Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jul 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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07/26/16: Sometimes, when you get an edit of a movie to work on it might be highly incomplete, with lots of placeholders, storyboard cut-ins etc. so it might be tricky to actually understand the story or important details. Also, sometimes, the storyline will just be too complicated or maybe even badly written so that it is extremely tricky to follow what is going on. However, of course as the composer you should understand it, you should know the motivation behind all characters etc. so you can translate it properly to music. If you don’t understand something, don’t be too shy to ask! It is not a display of your stupidity or being scared of critzising your employer’s work but actually many filmmakers are very thankful for fresh input regarding the understandability of their storytelling so they might be able to fix certain things before the release. If you are not sure about a certain direction the story takes, just let them explain it to you. Especially on tricky plots with many twists, you might be able to help clarifying things for the audience with the music, so it is particularly important there that you have a clear overview over the story.

#filmscoring

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07/25/16: On some projects the expected workload is extremely hard to predict beforehand which makes it even trickier when you need to schedule it in or to give a quote on your costs. If you can not come up with a flat fee, it might be better to do an estimate based on variable factors, for instance per work hour, per minute of finished music, per written score page etc. By that you give your client a rough orientation about the expected costs and you make sure to not work more for less money. Working in unpredictable projects in your schedule is way trickier and is one of the most common reasons for working late hours. Apart from developing a gut feeling of how much work it will be there’s practically not much you can do.

#general

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07/22/16: Hardly any musician in an orchestra will play a long note with a static dynamic as samples do. Even if you don’t write in any dynamics or hairpins, the musicians will shape sustaining notes dynamically on their own. It’s usually very obvious  on the end of phrases where the final long note always gets a decrescendo. But also depending on the context long sustaining notes within a phrase will get more or less dynamic shaping without indicating it which is big part of why real recordings sound so much more organic and lively than sample productions. So there are several things you should take care of on long notes in general. Firstly, support the natural dynamic shaping. Sustaining long notes becomes boring quickly so actually writing in a dynamic shaping helps making these notes more interesting. Very popular are for example on long brass notes to hit them loud, drop instantly to piano and crescendo back up to forte. So don’t be shy to use hairpins in your music also within phrases (again, as usual there is also a chance of overdoing this, so keep it reasonable). The other thing is to transfer this knowledge to your midi productions, don’t just let sustaining notes sit there but make sure to give them a natural and interesting dynamic shape. So the modwheel or C11 should become a standard tool in your mockup.

#orchestration

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07/21/16: Whenever you record an instrument or a section separate from the rest of the orchestra/line-up, never just record them to click and nothing else. Musicians hate playing something without hearing or knowing the context that they’re in which makes it also extremely difficult for them to phrase things properly but even more intonate properly. Whenever possible give them as many options as you can on their headphones together with he click to listen to before or while they’re playing. Sometimes they might want just a specific section or instrument for orientation so the more different things you have available, the better. From a mixing standpoint, recording an orchestra or a section separate makes a lot of sense, from the musician’s and interpretation standpoint, it is really uncomfortable and you will get a better interpretation with all playing together. I personally try to record as much as possible with a tutti and only split into stems on very specific projects where maximum flexibility is needed or I simply need a different sound.

#technical

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07/20/16: Working on a composition for hours alters the way you perceive your own piece and is something to be very conscious about. Many composers tend to overwrite because having listened so many times to the same passage or piece will naturally leave you quite bored so the natural reaction would be to throw something in to make it interesting again for you. The problem is that with this strategy you’re simply overwhelming a listener who listens to it for the first time, who doesn’t know the thematic idea yet.  So try to always imagine the focus of a first listener and try to get some distance from your own piece to find out whether it really needs something there to keep it interesting or if that is just you being longing for more because of fatigue.

#composition

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07/19/16: Hit points in the music should never feel like you added an element at random on top of a music bed just to hit an action. Great film music manages to give hit points a musical plausability. If you listen to that music alone, you definitely get that there is obviously something happening at a certain moment but it feels musical. Very often, inexperienced film composers simply try to accent hit points without really writing the music accordingly but just placing a snare drum hit, a horn rip or whatever at the point in the music. This might still work in the movie but will feel very random when listening to the music alone.

#filmscoring

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07/18/16: Never trust any spectacular business promises by someone in the business who you don’t know. Unfortunately there are a lot of black sheep in the media world trying to talk especially inexperienced people into working on something under circumstances they didn’t really agree to. Be especially warned by anything project where you should work for free on something beforehand but when “it all gets cleared it will be a huge opportunity and lots of money for you”. No serious business partner would make anybody work for free on something without some security or compensation for his/her work. So generally be skeptical about any business offer that sounds too good to be true, as it usually isn’t. And unless you have a contract that clarifies and includes all the things you have been promised, don’t invest too much work into anything. Probably every composer working in the field has at least one story of people trying or actually succeeding to rip him/her off. So keep a healthy skepticism at any time.

