Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jan 1, 2014 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits section of my website!

On this page I publish on a more-or-less daily basis small hints, tricks and advices concerning the creation of music especially for film. These hints cover the fields of composition, orchestration and film scoring but also things concerning the workflow in this field, like the working relationship between composer and director etc.

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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You can also ask me questions that you might have over at my Ask.FM site

 

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04/17/14: When recording with real musicians, try to get a perfect take of a cue while you’re at it. It usually doesn’t work that well to revisit a cue “if we have time at the end” in order to get a better take. It will take almost as much time to get the cue back to a decent level again the second time as it did the first time. When working on a cue, your players will rely heavily on their short term memory and will have forgotten almost everything again when you revisit the cue after a while. So the bottom line is to try to get a decent cue once you’re working on it and only revisit a cue if you have time to really practically start from scratch again with this cue.

#technical

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04/16/14: Remember that dissonance is not just “pressing random notes on they keyboard until it sounds dissonant”. Creating musically attractive dissonances is just as tricky as creating well sounding chord voicings. Many learning composers consider dissonant passages in music just as something that is “chaotic” and “non structured” and therefore write these passages in a similar way, for example using the whole palm to create an uncoordinated cluster etc. Remember that dissonance doesn’t mean intransparency. If you simply press random notes, you will get a random (quite dissonant) but not very attractive sound. The secret with great dissonances lies in using just a few well picked notes to create the dissonance. Creating a bone-chilling dissonance with just 3 or 4 notes is quite a challenge but when you succeed it will be very transparent and “comprehendable”. Also, considering your playability, your musicians will find their role much better in the sound you’re after when the dissonance is well structured and has musical quality. So next time you need to score a horror passage, really invest time in getting the dissonances right there and train your ear to pick up on the subtle differences in dissonant harmonies.

#composition

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04/15/14: The conceptual idea behind a score will make at least 50% of the work. If you have a clear vision on what the score is going to be, writing it will be much easier as you have strong guidelines to work along. It is never a good idea to start to work on something without putting thought into the concept. So before you write a single note, you should have a very clear answer for yourself on all the questions that define a concept. For example: What sort of line-up will you use? Orchestra? Hybrid? Will you feature any solistic instruments/vocals? Who/what will get a theme? What harmonic language will you use? How prominent will the music be in general? Also, when you have a strong idea behind your score it might also be easier to sell it to your customer. So remember, it’s not just about finding themes as in “melodies” but it is also about finding themes as in colour, texture, harmony, rhythm etc. Spend a considerable amount of time to get that right and it will pay off during the actual writing.

#filmscoring

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04/14/14:  Be aware that potnetial customers very often don’t really care about your educational background, how many diplomas you got or how often you have worked with world class musicians etc. So if you want to impress them, rather try to get them on the “Average  Joe” level where you name-drop movie and actor names they might know. Unfortunately, the media business is almost exclusively about what you have done already and references that are more known to a wide public are valued more than references that might be even bigger but are rather “music-nerd” related. So if you apply for something or when writing a text to showcase your work, focus more on the stuff that everybody might know than the stuff that only music people will know and be impressed by.

#general

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04/11/14:  Dovetailing is used very commonly especially in woodwinds to make long passages more playable. Especially many short notes in a row will make it very tricky for the player to catch a breath in between therefore in order to make such a passage playable, he/she will need to leave out one or a few notes occasionally to get some air. Also, doing that for quite a time can become very straining. A very commonly used workaround for that is to trade off these passages between first and second player and let them alternate which is in general a good idea as it will also give each player a bit of rest and recovery before playing on. Make sure that when you write such a passage you prefer having one or tow notes overlap between both players on each trade-off in order to avoide noticeable gaps. That of course is only useful in legato passages. There’s no need for overlapping in staccato lines. Also be aware that there might be a quite different sound between first and second player coming from the use of different brands of instruments and even down to personal playing styles so especially in quite exposed passages, you might hear a little alternation in the “hue” of sound. This sort of dovetailing is used most often in woodwinds (as they are preferred for active passage work) but works just as well in brass or potentially even strings (where you don’t need to take care of breaths but might still want to give your players the occasional rest on straining passages).

#orchestration

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04/10/14:  With internet bandwidth increasing it has become more common to send cues for feedback to a customer not as an audio file anymore but already as a video file which contains the new cue. By that you can also make sure that the cue is placed correctly and there are no problems just because of a misread number etc. It is also more convenient for your customer as he/she can simply watch it and give feedback without going through the more time consuming process of putting it against the video. However, make sure to stay within common video compression rates. There is no need to showcase every version of a cue in Full HD uncompressed as well as  it is no good to showcase it in ultra blurry  320×240.

#technical

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04/09/14:  Even though using the variation of one or two small melodic motif(s) as building block for a longer melody is generally a musically very attractive thing to do, many learning composers tend to do this too strictly by repeating the rhythmic structure of the motif exactly several times. The result is very often a monotonous almost static melody that is massivley predictable and quite uninteresting to the ear. So when you write a melody based on a small morif, make sure you incorporate enough variety or different elements to keep the melody interesting.

#composition

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04/08/14:  Every specific (orchestral) sound effect will wear off the more often you use it. If you use the 12th brass stab in a horror movie, it will not work as effectively anymore as the first time. Try to be very specific with these effects and when to use them and even when you feel tempted to use them more often, try to rather save them for the really important moments. Also, such effects can be great to “colourize” your score in a certain way but shouldn’t be used as a kind of “theme” which constantly reoccurs. For example the very specific sounding waterphone in THE MATRIX is actually used just a few times in the whole score but saved for some really important moments and therefore keeps its scary, unreal dramatic impact while still making a great trademark sound because of the deliberate placement of it in the score.

