Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jan 1, 2015 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 more 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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05/28/15: Whenever you’re required to create an audio click (= an actual audio file that has the clicks in it as opposed to a session file in Protools etc.) be very conscious about your choice of click sounds. Some sequencers come with horrible default click sounds. The choice of what sounds to use is essential for two reasons. 1.) Bleeding on the microphones: some clicks are so present that even when wearing headphones, it will bleed over to the microphones in the room. 2.)Be non-distracting: Your musicians need to listen to this click for quite a while, so anything that has annyoing frequencies will also cause annoyance with your musicians. The general rules for click sounds: NO PITCH. Don’t use clicks that have an audible pitch as it will be very annyoing if these pitches don’t match the key the musicians are playing in. NO STANDARD PERCUSSION: No Marimba, No Cowbell. Very high chance of these sounds to bleed and also they might have a pitch. Use an alterning sound for count 1 so the musicians also know where the bar begins. There are a few specifically designed click sounds that bleed as little as possible. One is the UREI click but there are a few other ones as well. (Note that the click track linked has no accented downbeats, which is, as mentioned above, not good.) Best would be to ask the engineer of the session which click to use, he/she might also be happy to send you the appropriate audio files.

#technical

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05/27/15: Ostinatos play a big role in current film scoring and while the principle of how they work is pretty clear, many learning composers struggle with their use. Due to their repetative character, ostinatos can become quite annoying and feeling short-breathed. The problem lies in the fact that our brain is not challenged for very long on simple ostinatos and you need to bring in different elements elsewhere to keep it interesting. Have a look at the ostinato below which while being a perfectly fine ostinato runs dead quite quickly:

Ostinato 1

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An easy way to keep this ostinato more interesting for our brain is to lengthen its perceived structure. Essentially, the ostinato below is the same as above. There is just one difference of having the third triplet group in bar 2 different. However this slight change will imply to our brain that the structure of that ostinato is not 2 quarter notes long as the example above but 8 quarter notes long as the “real” repetiton occurs only after two bars. In general, this will keep our brain more interested in this ostinato as we will have the feeling that this ostinato is just a longer sustaining structure, even though it is almost identical to the one above.

ostinato2

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#composition

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05/26/15: A good exercise to gain a big vocabulary for film scoring is to practice “small emotions”. It is quite easy to go for the full sad or the super happy scoring but trying to write something that is “a little bit melancholic” or “slightly relieved” is way more challenging. Try imagining a scene in your head where there is only a hint of an emotional colour and try to score that appropriately without going over board. It becomes even trickier if you decide to practice multiple and possibly conflicting emotions. A classic example to imagine would be a character just learning that he/she is surprisingly becoming a parent. Trying to capture the possible happiness, confusion, surprise, anxiety, confusion in one cue is one of the toughest things to do. An excellent example of conflicting emotions is this scene from JURASSIC PARK, scored by John Williams (click here for the score cue alone in slightly better audio quality). We have the magic of birth and fascinations of these creatures coming to life on the one side but at the same time the realization that those animals will become killers and are supposed to be the most dangerous species in Jurassic Park. The score cue fantastically captures both emotions and just from the film scoring aspect, it is fascinating to follow when which emotion takes the upper hand.

#filmscoring

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05/25/15: So-called non disclosure agreements (NDA) are quite common practice in the media world. Some companies/clients handle them very strictly and generally put every project under rigid NDA’s (sometimes going as far as having fake cue names on score sheets so that nobody from the orchestra knows what they are playing for) while other companies have a very lose policy on that. In any case, you should stick to these agreements as it can cause nasty juristical consequences if due to you being a leak sensible information about the project gets to the public. In such cases you should also be sensitive about how you behave. For example sending over files to the company by a public http link (http://www.mydomain.com/musicandvideoofsecretproject.zip) is not the greatest idea. In such cases rather a password protected folder or ftp access should be your choice to deliver. Just develop a sensivity for these issues as some companies are really very picky on this.

#general

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05/22/15:  Timpani sound best between the f below middle c and the f one octave lower. Even though their range exceeds that limit, in the very lowest register the membrane needs to lose so much tension that the sound gets muddy and unfocussed. Unexperienced orchestrators tend to often use the low C 2 octaves below middle c which is a very muddy, unbrillant sound and creates by far less “Zimmerish” punch than the c one octave higher. On the other hand, the really high notes need to be played with so much membrane tension that the sound starts to lose its characteristics and to get somewhat “pingy”. So if you write timpani parts and want them to sound punchy, make sure to not go too far to the theoretical tuning limits. The optimal sounding timpani part includes notes that are all in the “middle range” of the individual timpani.

#orchestration

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05/21/15: 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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05/18/15: The intensity of hitting an action or a certain moment in a music cue is a quite delicate matter. Inexperienced composers tend to over-accent such moments most of the time. Minor actions sound like highly dramatic moments and even while the mood of the overall cue is less “dramatic”, over-accenting a hit point can feel very over-scored and out of place. Determine whether the moment that you’re hitting really needs to be heavily accented or whether it is just a small accent and reduce the forces that you’re using accordingly. Also, check how much the accent you’re hitting is already highlighted in the movie. If there’s a dialogue going on and in one of the sentences a really big revelation is made even though the visual language or scene pace doesn’t change, you need to step in stronger with the music as in scenes where the same revelation takes place by a sudden slow motion, flash-back montage with heavy sound effects. Doubling this will rather cause a feeling of redundancy.

#filmscoring

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05/18/15: The intensity of hitting an action or a certain moment in a music cue is a quite delicate matter. Inexperienced composers tend to over-accent such moments most of the time. Minor actions sound like highly dramatic moments and even while the mood of the overall cue is less “dramatic”, over-accenting a hit point can feel very over-scored and out of place. Determine whether the moment that you’re hitting really needs to be heavily accented or whether it is just a small accent and reduce the forces that you’re using accordingly. Also, check how much the accent you’re hitting is already highlighted in the movie. If there’s a dialogue going on and in one of the sentences a really big revelation is made even though the visual language or scene pace doesn’t change, you need to step in stronger with the music as in scenes where the same revelation takes place by a sudden slow motion, flash-back montage with heavy sound effects. Doubling this will rather cause a feeling of redundancy.

#filmscoring

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05/17/15: Hitting deadlines can be one of the scariest but also most productive things for a composer. When time AND inspiration is short, things can become particularly problematic. However, everybody should develop a strategy to be able to hit deadlines and spread out the workload over the time available without  getting into 20 hour days or getting super stressed out towards the end. People who claim to be doing “all nighters” or being “sooooo stressed out towards the end of a project” very often either have a time management problem or risk their health. Being organised and having a decent self discipline usually gets you through most deadlines without raising the stress level to unhealthy heights. The most common strategy is of course to calculate how much music you need to write per day in order to hit a deadline. Be realistic about that, though. If you notice that things will become problematic, organize help. Transfer parts of the work to someone else. There’s no good in sacrificing your health or the quality of your music just to be able to do it all by yourself. Lastly, always plan in some buffer time, so calculate to be done with the project one day before the deadline. As it is very likely for unplanned things to happen, this buffer time will come much in handy.

#general

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05/15/15: For French Horns there is quite often seen in score sheets a request to put the “Bells up” which is supposed to give them some extra volume and brassyness. Even some sample patches are available that cover this technique. Among horn players this technique is seen a bit controversial. First of all, during regular playing the right hand of the player will be partially in the bell of the horn helping to shape the sound and pitch of the instrument and is an essential part of the playing of the horn. When raising the bell, it is tricky to impossible to keep the right hand in the bell which will give less control over the sound. Also due to the fact that the projection towards the back doesn’t change much, the difference in volume is argueable. The difference resulting in the sound comes mainly from the missing hand in the bell which makes the sound more brassy but also less cultivated which is often used as argument against this technique. Some players might even refuse to do that technique at all. However writing that in, even if the players don’t execute it, gives them a hint of how you want it to sound and they might just play a little louder and intense without raising the bell. As a side note, on live performances that technique has a way bigger effect as it is an impressive stage effect if you suddenly see the horns raising their bells. Gustav Mahler used massive orchestras and asked for that technique quite often (even on woodwinds). Seeing 10 horns raising their bell during a massively epic tutti has a very impressive effect. However be warned about the use of this technique in recording sessions. Usually the mic setup is designed to work best with the “normal” playing of the instruments. A “bells up” might result in the bells coming closer to the spot mics and creating a very different (very direct) sound on them which might be a problem in the mix later on.

