also the main melodic line goes higher and higher but then certain instruments get moved into a weak register, the rhythmical momentum stalls etc. In the end you will still have the feeling of it being a build-up but it is not as strong and effective as it could be. This whole concept does not only apply to build-ups but to everything you want to say musically. All the elements should add to that and there shouldn’t be a “mixed message” in your writing because some musical elements disagree on what the others do.

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07/23/13: Ethnic instruments are used frequently to give a score or a scene more character than a generic orchestral score. Especially for geographic references, such instruments can create a strong impact. As soon as location or heritage of the movie your are scoring is important for the story or plays an essential role in the movie, you should go for bringing in geographic references in your music as this will give your score a more identifiable sound. Everybody remembers SCHINDLER’S LIST for the jewish sounding solo violin, TITANIC for the Irish instruments used etc. There is also a decent amount of tolerance regarding these things. For instance even though HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON is set in Scandinavia, the instruments used by John Powell are rather Scottish and Irish (Bagpipes, Tin Whistle etc.). Still, we don’t question the authenticity as it just does what it needs to do: transport us somewhere to a country with rough rocks, no trees etc. Be also aware that certain developments change the way how ethnic instruments are perceived. The best example is the Taiko that until approximately 10 years ago was something that was rather suitable for far eastern, mostly martial arts movies however has lost its ethnic imperative over the last years and has become one of these big trailer sound instruments that practically fits every blockbuster.

#filmscoring

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07/22/13: Negotiating a payment is most of the time like playing a Poker game. The most important thing here is to never mention to your new customer that you really need that gig and are very desperate. That means even if you have a casual dinner meeting with them where your customer goes for “best buddy”, don’t let yourself being tricked by that into “I can tell him how bad my current situation is, he’ll understand.” etc. If he gets the feeling of you doing everything to get that gig, he will eat you up and you will most likely end up working for next to nothing. Especially producers have a very long experience of using small tricks on negotiations, so stay very aware about what you say and how you phrase it (and don’t drink too much on that casual meeting). As I said, these things are often like Poker games and many starting out composers are just too inexperienced in these things and don’t know how to play that game too well. But if you think about these things you will most likely get a better deal. One word of caution here though: NEVER exaggerate that into behaving arrogantly.

#general

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07/19/13: While it is essential to be precise when marking a score and leaving no doubt about your intentions, you should always try to avoid anything that makes your score looking cluttered. Especially long text comments as often seen in more avantgarde playing techniques are very problematic for players who sight read so you should keep that to a minimum and only use it when it cannot be avoided or made clear otherwise. Also, learning orchestrators tend to use redundancy in their markings which might be coming from the intent to be precise but is actually rather annoying for your players. Things like using staccato dots on the notes but also writing “staccato” as a word on top of the passage is such an unnecessary redundancy. It will require your players to read one more word that doesn’t give them any new information and eats up time that could be spent reading the notes more properly. So the important thing is to find the right balance and give exact and precise information about your intentions but also not mindlessly overnotating everything that is either obvious or already clear otherwise.

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07/18/13: There is a big difference between recording an orchestra and playing a concert with an orchestra considering the percussion players. As these players usually play several instruments and change instruments during playing, in performances there is a considerable amount of walking involved when percussion players change for example from Vibraphone to Snare Drum etc. In orchestral recordings on a stage, you should avoid having anybody walking around like that as there are just way too many microphones in the room that pick up every noise and will cause extra work or problems later in the mix. So the general rule is to rather prefer hiring more percussion players for orchestral recordings as would actually be necessary just to avoid having them walk around. Routined percussion players will also build themselves little “stations” for each cue where they have all the instruments they need standing around them in a circle which doesn’t need them to walk around, however this will only work when the percussion instruments used are pretty constant and small. Larger instruments (Marimba) can not be moved that easy and will need a new mic placement etc. which will just be too much hassle. So the bottom line is to not save money on the percussion players if you want to avoid having a noisy recording.