#filmscoring

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04/07/14:  More than ever before, nowadays your online representation as a composer is essential so invest some time and money into that. This doesn’t only apply to your web site but all your internet profiles. Potential customers will most likely google you in order to find out more about you so make sure that what is being found about you leaves a professional impression. Invest time and money into maintaining your online portfolio. Nobody will give out a job to someone who owns a 90′s looking website with animated gifs at http://awesomecomposer.freewebsitehosting.com. On the other hand, don’t expect to get many jobs out of the blue through your websites. Most of the time, potential customers will be using your website to find out more about you and your work after they already know about you, so keep it rather as an extended business card than a “HIRE ME NOW!” page.

#general

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04/04/14:  When notating music, writing as simple as possible is the highest priority. Sometimes, music universities teach to value musical correctness over readability and might for instance favor using double flats or double sharps in order to clarify the musical function of the individual note. However in practical situations, such things are big traps for musicians and especially in sight reading situations like film scoring, it is really safer to write rather simple than correct. This applies for practically everything and sometimes it might be quite a challenge to decide what actually looks easier but the essential thing should always be to make life as easy as possible for your musician rather than showing off that you actually know what you’re doing.

#orchestration

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04/03/14: These days it has become quite popular especially in game scores to also use musical loops in scoring situations, but also TV uses loops quite frequently.  Of course, writing a loopable cue limits you quite drastically in your musical possibilities regarding intensity, speed and harmonic language, especially when it is supposed to be loopable even every 2 or 4 bars or whether there should be the possibility to enter a new cue at different points. In order to get elegantly into and out of the loop you might need to write starters and finishers for the loop that might be small snippets that make it possible to start and end the loop with musical sense.

#technical

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04/02/14: Many of the very popular film themes appear (roughly) in an AABA form (for example Star Wars) which is still probably one of the most effective forms because it has the important main idea three times in it while not becoming overly repeptetive by incorporating a secondary idea. However, when using that form, it usually is more attractive from the musical standpoint to not exactly repeat A at the end as it will not really give the impression of having gone through any development. It is very helpful to change the orchestration on that or to slightly reharmonize the thematic idea in order to give it a new spin. In general, copy-paste-jobs of whole sections is usually not the best idea in orchestra music unless you want to go for a very minimalist sound. But essentially, always see your piece as if you were telling a story. You take your theme on a journey that also leaves its marks on the theme. Restating it exactly as you had it at the beginning would generally feel a little anticlimactic.

#composition

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04/01/14: It is well known that sometimes directors or customers fall in love with temp tracks and want you to practically replicate it which is always a nightmare for any composer especially when the temp track doesn’t fit that well. But a more overlooked problem is actually YOU as a composer falling for the temp track even when you have more freedom. This happens especially when the only work edit of the movie you get is one with temp track (which unfortunately happens quite regularly) and you constantly listen to it or watch the movie with it. So as a general advice, you should always make sure you get a work copy without any temp track on it and watch the movie maybe once or twice with the temp track but after that go to the “silent” version to make sure you dont explicitely the member how a scene with the temp track “sounded like”.

#filmscoring

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03/31/14: Rejecting a project due to lack of time is always a two sided thing, especially when you would want to do it if you had the time. On the one hand it is a luxurious situation to actually be able to pick projects but on the other hand you don’t want to annoy potential loyal customers or let a project go that might open up doors for other and new projects. My personal approach to such situations is to try to get help from somebody assisting me to share the workload and still giving me the chance to supervise the project to keep it at the standards that I expect it to be. If that is not possible, it helps to be aware that rejecting a project also leaves the impression with the customer that you are a sought after person so they need to ask earlier for any future projects. The interesting thing is, that when you reject a project for time reasons, sometimes suddenly there is some more time available to make it work for you.

#general

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03/28/14: Changing the position where you bow the strings on string instruments will have a quite drastic effect on the sound. There are two possibilities of where you could go: either move closer to the fingerboard or move closer to the bridge. The closer you get to the bridge the more higher harmonics the sound will have so moving away from it further to the fingerboard (aka “sul tasto”) will make the sound softer and more silky which is a nice way to replace con sordino in case you don’t have enough time to put on mutes. However be aware that it is not possible to play really high up on the strings with sul tasto as you will basically need your bow to be where your left hand is or vice versa. Going closer to the bridge (sul ponticello) creates a very metallic, slightly eerie sound that is most effective in tremolo and often used on thriller/horror scoring. Here’s a nice demonstration video.

#orchestration

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03/27/14: Use .zip or .rar compression when sending something like stems of tracks over the internet. Interestingly, many professionals still keep sending wav or aiff files uncompressed but the zip and/or rar compression algorithms work extremely well on these files, especially on stems with a lot of silence included. If you’re lucky you can decrease the amount of data that needs to be transfered by 50% without any quality loss (which intererstingly also many people believe).  With large amounts of data to be transfered, this procedure is a massive time saver (as long as the archives don’t become corrupt).

#technical

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03/26/14: Cadential harmony (aka using a lot of V-I and other standard chord progressions) is something that has two sides to it. While it is musically very convincing and everybody understands this harmonic language, it is also something that due to being used for so many centuries already, can sound very old fashioned and “classical”. While for example Jazz music tries to compensate that simplicity of these progressions by spicing up the individual chords with added tension notes, most of today’s film music tries to avoid cadential harmony all together as much as possible (with a few exceptions). In case you get a comment by a customer of “sounding too old fashioned”, this might be one of the first things to look at. Besides that, these things show once again  that a sharp stylistic understanding and ability to switch between harmonic languages is essential for any composer working for the media.