#general

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07/15/16: One of the most common problems of inexperienced orchestrators is the “organ-effect”, which happens when you double too many instruments in a middle register with relatively long notes. At a certain point, the transparency gets lost and the whole sound sounds more like a organ than an orchestra. To avoid that, don’t overdo the doubling in general, some colours sound better unmixed. Also, use the higher and lower registers evenly, try to balance out chords over the whole range of the orchestra and make sure to not concentrate all forces in the middle register. Avoid writing extensive legato passages in all voices. Especially on a big tutti, everybody playing legato will quite quickly create the organ effect. Also, leaving certain instruments out for the sake of bringing them in on peaks is generally a better idea. For example, the organ effect gets highly increased by constant use of trumpets in legato lines. Transparency is key here and when you are not sure why you’re doubling certain things, rather avoid doing that instead of having the fear of “the score sheet looking so empty”.

#orchestration

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07/14/16: One of the reasons for “fake” sounding orchestral mockups is the overuse of the ff-layer on brass samples. Very often you get to hear for example horn lines that last for a minute and are all played at ff without any rest or natural phrasings. In reality that would not be possible just for stamina reasons. Especially that “brassy buzz” sound is not possible to be played over a long time. Often, even though the mock-up might be very well produced that artificial writing attitude for the brass takes away a lot of the realism.

#technical

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07/13/16: One of the reasons for widespread commercial success for many art forms and media is the ability to appeal to a very wide group of people. For instance, commercial chart albums are very often conceptualized in a way to include not only a wide variety of styles but also include songs that are musically more challenging for the better educated and musically “sophisticated” people and songs that work well with the general audience due to easy understandable musical ideas and catchyness. The same strategy can be used in composition. The popularity of John Williams’ has also to do with the fact that he writes incredibly multi layered music that includes attractive elements for many groups of people. The striking melodic simplicity of some of his themes speak very well with a general audience, being able to hum or sing the tune in an instant and being musically satisfied with the catchyness of the main idea while musically educated people and music lovers find attractiveness in the detailed orchestration, adventurous harmonic paths and extraordinary craftmanship in the very same pieces. Many young composers (especially the conservatory trained) often try to write complex music on every level which of course speaks often well with their (former) professors and music elitists while the general audience is simply overwhelmed by the complexity. If your approach however is to reach a widespread audience (which probably most people want), simplicity is nothing to avoid but strive for. Basing a composition on a very simple idea but on top of that finding ways to make it sophisticated is actually not an easy task but will result in something that has a higher chance of appealing to many people. Of course the definition of simple and sophisticated in itself is something to discuss about and seen very differently by different people but the strategy behind that has proven several times to work very well.

#composition

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07/12/16: Many inexperienced composers forget the perspective of the “first view” when scoring a film. Due to the fact that as a composer you watch the movie or scenes so many times your way of perception shifts during that time and you tend to forget the things in the movie that surprised or confused you when you saw the movie for the first time. If you don’t pay attention, you might score it in a “i know what’s going to happen” way or even worse, tip the story for the audience already. So always remind yourself that you’re scoring it for a first view and ask yourself what the audience already knows up to this point and more importantly, what they don’t already know.

#filmscoring

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07/11/16: Clients and customers prefer to have a clear image of who is actually working for them. There are quite a few people who hide behind impersonal websites that they call something like “Awesome Music Studio”, speaking of “we” and “us” without ever clarifying who are the people behind that. In my experience, this is quite a big turn off for potential customers. People want to have faces and personalities to talk to and not feel like they are about to enter a professional relationship with an undefined personality. This is particularly important when your job mainly has something to do with customer contact (e.g. doing works for hire for films etc.) So even if you don’t act on your own (where I think it might always be better to act as a person with a name instead of a studio name) but work in a team, make sure that your customer has a clear idea of who are the people behind that even before getting to know you in personal. Make sure the “Team” page is easy to find and creates the important personal and social feeling to make customers feel more comfortable.

#general

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07/08/16: Remember that the intonation with most instruments in the orchestra doesn’t work like a piano where you simply hit a key and the resulting pitch is perfectly in tune. Rather there is with all notes a variability in how high or low the resulting pitch is. Musicians always orientate themselves at the musicians around them to fit into their sound and intonate properly with them. For an orchestrator that means that the trickier it is for a musician to find one’s pitch in a sound, the more problematic the intonation becomes. It is much easier for musicians to intonate with consonant intervals around them (e.g. two trumpets sitting next to each other playing a third apart is way easier for them than intonating a minor second apart). Of course it is not possible to look out for everybody when orchestrating music with complex harmonic structures but it really helps a lot to keep an eye out for such things and make life easier for your musicians by giving them rather consonant intervals between neighbouring players. This technique also works in massively dissonant sound structures. As long as you give musicians who are sitting close to each other (e.g. trumpet section) an easily understandable sound they can still create a nice dissonance with another section etc. The strategy should be to avoid (which is not always possible) musicians needing to find  their place in a sound without any understandable reference for them to hang on to.

