Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jun 1, 2014 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


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

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

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

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12/19/14: In it’s highest register, the piccolo flute can be very piercing and shrill. This can be a great effect when you want a really edgy sound for example in action or horror music but can be too much when you’re for instance doubling a melody line in the woodwinds and include the piccolo. The safest way to get a decent balance and not overpower everything with that piercing sound is to write the piccolo one dynamic degree softer than the rest of the woodwinds in such cases but still be aware that at the top end of the piccolo range it is practically impossible to play any softer than forte for the player. As a side note: in such cases the piccolo playing in its highest register might be the only instrument from the woodwind section that stands out in a loud tutti.

#orchestration

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12/18/14: For live musicians, it is extremely difficult to play something without surrounding context. This means, that you should try to avoid to have a musician play against nothing and have him/her record a line that you will embed later into an arrangement. This is one of the reasons why musicians don’t like recording the orchestra in sections much as they will be missing the surrounding context to find their role in the whole picture. So always make sure that they get as much information as possible when they record something. This also means to have additional tracks like drums/synths etc prepared already when you record the orchestra so you can feed it to their headphones if needed. Remember that real musicians are not comparable with single tracks in your DAW where you work with absolute values of velocity etc.

#technical

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12/17/14: Another issue that bothers practically every composer once in a while is to subconsciously plagiarize existing music. Everybody writing music knows the feeling of asking oneself the question of whether that isn’t something everybody knows already from somewhere else but you can’t point the finger on it where it is from exactly. Statistically it is practically not avoidable to rip off existing music once in a while considering how many musical possibilities there are in tonal music combined with how many musical possibilities our ear finds pleasing in a specific style. Music lives a great deal from falling into familiar structures and our brain seems drawn to certain things that music uses over and over again so the desire by many especially young composers to be 100% original has the danger of needing to go ways that the broad audience finds rather unpleasing. If you have the feeling that the piece you just wrote exists already, it might be advisable to ask a few other people with broad musical knowledge whether they might have heard it before. If they cannot recognize it, you should probably go ahead as sometimes it’s also just the feeling that something might exist already but actually it’s just very close to already used paths in music.

#composition

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12/16/14: One of the most tricky things for learning film composers is to learn how to put the right amount of emotion into a cue. While it usually is not that complicated to write music that goes intensely into one emotion, it is usually trickier to tone down that emotion to a more subtle version. This often causes amateur movies to feel massively overscored as their composer simply didn’t have the experience yet to create more subtle versions of the emotion that is desired. One of the most effective ways to practice this is to score one emotion in three or more different grades of intensity, for instance discomfort-fear-terror, or melancholy-sadness-desperation. This helps to develop a sense of how subtle or strong you need to go to create the desired emotion. It might take a few attempts to really end up with 3 pieces where you could clearly sort them into the degree of intensity. But still, apart from developing your craft on the writing side, this is one of the most important things to be able to when you want to work in the field of “media” composition.

#filmscoring

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12/15/14: Music piracy or illegal use of your music is something that every composer needs to struggle with these days. As soon as you publish something, there is a chance that somebody uses it without your permission and without paying you. There is no effective way to prevent this except of not publishing any music. Trying to track illegal usage is practically not possible to do effectively, also not for any PRO you might be member of. However you should also be aware that the financial loss is quite low as people who use music from the internet illegally in their projects will most likely not have the money to pay for it anyway and businesses who do have the money will usually not use music illegally (with exceptions). So while it is understandably annoying to see your music being used without ever noticing or paying you, there is not really any sense in getting upset or wasting a lot of energy on it. Unfortunately this is just part of the way how the understanding of music and needed compensation for it works these days.

#general

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12/12/14: This is one of the first rules one learns when learning to orchestrate and still I very often see it being done wrong: make space for important melodic lines. You don’t want to have several lines and textures in the same range walk on top of each other. This again is often a problem of sequencer composing as it is harder to spot gaps or possible conflicts than it is on score sheets. The essential thing is to constantly remind you to not have several melodic lines in the same register conflicting with each other and also make sure to consciously listen to your music for such problems. Overlapping melodic ideas only work when either the texture or the volume is drastically different from each other.

#orchestration

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12/11/14: Before archiving any important projects (which you hopefully do, including naming and labeling things so you still can figure out later on what it was), you should spend some time bouncing any important virtual instrument tracks to audio in the project. In case you need to get back to this project at one time in the future (which happens more often than you might think), chances are quite high that there have been updates to your virtual instruments or you didn’t migrate them to a new computer etc. essentially making these tracks a source for big headache in case you need to figure out a way to get them working again. So just as a clean-up step before putting projects to rest on a hard drive, spend a little time making them future compatible. The time you spend with that will be worth your while compared to the time it takes to make several VST tracks work again in an old project.