#orchestration

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05/14/15: Many recording facilities (especially in Eastern Europe) now offer the possibility to do a remote session either via Skype, Source Connect or another form of audio stream where you as the composer can hear what’s coming right through the monitors in the studio over the internet. While this is comfortable for doing sessions that are quite far away from your location and that are just to record a small amountof music, it doesn’t replace being there. First of all, especially when doing sessions over Skype, the audio quality is a big issue. Even with a broadband connection on both ends, the audio quality over Skype is not really good enough to judge details so you need to trust the engineer there to hear all the small things that are problematic. The other issue is the communication gap. It might be possible that the people in the studio fixed already an issue while you were still typing or talking about it after a take. If you are there, you will immediately see and hear what’s being fixed, so over remote connections  there is a considerable amount of slow down. And lastly, it is always the best experience to be with the orchestra hearing your music, seeing the musicians play etc. so if you can chose between both options, rather go for being present on the stage and even a bit of travel is worth doing that.

#technical

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05/13/15: One very old but also very useful rule for melodic writing is that a melodic leap in one direction should be followed by a melodic step in the other direction. Of course, there are thousands of melodies that violate that rule and still are highly effective but it is always a nice rule of thumb to follow it. Consecutive leaps in the same direction sound very dramatic and have the potential to create a feeling of “the melody falling apart”. Looking at melodies as an actual physical motion is also very helpful, a certain motion in one direction is better to be comepsated by a counter-motion in the other direction. The rule mentioned at the beginning has been a strict rule in the baroque era and has become more liberal since then but still, it is a very useful rule of thumb.

#composition

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05/12/15: One of the most annoying things when scoring a film is getting inconclusive and vague feedback from your customer. If you are not sure why your customer doesn’t like a particular cue even after he/she has given feedback on it, keep asking questions. There is no point in doing several rewrites from guessing which is also something you might want to communicate to your customer. If you don’t find a common base to communicate on (maybe due to the director not being able to formulate anything musically), try to work with compareable scenes and cues – things like “Do you want it more like that scene from movie X?” might help to narrow down what is wanted. Never let yourself being left by your customer with just a “No, that’s not it. Try something new!”. First of all that is unprofessional and second of all it disrespects your work.

#filmscoring

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05/09/15: If you seriously want to pursue a career as fulltime composer, you should try to develop a strategy that sets you apart from the rest of the people in the business. The world doesn’t need yet another “media composer doing every sort of musical style”. Try to develop a special ability where you actually excel in to be able to compete on the market. Your ultimate goal should be a reputation where people say “Oh, we need special skill X, I heard/saw composer Y is really good at that, let’s call him up.” Actually shaping your career path like this is quite tricky at the beginning as you are rather thankful for every paid job that comes in, but the further you go the more often you might be able to actually pick more projects which suit more your profile.

#general

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05/08/15: Double basses have a tendency of not giving a clear pitch impression on their own (as opposed to e.g. the Contrabassoon in the same register) so a general consensus in orchestration literature is to generally double them either at pitch or an octave higher with a different instrument. While this is true when the low register of the orchestra is exposed and needs to carry solistically, in my experience it is not neccessary when it is part of a “regular” chord (regular meaning not having any non-chord-tone bass note that needs to get special attention in the orchestration) as the higher strucuture of the chord will help our brain to understand which bass note is meant anyway so there is no need to specifically double the basses somewhere else in such cases.

#orchestration

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05/07/15: Quite often, as opposed to a delivery cue by cue with start TCs, you might be asked to deliver one long music track containing all the music cues placed correctly against the final cut of the movie, which in my experience should be the preferred way. By that procedure you can make sure that all the cues sit at the correct spot and there haven’t been slight edits at one point that changed the timecode for later cue entrances etc. Also, there are always chances there are typos in the start TC or someone reads them wrong etc and places a cue simply at the wrong timing. By delivering a complete file (or depending on the format individual channel separated files) you can make sure that none of that is wrong and lay the music exactly against the final movie. Of course, request for a final and locked cut before you do that. The start of the file should obviously sit on the very first frame of the movie with a 2-beep 2 seconds before that, however that should be discussed exactly with the mixing engineer.

 #technical

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05/06/15: Reharmonisation of a  melody is a very attractive way for musical development but also constantly used in film to shape a theme according to the mood that is needed. The possibilities are endless and you could reharmonize by just adding a few extensions to the chords up to completely changing the harmonic progression or even tonic. To reharmonize, analyse your theme for important melody notes. Let’s say you have  a melody note of C which originally was the root note of your tonic. When reharmonizing, you basically have many different options. That C could become in your new version the fifth of an F major chord, Third of Am or Ab, maybe the maj7 of a Db, the 9 of a Bb, #11 of an F# etc. Some of these things will work better while others won’t depending on the chords and melody notes that surround that C. Do the same principle for every of your important melody notes to find a new chord progression. In order to not get lost completely, you could also say that every 4th chord (depending on your form) of your original melody will be as in the original, which will ensure that you most likely stay in the same tonic and have the same dominants at the end of your melodic arcs. It takes a bit of training and experience to be able to do that  without struggling but once you get the hang of this, you’ll be able to get practically every possible emotion out of a single theme.

 #composition

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05/05/15: Many inexperienced composers tend to score kiss scenes overly climactic and kitschy which almost always feels like a bad caricature of the whole scene. There are only few kiss scenes in movies nowadays that need the big orchestral sweep or that specifically play with this cliché but most of them are rather toned down with the music being present but not taking over the lead. When you’re scoring a kiss scene, think about what the scene really needs and don’t just simply presume because it is a kiss it needs to be a big romance moment. Even if the hero has struggled through the whole movie to finally kiss his girl at the end of it, that still doesn’t automatically mean it needs to be a big climax. Rather try keeping the intimacy of that moment that is often also visual in your score and it will most likely be way more touching. In general, be aware that audience reacts quite negatively once the emotional manipulation on the musical side gets too obvious.

 #filmscoring

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05/04/15: Many artists are at least once in their career in the situation where they might become instrumentalized for ideas or beliefs they personally don’t agree with. Being a composer in the media world maximizes this possibility. Every composer working for a few years in the business, especially if their main work is in the advertising field, can tell at least one of such stories where they were asked to write music for something they were ethically concerned about. Everybody has to pay their bills and especially in times where there’s not much other work, weighing money against ethical concerns can become particularly problematic. Of course, everybody has to set their own limits and while one composer will absolutely not do a particular project, another composer doesn’t see such a problem in it. The problems however are not only personal concerns but also the impact something can have on your CV. Writing music for an ad campaign by a company or organisation that is hated by most of the general public might become a real problem for your future work. So on such occasions when for whatever reason you feel like you can’t let the project get away but you have concerns about it ruining your CV, it might be best to write it under an Alias and never mention it anywhere. Of course, overstepping your own personal ethical limits is another issue where everybody has to find their own answer.

 #general

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05/01/15: 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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04/30/15: Pay a lot of attention on your choice of reverb. Especially on orchestral music, transparent reverbs are essential to make sure to not drown the mix or make it muddy. Spending a fair amount of time on finding a good sounding reverb and reverb setting is very important. In order to get it right, you should try it on loud and complex cues rather than on string-only pads etc. Remember also that the reverb doesn’t necessarily behave absolutely real. For decades we have gotten used on the Lexicon reverb on orchestral recordings which doesn’t sound like a real reverb at all but has a great airy transparency. By now with impulse response reverbs the choice of good reverbs is a little more diverse but still reverb can make the difference between a great and horrible overall sound.

 #technical

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04/29/15: When writing a melody, many inexperienced composers tend to overuse certain pitches, their melody kind of gets stuck at a pitch and keeps using it over and over again. For a certain length it is okay to hover around one pitch but it can get quite tiresome after a while. When you are not struggling with your melody and you don’t know exactly why, try looking for pitches that keep being repeated several tomes and try to fix them by leading them to new pitches. The lack of new musical information when repeating or coming back to a note several times within a short period of time lowers the melodic tension and therefore results in a not particularly interesting and on extremes even annoying melody.

 #composition

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04/28/15: Always be conscious about what medium you’re writing music for. The audience has a different focus on the story, the visuals and the music when sitting in a dark cinema staring at a huge screen as opposed to watching a blurry Youtube video on a tiny Ipad screen with tinny sound. This influences not only the pure volume of the music that is needed but also the intensity of the scoring. In cinema, scores can be way more subtle and create the same effect as “on the nose” scoring for TV or internet, while transfering this “on the nose” scoring to cinema would feel very quickly over the top. Be aware of these differences and adjust your scoing style accordingly.