#technical

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07/17/13: Connecting chords over common notes is one of the many composing concepts used in film music. Especially Danny Elfman does that a lot. The pretty simple principle behind  that is to non-functionally connect chords by just trying to find one or two common tones in both of the chords and moving on in this way from chord to chord, without cadential movement etc. That common note can change for every harmonic step. Chord progressions like C-E-Ab, C-A-Db, C-Eb-Ab etc. all share notes in both chords like that. This principle is also often considered to be mediants (=chords being a third apart), which is true in many chord progressions that work like this but istn’t necessarily limited to a simple third movement as a chord progression C-Fm falls under that  principle as well (and could on the other hand be considered being a harmonic modal interchange). Of course, that principle runs dead if you stick to it for too long and using some other chord movements once in a  while will help to keep the music alive and not feel like a generic building block strategy but theoretically you could move on like this forever and not caring much about where you came from and where you are going to harmonically, allowing you to cross through many tonalities very quickly. The strong force of the connecting notes will easily make these progressions plausible for our ear while they still sound quite fresh.

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07/16/13: When time or money is super tight, there are a few strategies in how to write your score to still be able to deliver something. Even though it is far from being an ideal situation, the only thing to save ressources is to re-use music in such cases. Especially dialogue and mood scenes are useful for that. However it is not possible of course to write on hit points with these things in this case. A little more elaborate is to write musical modules that can be combined, such as several chord progressions and elements that you later rather edit together like loops. Of course that means, that practically your whole score needs to be in the same key so the modules work together well. However, if you really plan cleverly, you can get a whole feature film score with just a fraction of the score being originally written music. This needs a lot of planning and will limit you tremendously in your creativity, but sometimes, there is just no chance to make something work apart from such strategies. One other thing to take care of: NEVER give your customer the feeling that this is an okay way to work on a score. These tricks should remain a big exception.

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07/15/13: Self doubt is something that practically every composer suffers from once in a while. Even the biggest names in the business have these moments where they are not sure about whether their capabilities are good enough to work on a certain project. etc. For instance when John Williams was asked to do SCHINDLER’S LIST, he reportedly replied to Steven Spielberg “I think you need a better composer than me for this.” Spielberg replied “I know, but they’re all dead.” However, being critical about one’s work is one of the most important things in order to become better. Of course over time, you develop a routine and confidence in the fact that you will eventually make it work somehow but being critical about what could be improved on your own work is key. The important thing is to not let you drag down by doubting yourself. Giving up the enthusiasm to get to a certain level will end up in being very frustrated. So when you have a phase of self doubt, use that in order to make you work even harder to achieve your goals.

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07/12/13: When you orchestrate a chord take care about the balancing of it. Not only is it important to usually have all the notes of the chord on its heavy count but also the way they are balanced. If you write a string chord and the root of the fifth of the chord is playing in 4 voices while the root and thrid only appear once, that chord is obviously not balanced. Try to even out the voices in this case. The old 4-part rule that can be found quite often and is usually used in a wrong way of not doubling the third in a chord doesn’t apply in orchestral writing to that extend, so doubling the third is no big deal. This seems like a very simple thing to do but esepcially when you want to keep a decent horizontal structure of your lines as well, it becomes tricky to always land on the neccessary tones in the vertical structures.

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07/11/13: The nightmare for every composer are corrupted session files. Unfortunately it happens once in a while and also every programme and when it happens, there is usually no way to recover that file. There are a few strategies to prevent loss when it happens. First of all, make sure that the autosave option in your programme is turned on which should be by default. Make sure it saves in max 10 min increments a new backup file. Secondly, even if your software allows versioning in the same file (as Sibelius does), never only save into one file. Even though this function is very convenvient, I use it very rarely due to the above reasons. In general, make a habit of not saving a file but rather save as a new file very time you save. That will also allow you to go back to certain points later. Many programmes allow options to save into a new file so you could use shortcuts for that. Considering the required space, you should not hesitate to have a few dozens of project files for one particular track if it prevents you from doing it all over again if the only file you had got corrupted. In the end you can always delete most of the very early version afterwards freeing up space.

#technical

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07/10/13: Developing an own compositional style or voice is nothing that can be actively pursued, yet many young composers struggle with that and see it as one of the most important things they need to achive. In general it is something that will automatically happen sooner or later. The more you know and the more defined your compositional vocabulary is, the more you will gravitate towards certain musical structures, combination, sounds etc. which eventually will define your own style. Again the comparison to learning a new language is very suitable here. At the beginning, knowing only a few words and rules, you struggle bringing across what you actually want to say at all but once you know enough words, you will start to use them in a specific way, in your own speaking style, because you prefer certain word combinations etc. A composer who’s just in the learning process trying to forcefully develop an own style would feel like someone who only knows a few words of that language but uses some really fancy words now and then which just feels out of place and forced when listening to it.  So don’t worry too much about if one of your cues sounds like composer x. Imitation is the strongest learning force and sooner or later you will automatically define your own voice without actively needing to do so.