#technical

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12/10/14: One common property of many sucessful melodies is that the highest (and lowest) note of it only occurs once in the melody. This is a pretty essential thing in order to give it a proper dramaturgy. Also, the highest note shouldn’t be a function in the chord that wants to resolve upwards (e.g. the major 7th of the chord). Of course there are melodies that also work without following that but quite a lot of popular melodies follow that structural property.

#composition

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12/09/14: One quite big part of scoring for films that is very rarely mentioned in books is to compensate for shortcomings in the film making. This happens especially at the beginning of a career where you work on amateur or semi pro productions. Quite regularly you will be confronted with bad acting, strange story lines, dialogues that make little sense and other problems that might arise in such a production where the music is required to save the situation a little. Sometimes that will be openly communicated by the director, but sometimes you just need to decide on your own to save a few moments to improve the movie. The most common thing to save some moments from being ridiculous would be to add music even though you normally would not on such moments. This helps particularly well to guide emotions that are not transported properly by the actors or the dialogue. Another decision would be to set a stronger focus on the atmosphere when the production design failed to deliver (e.g. a scene is supposed to feel scary but the lightning and set doesn’t look scary at all, so you add more scariness to the music to compensate for that). Also, connecting confusing editing or story lines with each other by gluing them together with music might be one of these standard tricks. However these things just help to a certain extent. To get back to the example from above: If the scene doesn’t have at least a little bit of scariness, adding a massively scary score to it will just be very laughable and alienate the audience even further. So you need to also have an idea of whether the music will have a chance to save something or if all hope is lost.

#filmscoring

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12/08/14: At certain points, for example when a project becomes just too big to be pulled off only by yourself in the time given, you will not get around outsourcing certain parts of the work to someone else. Usually things like score/part preparation for sessions etc. is outsourced as the first option as it is a highly time consuming task which can be outsourced at quite resonable rates. The next option would be (depending on your workflow) either outsourcing the mock-ups (when you’re more of the score writer) or the orchestrations (when you feel more comfortable with working in a DAW). Rates for these jobs vary greatly. Quite often, also jobs like synth programmer (in case you need synths) is outsourced as this might also become a quite time consuming task. As the last resort you might want to outsource even parts of the composition which of course is a very tricky situation as in such cases you also need to take the responsibility of bringing everything together. The important thing is to be prepared for such cases before they happen. You can’t just go ahead and get an orchestrator while you’re in the middle of a project so it is important to network with people who work in the position that you might need to outsource at one day when you’re not neck-deep in a project and see whether they can pull off the quality that you want. And even if you’re doing everything on your own by now and don’t expect any project to hit you that might need such things, remember that quite often such projects come out of the blue, so be prepared better sooner than later for such cases.

#general

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12/05/14: As a follow-up on my post about string divisi from last week, here a few more things to consider: 6.) Four-part triadic homophone harmony in violins, especially in the higher register is best divided in the way that the first violins play the top line plus its octave below while the seconds fill up the harmony between these two voices. You’ll get a more homogenous sound out of the violins plus the octave in the first violins will give you a better intonation on the chords. 7.) In cases where the strings carry the three functions of providing melody, chords and bass, it is common to have all violins on the melody (potentially in octaves), cellos and basses on the bass line and spreading out the harmony in a multiple divisi in the violas. As you won’t be needing an even balance between the chords and the rest, the multiple divisi on the violas will not be a problem plus the substance issues will not be too big as well as the high harmonics that give away the thinness of sound are covered by the violins. 8.) Try to divisi sections always in easy intervals. It is very tricky for violins sitting next to each other to intonate a minor second properly. Intonating a third or fourth is way easier and will give you a more pleasing result. All the points mentioned in my two posts about divisi are not something that works always and is the ultimate solution. Every context needs its own decision and what works best only to be learned from experience and developing that gut feeling. Still, it helps to keep these few general possibilities in the back of your mind.

#orchestration

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12/04/14: No matter what DAW you use to work in and produce, when working in the film scoring field you should have at least elementary knowledge of using Protools as most recording studios run on that software providing nothing more but a Protools session file after the recording is done. Also, you will want to prepare the session files before recording meaning to have the right tempo map and video files in the Protools sessions. You would also want to create a separate session file for every cue as this is easier to handle on the systems and gives you better overview.