#composition

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03/25/14: The reason why so many film score cues end and/or start with a string note/chord fade in or out is that these are probably the least noticeable ways of having a music cue. If you want to have music enter without creating a noticeable hit point when it does so (which practically every normal instrumental entrance will create) it is probably the easiest way to do that by slowly fading in strings. Also, of course from the orchestration standpoint, strings are a good choice for these things as they can naturally fade in quite well. One often done beginner’s problem is to have the end fade out too quickly which will make it quite noticeable as well, so as a rule of thumb, always make the fade out at the end a little longer than you might think and if it is really too long, it can be faded away in the mix. Also, even though this way of entering and exiting cues is super clicheéd and has been done thousands of times, it still works very effectively and is still in common use so trying to be revolutionary there and not using any of that just for the sake of “being different” is probably not the best idea.

#filmscoring

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03/24/14: Working for a friend is always a slightly tricky situation and especially when the friendship existed before doing the first job together, it can become quite problematic. Besides the fact that you should never make a habit of working for free as a “friendship service” even when the job is regularly paid, there are some potential problems. Switching into business/contract negotiation mode is probably the most problematic thing in such a work relationship. Negotiating payment, licenses etc. needs you to be a tough business person most of the time and both sides should know that such phases can become quite rough. With a friend that you normally are very relaxed and friendly with, this can become quite a tricky situation. Also, you might be surprised about your friend turning into a rough business person which might happen even more in the normally quite rough entertainment industry. In most cases, this feels very weird and uncomfortable. Fortunately it gets better the more often you do it as both parties will by then be used to this just being the ugly business part of the relationship. Though of course, there’s no job paid well enough to sacrifice a good friendship for it, so if you feel like the project starts to damage your friendship, you might even want to reconsider doing it.

#general

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03/21/14: Studying score sheets can be quite overwhelming when you’re doing it the first time and the effort to understand them seems enormous especially when the score is transposing. Everybody needs to find his/her own strategy to make sense of what is written but here are a few hints that might help you to not lose the overview: 1. Have a printed version of it. Having scores available as PDF is great but unless you have a screen with huge resolution it is tricky to see one or even several pages entirely which will make it even harder to follow along. 2. Use colored text markers. Highlight voices in the same color that do more or less the same thing. Vln1 doubled by the Flutes? Same colour! Trombones doing chords with the cellos and bassoons? Same colour! etc. 3. Write in chord symbols. Making sense of all these notes is easier when you know what chord is currently ringing. Of course it is very exhausting going through an entire score finding out the chords but if you do a chord analysis just on a few passages that you really find interesting, you will get through quite quickly. Hopefully. 4. Listen in several passes. Don’t try to read along a recording and understand everything at once. Pick out instruments that you focus on and follow them in the recording as well as in the score sheet. Do that several times with different groups. 5. Rather spend time analyzing a very short passage in detail than looking over an entire score and not understanding a whole lot. You want to know what is going on exactly so you need to find it out! Just reading along an entire score with the result that you figure out that the horns play the melody most of the time is nothing that you will get any value from as you probably also knew that beforehand. Try to really dig deep into the score, even if it is just 2 bars. 6. Ask someone who knows. Sometimes, it is practically impossible to figure out some things on your own so ask someone who could help you there. There is no shame in asking at all and if a passage keeps bugging you because you have no idea why it works the way it works, it might be tremendously helpful to have somebody else open your eyes.

#orchestration

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03/20/14: Against what is common in current music, when doing a score for a film, try to keep as much dynamic range as possible in your music. The dynamic range of (orchestral) film music is one of the many factors why it works dramatically so well in a visual context. From the softest ppp tremolo to the loudest ff tutti hit, you can already create a quite considerable emotional effect just with that range. Compressing it to “practically equally loud everywhere” will take away this effect. Be aware that the sound systems in cinemas are capable of recreating the original dynamic range of an orchestra so you shouldn’t worry about very soft music not being audible. Also, there might be some compression being added in the final audio mix of the movie anyway.

#technical

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03/19/14: One of the common rules of doing chord progressions is to keep notes playing that are common in both chords when progressing. This is part of the standard rules for voice leading. This concept, however can be extended quite a bit and might help you to connect chords that are quite remote but still will sound connected well with these sustaining notes. Imagine you have a C that you want to ring through a chord progression. This c could start out as the root of a Cmajor chord, going to be the 3 of an Abmajor chord, going to be the maj7 of a Db and the #11 of an F#. You can theoretically build a very interesting chord progression with these few chords and even though they are a little adventurous from the tonal side, it will work just fine because you have that one connecting note of c which glues it all together.

#composition

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03/18/14: Sometimes, when  you have the feeling that no matter what you try to score a certain scene or sequence and it seems like nothing really fits or does anything benefitial for the scene, it might be the best choice to leave that scene or moment silent. As a composer, once the spotting session is through, you hardly ever question the choices that have been made there but some musical decisions will need you to rethink the approach of other scenes or simply will not work anymore as intended. Keep an open mind about possible and radical changes in the way the score works.

#filmscoring

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03/17/14: While it should actually go without saying, many professionals and composers working in the music field actually don’t listen to music anymore besides doing their own. This might even happen by accident and just because of lack of time etc. But you should always remind yourself that it is essential to listen to music. Especially for film composers who need to stay on top of current development etc. Set some time aside to consciously listen to music, listen to things that you really enjoy but also listen to things that are outside of your comfort zone. See the development of your taste and your stylistic understanding as just as important than learning the craft. Knowing what you can theoretically do and having a profound knowledge of musical concepts will not make you into a composer who actually has an understanding of which of these concepts are appropriate in which occasion and will not give you a sense of their tasteful use which is one of the most overlooked and ignored problems of many composers who try to start out but even professionals who get stuck in their development at one point and begin to sound dated from there on.

