Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jan 1, 2016 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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02/12/16: Many people coming from a band background who start to write for orchestra mistake it for a band replacement which is not that idiomatic for an orchestra. The orchestra is not the most ideal ensemble to play constant grooves etc. and also pattern-like writing (as with bands) usually tends to feel very flat in the orchestra. In general, when you’re coming from such a background, be aware that in the orchestra any instrument can theoretically take any function, so there’s no such thing as for instance an analogy to a rhythm guitar. The orchestration will become very boring if you orchestrate in a way that your high strings end up just playing “staccato chords” because you simply gave them the job you would normally give to a rhythm guitar. For orchestra, you need to throw many of the things you know from band arrangement over board.

#orchestration

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02/11/16: Overdubbing the same instruments to create a bigger and more epic sound only works to a certain extent. While it is possible to overdub a quite large string section to give it a little bit more substance and power against the brass/percussion, trying to create an ensemble sound from a solo string instrument by layering it several times will not work convincingly as the vibrations and resonance in an acoustic space behave very differently between the individual instruments than with digital addition. The bottom line is, that overdubs will never sound as big as if you had the same amount of instruments in real life. Still of course, in situations where there is not enough budget it might be a wise decision to try to get the sound a little bigger with overdubs (and/or adding samples).

#technical

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02/10/16: The most successful music on a commercial level is very often music that pleases listeners from several levels of musical literacy, which is a concept that is followed in most fields of “commercial art”. John Williams’ success probably bases a lot on the fact that he has probably written some of the most simple and catchy film themes that are practically not far away from child tunes (e.g. Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones) which please the musically uneducated audience by being easy for them to capture yet still he at the same time attracts musically educated people and academics by incorporating interesting harmonic shifts, melodic sidelines and complex orchestration. So when writing music, in my opinion one of the most effective strategies to write compelling music is to keep it simple from it’s basic structure, mainly the core melodic ideas and add sophistication in the execution of these ideas. The approach followed by some composers of starting off with complex material is of course valid as well, but it limits the audience who will be attracted by that music. Of course, the decision of whether you want to appeal to as many people as possible or whether you want to position yourself more in a niche is completely up to you but keep in mind that especially writing for the media means to reach the broadest audience possible.

#composition

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02/09/16: When watching scenes over and over again to write music for them, there is always a big danger of wanting to overscore them as the emotional impact of the scene as well as the general feeling of the context wear off pretty dramatically after seeing it that often. Try to be conscious about the fact that the scene might need less than you feel it needs and try to remember your initial instincts. When totally in doubt ask somebody with a bit of understanding of film music to give a bit of feedback on whether you’re overscoring already.

#filmscoring

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02/08/16: On some projects, for example jingles, audio brandings, commercial scores etc. it might be a good idea to limit the rounds of included revisions in the agreement or otherwise your money to work ratio might shrink to really small numbers. A sensible agreement would normally be something like two rounds of revisions included and any further round will cost extra. This might save you a lot of headache especially in these “just small amount of music” projects but it might also be a good thing to protect yourself from getting stuck in a revision loop on larger projects.

#general

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02/05/16: Snap pizzicato and fingernail pizzicato on string instruments are quite regularly described as being the same thing (for example in Adler), however they are not. Both techniques cause a percussive pizzicato sound but the cause for that is different. With the snap pizzicato, the string is being held between two fingers and pulled away from the fingerboard so that it snaps back on the fingerboard when released. On fingernail pizzicato, the strings are plucked with the fingernail rather than the pad of the finger as on normal pizzicato. The reason for the mix-up might be that some snap pizzicatos are not executable, mainly the ones on high strings and high registers. The tension of the strings there is so high that you can not make it snap back on the fingerboard without damaging the instrument so that players automatically fall back on fingernail pizzicato. The sound difference between both pizzicatos is however noticeable. Especially on instruments and in registers where both are executeable (e.g. low cellos and basses), the snap pizzicato has a more violent and percussive sound than the fingernail pizz.