#technical

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12/03/14: Atonality can be a great color when writing music for films and can create a unsettling, almost painful feeling. However, as it is already extremely demanding to “understand” the structure of this music when you hear it even without a movie, it is even trickier to follow it when your perception is focused on the music only by a fraction. Atonality works great in scenes where you want to express fear, pain, anger, danger etc. There are indeed quite a few movies in history which had film scores with a lot of atonal elements but it takes a bold concept and filmmakers with lots of courage to actually try and go this way. Most usually you will be stuck with directors who fear that the audience will feel too alienated which such – at least for film – radical concepts. There can be endless discussions whether going down such a way really works as a general concept for film scoring. However, even in movies with a more “traditional” sound, there are quite often hints of atonality. Usually atonality works best when you weave it around cells which have a trace of tonality. Lines that move for a moment as if they were part of a chord and divert from that again. The big advantage of this concept is that you still create that unsettling feeling atonality has but still give the audience some small things to hold on to which will in general help following the music.

#composition

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12/02/14: Music can alter the perception of time quite heavily. It can actually even work like a subjective slow motion. For example imagine a huge battle, the last few minutes of it, the hero is fighting, lots of fast action and instead of bringing in a busy action driven score which pushes forward we hear a slow, elegic, string carried legato piece. Even though we see the action still taking place in “real time” it feels like we are in slow motion just because of the music. The same works the other way around. Examples can be heard an seen in many “sneaking through buildings” scenes where the music pushes the tempo and increases the “stress” for the audience even though the images actually are quite slow. Such tempo alterations can have a fantastic effect and high emotional impact.

#filmscoring

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12/01/14: When you’re working on tight deadline projects, time management is one of the most important things to get the job done. Routine helps a great deal there. In my experience, it is not advisable to “work in the evening until I can’t work anymore and then get up some time in the morning” but to stick to more or less constant hours every day as this gets your body more used to the workload. There is no use in doing an 20 hour shift one day but the next day being completely tired and getting the same amount of work done in one day that you would be able of doing in 3 hours if you were properly rested. Also, have meals at constant times of the day etc. There is also no use of “condensing” meals to once a day because half of the day you will be hungry and under-sugared whch will affect your concentration and after eating a huge meal you’ll get tired for a while etc. Apart from the obvious problems such inconstant working discipline has on your work output, it is also tremendously unhealthy to sustain such a life over a longer period. In general, work effectiveness has not only to do with how long you spend per day to sit in front of your working station.

#general

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11/28/14: Dividing string sections into several parts is a common technique called “divisi” and for section strings is usually the preferred way over making the players play awkward double stops. However samples make many composers believe that a divisi will simply give you more notes at the same time without any other consequences. However there are a few things that need to be considered  when dividing the sections: 1.) The higher you go with violins the more instruments you need to maintain the substance of sound as they start to sound thinner the higher you go. That’s why you would not want to split up the first violins. 2.) The substance of a divisi sound is of course depending on the size of your string sections but also largely on dynamics. Soft dynamics will work with lots of divisi, even into more than two parts per section but the louder you get, the more substance you need on the individual lines wanting to reduce the divisi. 3) Even though logic might say otherwise it the first choice of dividing one section will be the cellos. Even if they are lower in numbers, they will not have a problem with substance if you divide them into two parts. 4.) A special form of divisi is to divide practically all sections in two parts but have the lower part of one section play the same part as the higher part of the next lower section. By that you get even a more homogenous sound out of the strings. 5) Another special form of divisi is to octave divisi sections. The reinforcing harmonics of the lower octave plus the richness in tone colour will create an organ like effect (Ase’s Death from Grieg being one of the most famous examples of that technique with all sections apart of basses divided into octaves, the effect gets most effective around 1:20). Still you need to be prepared to lose substance in the individual voices in that techniqe. There are a few more things to say about divisi to be covered in one of the next bits :)

#orchestration

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11/27/14: 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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11/26/14: There is no wrong or right way to compose music. Essentially, what works best for you to get ideas is the right way. Many people feel like cheating when finding ideas by playing random things on the piano or even clicking away in the piano roll of their DAW etc and think they need to get to a point where they hear a fully orchestrated piece in their head when getting up in the morning just needing to write it down. It is completely irrelevant how you get your ideas, even if you just accidentally stumble over a few notes while something falls on your keyboard is a way. As long as you have the chops to take it from there and develop it into an actual piece of music. As many famous composers already stated in several popular quotes, having the inspiration is just a small portion of what makes a piece great. So don’t feel forced to compose in any specific way. If your front door squeaks an interesting melodic fragment that you like to use as the base of your piece, then that’s just as fine as waking up in the morning with a fully orchestrated piece in your head. What counts in the end is the final result. As long as you deliver something good in the end, your method is good.