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07/09/13: Just because you know that the director will be happy with you putting together a few loops and generic patches to score a scene or even a whole movie doesn’t mean that this should be your artistic goal. Many composers use “The customer liked it, that’s the most important thing” as argument to not put a decent amount of effort into a project. This working attitude has several problems. First of all, if you always muddle through somehow with the least amount of resistance, there’s a good chance that once you will be really challenged by a more demanding customer, you will not be able to pull it off. Another even more important reason is that maybe your current customer is not musically demanding but there might be another potential customer listening to your work who will simply not be able to know that you could do better based on what he/she’s hearing. The important thing is that even if you are working on a bad movie, you shouldn’t dumb down your music for that. Always go for your best possible work (within reason of course). There are quite a few examples from the film music history of film scores being way better than the movie and being the only thing that is actually remembered.

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07/08/13: When negotiating a deal that involves live instrument, there are basically two ways. 1. Your fee will be paid directly to you and the recording/mixing etc. will be covered from the production side of the project. 2. You will be give the complete music budget and are expected to pay the musicians and everybody else from it as well. The second option is currently the way more common one as it minimizes the risks for the production side (and moves that risk to the composer side). When you haven’t done anything like this before, you should really ask someone experienced during the negotiation and production to help you with calculating and organizing things or might run in very big trouble, melting down your own income and in worst case needing to pay extra. The risk of such a catastrophe is also possible when you are experienced in doing this so what is essential in such deals is to clear specificially in the contracts the limits of what to pay with that budget. The most problematic times is the scoring session with the orchestra as customers “not being happy with the sound” can really transform a well organized session into total chaos. You should make clear from the beginning that there’s only a limited possibility for the customer to take influence during that time and prepare him/her in the best possible way about what to expect on the session (monitor mixes sounding strange, missing additional tracks etc.).

#general

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07/05/13: A great way to learn orchestration is to reduce the line-up of your piece. The more instruments you have, the easier it is to change to something new once you’ve presumably exhausted the sound of one instrument or group. Reducing the line-up will force you to think more about what other possibilities you have to keep the sound of your piece interesting and fresh to listen to and eventually will force you to dig deeper into how you can combine and use the instruments you have to keep your listener interested needing to think about using instruments in roles you wouldn’t use them in full orchestral writing because you would switch to another instrument instead. This reduced line-up exercise is also great to sharpen your composition skills as you can not simply hide anymore behind lush orchestration and really need to work on your musical ideas.

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07/04/13: Most recording studios run on Protools and do all recordings in that programme. While it is possible to import the audio files from a Protools session without further conversion into any other DAW to edit and mix, specific pannings and other things will get lost by that principle and it will take some time to figure out which file  belongs where. Also, most studios require to deliver an empty Protools session with the tempo map of the cue to record into as this makes things much easier as just delivering audio clicks (e.g. you can jump to bars and record inserts from there). So when you’re doing a lot of recordings with real orchestra, there’s practically no way around at the moment of owning and being able to handle Protools even though it might not be the best DAW out on the market to do your everyday production in (especially when it comes to MIDI productions).

#technical

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07/03/13: Moving a motif or melodic fragment between octaves can be a highly effective and dramatic effect. Instead of staying stationary in one register, try changing registers by jumping up an octave and play your main motif there or down etc. A fantastic example where the dramatic edge of this effect can be seen is the prologue of PSYCHO by Bernard Herrmann which you can listen to HERE. Notice how the small melodic motifs keep switching around between octaves. Imagining them to be stationary in the same register all the time would make this piece way less effective.

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07/02/13: Surprising or shocking moments in movies should also be surprising in the music. If you lay out your music in a way that such a moment falls on a downbeat or another heavy count in the bar, the moment of surprise will be quite diminished as there will be a certain expectancy towards that moment in the music anyway. Also, it will feel like this moment is predictable. This applies even more if your music moves in a rhythm rather than sustaining chord “pads”. So if you are going for a real surprise, you need to make sure to place such a moment on an unexpected count in your bar.