#orchestration

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02/04/16: Always mix cues roughly at the volume level that they will later have in the movie. In soft cues, our ears need more bass in order to have a balanced listening impression, so when you mix these cues too loud they might sound rather unbalanced and lacking bass later in the movie when they are very soft in the background.

#technical

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02/03/16: Do not underestimate the power of voice leading and invest sufficient time in trying to get that right. Sometimes, a chord progression just works because of good voice leading and doesn’t at all with bad voice leading. It really pays off investing time into finding inner lines that move along in steps and have an inside dramaturgy. Even if you don’t neccessarily hear these inner lines later in the final recording, it still adds to the overall musical impression of your piece.

#composition

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02/02/16: While from a purely musical standpoint, static drones are quite unattractive, as a scoring device they can have a very strong impact. Scoring a dialogue or monologue with a low drone will automatically raise the attention of the audience and give it that “something important is being said”. In movies, drones work over quite a long time without the need to change. Some scenes might even just need exactly that one drone while anything else might feel overscored. So while this device has been extensively used and doesn’t really show off your composing chops, in some circumstances, it might be the best choice to score a scene.

#filmscoring

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02/01/16: For clients, one of the most important considerations to hire a composer is (sometimes maybe even before musical quality) how easy he/she is to work with. The way how you handle communication, how you deal with feedback and customer requests and how you react on your customer’s considerations are some of the most essential things that are put into consideration when hiring a composer. Even the word of mouth recommendation between your customers very often works the way: “Hey, if you need a composer, ask this guy, he’s really great to work with.” So besides working on your craft, also work on your skills in these regards. You are offering a service and that also includes customer care.

#general

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01/29/16: When orchestrating a piece or rather a section of a piece, it is quite effective to work your way from the loudest to the softest instruments. When heavy brass/perc are involved, orchestrate them first in order to make sure that the acoustically most prominent “backbone” of the passage sits right and creates the desired effect. From there on work your way to the strings and then woodwinds. Especially when you rely on playback rather than imagination this might help you to not accidentally put important lines into weak instruments and cover them up with loud instruments afterwards.

#orchestration

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01/28/16: Know at least basic things about file formats and compressed/uncompressed files. It always leaves a quite unprofessional impression when you send over huge uncompressed audio files to your client to get a feedback or deliver massively compressed mp3 files as a final product. This also applies for video formats. Some video formats like wmv are practically not used (due to platform problems between MAC/PC) in the professional world and sending anything in that format will also feel a little unprofessional to your customer. So get a rough understanding about video containers, codecs etc. There are some good reads on the internet about that.

#technical

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01/27/16: In the media music world, being very aware of musical style is massively essential. You need to be able to deliver “something that sounds like Elfman” or “something that sounds very modern” or “something that brings back good old memories” etc. Such things are constantly being asked for and you need to know quickly and precisely how to create that style. So apart from working on your craft and absorb everything musical, you should also start to sort it in your memory into boxes. Spend some time figuring out what makes the sound of Elfman etc., try analyzing how golden age music works, figure out what chord progressions “modern scores” have. It is not just about knowing what musical solutions are possible in general, but what musical solutions to gravitate for in certain circumstances. Train your ear and your stylistic sense by listening to and analyzing a lot of different music. There is hardly a worse situation when you need to deliver something very quickly and have no idea how to pull it off.

#composition

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01/26/16: Always be aware that when scoring a movie or actually any audio visual content, the attention of your audience lies mainly on the visuals and only a small fraction on the music. With this in mind, subtlety with thematic/motivic references is very often not the best solution. If you’re trying to hint a character’s presence with a theme, it will not really work to do that in a very subtle, reharmonized, re-rhythmizised etc. version but you rather need to state it very prominently, especially when it has an important role for the storytelling and you need to make sure that everybody in the audience gets it. Even with the great masters of film scoring, most of the time, thematic references in scores are done very clearly. Even though you might have the ability and desire to reference a theme with musically more advanced techniques, in such situations it is usually the better idea to hit the audience on the nose.