#general

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03/14/14: While they are really popular in current scoring, ostinatos are not the most ideal things to write for an orchestra and only few instruments really can sustain an ostinato over a certain length. You should be aware that ostinatos that last very long are always quite straining for the players. If you look at well orchestrated ostinato pieces that really work with an orchestra (e.g. Duel of the Fates by John Williams) you will find that the ostinato is quite often switched between sections and especially the sections that have bigger problems with sustaining an ostinato (especially Brass) are treated with a lot of care and are given rests to regain energy as well as really joining in on the ostinato only on the climax moments (follow the trumpets especially). Mostly, this piece is driven by the strings who can sustain an ostinato with the least effort (not meaning that it is possible forever). In spite of all the care that went into orchestrating that piece, it is still a massive challenge for every orchestra and by far nothing that can be played easily. So keep that in mind when you start copy-pasting your ostinato for 5 minutes the next time.

#orchestration

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03/13/14: One more of the more dirty editing tricks after recording a real ensemble is to optimize the timing on instruments on the spot mics while leaving the tree signal untouched. Especially instruments with a strong attack (e.g. Glockenspiel) that are not super loud (e.g. NOT snare) might benefit from moving their spot mics a little more on grid. This is again something that might work but will not always. But it is worth a try if you have the feeling that the timing in a take really suffers. It might be a lot of editing work which in the end is useless but it’s worth a try.

#technical

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03/12/14: Do not underestimate the power of voice leading and invest sufficient time in trying to get that right. Sometimes, a chord progression just works because of good voice leading and doesn’t at all with bad voice leading. It really pays off investing time into finding inner lines that move along in steps and have an inside dramaturgy. Even if you don’t neccessarily hear these inner lines later in the final recording, it still adds to the overall musical impression of your piece.

#composition

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03/11/14: When writing a film score and being in doubt about what to write and how to approach that scene, it very often helps to consider all possible perspectives. Do you score it from the point of view of the character, or rather the POV of the audience or maybe from another POV. Just consciously weighing these possibilities against each other might help you to find the best solution. Another important factor to consider in such moments of doubt is, that there is never just one right way to score a scene. It always is possible to score it in several ways and even most of them will feel right in the context of the movie. So don’t get overwhelmed by the “blank canvas” syndrome but when your gut feeling doesn’t tell you anything, fall back to a scientific approach or simply let it rest until you come up with an idea.

#filmscoring

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03/10/14: The idea as a young and not established composer to contact and try to get a job with established directors or customers is in 99% of the cases something that doesn’t work. Directors who have been in the game for a while have established working relationships that they will most likely not give up for a newcomer so your chances of replacing an existing composer is practically zero. If you follow the careers of the big composers, in most cases they established a working relationship with a by then unknown director quite early on and grew with the success of their career. So, the more effective (yet also more time consuming) way would be to establish a good working relationship with one or several newcomers with promising talent and try to use their career steps as your own career ladder. However, be aware that even very talented directors will not necessarily make it big in the market, so a big portion of luck is involved as well.

#general

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03/07/14: One great way to learn about instruments is to have a musician show you his/her instrument. Musicians are usually very happy to give you an introduction to their instrument and to show you what is possible and what not, what is comfortable to do and in general give you tips on how to write for this instrument. Being able to ask questions along this session is always invaluable and you will also get a sense for what is physically demanding on the instrument. It might also be a good idea to take one lesson with a teacher on any specific instrument and instead of having him/her trying to teach you how to play it rather show you how it works. In such sessions you will usually learn way more than what is written in orchestration books and you will remember it way better anyway as it is way more interesting to see these things than to read about them.

#orchestration

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03/06/14: When editing orchestral recordings, even if you thought the take was great on the day, when going through the details, you will always find some imperfections. There are quite a few tricks that work quite well to help some of these moments. One of my favourites is when there’s a brief wrong note in a passage of an instrument (for example in a quite quick melody), it quite often helps to tune that note to the right note on the spot mic signal (while leaving the decca tree/room mics untouched as tuning that signal would obviously affect all instruments). Even though the two signals will be disagreeing on that brief moment, our ear might accept that and hear the right note. The bottom line is to try everything that might work and sometimes it even will. Even autotune might be your friend on some occasions. The important thing is as always: let your ear decide.

#technical

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03/05/14: One of the standard tricks for chord progressions in minor is to use dominant7 chords that have a b9 included instead of straight forward dom7 chords or dom7 chords with a regular 9. So for example this G7(b9) chord leads way nicer to Cm than this G9 chord. The reason behind it is the scale-relation (C minor including the Ab which is the b9 in G7(b9)) as well as the chromatic movement from the Ab in G7(b9) to the G in Cm.

#composition

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03/04/14: When watching scenes over and over again to write music for them, there is always a big danger of wanting to overscore them as the emotional impact of the scene as well as the general feeling of the context wear off pretty dramatically after seeing it that often. Try to be conscious about the fact that the scene might need less than you feel it needs and try to remember your initial instincts. When totally in doubt ask somebody with a bit of understanding of film music to give a bit of feedback on whether you’re overscoring already.

#filmscoring

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03/03/14: For many decades one of the golden rules for having success as a film composer was to move to the cities where the jobs are, mainly of course to LA. From all the experiences that I have made as well as from talks with colleagues who live in such a city and the ones who don’t, since the advent of the internet, it doesn’t really matter anymore today. In fact, many media companies are also moving away from the big cities. The work in the industry has been massively decentralized with people working on the same movie on several different continents at the same time. There might still be an advantage for being available personally for meetings etc. but with the younger generation of “digital natives” also growing into the big positions of film production, even that seems to be slowly vanishing.