 #filmscoring

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04/27/15: There has probably never been a more accessible base of knowledge available for learning composers before than in today’s times. Being able to watch legendary performances of all sorts of music on Youtube, listen to millions of Tracks on Spotify while reading through the complete classical score sheet repertoire on IMSLP and being able to discuss all that with people from all over the world who share the same interest opens up endless possibilities to learn and broaden your musical horizon. Yet so few people as well as professional composers use these to full extent. One of the worst argument I keep hearing from seasoned composers is “I’m working on music all day long, I can’t be bothered with listening to even more music in my spare time.” But also learning composers often keep circling around the same musical artists and genres. Set time aside to explore music, all sorts and all genres. Youtube related videos help a great deal as well as the Radio or Recommendation algorithms on Spotify. With these functions you can explore the musical world step by step. Especially for learning film composers, developing an understanding of different styles and genres is essential. As I’ve mentioned several times before, it is not just about what tools and theoretical things you know in music but way more about how tastefully you use them. And this taste only comes with a broad musical horizon and understanding.

 #general

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04/24/15: No book or course on orchestration can actually replace the invaluable lesson you can learn by talking to and/or observing musicians who are playing your music. Whenever you have the chance to work with musicians, try to find time to have a little chat with them in private. Most musicians are very willing to share their concerns about certain difficulties, give you ideas on how to improve by keeping the musical intention intact etc. Also, observing your musicians while they’re playing is very helpful as you can quite easily spot when they’re struggling to pull something off in the way you want it and which passages can be played without much trouble. I’ve learned a lot of things that have never been mentioned in any book on orchestration just by talking to musicians or simply by just observing what happens when you music actually gets played by real people.

 #orchestration

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04/23/15: The popularity of certain sample 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 something 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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04/22/15: In spite of many composition teachers and professors recommending to plan out a composition properly beforehand and making sketches to create a proper structure and drama for a piece, letting a composition develop out of itself might be a valid approach to writing music. There are often interesting ideas and possibilities opening up while you’re working on something which you would need to often ignore if you slavishly followed a sketch or plan. My personal process often is based on having a structural plan beforehand knowing how I want the piece to feel like and having decided on the general sound but many of the decisions of taking specific melodic, harmonic end especially orchestration paths happen on the way. The more experience you have in composing/orchestrating the better you will be able to still keep an overview over the big structure of your piece in spite of giving in on small impulses during the working process. Of course, when writing music to picture, you need to plan ahead a little more so things will fall into place later on.

 #composition

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04/21/15: Rewrites of cues due to re-cuts of the movie are very annoying but unfortunately quite common. If the edits are not as drastic (like trimming a few frames here and there), there a good chances that you can make your old cue fit again by altering the original tempos slightly which is quite an easy rework. If scenes get changed very heavily like whole lines being cut out or whole scenes being added, the rewrite process becomes quite complicated. It works to a certain extend to “cut” the music by adding/removing single or several odd bars, extending a few melodic lines etc. However there is a danger of the music getting a “patched” feeling which is of course something you would want to avoid. If you can predict that the rewrite will cause a heavy patchwork, you might actually be better off rewriting the sequence or a passage entirely, not only from the esthetic standpoint but also considering the time needed. Finding musically plausible transitions for patches or cuts might be more time consuming than just rewriting the whole thing.

 #filmscoring

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04/20/15: In times where communication over long distances can easily be done via all sorts of practically instantaneous communication and where members of one project are scattered all over the planet, you should take every opportunity that arises to meet important people you work with in person. There’s no replacement for spending an evening at a bar/restaurant/out with your (potential future) customer etc. People react and behave differently when they are “private” and you might be able to leave a way bigger impression in their memory than any professional behaviour over skype etc. would leave. Also, never neglect the huge impact a conversation about private life or just about any non-project related topic can have as this helps tremendously to establish a personal bonding and is hardly ever done in “professional internet conversation”.

 #general

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04/17/15: Ethnic and more rare instruments are still pretty popular in film/game/trailer music and are of course a great tool to locate a scene or character. However these instruments pretty often come with limitations which make it trickier to use them. Sometimes they’re just limited to a specific set of keys or use a tone system that doesn’t fit that well on the western tempered scale. Additionally there might be some idiomatic standard phrases that are commonly played on them etc. An additional problem is that musicians who can play these rare instruments might not be able to read western notation. So when you’re planning on using such an instrument, do a good research on it and find a player before you start writing to talk about do’s and don’ts. A pretty common way of working with such instruments is to record everything else first and then do a solo session with the musician and let him/her improvise with a few instructions of what you want instead of writing out specific parts and possibly write something very unidiomatic and then later on compile a version of takes that you liked. By that you will probably get the most authentic sound out of the instrument instead of trying to figure out how to notate certain things and still not getting the desired effect.

 #orchestration

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04/16/15: The more you take musicians out of the context of the music, the trickier it will be for them to perform a good take. Remember that musicians are not samples that you can program and that work independently from what surrounds them musically. If you strip down an orchestra and record section by section, the musicians will have a really hard time finding their place in the music in regards of dynamic, intonation etc. The less context they have the worse it gets. Feeding the rest of the music through headphones only helps a little. Keep this in mind when you record musicians and try to give them as much musical context as possible.

#technical

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04/15/15: Even though it might not seem necessary directly for composition, ear training is one of the most important things for a quick composition workflow. You can’t be bothered struggling to find that starting note of the melody that you hear in your head on top of these chords that you just play on the piano when you’re just in the middle of composing. By the time you have found it on the piano, the idea might just have vanished already. There are several (even free) training programs online but one thing that doesn’t only help you on your ear training but also orchestration/composition etc. is to transcribe music by ear. Another important thing that helps to train your ear is to be very conscious about musical structures that you are playing or composing. Memorize the impression a certain chord leaves, memorize how a certain tension note over a chord sounds , how a scale feels like etc. Being really fluent in these things helps tremendously to speed up your composition process as it will be more “knowing” than “guessing”.

#composition

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04/14/15: Many movies nowadays don’t only contain score music but also songs that are usually not written by the composer but licensed. Also, the places where they are used in the movie are usually already fixed before the composer begins to write the score. Nevertheless, it is important for you as a composer to make your music work with the songs. Especially where score and songs are positioned very close together in the movie, it is important to not have strange transitions. This means, that the transitions should ideally fit harmonically but also emotionally. “Falling” from an action score without any preparation into a melancholic ballad will feel very strange. So even when you don’t work on the songs and you don’t really have a lot to do with the decision about them, make your music work with them.

#filmscoring

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04/13/15: Watch your ego. Working on a major project is a great experience and many people shaking your hands praising your work is a true ego boost which of course feels great for everybody. However, never let this get to you. Developing an attitude of “I know it all, I’m the best.” is the worst thing that could happen to a composer or basically every artist as it will diminish your urge to improve. It is always very humbling after such an experience to listen to the great masters and realize that as long as one’s music is not as good as theirs, there is no reason to have such a big ego. Of course, being self confident and knowing about one’s abilities is essential as well, but be realistic in your self reflection. Also, working with someone who has a big ego can be a nightmare for directors or producers as the the working experience with you as a composer is a big hire or fire factor for film executives. So eventually a big ego will not be beneficial at all for your career on several levels. It is perfectly fine to be proud of what you have achieved but always keep it in a realistic perspective. One of the great things in music is that even seasoned composers/orchestrators in their 60s still say they learn something new every day and this is an attitude that is vital for every composer. An big “know it all” ego will stand in the way of that.

#general

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04/10/15: The size of the room that you’re recording in does not only influence the natural ambience but also the balancing in the orchestra. While small rooms will focus very much on the brass (especialy trumpets) and it is practically impossible to balance them evenly with the rest of the orchestra no matter how many string players you get, this balancing will even out on larger spaces and go as far as trumpets losing their presence in very large rooms. Different room sizes also make the players play differently. Especially the louder instrument will hold back more in smaller rooms in order to not overpower everything which is of course generally a good thing but problematic when you want a really loud and epic sound from specific instruments. When you’re orchestrating, you should have these things in the back of your mind and set at least dynamic markings accordingly or in extreme cases orchestrate differently.

#technical

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04/09/15: A quite simple and uncomplicated way to get the sound of a small orchestra bigger and more prominent is to double track the strings, which means that you record the whole piece first and then do another recording of the strings only to layer on top of that in the mix. By that you get a more prominent string sound that has more substance. Even on quite large line-ups this technique has an impact on the overall sound. Of course, that only works on tracks that you record to click, otherwise the tutti will not sync with the string layer.