#filmscoring

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01/25/16: Everybody has to do the occasional gig that just pays the bills, even if you don’t like it at all. The problem is when it becomes a permanent situation. Especially in creative jobs, doing only things that you don’t enjoy and you do just to pay the bills will eventually lead to massive frustration. And while money is of course important, it is not all about it. Doing a badly paid but really enjoyable project from time to time can be very benefitial for your creative health and is something that many composers (even high profile ones) do. The creative joy you get from doing music for a project that you thoroughly enjoy is way greater and will give you way more motivation for the less enjoyable projects than any money could buy.

#general

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01/22/16: On string instruments, doing large skips from low to high notes very often involve to cross one or even two strings (e.g. playing on a violin a low passage on the low G string and moving from there to a high passage on the high E string). These skips can not be done seamlessly and instantly but always will have a little gap as the bow needs to be consciously lifted and carried over two strings. Even though on first sight it might seem quite rare for these huge skips to happen, they actually might occur way more often than you might think. Most often they are overlooked between sections on texture changes. For instance, you’re playing a 16th note string ostinato in one of the sections and instantly switch to playing the theme in a high register without any gap in between. What is most likely to happen in the “real world” is that your players will drop the last 16th note from the ostinato in order to have time to move the bow to the other string and to hit the downbeat with decent timing on the melody. So as a consequence, it is always better to plan in these movements. A more elegant way to solve that problem would be to either write them in a little rest before the theme entrance or build them a “bridge” to the high register by doing for example an arpeggion on the last few 16th notes that moves them gradually upwards to the new high register.

#orchestration

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01/21/16: When you’re working on a project where there’s a chance that you might need to revisit it for whatever reason in the future (e.g. library tracks that need to be adjusted according to the wishes of the client), always make sure to bounce all sections to individual audio tracks before you leave that project. There’s a good chance that due to software and sample library updates that project might in the worst case not open up anymore but more commonly sound differently than it used to when you worked on it. Re-adjusting everything to get back to the original sound might become a nightmare. If you’re lucky, everything will work and sound as it originally did but chances are quite high it doesn’t. In these case, the bounced audio tracks might not just come in handy but be  a huge time saver.

#technical

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01/20/16: When listening to a melody, our ear doesn’t just follow the structure on a note-by-note basis but also follows longer developments in the melodies. One thing that our ears pays special attention to is the development of the top notes of a melody. If your melody in general (as most melodies) have a wavy conture, the ear will follow the peaks of the waves and set them into relation with each other. When analyzing musically attractive melodies, you will very often find an own melodic quality in these peak notes. If you strip the melodies down to just these notes you will very often find an ascending motion, an arc or a melodic idea that feels musically attractive while melodies that keep going back to the same peak note over and over again (in spite of all other melodic qualities) will always feel static and as if they have a weak development. So when writing melodies, try to consciously keep an eye on the development of the top notes.

#composition

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01/19/16: The timing of sync points (moments where the music accents the action on screen) might vary and not always will it be the best thing to place them exactly on the action. Always look out for the hit points that need a moment until the audience has realized the consequences of that hit point. If the main role confesses to her husband “I’m pregnant.” and it has a strong influence on the path the story goes, you will most likely not accent that right away but give it a moment to sink in so the music reacts according to the audience’s reaction. How long this will be always needs to be determined individually and trusting your feeling might be the wisest thing to do there. The most important thing is to not simply go for placing all the accents exactly.