#general

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02/28/14: Snap pizzicato and fingernail pizzicato on string instruments are quite regularly described as being the same thing (for example in Adler), however they are not. Both techniques cause a percussive pizzicato sound but the cause for that is different. With the snap pizzicato, the string is being held between two fingers and pulled away from the fingerboard so that it snaps back on the fingerboard when released. On fingernail pizzicato, the strings are plucked with the fingernail rather than the pad of the finger as on normal pizzicato. The reason for the mix-up might be that some snap pizzicatos are not executable, mainly the ones on high strings and high registers. The tension of the strings there is so high that you can not make it snap back on the fingerboard without damaging the instrument so that players automatically fall back on fingernail pizzicato. The sound difference between both pizzicatos is however noticeable. Especially on instruments and in registers where both are executeable (e.g. low cellos and basses), the snap pizzicato has a more violent and percussive sound than the fingernail pizz.

#orchestration

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02/27/14: When recording music with live players, make a protocol of takes in some sort of form. I prefer marking the score sheets with differently colored markers where I circle or highlight things that were particularly problematic or good in individual takes. Other composers make notes on a sheet of paper. The benefit of such a protocol is that you later on in the editing phase you can easier find parts of the cue that you can edit together for the perfect rendition of the cue.

 #technical

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02/26/14: The most successful music on a commercial level is very often music that pleases listeners from several levels of musical literacy, which is a concept that is followed in most fields of “commercial art”. John Williams’ success probably bases a lot on the fact that he has probably written some of the most simple and catchy film themes that are practically not far away from child tunes (e.g. Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones) which please the musically uneducated audience by being easy for them to capture yet still he at the same time attracts musically educated people and academics by incorporating interesting harmonic shifts, melodic sidelines and complex orchestration. So when writing music, in my opinion one of the most effective strategies to write compelling music is to keep it simple from it’s basic structure, mainly the core melodic ideas and add sophistication in the execution of these ideas. The approach followed by some composers of starting off with complex material is of course valid as well, but it limits the audience who will be attracted by that music. Of course, the decision of whether you want to appeal to as many people as possible or whether you want to position yourself more in a niche is completely up to you but keep in mind that especially writing for the media means to reach the broadest audience possible.

 #composition

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02/25/14: While from a purely musical standpoint, static drones are quite unattractive, as a scoring device they can have a very strong impact. Scoring a dialogue or monologue with a low drone will automatically raise the attention of the audience and give it that “something important is being said”. In movies, drones work over quite a long time without the need to change. Some scenes might even just need exactly that one drone while anything else might feel overscored. So while this device has been extensively used and doesn’t really show of your composing chops, in some circumstances, it might be the best choice to score a scene.

 #filmscoring

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02/24/14: Everybody has to do a gig that pays the bills from now and then, even if you don’t like it at all. The problem is when it becomes a permanent situation. Especially in creative jobs, doing only things that you don’t enjoy and you do just to pay the bills will eventually lead to massive frustration. And while money is of course important, it is not all about it. Doing a badly paid but really enjoyable project from time to time can be very benefitial for your creative health and is something that many composers (even high profile ones) do. The creative joy you get from doing music for a project that you thoroughly enjoy is way greater and will give you way more motivation for the less enjoyable projects than any money could buy.

 #general

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02/21/14: Many people coming from a band background who start to write for real orchestra mistake the orchestra for a band replacement which is not that idiomatic for an orchestra. The orchestra is not the most ideal ensemble to play constant grooves etc. and also pattern-like writing (as with bands) usually tends to feel very flat in the orchestra. In general, when you’re coming from such a background, be aware that in the orchestra any instrument can theoretically take any function, so there’s no such thing as an analogy to a rhythm guitar and the orchestration will become very boring if you orchestrate in a way that your high strings end up just playing  “staccato chords” because you simply  gave them the job of the rhythm guitar. For orchestra, you need to throw many of the things you know from band arrangement over board.

 #orchestra

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02/20/14: When you need to acoustically melt together recordings from different acoustic spaces in the same track (e.g. different sample libraries but also recordings from different locations/booths) it always helps to put one master reverb on the sum mix. Even if it is just used in a very subtle way, it will help to bring different sources more into one acoustic space.

 #technical

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02/19/14: When listening to a melody, our ear doesn’t just follow the structure on a note-by-note basis but also follows longer developments in the melodies. One thing that our ears pays special attention to is the development of the top notes of a melody. If your melody in general (as most melodies) have a wavy conture, the ear will follow the peaks of the waves and set them into relation with each other. When analyzing musically attractive melodies, you will very often find an own melodic quality in these peak notes. If you strip the melodies down to just these notes you will very often find an ascending motion, an arc or a melodic idea that feels musically attractive while melodies that keep going back to the same peak note over and over again (in spite of all other melodic qualities) will always feel static and as if they have a weak development. So when writing melodies, try to consciously keep an eye on the development of the top notes.

 #composition

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02/14/14: When orchestrating a piece or rather a section of a piece, it is quite effective to work your way from the loudest to the softest instruments. When heavy brass/perc are involved, orchestrate them first in order to make sure that the acoustically most prominent “backbone” of the passage sits right and creates the desired effect. From there on work your way to the strings and then woodwinds. Especially when you rely on playback rather than imagination this might help you to not accidentally put important lines into weak instruments and cover them up with loud instruments afterwards.

 #orchestration

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02/13/14: Overdubbing the same instruments to create a bigger and more epic sound only works to a certain extent. While it is possible to overdub a quite large string section to give it a little bit more substance and power against the brass/percussion, trying to create an ensemble sound from a solo string instrument by layering it several times will not work convincingly as the vibrations and resonance in an acoustic space behave very differently between the individual instruments than with digital addition. The bottom line is, that overdubs will never sound as big as if you had the same amount of instruments in real life. Still of course, in situations where there is not enough budget it might be a wise decision to try to get the sound a little bigger with overdubs (and/or adding samples).

 #technical

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02/12/14: Build up a vocabulary of common “harmonic tricks” for film scoring. There are a few chord progressions in film scoring that constantly keep re-appearing and make a big portion of what defines a “typicial film score sound”. Having a few of these tricks in your bag will help you to still write music when inspiration is short. Here are just a few typical building blocks in the key of C: Ab-Bb-C , Eb-F-C , C-Fm/C-C, Cm-D-Eb.