#technical

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04/08/15: Even though it is not necessary at first sight and might take a considerable amount of time, especially when you feel insecure in this, make a habit out of writing down the chord symbols of your piece into your working environment (either in the score sheet or on a chord symbol track in your DAW). A lot of confusion when learning to compose results in not really knowing what harmony you’re in and trying to figure it out by ear. Gaining control over these things will eventually speed up your workflow and improve your writing. Also, knowing exactly which harmony you’re in will rule out some things automatically in your head that will not work in the harmony so you will get rid of a big portion of trial and error.

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04/07/15: One of the most overlooked things by learning composers is the difference between a hit point that can be anticipated by the audience and one that can’t. Unfortunately, these issues are not discussed a lot in literature on film scoring but are massively important for the dramaturgy of a scene. If a musical hit point is the climax of an obvious visual development in the movie or is indicated by a motion (e.g. a motion of the arm in a fight that clearly leads to a hit) you would treat that musically differently than something that happens out of the blue and can’t be anticipated. Additionally there is also a difference of a hit point the audience knows is coming up but doesn’t know when exactly. All these things need different approaches musically speaking. For a hit point that can be anticipated also in the way when it’s going to happen, a musical buildup with a clear expectation can be used without influencing the drama (the most obvious thing would be a clear V-I cadence in an even meter). If it’s a hit point that we know is going to happen but don’t know when exactly, you can still use a buildup but need to make it more ambiguous when it is going to have its climax so you don’t take away the small surprise of when it’s going to happen. If something happens completely out of the blue and you need to accent it, the music should behave accordingly. This means that in some cases you might even want to move that hit point away from a downbeat of a bar as this might be too obvious. The essence in all of this is to develop a very sensitive understanding of how predictable something is for the audience to happen. This also means to constantly question your perception of something as you might have seen the scene so many times that you can anticipate every hit point exactly which is not true for a first time audience which should always be the perspective that you’re scoring for.

#filmscoring

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04/02/15: If you have a choice between several recording venues, you should make a wise decision, which kind of sound your music needs. The advantage of a small space is that you get a lot of precision in the sound. This is very useful when you write very focused on details and with lots of accents, e.g. in a comedy score etc. The disadvantage is, that you might get a quite “un-epic” sound where you want it to sound symphonic. The danger with small rooms is, that they can quite easily collapse on loud orchestral tuttis, especially loud trumpet accents etc will get a quite ugly sound and will probably be overly exposed in the mix as they spill quite heavily on the other mics. A larger, reverby space (e.g. a concert hall) will give you a very epic, wide and symphonic sound, however it will cause massive troubles on music that radically changes dynamics very often and music that has a lot of detail work in the orchestrations, especially on loud passages. A lot of the precision will get lost in the reverb and there is hardly a chance to bring it back up in the mix. Obviously, it is practically impossible to get an intimate sound in a large space. On the other hand is it possible to help small stages with artificial reverb, however, you can not expect to get really near to how the sound would be in a larger space and if you have an acoustically bad room, the early reflections from the small room on loud accents will spoil any impression of size, no matter how much reverb you put on there. Below you’ll find an audio example of exactly the same piece recorded twice. The first part is recorded in a relatively small space with added reverb, the second is recorded in a relatively large space with no added reverb. Note how in the first part, especially on the trumpet staccatos, you can clearly hear the small space, no matter how much reverb is put on there but how you can also hear more precision in the sound while in the second part you have a breathier sound with less precision and slightly different balance situations (violins sounding thinner, trumpets being softer in the mix).

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#technical

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04/01/15: When composing a piece, present your main musical idea for the first time in the clearest direct and most unobscured way to your audience so it is actually being perceived as important and remembered for further appearances where it might be transformed, accompanied etc. By that way, you make sure that your audience understands and memorizes your key idea. There is no need to add secondary lines, counterpoint etc. when you’re presenting an idea for the first time. Save these things for reoccurances of the idea later on in your piece.

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03/31/15: Ethnic references in the music can be a very sensitive issue. When they are state inappropriately, it might quickly feel like a racist remark even though your intentions were purely to “localize” a character. In general, avoid scoring any sort of character just due to their ethnicity unless there is a really plausible reason for that. Ethnic references for the portrayal of a certain location in the movie is less sensitive but even there you should in general be cautious. Using ethnic instruments or musical language is only appropriate if it is essential to the storytelling or to understand a character but should never be done just for the sake of doing it.

#filmscoring

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03/30/15: One of the most important things to do when negotiating a deal, especially on the “smaller” projects, is to limit the amount of revisions. A deal that at first seems really good can really become a nightmare when the client requests revision after revision. And especially the smaller gigs are very problematic on such things. Doing a 60 second commercial for 1000$ that you will be needing approx. 5 hours for seems like a decent hourly rate at first, however if your client requests 3 revisions on it you will be spending 20 hours on it at worst which shrinks down your hourly rate to 25% of what you originally estimated. On larger scale projects it is pretty unlikely to get that many rewrites on all cues but still then it might make sense to include a clause in the contract that limits the rounds of revisions. A standard clause would be two revisions included in the price and any further revision will be charged at an hourly rate of X. While two revisions still might seem a lot at first, it is a quite effective psychological barrier for clients who can’t make up their minds, as effectively two rounds means one complete rewrite with adjustments which is what is reasonable for both parties.

#general

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03/27/15: Coming from a sampling background, many young composers are surprised about what main problems usually arise in “real orchestra” recordings that are practically non-existent in the sample world. When recording a real ensemble, the biggest factors that will need to be addressed and are reasons for another take are timing and intonation. Getting a group of 50+ musicians to play tightly together will take some time. Complex harmonic situations with dissonances or unisono lines of musicians sitting quite far apart are another issue that will cause problems in intonation that simply don’t exist in the sample world. Also, the dependency of the musicians on each other are often ignored when programming music while in real life, every musician will listen to what is going on around him/her to find his/her place in the sound. As a consequence you should pay attention to a few things when writing music that eventually will be performed by a real ensemble: 1.) avoid tricky rhythmical figures that are not identical between sections or players that sit next to each other. For instance having 1st and 2nd Violins playing complex rhythms that rhythmically interlock into each other and are not identical are destined to slow down a session tremendously. In many such cases you can create the same end result by adjusting the rhythms in a way that they are more logical to the players. Of course notating them logically and understandably is another important factor. 2.) Avoid tricky intervals between neighboring players. Trying to get a complex harmonic situation where for instance 1st and 2nd trumpet play a semitone apart is very hard for the players to intonate properly. Rather have both trumpets play easily understandable intervals between each other and place the dissonance somewhere else in the orchestra. As mentioned in a post a while ago: a very good strategy to create dissonance is to have different consonant structures in sections of the orchestra “clash” against each other: e.g. having the trumpets play a C major triad and the horns an F#major triad at the same time will make intonation very easy as they all will find their place very easily in their own triads. Yet the final sound will still be massively dissonant as these two chords together create a lot of dissonance.

#orchestration

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03/26/15: When  scoring a scene, even if you know exactly what is happening and who says what, don’t forget to listen to the scene with the audio track turned on every now and then. Even if the audio track is very rough and not finished, you can spot possible conflicts between the audio track and the music very early on. Pay attention especially on conflicts regarding the understandability of the dialogue (Do active musical things fall on the dialogue? Can you place them into rests between sentences?) and anything that might have something like a pitch that could conflict with the music either in thee frequency range or at actual pitches (for instance engine noises etc. usually have a very distinctive pitch that can heavily conflict with music).

#technical

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03/24/15: 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 things 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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03/20/15: There are several disagreeing statements in orchestration books about perfect fifth double stops on string instruments that don’t involve open strings. Some claim they are impossible and should be avoided while others say they are possible. Even talking to different musicians will give different opinions on that matter. In my experience it is possible with limitations but I rather prefer to avoid such double stops. The problem lies in the fact that the player will need to press two neighboring strings down to the fingerboard at exactly the same spot which is usually an area that is too narrow for two fingers and for some players on some instruments in some ranges too wide for one. While in the lower positions where the strings are closer together on the fingerboard, one finger to press down two strings might work for most players, the higher you get and the further apart the strings become the trickier this gets and musicians with slim fingers will struggle to find it impossible to create a decently sounding double stop. So if you’re writing for a solo player and want to involve such fifths, talk with him/her to figure out if they are possible. In a section they will probably automatically divisi such things anyway which is also what you should not comment on. Even if these fifths can be executed successfully, they will have intonation issues and generally not sound that great. Son the bottom line here is: usually they are possible but not really desirable.