#filmscoring

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01/18/16: Criticism on one’s own work is always hard to swallow, especially due to art being very often something highly subjective with people just not liking it without plausible reason. The most important thing, no matter who’s criticising, is to react professionally. Even though you disagree on possible arguments, never react like a diva or insulting. Always think about who’s criticising, whether he/she has some reasons for why not liking your work (if it’s just a “I don’t like it”, there’s nothing you can really do about it) and whether you might agree on that. Of course, when being young and just starting out, you might react even more sensitively on any criticism, but this is also a path for ending up in total chaos. The best way is always to be your own biggest critic, trust your instincts but also question whether you could have improved on your work. If you are confident and happy about what you’ve done, you shouldn’t let yourself bring down by somebody who says “I don’t like it”. However, you will get a lot of criticism in your career, mainly from your clients, so learn to handle that professionally as soon as possible.

#general

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01/15/16: It very often creates a quite hard contrast when you introduce new instrumental textures right on downbeats or the beginning of a section. Unless you deliberately want to create that contrast, it is usually a more fluent and more pleasing musical result to introduce with a smooth transition. For example if you want to switch from a string section passage to a woodwind section passage, don’t switch them with a cold contrast “on a barline” but rather introduce the woodwind sound with a few pickup notes in the bar before or have a small crescendo chord in the woodwinds before the new section starts. That applies for radical textural changes like in the example mentioned but also helps to make small textural changes (e.g. introduction of an instrumental solo) more fluent and musical (unless you want a harsh contrast of course).

#orchestration

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01/14/16: Mixing and mastering has a lot of placebo effect potential and considering all the esotheric advices and approaches that some people advocate for on the internet regarding the improvement of their mixes, it is also a field to get incredibly lost in. Try to remain objective when you’re mixing/mastering. It is great to experiment with a few things to see whether they have an objective influence on the music but if you just “feel” that there’s something different, it is most likely a placebo effect. If you are unsure, try to get a second opinion from someone with trained ears. But working in the media world with the financial and time constraints, focus on getting the job done and applying the things that obviously have an effect.

#technical

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01/13/16: Parallel movement of many voices in general sounds quite unattractive. Try to avoid for example to move all string voices into the same direction on a chord change which can happen quite quickly especially when you’re recording several voices at once by playing them in on a piano. In general, the ideal situation would be to have an even spread of voices that move down, up and sustain. As this ideal situation is not always possible in the situation described above you should try to have at least one voice move in the opposite direction to compensate for the motion of the other voices. As a side note: there are some arrangement techniques (e.g. big band block voicings) where it is part of the style to have a lot of parallel movement and some composers define their style by also writing a lot of parallel moving structures, but trying to avoid that is in general a good starting point for a learning composer/orchestrator.

#composition

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01/12/16: One of the biggest arguments for hiring a composer instead of using library music for a project is a general musical concept. Choosing library music will always feel like a patched together score due to different musical styles, thematic ideas etc. Use that advantage as strongly as possible when being hired for a project by giving the music a strong uniform language. Most important in this regard is always to not just score the movie scene by scene but always keep your musical language uniform. Especially on scenes that stand out from the rest of the movie and may imply a very clichéd scoring approach (e.g. kissing scenes, scenes where people sneak through houses etc.) you should take special care to mold them into the rest of your score. In the end the score and the film will feel more uniform and leave a stronger impact than a score without a strong unifying concept.

#filmscoring

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01/11/16: Many composers who just start out in the field are often unsure about how much money to ask for a job before they are hired fearing that if they ask for too much they will lose the job. Also, the insecurity often comes from simply not knowing what “one normally asks for this kind of work”. When I do a calculation for my fee, I usually break it down internally to hourly rates. Trying to estimate how many hours of work I might need for a certain job multiplied by a decent hourly rate might give me a rough estimate about where I should be heading with  the fee I’m asking for. This technique has proven to be quite effective to figure out how much money to ask for. When you estimate an hourly rate, however don’t take regular 9 to 5 jobs and their hourly rate as baseline. Usually, rates should be considerably higher as you also cannot simply write music and be creative 8 hours a day but also have a lot of unpaid things to do around that (phone calls, negotiations, meetings etc.), as well as costs for your gear etc.