#composition

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11/25/14: One of the biggest strengths of a good film composer is to be able to use silence effectively. Working with musical silence can create incredibly intense effects, especially when it happens in moments where you would normally not expect it. A great example for the intensity of musical silence is the movie CAST AWAY, which conceptually practically has no music at all over big parts of the movie but gets especially intense during the plane crash scene (Spoilers obviously) where you would normally expect dramatic action scoring but the musical silence makes that scene so much more real and intense. So sometimes it works better for the movie to put your composer’s ego aside and leave a climactic scene or  moment to musical silence.

#filmscoring

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11/24/14: Losing a project for whatever reason is in general very disappointing and depending on how much effort you already put into it can be financially quite damaging. However, it happens to everybody in the business from time to time. Sometimes, a financial backing of a project breaks apart, key positions of the crew get exchanged or there are creative differences that cause you to drop out from the project. There are many reasons but unfortunately none of them are really rare. It just happens and that is how you should see it. Of course, it is also a big ego killer but you should definitely not lose faith in your work and talent when that happens but simply move on. There’s no point in wasting energy grieving about something that you lost instead of putting it into something new. The only advice that might save you a little bit from spending time and effort on something that will not see the light of day is trying to avoid to let you being talked into something like “Hey, you’ll get the contract/payment next week, but could you write something for that already?”. If a project doesn’t look solid, avoid spending too much effort until you have something in your hand.

#general

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11/21/14: The use of the orchestral percussion section has become twofold in the last couple of years. In trailer music and modern Hans Zimmer inspired scoring, very often its function has become to mimick a drum set, basically providing a continuous rhythmic pulse and fundament. In more traditional orchestration, the percussion section is more used for highlighting moments and generally is more used selectively. While using the percussion section as a surrogate drum kit can have fantastic effects and create massively driving pulses, especially in more action oriented cues, it shouldn’t be seen as the standard way of handling this section for several reasons. First of all it very often is a lazy solution as you don’t have to worry much about providing a pulse when you have a rhythmically driving fundament to sit on, even getting away with pretty pedestrian ideas and long sustaining notes in the rest of the orchestra. Another issue is the balancing as it will be very tricky to do any small orchestration details when your percussion section is constantly creating a quite loud dynamic level. An even more problematic issue arises when you want to record such tracks with a regular orchestra. Unless you record top orchestras in top studios, you’re very likely going to struggle a lot with balance and timing issues. Also, in such cases you need to record the percussion section separately as you will not be getting any punch out of the sound if you record it together with the orchestra in the same room.

#orchestration

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11/20/14: Click track bleed is some of the most annoying things that can happen in a scoring session when it only gets discovered in the mix. It results from the click on the headphones of the musicians spilling over to the microphones. Usually, an experienced recording engineer will have a master volume for all the clicks which he/she can adjust according to the loudness of the cue that is just being recorded and additionally every musician has his/her own headphone with an individual volume knob. So if you have a good engineer he/she will keep on listening whether the click is audible on the mics. In very soft cues where not all instruments of the orchestra are involved, it should be communicated to the musicians not involved to un-plug or turn off their headphones beforehand. There are also some engineers who set up a clever click-track that automatically adjusts its volume according to the overall volume in the room. A slight click track bleed in the mix usually is nothing to worry about too much as the base-level of “noise” of a movie is usually high enough to cover-up these clicks. However, on the session especially on very soft part have a thorough listen to whether there are any clicks audible on the recording.

#technical

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11/19/14: Arpeggios or broken chords can be a great tool  for accompaniment patterns or sources for melodic gestures. On accompanying figures they help to establish a sense of harmony but also keep a steady rhythm going, on melodies they help to “bridge” large melodic gaps in a plausible way. However, simple triad arpeggios very quickly sound pedestrian and stylistically more in the field of Mozart than modern film music. One very simple trick that might help is to not have a triad arpeggio going on (c e g e c e g e c) but instead use the ninth of a chord for the pattern (c d g d c d g d or d e g e d e g e). Incorporating the sixth or maj7 on major chords or the minor7 on minor chords might also work. With this little alteration, your arpeggios will suddenly sound way more filmic.