 #composition

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02/11/14: The so-called dubbing is the process where all audio of the movie gets mixed together, so it’s the first time where dialogue, sound effects and music are being joined together. Be prepared for the possibility for quite big musical changes in that stage as well. When seeing the movie for the first time with all audio elements, some musical decisions don’t seem that ideal anymore. Things like losing parts of a cue, moving a cue slightly, losing a complete cue or re-using cues  in different locations again might always be a possibility that arises during that process. While it is not ideal and sometimes a “killing your darlings” moment, you should try to still be as objective as possible and leave the chance for these changes. Still of course, if you strongly disagree with a decision you have the possibility to speak up against it (which involves you being present during that process of course).

 #filmscoring

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02/10/14: On some projects, for example jingles, audio brandings, commercial scores etc. it might be a good idea to limit the rounds of included revisions in the agreement or otherwise your money to work ratio might shrink to really small  numbers. A sensible agreement would normally be something like two rounds of revisions included and any further round will cost extra. This might save you a lot of headache especially in these “just small amount of music” projects but it might also be a good thing to protect yourself from getting stuck in a revision loop on larger projects.

 #general

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02/07/14: Another instrument that is pretty rare in the concert world but pretty common in the film music world is the Contrabass Clarinet, which is an even lower version of the instrument than the more common Bass Clarinet. This instrument has a fantastic dark texture and is very often used by Danny Elfman (who even uses two of them regularly) but also other composers. Normally it should be played by the player who also doubles on the Bass Clarinet though due to this instrument being quite uncommon outside of the film music world, it is neither sure to have players who can handle that instrument nor have the instrument available itself with most standard orchestras. Playing that instrument takes a lot of air. In combination with regular Bass Clarinet and/or Contrabassoon, this instrument can create a very dark almost threatening sound but can also have a very nice texture on its own.

 #orchestration

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02/06/14: Know at least basic things about file formats and compressed/uncompressed files. It always leaves a quite unprofessional impression when you send over huge uncompressed audio files to your client to get a feedback or deliver massively compressed mp3 files as a final product. This also applies for video formats. Some video formats like wmv are practically not used (due to platform problems between MAC/PC) in the professional world and sending anything in that format will also feel a little unprofessional to your customer. So get a rough understanding about video containers, codecs etc. There are some good reads on the internet about that.

 #technical

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02/05/14: Especially in film music where you need to hit several hit points at precise times, it might become very tricky to place these hit points all in your music in a way that it still makes a musical sense. However only in the very rarest cases, musical hit points should be “sound effects” that lack musical motivation. Always try to make a musical hit point something that feels plausible and as if it belongs to the music rather than feeling superimposed as an effect. What will always feel awkward is to write a music “bed” and place hit points by having “funny instrumental stabs” at arbitrary moments. Make sure these hits devlop musically and feel like they have an actual musical reason to exist apart from the scenic context.

 #composition

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02/04/14: Sometimes, in order to create enough musical impact on a very important scene or shot in the movie, you need to score the scene or sequence right before that sequence not according to how you would normally do it but in order to build towards the key moment. Sometimes, this might even leave the previous sequence musically quite confusing on its own but makes total sense once the key scene has been seen. A nice example of this technique can be seen in Star Wars Episode 2, where a buildup towards the shot of the clone army seen for the first time enters musically still in the dialogue scene which at that very moment seems musically quite strange but after seeing the scene it is absolutely clear why it needed that lengthy buildup and how it helps to dramatically enhance that scene.

 #filmscoring

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02/03/14: For clients, one of the most important consideration to hire a composer is (sometimes maybe even before musical quality) how easy he/she is to work with. The way how you handle communication, how you deal with feedback and customer requests and how you react on your customer’s considerations are some of the most essential things that are put into consideration when hiring a composer. Even the word of mouth recommendation between  your customers very often works the way “Hey, if you need a composer, ask this guy, he’s really great to work with.” So besides working on your craft, also work on your skills in these regards. You are offering a service and that also includes customer care.

 #general

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01/31/14: Some instruments sound in combination with other instruments as if they are out of tune even when they are not. This has mainly something to do with prominent harmonics in the sound of the instruments that diverge from the standard tuning. Most prominently, low flutes, high double basses and organ are likely candidates for phantom-out-of-tune-ness in combination with other instruments. Interestingly, woodwinds in the combination are always bigger problems than brass. There is a standard rule to try to avoid doubling organ with woodwinds as it will always sound out of tune. The important thing is to understand that there might be such situations where it sounds out of tune even if it isn’t. Be prepared for that no matter whether you work with samples or real instruments.

 #orchestration

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01/30/14: Real orchestras normally tune to a = 442Hz while sample libraries and synths are usually tuned to a = 440Hz. While these 2 Hz difference don’t seem like much, when you produce hybrid tracks you will not necessarily get an “out of tune” feeling but the sound will get a roughness and sound a little off. Fortunately most samplers and synths have a master tune knob which lets you tune them to a=442Hz. (The Eastwest Play Engine being an unfortunate exception) but you should generally go this way and never force the orchestra to tune down to 440Hz as this will increase the problems with intonation and make the sound less good. However, there are also differences in orchestral tunings depending on country so it would be best to ask for the tuning of the orchestra before the session if you haven’t worked with them yet.

 #technical

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01/29/14: Key changes can be not only effective musical tools but also very effective structural elements. Trying to build towards a climax in a piece that persistently stays in one key might not be the most interesting thing to do and approaching the climax through a key change will create a way more dramatic effect. Also, the density of several key changes will help to make a piece more exciting or could also help to create a feeling of unsteadiness, depending on what effect you want to have. Especially in action and adventure sequences, a lot of key changes in very quick succession are used to create a restless and exciting feeling.