#orchestration

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03/19/15: Most composer work prints of movies come with a special soundtrack. Usually you have the sound effects and dialogue on the left (or both) and the music temp track on the right audio track (or the other way around). This avoids the need to transfer two prints of the movie including the temp track on one and only soundfx and dialogue on the other. By simply putting the sound track of your work print to mono and choosing the appropriate channel as audio source, you can have a work print that only includes sfx and dialogue to work with and put into your DAW and on the other hand, you have a reference temp music track to check back.

#technical

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03/18/15: Diminished chords usually serve the function of a dominant seventh chord, usually targeting to a chord a semitone higher. For instance the chord C#dim (C#-E-G) wants to resolve to a D or Dm. The reason for that is that the structure of the C#dim is actually an A7 lacking the root note ((A)-C#-E-G) also including the tritone C#-G that gives it that dominant 7 feel and wants to resolve to the notes D and F# (or C-Ab if it’s a Tritone Subsitute – hence the C#dim could also resolve to an Ab chord). This also works with full diminished chords, e.g. a C#dim7 (C#-E-G-Bb) would then imply a shortened A7(b9) chord. In practical use, diminshed chords often have the same problem as dom7 chords: they do work theoretically perfectly fine but sound very often old fashioned and “classical”. Therefore you should be careful how you use them.

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03/17/15: Not every appearance of your main character in the movie needs a statement of his/her theme. Repeating a theme too often can very quickly become annoying or drift off into an unwanted comedy effect. In general, thematic statements are best placed when the character and his/her actions drive the story forward. Also, if you state the theme more rarely, it’s entrance gets more impact.

#filmscoring

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03/16/15: For customers, even more important than how good you are as a composer is how easy you are to work with. Reliability and professionalism are two very important words when working on a project together. And both words are not simply answered with hitting the deadline and knowing what you’re doing but it involves a whole lot more. Your customer wants to have the feeling that he doesn’t need to worry about your end of the work, that you respond in a flexible way to changing circumstances, that you are communicative, open, creative and hit or exceed your customer’s expectation. So whenever you’re dealing with potential customers, don’t just rely on your qualities as a composer but make sure to make your customer feel comfortable. And even if you are confronted with something where you have no idea how to pull this off, act professional, don’t let your customer have doubts about your professionalism and find a way to figure it out later. No customer wants to hear “I have practically no experience in that field and umm… I don’t really know what to do… by chance I might be lucky and figure it out but.. umm.” Even highly experienced composers from time to time stand in front of a seemingly unsolveable problem but their ability is to still appear confident and find a way to make it work.

#general

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03/13/15: It makes music more lively and expressive to give any longer sustaining note a dynamic shape for example adding a small crescendo-decrescendo on the note, hitting it hard, dropping to piano and crescendo again etc. Notes that sustain just on a flat dynamic level tend to sound quite boring after a while, same goes for music which uses alot of such notes. If you’re for example writing a slow, emotional string piece with lots of sustaining notes, you will get so much more emotion by adding dynamic shapes to longer notes. Such dynamic shapes are particularly successful on Brass instrument where the colour of the sound changes most dramatic when changing dynamics. This whole concept applies for real musicians but also for the use of samples.

#orchestration

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03/12/15: Noises on a recording can be very annoying and are easily overheard on a session (as you focus more on the music obviously). Usually the sound engineer is supposed to spot noises but they can slip by quite easily and what you could barely hear on the monitor mix in the booth suddenly will jump right in your face at the mix. You have a few options dealing with them. There are some spectral clearing tools which allow to “cut out” noises from the frequency spectrum and as long as they aren’t masked by an instrument this method works very well. However, if you can’t solve the problem with that, you might want to find the spot mic that is closest to the noise (and it hopefully isn’t a noise so loud that it spilled on every microphone). When you have isolated that mic, you might want to try muting it for a moment there. However take care that it doesn’t feel like you’re cutting a “hole” into the music. Interestingly this works also to a certain extent at short wrong notes. A horn section split might be very obvious on the spot mics but hardly noticeable on the tree mics so helping such moments with a little “cutting” might be very benefitial.

#technical

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03/11/15: A very commonly used concept in film music to write chord progressions is the concept of shared chord tones. Basically you could treat every chord as a new tonic and find the next chord by moving to a chord that shares at least one chord tone with the old chord. Even though these chords might harmonically be extremely far apart, the shared chord tone will create a sense of cohesiveness. This works also if these shared chord tones are higher up in the chord structure (e.g. maj7, #11) which also allows to practically connect any chord with any chord. A mixture of this principle with the principle of harmonic modal interchange and “traditional” cadential movement will give you a very nice and modern filmic chord progression.

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03/10/15: Cuts in movies are massively unnatural compared to our human visual perception, we don’t suddenly see cuts in our daily life. By now our understanding of visuals in films etc. have adjusted to see these as completely normal devices of storytelling without feeling alienated. However, as film composers we still need to be aware that cuts (especially the ones that jump from scene (location) to another scene (location)) are things that are necessary but can interrupt the visual flow quite tremendously. Therefore, our job is to help hard cuts to feel less harsh by gluing them together with music that overlaps. Some inexperienced composers might feel it to be clever and what is normally done to place hit points on cuts, maybe even find a tempo where cuts fall on beats. This is very rarely something you want to do. Unless you want to create a really hard contrast, a noticeable change in the flow of the storytelling, highlight ONE very important edit or want to create a sense of comedy, you should rather try to avoid hitting cuts as this will make these extra noticeable.

#filmscoring

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03/09/15: Once there has been established a working relationship between a director and a composer, as long as both parties are happy with this relationship, it will usually last for quite a while. While this is beneficial and makes a few things easier once you’re in such a relationship, it makes it extra tricky for newcomers to get into the business. So if you’re just starting out, you should pick your battles very wisely. There is practically no point trying to contact established directors asking if they might have a job for you. Even if you think that you could do a better job than their current composers, in 99% of the cases they will stay with them. So any energy that you put into “replacing John Williams on Steven Spielberg’s movies” will be wasted. A more clever strategy would be to reach out to talented and promising newcomers who might become successful in the future. Of course at first you will not be scoring big movies but eventually this long term relationship might pay off. If you follow the careers of all established A-list composers, they have almost all been “dragged” to the big careers by one or a few directors who became more successful with every movie they made and who simply kept working with the same composer.

#general

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03/06/15: A quite interesting sounding and more commonly used special string playing technique is the so called “col legno”, which translated means “with the wood”. Probably one of the most well known use of it is the beginning of Holst’s Mars. Those notes are executed by turning the bow around and striking the strings with the wood part of it. However in practical use string players usually don’t turn the bow around by 180° but just by 90° using a bit of hair as well, as you wouldn’t be getting any tone but just a click noise out of the string if you just used the wood part only. Some string players will also be concerned damaging their (sometimes massively expensive) bow by executing this technique too heavily so they might actually switch to a cheap bow for col legno passages. Another important additional thing to consider is the fact that the bow bounces differently off the string when playing col legno than it does when playing with the hair which sometimes takes string players a while or few takes to get figures with more busy rhythms tightly together.

#orchestration

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03/05/15: 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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03/04/15: Neither composing chords first and then find a melody on top of them nor the other way around are optimal composition principles. In both ways you’re lacking ultimate control over what you’re writing. For example you have a chord progression that you like which is 8 bars long and obviously has its harmonic climax in bar 5. Unless you are absolutely aware of this and have a tremendous flexibility to shape a melody on top of these chords that mirrors the same dramaturgy and climaxes in bar 5 as well, chances are quite high that your two dramaturgy arcs will not be in sync completely which will be a lack of musical quality. Generally, you should try to get to the point where you can compose both levels simultaneously thinking at the same time about harmonic progression and melodic dramaturgy. Your compositions will become way more stringent if you take control over both elements at the same time and mold them together.

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03/03/15: Even though the genre of film music allows a pretty wide variety of stylistics close to each other without feeling weird there are definitely limits to how far you can stretch the musical diversity in one film. By diversity I mean a wide spread in musical language, not a constant switch in musical genres or line-ups. A fixed instrumental line-up should not just for financial reasons be maintained throughout a movie score but also to create a consistency in sound and provide a more or less homogenous concept. However changing for instance harmonic or compositional concepts even within a cue are not much of a problem (something that would be a quite problematic thing in “serious concert music” writing). A cue can span over late romantic string writing to impressionistic textures to atonal “horror moments” to pseudo-baroque four-part writing to electro-inspired ostinato work to minimalism and back without people finding it particularly weird as long as it feels emotionally appropriate for the scene. Of course, it always helps to limit yourself down to create a specific “sound” or “musical vocabulary” for each individual project as it will bring across a stronger and more homogenous statement of the music but if you need to wander off in another stylistic direction for a specific scene, that usually isn’t that much of a problem. However never get to a point where your music could be replaced by picking more or less random cues from a music library because there is just so much diversity that practically no connection can be noticed anymore.