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07/01/13: Every now and then, being a composer in the media world, you might be questioning your own moral integrity. There might be coming a project along that depicts excessive violence or sexual content, or you might be asked to write music for a commercial for a company that is not considered to be having the cleanest working ethics or there might be a movie with questionable politic standpoints etc. The problem is, to find one’s own limits as when you are really picky about these things, you practically can’t do any work any more as practically everything might have something questionable. Especially if you are not yet in a comfortable position of being able to pick your work, it might become a really frustrating situation for young composers. Everybody has to set his/her own limits in these regards but consider that just because you’re working for something doesn’t necessarily mean that you agree with everything. Just because a paper company delivers paper to the office of a company that is known to have bad ethics in the way they do their business doesn’t make the paper company a collaborateur on these things.

#general

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06/27/13: A very common weakness and misconception by beginning composers is to misjudge the perception of your music by the audience. The more you listen to your own piece and work on it, the more the initial idea will wear off and eventually become uninteresting. The common reaction to this would be to fill up the orchestration, add more side lines and in general add elements that make it interesting again. The problem is that your audience will hear everything for the first time and will most likely be overstrained by all the elements you added to keep it interesting for yourself. In general, hold yourself back falling into that trap. When you present your theme for the first time, there is no need to add side lines on that already. It’s the first time your audience hears the theme, give them the chance to concentrate on it. Try to develop an awareness of the fact that things will wear off for your as you work longer on a piece.

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06/27/13: No matter where and in which situation (may it be real or sample production) always record in at least 24bit. Even though that means bigger file sizes, the quality differences are enormous. Especially when you have a quite soft signal that you might want to pull up in the mix later, 24 bit is essential as it will give a higher resolution on how many different points the amplitude of the wave can be, which is essential in the very soft regions where 16 bit will become “noisy”. If you work with professional studios, you don’t need to worry too much about that as all of them will most likely work with 24 or even 32 bit. REgarding the sample frequency, make that depending on what your project demands. Most likely in the media world it will be 48kHz. For quality reasons, try to avoid any sample frequency conversions in the process.

#technical

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06/26/13: Most scales have so called “avoid notes”, which when these scales are used in a non-modal, traditional harmony context need to be handled with special care. The general rule says that these notes can be used as passing tones in melodies and figures but should not be used in a way that they get a harmonic value (e.g. as part of the chord). For instance in regular major, the 4th degree (F in C major) is an avoid note. You can use it as a passing tone of a melodic fragment that goes e-f-g but should not use it in a chord of Cmajor as it will create a m2 or m9 with the third of the chord (e). That does NOT mean, that you can not use it as part of an Fmajor chord in a cadence in C but that rule always applies for the tonic chord only. If you change your chord progression from C to F, in that case, to find the applying avoid notes in F, you would need to consider what scale of F you use etc.So every chord needs to be looked at individually. In a plain cadence in C major, the scale you use on top of the C chord would be C major but if you move to a chord of F from there, as you still most likely would be using all the white keys as melody source over that F chord, the scale that applies here is F lydian (if it was major it would have a Bb in it). Finding avoid notes is usually pretty simple as they are notes that are a semitone HIGHER than any essential chord tone of your root chord (1/3/5). So in major the 4th degree is a semitone higher than the 3 -> avoid note. In natural minor the 6th degree is a semitone higher than the 5 -> avoid note. Lydian doesn’t have any avoid note, as no scale tone is a semitone higher than the 1, 3 or 5. The idea behind that is, that whenever there are minor ninths (+/- octave(s)) in your chord (which is most likely the consequence of these avoid notes being used in a chordal way), that minor 9 has such a strong degree of dissonance that it will ruin your whole chord structure. As always, this rule is to be handled with care as for example minor chords with minor 6 (c-eb-g-ab) are pretty popular and good sounding. However if you insert an octave more between the g and the ab, you will hear that harsh dissonance of the m9.

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06/25/13: There are standards on how much music different film genres have. For example fantasy, adventure, action and animation movies have a very high percentage of music in the movie while dramas and documentaries tend to have way fewer music. These ratios are by far no rule and depending on the sub genre can vary greatly. Also, they have rather been established by what worked best. Still, it is wise to have that in the back of your mind. Especially film composers who do their first few movies tend to overwrite genres not only in the way how they write specific cues but also in the amount of music in the movie. In order to get a feeling for that, watch different movies in different genres and pay attention to their amount of music.