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01/28/14: Always be aware that when scoring a movie or actually any audio visual content, the attention of your audience lies mainly on the visuals and only a small fraction on the music. With this in mind, subtlety is very often not the best solution. If you’re trying to hint a character’s presence with a theme, it will not really work to do that in a very subtle, reharmonized version but you rather need to state it very prominently, especially when it has an important role for the storytelling and you need to make sure that everybody in the audience gets it. Even with the great masters of film scoring, most of the time, thematic references in scores are done very clearly. Even though you might have the ability and desire to reference to a theme with musically more advanced techniques, in such situations it is usually not the best idea to do so.

 #filmscoring

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01/27/14: Many composers who just start out in the field are often unsure about how much money to ask for a job before they are hired fearing that if they ask for too much they will lose the job. Also, the insecurity often comes from simply not knowing what “one normally asks for this kind of work”. When I do a calculation for my fee, I usually break it down internally to hourly rates. Trying to estimate how many hours of work I might need for a certain job multiplied by a decent hourly rate might give me a rough estimate about where I should be heading with  the fee I’m asking for. This technique has proven to be quite effective to figure out how much money to ask for. When you estimate an hourly rate, however don’t take regular 9 to 5 jobs and their hourly rate as baseline. Usually, rates should be considerably higher as you also cannot simply write music and be creative 8 hours a day but also have a lot of unpaid things to do around that (phone calls, negotiations, meetings etc.), as well as costs for your gear etc.

 #general

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01/24/14: Orchestral balance is also depending on the room where the music will be recorded/performed in. In general, smaller rooms have the tendency to make the brass/percussion drown the rest of the orchestra much quicker than in larger rooms while in larger rooms the lack of definition due to the long reverb tail diminishes textural details from mixed sound colours. Of course these things are very depending on the actual room and its acoustic behavior but when you orchestrate for a real ensemble, keep this in the back of your mind to avoid surprises.

 #orchestration

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01/23/14: When you’re working on a project where there’s a chance that you might need to revisit it for whatever reason in the future (e.g. library tracks that need to be adjusted according to the wishes of the client), always make sure to bounce all sections to individual audio tracks before you leave that project. There’s a good chance that due to software and sample library updates that project might in the worst case not open up anymore but more commonly sound differently than  it used to when you worked on it. Re-adjusting everything to get back to the original sound might become a nightmare. If you’re lucky, everything will work and sound as it originally did but chances are quite high it doesn’t. In these case, the bounced audio tracks might not just come in handy but be  a huge time saver.

 #technical

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01/22/14: One common weakness of learning composer’s music is to constantly fall into 2-bar or 4-bar chunks of music. Very often, even though a theme is laid out to be an 8-bar form or even longer but ends up being 4 chunks of 2-bars. While sometimes these 2-bar-chunks are useful to create a sort of hectic and short breathed feeling, if you want to span a large musical and melodic arc, it feels very quickly very strange. The best way to get your form a little longer is to avoid to use the same or very similar head motif in bar 1 and 3 of your form as well as coming back to the tonic too often or soon. So if you want to create a soaring theme, watch out for these things and ask yourself if you theme actually has a larger arc or whether it is composed of small chunks.

 #composition

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01/21/14: The timing of sync points (moments where the music accents the action on screen) might vary and not always will it be the best thing to place them exactly on the action. Always look out for the hit points that need a moment until the audience has realized the consequences of that hit point. If the main role confesses to her husband “I’m pregnant.” and it has a strong influence on the path the story goes, you will most likely not accent that right away but give it a moment to sink in so the music reacts according to the audience’s reaction. How long this will be always needs to be determined individually and trusting your feeling might be the wisest thing to do there. The most important thing is to not simply go for placing all the accents exactly.

 #filmscoring

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01/20/14: Criticism on one’s own work is always hard to swallow, especially due to art being very often something highly subjective with people just not liking it without plausible reason. The most important thing, no matter who’s criticising, is to react professionally. Even though you disagree on possible arguments, never react like a diva or insulting. Always think about who’s criticising, whether he/she has some reasons for why not liking your work (if it’s just a “I don’t like it”, there’s nothing you can really do about it) and whether you might agree on that. Of course, when being young and just starting out, you might react even more sensitively on any criticism, but this is also a path for ending up in total chaos. The best way is always to be your own biggest critic, trust your instincts but also question whether you could have improved on your work. If you are confident and happy about what you’ve done, you shouldn’t let yourself bring down by somebody who says “I don’t like it”. However, you will get a lot of criticism in your career, mainly from your clients, so learn to handle that professionally as soon as possible.

 #general

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01/17/14: On string instruments, doing large skips from low to high notes very often involve to cross one or even two strings (e.g. playing on a violin a low passage on the low G string and moving from there to a high passage on the high E string). These skips can not be done seamlessly and instantly but always will have a little gap as the bow needs to be consciously lifted and carried over two strings. Even though on first sight it might seem quite rare for these huge skips to happen, they actually might occur way more often than you might think. Most often they are overlooked between sections on texture changes. For instance, you’re playing a 16th note string ostinato in one of the sections and instantly switch to playing the theme in a high register without any gap in between. What is most likely to happen in the “real world” is that your players will drop the last 16th note from the ostinato in order to have time to move the bow to the other string and to hit the downbeat with decent timing on the melody. So as a consequence, it is always better to plan in these movements. A more elegant way to solve that problem would be to either write them in a little rest before the theme entrance or build them a “bridge” to the high register by doing for example an arpeggion on the last few 16th notes that moves them gradually upwards to the new high register.

 #orchestration

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01/16/14: Always mix cues roughly at the volume level that they will later have in the movie. In soft cues, our ears need more bass in order to have a balanced listening impression, so when you mix these cues too loud they might sound rather unbalanced and lacking bass later in the movie when they are very soft in the background.