#filmscoring

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03/02/15: When being new in the field of writing music for media and not having a lot of references and jobs that you have done, trying to get a gig that pays well and/or will have a higher impact on your career is always tricky and also not very depending on your technical/musical abilities. Also, trying to wave around with a degree in music or composition will not get you any further or impress anybody, as in this business the only thing that counts is what you have done so far. However, lying about your references or bloating them up to a much bigger thing than they really are, is a very bad strategy. Usually it feels way more authentic for a client, if you approach them in a way like “Hey, I don’t have that many references, but I’m extremely motivated and will put my heart and soul into your project” than boasting about references that are actually marginal or that you have made up and everybody who knows how to use Google will instantly find out about that.

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02/27/15: Recent years have shown a tendency to write more often for brass in their very low register. Especially horns are often requested to play in their lowest octave. While excellent players in great numbers (speaking of more than 6 Horns) can make this register sound quite epic, regular horn sections struggle quite a bit with it. This register is not very carrying and hard to control on the horn. Especially in combination with the trombones at the same pitch, the horn section is usually much weaker. Trying to replicate the epic/sampled low horn sound with a real orchestra is something that you shouldn’t expect to be too successful under normal circumstances. So plan in to give support to these tones with other instruments (most likely Trombones).

#orchestration

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02/26/15: Usually a big part of recording sessions with real musicians is problem solving. Even if everything is prepared properly, there will always be the occasional problem popping up that you didn’t expect. This doesn’t just involve technical problems, software having bugs or system going weird but also purely musical things. Some things might be trickier for the musicians to play than you expected, a musician might have a bad day, the oboe player having a bad reed, a part for a musician missing etc. or the occasional missing accidental in the score sheet might just slow down things. In a professional environment, everybody will try his/her best to fix these issues as quickly as possible and mostly it works out to solve things within a matter of a few seconds or minutes, but sometimes there are things that take longer than that. In these cases, it is usually best to move on to the next cue and fix the issues in a break. However that should always remain a last resort solution. Revisiting cues later on is simply identical to doing them fresh, so anything that has been already in the short term memory of your players will need to be “practiced” again as it will be lost pretty quickly again. The essence here is to always be prepared for problems when you go to a session. Be prepared to be able to produce a new part for a player quickly, transpose something, change a passage in the score sheet. Especially in less professional environments, you need to be prepared for all eventualities, so don’t see a session just as ” a few hours where you sit in the booth and say “I like that” or “I don’t like that, do it again””.

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02/20/15: As soon as you orchestrate melodic lines or even just melodic fragments, make sure to have variation in the articulations rather than going all the way through with one articulation. Many people coming from the sample world fall into the trap of conveniently staying in one articulation as it is way easier to just program a melodic line with staccato notes only instead of switching back and forth between different articulations, resulting in a very static musical impression. A mix between long, short, accented etc. notes always feels way more musical and interesting than endless rows of notes in the same articulation. The easiest way is actually to sing through a melodic phrase and try out different articulation alternatives to find which one feels most interesting and musical. Of course, there always might be situations where you want a certain static feeling or just want to create a specific flow that asks for a static articulation all the way through, but never stay in one articulation just because you’re too lazy to switch.

#orchestration

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02/19/15: One of the most important things when scoring films is – of course – hitting the action at the right time. Even being 2 frames off might be noticeable. Depending whether you want an accent to be surprising or “expectable” you would put them rather at an off beat or downbeat position of your music but usually, hardly any sync point will be automatically dead on where you want it. Basically, there are 4 ways to help: 1) (which is very unlikely) ask the director to edit out (or in) a few frames so it fits, I would only go in the rarest cases for actually asking and when you see no other way to make it fit, 2) change the tempo of the overall passage which might get you in worst case one sync point right and 3 others that were right before wrong leading to 3) slightly adjusting the speed between sync points – which might work when the sync points are just slightly off but may be desastrous when you’re in a ongoing steady action passage and suddenly it feels like it’s starting to drag and the orchestra slightly gets out of sync for a moment etc. Otherwise, if you do it cleverly it might actually be helpful regarding dramaturgy. Slightly speeding up in the action passage mentioned before might add an extra kick. 4) Incorporate odd bars. As long as they feel musically logical, this is a very elegant way to work with that, however make sure to not permanently incorporate them right before the sync point you want to hit but also a few bars before etc. The important thing is, to write them well enough so they don’t feel like stumbling but like a clever rhythmic variation.

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02/17/15: Whenever you score a sequence that includes hit-points that need to sync up with the video, many inexperienced film composers go the way of superimposing orchestral effects on top of the music in order to accent the hit points they need to hit resulting in random cymbal crashes or brass stabs somewhere in a bar, at worst not even with a rhythmic relation to what is going on in the music. Usually this feels really awkward in the movie later on and like bad sound design lacking any relation to the actual music. So the essence should always be to make any musical hitpoint logical in the grid of music. They should always feel like part of the music (even if it is surprising). Of course this is way trickier to achieve than just putting something on top of the music but will feel way more musical and pleasing in the final product.

#filmscoring

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02/16/15: There are quite a few people and companies who try to make money by the fact that the market for media composers is extremely crowded and everybody is looking for jobs. There are a few platforms online who offer you access to “job offers” if you pay a certain amount of money or join the site for a membership fee etc. Apart from this, the job offers you see there are often widely spread on several such sites (causing endless people to apply for it) and way lower profile than they might sound. Additionally, I have never heard from any composer who got a serious job that was really beneficial for his/her career over such a platform. I’ve heard from people getting low profile, badly paid work over such a site though that hardly compensated for the money they spent for the site. So be really careful with such sites and rather trust your gut feeling. Usually, as with everything in this business: if something sounds too good to be true, it usually isn’t.

#general

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02/13/15: Woodwinds usually sound more brillant and characteristic when they’re playing solistically instead of doubling the same instruments in unison. For example 3 flutes playing a line in unison in generally sound thicker and slightly louder than a solo flute but lose their brillance and airyness of the sound. This applies to practically every woodwind instrument when being doubled by the same instrument. So as soon as a woodwind line is exposed, you should prefer going for one instrument instead of a2 or a3. This doesn’t apply of course when they’re simply doubling (e.g. flutes doubling first violins) where it is usually appropriate to double the line a2 or a3. Note that brass instruments behave differently. When you double the same instruments, you will get a broader more substantial and majestic sound.

#orchestration

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02/12/15: In recording session situations, it is crucial to keep an overview over which parts of a cue are already covered in a good take and which parts still need another take or a few bars to patch them later in the editing. A very easy and effective way of keeping track of that is to use differently colored markers  for each take to make notes in the score sheet. During a take, circle in (in the respective color) which notes weren’t quite to your satisfaction or any other problems in that take. It might also help to highlight passages that you think were particularly good in a take. If you remember or write down which color you used for which take, just by skipping through the score sheet later on, you know if everything is covered in a take. Also, if you edit things yourself, these color marked score sheets will come in handy to not needing to listen through everything in detail several times to find the best take but rather use your notes as a guide.

#technical

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02/11/15: Deceptive cadences can help tremendously to keep a repeating chord progression interesting and surprise the audience. The historically most often used deceptive cadence is a V-vi (instead of going to the expected I) which isn’t that surprising today anymore. The essence here is that it can be a quite spectacular when reaching the V of a chord sequence to not go the expected path of resolving it to the I everybody expects but rather go to a more unexpected chord. However there is always a danger of involuntarily modulating over that which makes it tricky or strange sounding to find your way back to the tonic eventually, so if you don’t plan on modulating on such you need to be careful which “surprise chord” you use.

#composition

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02/10/15: Hitting very important moments in a scene with silence might work way better than hitting them with music. Especially on scenes or sequences that work very strongly towards a distinctive climax, it works very well to finish the musical buildup right before the climax and let the climax happen in complete silence. This works very well with important sentences that are delivered in dialogues as well as comedic moments, too. The contrast of music up to this moment and the sudden silence highlights that moment in such situation more than any musical hitpoint could do.

#filmscoring

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02/09/15: 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 be a very strong creative spark.

#general

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02/06/15: While there are tons of things to take care of when writing for harp (which would be worth several pages) and considering that many orchestration books don’t cover that topic in proper detail, one of the rarely mentioned important things about harp is that the hands of the harp player are on different sides of the strings which makes it quite easy to play figures with interlocking hands without getting into the way of each other (one thing that is extremely tricky if not impossible on the piano).