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06/24/13: Never develop an arrogance where you believe that you don’t need to listen to what people who are not professionals working in the music business have to say about your music. After all, most customers are musical laymen as well. What is most valuable about their opinion is, that they look at the cue from a non-craft perspective and simly react to what the cue is doing for them. If you wrote a cue that is supposed to be uplifting but a friend of yours says that he feels it to be rather sad, you should listen to that and dig deeper where that feeling might come from and if there is actually a point to it. Unfortunately, with the first success, many composers develop an arrogance and ignorance to certain criticizsm and while it is healthy to not listen to every comment and try to please everybody, you should not generally ignore any comments.

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06/21/13: Don’t just put thought into when notes should start but also when they are supposed to come off. Especially in the orchestra with many players you want to think about that. I very often see score sheets that for example hold a tutti chord but the end of the chord is written very unclear with different note lengths in different sections. For your musicians that will be quite confusing and they will start asking whether they shouldn’t come off together and if yes, where. Also, such a writing gives you a messy sound when different sections come off at different points. You might very often see in professional score sheets notations like in the picture below, which give a very clear and more precise point for the musicians to come off than a simple whole note (which will cause the question of whether you want them to come off on the next downbeat or before that). Writing it like this is not always neccessary as often things are simply obvious but especially on big final chords or tutti parts where there will be a dynamic shift before or after or a pause, you might want to put thought into it and notate it more precisely. These things are by the way that apart from wrong notes/accidentals cost the most time in scoring sessions when not done clearly. Note Off

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06/20/13: If you are using software and sample libraries that rely on a so-called iLok (a USB dongle that carries all the licenses on it and only when plugged in, you can use the software) DO NOT change anything on it these days. The company PACE who makes these dongles has recently updated their software system which invalidated the license of thousands of users. Many of them basing their main DAW/software around software that use that copy protection system can basically not work at the moment and lose money, customers and credibility every minute. PACE is working to resolve that problem and has presented a solution that works for some users but still a lot of them have not been able to use their software for more than a week. Unfortunately many companies base their copy protection scheme on dongles and especially in the event of loss, theft or failure of these dongles, you are practically doomed. There is not really a conveniently working way (apart from paying extra money(!)) that will allow you to keep working once this happens. So not really a tip how to avoid this today as well as a little different Daily Film Scoring Bit as usual but this one is really important and I hope that I can reach people with that who would have otherwise updated their software. Handle your dongles with extra care and hope(!) that they will never fail in the middle of a project. For further readings on the current iLok problem, go to this article.

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06/19/13: Be aware of rhythmical momentums in your music. Every rhythmical movement you erstablish in any voice creates a rhythmical momentum. For example if your melody starts to move in eighth notes for a while or an accompanying pattern switches to sixteenths for a bar, in both cases you establish a rhythmical momentum. The important thing here is to not interrupt that momentum spontaneously where you don’t mean to. For example if your main melody is phrased in a way that it contains eight notes in bar 1 but only half notes in bar two just to return to eight notes in bar 3 etc. it loses the rhythmical momentum in bar two which is totally fine for a melodic idea but in relation of the larger structure of the piece, you might want to keep the momentum goin in bar two as well, so the best way would be to have another voice or the accompanyment continue with an eighth note movement in bar 2. This does by the way not only apply for rhtyhmically orientated cues (that have a built in “engine” most of the time (percussion bed etc.)) but even more for cues that don’t live from the rhythmical structure at first sight. Especially in string pieces, you often run into the danger of wanting to have a nice build up to support the dramaturgy of the piece but due to the natural phrasing of the melody you incoporate a bar where there’s just a whole note sitting in every voice (e.g. bar 4 or bar 8 of a melody often tend to be rhythmically inactive). Which means in one bar where there’s no rhythmical event keeping the momentum going, you lose all the energy you built up before, even though this bar might by dynamically and harmonically supporting your “build up” concept, this rhythmical inactivity will deflate all of that. So when you write music which is supposed to have a rhythmical momentum, make sure it is being kept alive continously. A good example for that concept is the main theme from SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET by John Williams, which has a structure of alterning between rhythmical movement and rest. In the section starting at 0:47, woodwinds/celeste keep the rhythmic momentum alive when the solo cello hits long notes.