#general

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01/08/16: Using mutes on string instruments has some important things to consider and remember. Mutes as seen on this picture have no influence on the vibration of the strings but simply alter the way how the vibration of the strings is transmitted over the bridge (the wood “blade” where the mute sits on) into the body. Therefore, string mutes have only a very small influence on the volume of the instruments. The essential effect of a mute is to give the instruments a more covered, less bright sound. There are a lot of different types of mutes (metal, rubber, wood etc.) though you should leave it to the musician to pick his/her favourite mute. Important to know is that when you need to rush to put the mute on or off, it will be quite noisy, so it is always a better to leave enough time to change to or from mutes to do this silently. The sound of string mutes is constantly being used in emotional warm string pieces in scores or similar passages for example this theme from CAST AWAY, but also the very agressive main theme from PSYCHO uses the whole string sections under mutes for sound texture reasons. Unfortunately, most sampled muted strings don’t transport the warmth and texture that real muted strings can create so they’re often underused in sampled music.

#orchestration

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01/07/16: Learn and understand the basic technical principles and terms of filmmaking. While it is nothing that you might need directly for your own work, it helps tremendously to communicate with people involved in the film project that you’re working on (most importantly the director of course) and even more importantly understand work processes and also get a feeling of how complex certain processes are during the filmmaking.  It might be very embarassing if your director talks to you using technical terminology from film and you have to constantly ask what it is. In general, it leaves a better impression when you are informed about the things that you’re working on. Also, developing a more analytical view on the project that you’re working for might also help you to consciously see things that you wouldn’t have noticed normally and highlight them a little more with the music etc. One of the standard overview works of film theory is HOW TO READ A FILM by James Monaco which has also been published in several languages, but there are also a lot of other books on that topic as well.

#technical

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01/06/16: It is very convenient and easy to copy-paste complete sections of a piece and have them repeat exactly but most of the time, this feels very redundant. There are a lot of pieces in classical music where parts are being repeated exactly due to “formal balance” reasons but in general, it feels more musical to give repetitions some new musical information. Three of the most common things that could be added when you repeat a part (for example restate a theme) is to introduce a secondary melody line that goes well with the primary theme, change the orchestration and to reharmonize the passage (or combinations). These things can be observed in practically every John Williams Main Theme. If you listen for example to the Star Wars Main Theme, there is not a single identical repetition of the main theme fanfare in that cue. Even though it takes more work to work like this, it keeps the piece way more interesting than just repeating the very same thing exactly as it is.

#composition

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01/05/16: Spend a considerable amount of time finding the right tempo for a scene/sequence. Very often, this step is rushed and a more or less random tempo is picked just to get started. But realizing that the tempo to a scene is wrong after you already scored it is probably one of the worst things that can happen, as adjusting the tempo will move all your sync points and you practically will need to score the whole thing again. So watch the sequence several times, try clicking different tempos to it, try playing several musical rhythmical models in your head to make really sure that you got it right. A wrong music tempo can make a scene feel very awkward and draggy.

#filmscoring

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01/04/16: Many creative people need to “disappear” communication wise in order to work concentrated. Unplugging phones, turning off mobiles and being offline might be really helpful to work without interruption and losing the “red thread” but unfortunately, in the media world, it is nothing that you should really do. Most importantly because there might be last minute changes on the cue/project that you are working on which might force you to completely rethink or scrap the cue that you are working on. Secondly, and also very important: customers get very very nervous when they can not reach the people who are working for them. If you disappear from the radar comunication wise, it will very likely leave a negative feeling with your customer and even if you deliver everything on time in good quality, you don’t want your client to have a feeling of discomfort when working with you. So the bottom line is, to at least stay connected on one channel while you are working and learn to deal with interruptions during your work.

#general

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

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