#orchestration

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02/03/15: While it is quite common to see and hear it that way also in big productions and sometimes there is no way around it, simply doubling with the film music what is already transported visually should not be the default way of scoring a scene. Many great film scores manage to add another layer of information to the images, hence not just being an addition to the film but an integral part of the storytelling. Of course the movie or scene has to support such an approach which is also very depending on the director who needs to consciously leave this space for the music to take over this role, but even in situations that seem pretty straight forward in regards of the scoring, there might be a chance to add information by the music that is not there yet by for instance hinting a theme of a character that is not actually on screen but who is relevant to that scene. So when you score a scene, first try to find whether you can add something to it that is not there already and only if the pure commenting of the scene seems to be the only way to score that scene, go for this alternative.

#filmscoring

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02/02/15: One of the most frequent questions asked by composers who just started out is “How much money should I ask for on this job?”. Of course, you don’t want to seem greedy with only a few credits in your portfolio but also don’t want to sell yourself below value. The most important thing is to ask for money at all. Even if the budget is super low and your client practically cannot pay you, even a small amount is better than nothing because it instantly makes it a standard to pay you in case you ever work with this client again. You don’t want to be in the position of “But last time you did it for free, why do you want money this time?” Regarding what to ask for in general, it is really depending on the project. Try to get as much information as you can about the project to estimate how much money is involved in it in general. Is it just a bunch of film students making their first film or is there possibly a big company behind it that just wants it as cheap as possible. I personally approach many projects from the perspective of how much money I think is suitable to earn per hour of work. On smaller projects, I even go for an hourly rate on the invoice for the client, on larger projects I calculate a rough number of hours I will be needing and ask for a fixed number (which feels more personal and is better to calculate with for your client). There are of course projects where you need to adjust your hourly rate (especially the ones that will generate a huge income for relatively little work for everybody (e.g. commercials)) but in general, breaking it down to an hourly rate will give you a good figure to start with. Of course always calculate a little higher to leave room for negotiations. Another positive aspect is that you have a strong argument right away if your client feels this is too much, saying something like “Yeah, but I’m definitely gonna work x hours on that, at this rate this will give me an hourly rate of y, I think that is fair.”

#general

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01/30/15: On longer cues that incorporate the brass only briefly and only on some sections of the cue, it is easier for the players if you help them with a “written out warm up” rather than throwing them into cold water by requesting a big and bold fortissimo entrance, maybe even quite high, out of the blue. In general these entrances will be better and containing less splits etc. if you write a few subtle brass bars before that entrance so the players have a few moments to get warm and prepare for their big entrance. This usually doesn’t apply for very short cues, however, especially when brass players had a long time without playing in a piece, the results will be more convincing with this method.

#orchestration

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01/29/15: The difference of hearing your music in your own studio and in a cinema can be quite tremendous, sometimes even shocking, as just the size of the room but also the sound system there might sound very different than what you’re used to. To avoid such surprises, it might be a good idea to at least be present for a day or two in the final mix (which is usually done in mixing cinemas on bigger productions) where you can hear how your music works in the big room and maybe take some influence still in case it sounds too different from what you are expecting. Also, be aware that different cinemas will sound different. Even though there is a standard and THX, even smaller and less “high end” cinemas will sound very different, due to strange settings in the system etc. So be prepared for that.

#technical

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01/28/15: Musical contrasts can be a great device to write exciting music. Music that puts contrasts next to each other like soft/loud, low/high, solo/tutti, complex/simple etc. can feel very exciting and lively. However, there are two things to keep in mind: First of all, like every “special effect”, the more often you do it the less impact it will have. A lot of contemporary classical music uses extreme contrasts quite often resulting in an overload and detachment by the listener. So in general, try to not overdo these contrasts, as with every musical device theres a tasteful amount of how often to use it. The second thing to consider is to be confident about the contrasts that you’re writing. Either go for contrast or go for transition but avoid having anything “half baked” that doesn’t really feel as if it knows what it is. Make conscious decisions where it should go and score it accordingly. Also note that contrasts on several levels (e.g. going from a loud high tutti to a low soft solistic sound) can increase the dramatic impact.

#composition

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01/27/15: Many books on film scoring mention to avoid having any music over reel changes. Not too long ago when most film projection was done analog (meaning to actually have big reels of film being put into projectors), films were broken down into several reels. Usually a reel could hold around 15-20 minutes of film. After this time had passed a second projector needed to take over exactly at the moment when the first reel was done to project the next reel and so on. Between these reel changes, it was quite common for the audio track to have occasional pops, clicks, crackles etc so any music cue that would overlap would have noticeable audio glitches. Reel changes were planned quite early on in the production of a film so it was very often taken care to have a reel change on a long black cut with practically no sound to avoid any glitches. With digital projection taking over, most cinemas are equipped with such a projector nowadays being able to show a movie as one constant stream. So there are no reel changes anymore, hence no more limitation regarding the overlaping of audio/music. Still, many movies are broken down into smaller portions in the working process (easier handling etc.). This is usually done by Acts now, so following the story line. So the bottom line is: in most cases you don’t need to worry about any such things anymore today. Only if there is a chance that the movie you’re working on will be projected analog, you might take this into consideration again.

#filmscoring

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01/26/15:  It happens from time to time that you’re asked to ghost write for someone else, which means that you transfer your authorship to someone else and will not be credited for your work. While this practice officially is illegal in most European countries (where it is legally not possible to transfer authorship) it happens more commonly in the US. But also in Europe you often see this practice happening. Being asked to ghost write for someone is a tricky situation. Of course you might get decent money for it working on a big project but that’s about what you get from such projects. You won’t be able to use it as a reference, therefore nobody will ever know you did this job and unless your client wants to hire you for another (probably ghost) writing, you will not gain any benefit for your future out of it. Among many composers there is an understanding about not hiring anybody to ghost write as this is considered to be a bad and unethical business practice but still it happens even at the top of the game. When being asked to ghost write, you should know that it will do nothing for your career except getting you more ghost writing jobs. So only when you really need the money, you should consider working on such a job. In most cases the cons outweigh the pros by far.

#general

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01/23/15: For a learning orchestrator, score sheet studies on classical works might become quite confusing considering the notation. Quite often, the performances in recordings of certain articulations in the score sheet are very different from what you might expect and you might end up being completely confused about what a certain articulation means. Additionally, orchestration books might even make it worse (for instance Adler claiming that in order to get strings to do a “martelé” using a regular accent (>), a hat accent (^) or a wedge is practically the same). There are actually two reasons for all that mess. One being actually different understandings of articulations in music history, sometimes even down to a specific preference of a composer in a specific decade, where composers used articulations in a different way than we would do today. The other one which might lead to discrepancy between how it’s written and played is simple performance traditions. Works that have been recorded and played many times have a certain common way to perform them which has been established over generations of conductors, recordings and concerts that simply divert from what was originally written, sometimes because the composer originally requested it or it simply worked better. So don’t get too confused by these things and trust your gut feeling and experience when articulating or phrasing a score sheet.

#orchestration

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01/22/15: Always ask for working copies of the movie that you score that contain a visible time code in the video. So many things can go wrong regarding the sync of music and movie (e.g. wrong framerates, weird video codec glitches etc.) that you should not leave any chances for them to happen unnoticed. Once your scoring software timecode and the timecode printed on the video are in sync (also still at the end of the video) chances are good that actually everything is running at the correct speed and correct frame rate and you can start composing.

#technical

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01/21/15: One flaw of every theory book (which is however not resolvable) is that fact that there is hardly any qualitative weighing of theoretical strategies, meaning that these books only list what is theoretically possible but not whether it really is musically tasteful. Of course what is tasteful is depending on each individual, musical style, location and period (which is of course the reason why books can’t include that) but still developing a stylistic feeling and taste is probably one of the most important things for every composer, especially film composer. You need to know which things are currently “in style” when being asked for it or you will simply not get the next job. One example that is probably one of the most clear ones is doubling a melody for a long time a third or sixth above (or below) basically ending up with two melodies playing parallel a third or sixth apart. While this is theoretically perfectly fine, and even desirable (as it infuses more harmonic context into a melody), in most musical styles it is considered really unbearably cheesy and something you really don’t want to do, while there are also a few styles which work a lot with it.

#composition

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01/20/15: Thematic references need to be quite on the nose in movies. As the attention of the audience is only partially focussed on the music, thematic references like “There in this scene where I brought in the main theme but in minor, played reverse on the basses with new chords” might be musically cool but nobody will get it and therefore nobody will get the dramatic reference. Such musical “gimmicks” should only be done when the thematic reference is not necessary to understand the dramaturgy. A great example for this is the end of Star Wars Episode 1 where John Williams uses the Emperors Theme in a major, fanfaric version. Practically nobody will get this reference when seeing the movie for the first time but it is not absolutely necessary to get it to understand the movie. However people who get the reference will understand the hint that the victory that is shown there actually is a victory for the emperor which will be revealed in the next episodes.