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06/18/13: One thing that is expected from every film composer is to be able to quickly and precisely write music for different genres of film. If you struggle with any particular genre, for example you don’t really know how to write in a fairy tale adventure style, don’t wait for your first gig that asks for that music comes in before you start trying to figure out how that genre works musically as it might be a too short deadline to “practice” that genre which eventually put you in the position where you need to pull off something that you don’t feel secure doing and eventually deliver something that is not up to your usual standard. What helped me tremendously when I was younger was to write very short cues in as many different genres as I could come up with. Trying to boil down what the essence of for instance Western scores is etc. took some time at the beginning but after doing a few of these rounds, by now I know exactly what I need to do to get very quickly to a good and convincing result. What helped me also a lot to be instantly able to write in pretty much every orchestral genre is my background of doing a lot of comedies that constantly had spoofs or references of existing films or film genres. At latest when you are in a situation when you need to score such a film or project, you really will be thankful to have spent some considerable time before to figure out the genre typical musical idioms. So studying books on orchestration or learning music theory is not the only thing you should do to improve as a film composer but also gain an understanding of genre typical elements by studying and analyzing a wide variety of scores.

#film scoring

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06/17/13: When you’re trying to aquire jobs as a young composer, think wisely about what kind of customers to approach. It will most likely be a lot of energy and time wasted to try to get a foot in the door with established directors/game companies/productions. All of these people have functioning working relationships with people that they will regularly hire. There’s practically no chance for them saying “Yeah, this young guy, let me replace my composer with this guy.” If you look at the career path of many established composers, you will see that very often they grew with the career of a director/producer/company they started to work with very early. So a clever startegy would rather be to establish a good working relationship with start-up companies or film students who seem to have a potential and possibly even work for low payment and not really big projects at the beginning, just to establish a relationship. While many of these companies/directors will not make it to a huge success in their career, there might be this one contact in your portfolio who might get a shot at something bigger and might drag you with him/her along his career path. Of course that process will take time and you might also waste a lot of time with things that eventually don’t succeed but in my experience that is one quite promising way to establish a career if you have the persistance to pursue that over a long run.

#general

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06/14/13: For real musicians, dynamic markings like mf, ff etc. are always relative and depending on the context. Many people who come from the sample world try to translate velocity values into dynamics when they are confronted with real musicians and are surprised why they don’t get the result they expected. Musicians interpret dynamics always with reference to what dynamic level is around. For example a forte in an otherwise soft tune that most of the time moves around p and mp will be interpreted with more force than a forte in an action cue that is mostly written in forte or even ff just because that forte in the soft tune sticks out more and leaves the impression that the composer wanted to have a real radical dynamic shift in that context. But even that is subject to interpretation. If that forte is part of a crescendo or the target of the crescendo it might not be interpretetd as strongly as if it was hitting suddenly. As you can see unfortunately, there are hardly any scientific facts that can be used in that context and can be universally applied as this has a lot to do with experience. If you are unsure about dynamic markings, ask someone who has more experience. You can gain experience in that regard from reading score sheets and listening to the recordings and pay attention to the dynamic markings. The most important thing to remember is, that velocity values don’t directly and exactly translate to dynamic markings.

#orchestration

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06/13/13: Doing regular backups of your work is of course essential but as long as you only mirror your work on physical drives in your studio, it is not foolproof. Someone breaking into your studio taking all your HDD’s with him or a fire/flood/storm might destroy all your backup plans even if you did them in a very disciplined way. One very laborious option would be to store backups at a remote place. Another more and more common option is online backup. There are several services that offer dedicated backup plans like CRASHPLAN, LIVEDRIVE as well as the more well known DROPBOX which all offer tools that automatically backup files into the cloud with the other advantage of being able to restore deleted files. The problem with all these plans is that you don’t really have control where and how your data is being stored as well as Dropbox recently has been subject to security issues. So any sensible and confidential data is somewhat exposed with these plans. Also, it requires a fast internet connection to be able to backup several gigabytes of data in a cloud. I’m currently working with OWNCLOUD for backing up projects that I’m currently working on, which is a free software that you can install on your own PHP capable web space which has the same functionalities as Dropbox and also comes with a Sync Client. The other advantage is that you can share certain files with a public or password protected link or share synced folders with other users just as dropbox, which is great for delivering files to your client or when doing collaborations plus you have control over where your files are stored and when and you can make sure that you can also delete it without a trace from the internet in case of sensible data. Of course that programm requires you to have a considerable amount of free web space available (ideally your own server). I don’t want to claim this to be the perfect backup plan as this software is still in development and has some performance issues from time to time but if you are serious about your backup plans, you should really consider also having a backup in case of these events mentioned above. Unfortunately chances are not that rare that some of that could happen (especially someone breaking in and stealing a considerable amount of gear).