 #technical

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01/15/14: It is very convenient and easy to copy-paste complete sections of a piece and have them repeat exactly but most of the time, this feels very redundant. There are a lot of pieces in classical music where parts are being repeated exactly due to “formal balance” reasons but in general, it feels more musical to give repetitions some new musical information. Three of the most common things that could be added when you repeat a part (for example restate a theme) is to introduce a secondary melody line that goes well with the primary theme, change the orchestration and to reharmonize the passage (or combinations). These things can be observed in practically every John Williams Main Theme. If you listen for example to the Star Wars Main Theme, there is not a single identical repetition of the main theme fanfare in that cue. Even though it takes more work to work like this, it keeps the piece way more interesting than just repeating the very same thing exactly as it is.

 #composition

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01/14/14: Spend a considerable amount of time finding the right tempo for a scene/sequence. Very often, this step is rushed and a more or less random tempo is picked just to get started. But realizing that the tempo to a scene is wrong after you already scored it is probably one of the worst things that can happen, as adjusting the tempo will move all your sync points and you practically will need to score the whole thing again. So watch the sequence several times, try clicking different tempos to it, try playing several musical rhythmical models in your head to make really sure that you got it right. A wrong music tempo can make a scene feel very awkward and draggy.

 #filmscoring

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01/13/14: Many creative people need to “disappear” communication wise in order to work concentrated. Unplugging phones, turning off mobiles and being offline might be really helpful to work without interruption and losing the “read thread” but unfortunately, in the media world, it is nothing that you should really do. Most importantly because there might be last minute changes on the cue/project that you are working on which might force you to completely rethink or scrap the cue that you are working on. Secondly, and also very important: customers get very very nervous when they can not reach the people who are working for them. If you disappear from the radar comunication wise, it will very likely leave a negative feeling with your customer and even if you deliver everything on time in good quality, you don’t want your client to have a feeling of discomfort when working with you. So the bottom line is, to at least stay connected on one channel while you are working and learn to deal with interruptions during your work.

 #general

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01/10/14: It very often creates a quite hard contrast when you introduce new instrumental textures right on downbeats or the beginning of a section. Unless you deliberately want to create that contrast, it is usually a more fluent and more pleasing musical result to introduce with a smooth transition. For example if you want to switch from a string section passage to a woodwind section passage, don’t switch them with a cold contrast “on a barline” but rather introduce the woodwind sound with a few pickup notes in the bar before or have a small crescendo chord in the woodwinds before the new section starts. That applies for radical textural changes like in the example mentioned but also helps to make small textural changes (e.g. introduction of an instrumental solo) more fluent and musical.

 #orchestration

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01/09/14: Learn and understand the basic technical principles and terms of filmmaking. While it is nothing that you might need directly for your own work, it helps tremendously to communicate with people involved in the film project that you’re working on (most importantly the director of course) and even more importantly understand work processes and also get a feeling of how complex certain processes are during the filmmaking.  It might be very embarassing if your director talks to you using technical terminology from film and you have to constantly ask what it is. In general, it leaves a better impression when you are informed about the things that you’re working on. Also, developing a more analytical view on the project that you’re working for might also help you to consciously see things that you wouldn’t have noticed normally and highlight them a little more with the music etc. One of the standard overview works of film theory is HOW TO READ A FILM by James Monaco which has also been published in several languages, but there are also a lot of other books on that topic as well.

 #technical

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01/08/14: Ear training is massively important for composers as it will help to speed up your work process tremendously. One of the common problems of learning composers is that they have an idea, hear something in their head and try to translate it to the piano/DAW etc. However, the chance of losing the idea again when you press too many “wrong” notes on the piano to find it is very high and a major factor for frustration. In these cases, ear training can help tremendously as it will enable you to precisely hunt down what you’re hearing in your head or even simply knowing already what it is. So while ear training in the classical way is something that can be quite annoying and is often skipped due to lazyness, you should really try to focus on that. There are quite a few free online tools for ear training as well as apps for mobile devices who do the standard “recognize the interval, chord type, chord progression” stuff. If you want to make things more interesting, do transcriptions of cues you find interesting by ear. This will not only help your ear training but also your stylistic understanding and orchestration skills. The bottom line is: don’t try to muddle through without training your ear properly as you make it unnecessarily tricky on yourself by relying on the “trial and error” method when composing and trying to figure out what this is that you’re hearing in your head.

 #composition

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01/07/14: Always remember that your director/client doesn’t care whether the music is well orchestrated, has a great counterpoint or whether it is formally excellent. These things don’t matter at all to most customers but rather the fact whether the music is working well or not. So any argument you want to start about musical quality will most likely not have any success. It will help tremendously if you once in a while step back from the musical standpoint and view that you have on your music and try to understand how your client sees it as well as listening to critizism and advices. Sometimes, the “unmusical” view on things might open your eyes and help understand a scene better, so don’t have the arrogance to believe that you see everything in your music. Sometimes, while working so eagerly on a cue, you automatically lose track of the big picture and it is great to have somebody with a musically uneducated opinion giving feedback.

 #filmscoring

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01/06/14: Never make up things in your biography just to impress people. Especially in the early stages of your career you might feel a little uncomfortable with only having a few or no projects to mention when it comes to presenting your vita. But while it is totally fine and done by practically everyone to “embellish” the things you have done and make them seem more impressive than they actually are, making up things can very easily backfire very badly and damage your credibility quite massively. A good strategy at the beginning of a composing career is to be honest instead of trying to impress potential clients. “Listen, I haven’t done a lot of projects, but I am super motivated  and have the following ideas for your project” might impress possible customers way more than trying to come up with things that you actually haven’t done and playing the “I have done so many awesome things” game.

 #general

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