#orchestration

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07/07/16: With sound design being a massively important factor on movies for the last 10-20 years, the way to handle this from the music side has also changed quite a bit. While in earlier times, audio tracks of movies were way less occupied and composers didn’t need to worry most of the time how their music is going to cut through, by now it has become on most film genres more or less a constant battle about how much space will be left for the music, especially on action sequences. If possible get in touch with the sound designer of the movie and have constant dialogue with him/her to make sure both elements work together in problematic sequences. The important part here is to not start a dialogue with the attitude of him/her being your enemy and you need to fight for your right to get space but rather try to work in the mutual interest of making the sound track as good as possible, which also means to make compromises.

#technical

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07/06/16: One of the trickiest things to learn when learning to compose is to gain a view and more importantly control over the big picture. It is fairly easy to learn and use all the “rules” and possibilities in small scale, having one chord and a melodic idea and finding a plausible way to a next chord with a plausible melodic idea. And while many learning composers very quickly get the hang of how this works, it takes a considerable amount of experience to also gain control over the larger structure. Many pieces by learning composers have very nice ideas in a small scale but in large scale hover over the same tonal center for minutes, have an unplausible melodic arc and lack climactic moments all together. However you can specifically practice “larger scale writing”. For example try writing a buildup that is for instance exactly 20 bars long (set a target beforehand!) and that gradually builds up for that time without taking away the climax too early or having an anticlimactic development somewhere in between. Or set a target to modulate in a plausible way within 9 bars for instance from Db major to G major. Write a symmetric melodic arc of 12 bars. etc. All these exercises will not necessarily end up with a presentable piece but they really force you to think in bigger structures.

#composition

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07/05/16: Quite a few short movies need music wall to wall, which means to start the music at the beginning of the film and don’t interrupt it till the end of the end credits. In such situations it still makes a lot of sense to write several cues instead of one big cue for the whole thing. One reason lies more in the fact of recording it live with real musicians where a take of 2 minutes is more likely to be recorded sucessfully in one go than a 10 minute cue. Another reason which in my opinion is important and can save you a lot of time is to leave “extension gaps” between the cue in case there are minor edits in the movie or things get moved around slightly. Ending a cue on a sustaining chord while the next cue starts with a rhythmic accent that fits musically and harmonically to the previous cue gives you the option to move the entrance of the second cue around a bit so in case some minor things change, you don’t need to rewrite. This strategy is by the way also quite often used on feature films where long (especially action) cues get subdivided into smaller cues that will later be edited together again.

#filmscoring

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07/04/16: For many composers who are just starting their career getting an agent seems to be one of the most important things to do as they hope that these agents will get them high profile jobs and it is more impressive to have customers communicate with your agent first. In reality neither of both is true. Your agent will only be able to get you jobs more or less on the same level of jobs that you are having already. So if you only do semipro productions with low budget, don’t expect to be getting a big project through an agent. Also, many customers hate to communicate through agents so if you only have a contact to your agency on your website it will also scare off a few people. These days (especially with networking becoming easier through the internet) quite a few composers even quite high up in the game don’t have an agent and handle these things themselves. At a certain point in your career it might be a good idea to have an agent just to keep away excessive paperwork but this is a decision that everybody needs to make for themselves. If you just start out, rather invest your energy into finding jobs and networking instead of finding an agent. Also, at a certain level agents will come to you and not the other way around. However, in the long run, there is one upside of having an agent (besides the obvious ones like keeping paperwork away etc.) which is that you don’t need to play the “bad guy” when it comes to negotiations about payment. If you do this directly there is always a chance that this negotiation leaves a negative trail into the actual project (especially when negotiations get quite tough, which is the case from time to time). In these instances, having an agent who can play the “bad guy” will help to separate the nasty business side from the creative work you do, but as I stated several times before, any professional should know that money negotiations can become quite tough but shouldn’t be annoyed/frustrated/aggressive beyond the point where things are settled. However, it can happen from time to time.

#general

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07/01/16: Even though you might think it makes life easier for your players and is a good idea to incorporate into your scoresheets wherever needed, orchestral players don’t like seeing 8va/8vb lines or marks at all. Even the players where the use of such lines might seem like a good idea (eg. flutes, violins) prefer reading many ledger lines over reading 8va and are actually really proficient in doing so. The only plausible reason to use these lines would be on piano and sometimes on harp staves or when a score sheet page is so tightly packed that you actually need the space on the paper somewhere else. In the latter case make sure to remove these lines again in the parts for the individual instruments.

#orchestration

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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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