#technical

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06/12/13: The strongest force to confirm a certain tonality is a V-I cadence. This harmonic progression is probably the most used chord progression in music history. So when you’re modulating to a new key and don’t feel like it is established strongly enough, confirming it with a V-I or leading by a V-I to it is the theoretical go-to option. However be aware that classical V7-I (dominant seventh chords with major third) often feel very old fashioned or if extended very jazzy and both are usually not that useful in filmic writing or sometimes are even mentioned to not use by customers. There are a few alternatives that don’t feel too dated, like using sus4-chords or tritone substitutions (check my post from February 6th for a closer explanation). Still, from a stylistic standpoint, in modern film music you shouldn’t overdo the use of V-I progressions. A nice alternative are IV-I progressions which can also have that feeling of tonal confirmation but are not that overused. Dramaturgically speaking, V-I or even IV-I are what is expected by our ear, so by not following that progression and still making your transition plausible (decent voice leading etc.) you can establish an element of surprise, which can be quite interesting. On the other hand extending a V chord by using the V as a pedal point over several bars can create an almost unbearable need to finally resolve and the longer you stretch it the more urgent it becomes which can also be used as a fantastic dramatic effect.

#composition

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06/11/13: The frequency of how often books on film scoring mention that principle might make it seem as if scoring a scene with contrasting music is everyday’s business of a film composer. While it is true that mucially going for the complete opposite of what usually would be expected to do can have a very strong impact and make a scene feel very absurd, the chance to do that in the real world is very very rare. Most of the time, such a concept simply doesn’t work or will disconnect a scene too much. So this principle shouldn’t be considered being a “standard scoring device” but rather a “once in ten years” device. An excellent and very disturbing use of that concept can be seen in the Ghetto sequence from SCHINDLER’S LIST where a piece by Bach is being played during the attack on the ghetto. There is a threefold level of why this works so excellent in that scene: 1. The obvious acoustical/musical discrepancy of a quite lively, positive sounding piece of music versus the gruesome pictures and gun sounds making that scenen even more unbearable. 2. The discrepancy between the sophistication and high level of musical understanding of the German composer Bach versus the primitiveness of what these Germans in that scene are doing and 3. the two soldiers wondering where that music is from. The first guessing right it being Bach however the second one being wrong about it being Mozart but the first one taking on the second one’s opinion which might be interpreted in a way how truth has been “created” at that time.

#film scoring

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06/10/13: Teach music. While this seems strange at first sight considering your own career, needing to bring across musical ideas and concepts to other people is probably the greatest way to structurize things in your head that have been a chaotic system so far. Even if your knowledge is not big enough to teach and ask for money for that, you can find similar ways like writing tutorials, doing walkthrough videos on Youtube etc. After teaching composition and orchestration privately for several years now, I can say that it helped me tremendously to organize my thoughts and also trained my musical skills. Being able to instantly spot where something is not optimal in somebody else’s work, coming up with possible solutions and making concepts clear is of course something that is very useful when writing your own music. The other nice side effect is that your name gets into rotation for being someone “who knows his stuff”.

#general

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06/07/13: Even if double or multiple stops might be possible to execute, when writing for a string section, in most cases the better choice is to divisi the section. There are several misconceptions about double stops vs. divisi. While it is correct that if you divisi a section in two parts, you obviously only have half of the players on each note (which would result in a thinner sound) it is not true, that using double stops instead will sustain a more substantial sound (as all players play both notes). The difference in substance and mass is fairly small as the bodies of the instruments will also resonate differently when there are double stops being played. However instead, you very often get intonation problems when using multiple stops as well as inhibiting the player’s agility due to “locking up” the hand in a double or multiple stop. So when using multiple stops on sections only use very simple ones, ideally involving open strings. There are several examples from the literature which do use multiple stops in sections, but most of them are pretty simple to play. If you don’t know how multiple stops work, avoid using them at all. As a final note: when writing for a string soloist, multiple stops are usually a fantastic device to create virtuosic effects.