#filmscoring

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01/19/15: One of the most frightening things in being self employed, especially at the beginning, is the mostly complete unpredictability about your stream of income. This is even more scary when being a composer where you’re depending on projects that might come or not come at completely unpredictable times. Starting out as a freelance composer trying to make a living from it probably scares everybody at the beginning, not knowing whether you will be able to pay your rent for the next month etc. The upside is that probably everybody needs to go through this. Of course it is easier at the beginning of one’s life. Building up a network and a stream of income while you’re studying and are probably (partially) supported financially by your parents makes things much easier than having a family, quitting a regular job and trying your shot at being a composer. For most people (including me) it helps or has helped to get some predictability in your income by doing a related side job like for example teaching where you always can count on a specific amount of money at the end of each month. Another thing that is important is to be as widely spread as possible with your clients. Don’t just rely on a few clients that bring you in big jobs but once they break away for whatever reason you will be having big troubles compensating for it. So even when your current project situation looks good, there might be a need to go for new contacts in order to have more security later on. Also, don’t think that just because you’re having a phase where you turn down projects because you can’t handle them all, it will stay like this forever. The golden rule here as usual of course is also: save as much money as you can for worse times. Unfortunately as with every self employed person, they might come sooner or later.

#general

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01/16/15: Circular breathing is a technique used by woodwind and brass players to create a theoretically endless stream of air being able to play theoretically forever. The technique works in the way that you fill your cheeks with air before breathing and quickly inhale while using that air to keep the stream that goes into the instrument flowing. While this allows theoretically to play forever it comes with a few things to consider. It is technically quite demanding and not all players can do it. Additionally for instance flutes who need to keep their mouth/lips/cheeks in a specific position in order to control the sound really struggle doing circular breathing. The most important thing however why this technique can not be used forever is that your players will sooner or later run out of oxygen. Most of the time the air that is inhaled and exhaled during playing and that passes through the instrument is not enough to meet the demand of breathing of the player’s bodies. So sooner or later your players need to get the chance to breathe normally. Keep that technique only as an option for special cases, not every day playing.

#orchestration

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01/15/15: Be realistic about what is achievable in a professional mix and what not. Especially on orchestra recordings where the whole orchestra has been recorded in the same room at the same time, there is no real possibility to heavily alter the mix. Usually every instrument is present more or less on every microphone so raising the level of one microphone might also raise the level of the instruments that are sitting nearby. No mixing engineer can turn a bad sounding orchestra in a bad sounding recording venue with bad orchestration into a first class hollywoodish sound. Apart from the levels that can only be adjusted in a very small range, also the room itself can not really be heavily altered. You can add reverb but on a small recording stage, the result will just sound like a small room with reverb and not like a big recording stage. A good mix will add a certain transparency and balance to the sound, will influence slightly the sound characteristics of the ensemble but will never have a huge difference compared to what you heard in the monitor mix. If you want more mixing freedom you need to record the ensemble in separate groups which however comes with downsides on the performance side.

#technical

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01/14/15: Final V-I cadences in important form sections (e.g. like the end of your main theme) can start to sound quite pedestrian and boring especially when they happen several times in the piece. Of course, the quality of a V-I cadence is one of the strongest structural element in music but due to it’s absolute predictability, it’s not particularly exciting to hear them every few seconds. Therefore it might be a good idea to break the expectation once in a while with a deceptive cadence that doesn’t (immediately) go back to the I. In classical music theory a deceptive cadence is going from V to vi and continuing from there. However you can also extend a V-I cadence by inserting chords in between and therefore prolonging the time until it goes back to the I. Some of the standard solutions are the following: V-bIImaj7-I (E.g. G(7)-Dbmaj7-C), V-IV/I-I (e.g. G-F/C-C), V-bVI-bVII(add9)-I (e.g. G-Ab-Bb(add9)-C) (all of the V could also be Dominant7 chords but nit necessarily) There are quite a few more. All have in common that they only work if the melody sustains on the root note after the V. If it goes somewhere else, you need to find other alternatives.

#composition

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01/13/15: There are usually several perspectives from which you could score a certain scene. Usually, you have the character’s perspective, the audience’s perspective and the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Often, there are even more perspectives and sometimes perspectives overlap but in general, you have a choice, which point of view to take. Picking the perspective is up to the situation and the development of the story and should be a concious decision by the composer. Obviously, when scoring movies that have a story twist, it is not the wisest choice to take the perspective of the omniscient narrator too often with the music.

#filmscoring

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01/12/15: Clients most of the time value more how easy it is to work with you than your musical expertise. It is one of the biggest nightmares for any producer/director etc. to work with a composer who isn’t able or willing to communicate properly, has a big ego etc. So as a composer you should make sure that you make the collaboration with you as smooth as possible (even if your client doesn’t act the same way). People will remember a good collaboration experience more than brillant musical results. And even more: people will remember bad collaboration experiences even stronger.

#general

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01/09/15: For practically every woodwind and brass instrument, there is the general rule that the closer to the limits of the range you get, the less controlled the sound will be. This means that either the intonation gets problematic (low horns often have that problem) or the dynamic possibilities get more limited (high trumpets can’t really go anything lower than mf in their highest register), or both. So in general, you should always have a good reason when you push any instrument towards its range limit. While of course trumpets at their top end give a fantastic and edgy sound, trying to use that register in a softer setting will most likely not end up well. Be aware of these things. Samples might trick you into believing that on all instruments, all notes are equally easy to play as on a keyboard and the range limit is only set by the fact that you’re running out of keys but this is not the fact. Writing notes close to the edges of the range of most orchestral instruments is a struggle for every player and in general these notes have certain shortcomings that you can compensate for in a sequencer but that are really tricky to control in a real orchestra situation.

#orchestration

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01/08/15: Real musicians don’t work like samples which brings advantages and disadvantages. Musicians are people with a musical understanding and a sense of context, you don’t need to explain to them the obvious things, neither in written form nor verbally. This includes translating your CC11 controller movements to hairpins on an expressive solo. Just because you are moving that controller heavily doesn’t mean that your solo oboe player needs to have that information written in. Telling him/her that it is “espressivo” will give enough information to play it like that. There are a few more things that you might consciously program into your samples which happen naturally with real musicians, for instance a slight decrescendo on the long note at the end of a phrase. These information written in or told them will either be redundant or simply feel to them as if you think they were stupid. On the other hand, real musicians don’t have endless stamina. If you’re planning on filling a 3 or 4 hour session with your brass playing through at ff, you need to rethink. Plan sessions in a way that especially the brass players get enough rest in between. Also, super complex off beat rhythms that are easily to program on a computer might become really problematic with real players. So whenever you’re making the leap from going from sample composing to real orchestra, be aware that there are a lot of differences.

#technical

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01/07/15: One thing many learning composers/orchestrators struggle with in orchestral music is to keep up a rhythmical momentum without relying on a drum kit or trailer music like ostinatos or trailer music like use of the percussion section (aka as a surrogate drum kit), which in all cases carry the rhythmical momentum on their own. It is important to keep an eye on the overall movement of the music and make sure that it doesn’t stall on several spots. For instance if your main melody mainly moves in 8th notes but at the end of its melodic phrase holds a whole note, you will lose all the rhythmical momentum that has been established beforehand in this one bar if you don’t counteract it with another voice/instrument that takes over the 8th note movement in a side line etc. In such cases, it helps to reduce all the voices down to their rhythmical activity and check whether the 8th note movement is kept alive by any voice at practically any moment you want the rhythmical momentum to push forward. But also be warned to give back and forth the rhythmical activity in small chunks between several voices and instruments in a too active way as this will create a very nervous effect and should only be used in special cases. And also as usual, trust your ear. Sometimes it works perfectly fine to give the music a rhythmical rest and pick that up again instead of keeping the rhythmical movement rolling.

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01/06/15: There is a very thin line between scoring something funny and scoring something silly. Inexperienced composers tend to overwrite funny scenes by composing silly music. Not every character who has a clumsy side needs to have a score that points its finger at that. Usually, the humor is more effective when the scoring remains quite subtle in such situations. This doesn’t only refer to mickey-mousing, where you musically highlight every “slapstick” moment, but also how you use obvious scoring clichees (trombone glissandos, vibraslap, lots of pizzicato etc.). This gets especially annoying if something isn’t that funny and you’re trying to make it funny with music.

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