#orchestration

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06/06/13: Every now and then, you have to learn how to use a new piece of software, for instance you switch to a new sequencer or simply get to know a new sample library etc. With quite complex software for music professionals, the learning curve can sometimes be very unpleasant. There are several different approaches to getting to know a new software. Some people work bit by bit through the manual, taking a very organized approach to learn every feature while others just go ahead and do the trial and error method. I’ve made the experience that the learning is faster and more fun if you just try to figure out by yourself how things work. Once you figure something out you have that little reward moment which makes your brain memorize things better than just reading about it. I only consult the manual or google when I can’t find a way out of a problem. Another effective approach is to have someone show you the main functions or guide you while you’re working on it. What also will most likely be helpful is to read a little bit through the manual once you know the programme quite well as then you might know the structure of how things work and certain shortcuts or hidden functions mentioned in the manual will further help you increase your workflow. I’ve mentioned it already in another tip a while ago but spend some considerable time learning and using all possible shortcuts.

#technical

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06/05/13: While studying and exercising four part harmony is still an essential part of many academical composition courses and is great to sharpen your musical understanding, it has only a minor relevance for orchestral writing in a filmic idiom. Many self taught composers run into confusion or frustration after studying books on classical 4 part harmony memorizing all these rules and not getting anywhere near a filmic sound by following them. While some of the rules are still very valid (especially the ones on voice leading) others like the avoiding of doubling certain chord tones are completely irrelevant for orchestral writing. Remember that these rules were designed to give a homogenous instrument family (choir) structure and balance. With the heterogenity and dramatic volume differences between the instruments of an orchestra, you won’t get far with these rules. I’ve spoken to young composers who wouldn’t double any of their lines in an orchestral piece in octaves because “those are all forbidden octave parallels” resulting in a completely messy piece with way too many inside lines and – even worse –  a frustrated composer who was doubting his musical talent. So as a general rule, when studying older books on 4-part harmony, harmony in general or even composition, always be aware of the fact that most of them have been written quite a while ago and many of the things written there are not that relevant today anymore. Still, I strongly encourage everybody to read and study such books as they all are great tools to connect dots and overall sharpen and broaden your musical understanding and control as a composer.

#composition

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06/04/13: Selling a musical idea or concept to your director/customer/producer might not always be the easiest thing to do as most of your customers will not be music professionals that have the ability to imagine how an abstract concept will work later in the movie. Use existing movies and music to bring across your idea and invest a little time to prepare a few examples of how you imagine it to be. Some composers even write a suite with ideas for the music and themes before starting to write the actual score to make sure that all the important elements are being agreed on. Of course, also listen to input and ideas you get and try to incorporate them into your ideas. Still, be aware that this is a highly important step. Nobody involved in the musical decisions of the movie should be unclear or in doubt about what direction the music will go. If you succeed in bringing along your concept and ideas confidently and in a way that everybody agrees on, your working process will most likely be much smoother as there will not be constant calls and the urge to take influence on the music if your customer/director knows that you’re heading in the right direction from the start.

#film scoring

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06/03/13:  Unfortunately the media world is full of swaggerers and empty promises which is something that everybody who’s new to this business has to learn quite quickly. There are constantly people who promise huge projects which “will make you big” or super exciting opportunities coming your way which in the end never see the light of day or are executed under dramatically different conditions. While selling stuff bigger than it is is part of the game in the industry (which is also something that you should try doing to a small extend when dealing with potential customers) some people working there really bloat even the smallest projects to huge extends in their argumentation. The important thing is that you keep a calm and objective perspective and don’t let yourself being blinded by potentially empty promises. If something sounds too good to be real, it usually isn’t. In the interest of your own credibility, never officially brag about a “huge project” coming your way in the near future that you don’t have a contract for yet or any clear and objective facts that it will actually happen. People will remember that and honest and credible potential business partners might start remembering you as the guy who takes his mouth too full which is definitely not a reputation that you want in the business. So the bottom line is to always keep a natural amount of suspiciousness if somebody tells you about a “huge thing” that he/she wants you to be part of without actually offering any clear and real facts.

#general

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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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