#composition

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11/18/14: When scoring a quite long movie, there is a danger of losing the focus for a proper dramaturgy. Sometimes you work your way up to the climax of the movie but when you reach it, you notice that you scored the few preceding build-up scenes quite big and you need to score the climax bigger than you actually planned to in order to still keep it as a climax which might result in a feeling of overscoring. A good way to work against this is to score the climax scene quite early and set the “maximum music size” with that scene, or at least have a very precise concept in mind how you want to handle the climax scene. It is much easier then to score to and from this scene without running into danger of being too big or too small somewhere before or after.

#filmscoring

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11/17/14: 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 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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11/14/14: Runs on strings and woodwinds are a very common effect in orchestral writing and can create very lively textures.However when writing them, put some thought into it. First of all they should always have a motivation and not just be there for no obvious reason. It is best to have runs lead to a target. There are only a few cases where runs work without having a specific target. Another thing to understand is that runs are effects, not melodic elements. So in order to have them work like a run they need to have a certain speed. Usually 16ths will not really sound like a run but be perceived as a melodic element (unless the tempo is really quick). But also too fast runs can be a problem as they will end up sounding more like a glissando on strings and pretty unclear on woodwinds as well. Considering the notes to pick for the run, most of the time it should be notes of the scale of the current harmony except for moments when these runs lead to a strong hit where you could also use the scale of the target harmony even if it conflicts with the harmony that still sounds during the runs. Using a combination of several tuplets in order to cover the right distance for your run is also not much of a problem as your musicians will not really count these out but simply play the gesture more or less evenly. 7-tuplets are pretty common as they cover exactly one octave within.

#orchestration

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11/13/14: Even with all the advancement in sampling technology, you unfortunately still need to write “for samples” nowadays. This means that you need to keep the strengths and weaknesses of your samples in the back of your mind and strategically use or avoid them. Trying to mock-up pieces that have been written with a real orchestra in mind will most likely be a nightmare to mock-up convincingly and some things that sound brilliant with live instruments will sound horrible with samples. So strategically  write for your samples if the end result will not be a live recording and you need to deliver a convincing result. The biggest issue is to develop an understanding and feeling for these two worlds. Many composers get stuck in believing that their samples set the benchmark for what works and what doesn’t with live players resulting in a very limited instrumental variety. Keep studying scores and listening to real recordings to spot things that work very well with live players you couldn’t do with samples.

#technical

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11/12/14: Releasing a note creates quite a similar event as attacking it. This is especially important when you write music that is rhythmically driven. Placing the releases of chords, notes etc. on points that make sense rhythmically will give your music another level of “groove”. This goes for example for bass notes, when you have a bass line that is written for example quarter note, quarter rest, quarter note etc., releasing the notes exactly at the point where the “rhythmic non-event” of the quarter rest would be, creates another level of rhythmic quality. You can drive this concept quite far and write music that plays heavily with such things, just think of massive brass chords of different lengths to create a nice combined rhythm between attacks and release.

#composition

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11/11/14: Big landscape shots almost always call for the music to take over in a grand gesture, especially when there is no voiceover etc. on top of them. However inexperienced composers often tend to go overboard with such shots, scoring them in a way as if it was a LORD OF THE RINGS shot while the movie is more of a drama etc. While almost always the music works well getting a little bigger on such shots than in the rest of the score, you can’t push the contrasts too much. If the rest of your score is intimate string scoring, you can’t suddenly go for a big tutti moment with lots of brass. Try to stay within the boundaries of the rest of the score for such moment.

#filmscoring

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11/10/14: Never use bad payment as an excuse to do a mediocre job on a project. Neither in front of anybody else nor in front of you. If you decide to go for a job in spite of it not paying well, try to make it as good as you can. Starting to find excuses to deliver something below your standard is a bad idea from several perspectives. First of all, your customer might be satisfied with what you’ve done but you might have missed the opportunity to really blow his/her mind and to really be remembered for any (potentially better paid) future work. Secondly and way more important: you start ruining your own reputation. People will hear your mediocre work, you or somebody else might put it online somewhere which will lower the expectations people have in your work for future projects. Of course there is always a project once in a while where you have to cut corners or your music gets dumbed down so much by the client that you end up being really disappointed. But as long as you have the quality of the output in your own hands, do your best job, no matter how badly paid or small the project is. There might always be someone hearing it and being either blown away by your amazing work or simply not notice it at all because it is just mediocre.

#general

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11/07/14: Combining strings pizzicato and arco at the same time is usually not going to work too well, especially when you’re going for a homogenous and balanced sound. On the higher string instruments, pizzicato notes are way softer and less carrying than the arco sounds, so having just your second violins playing pizz. while all others play arco will give you quite an imbalance and potentially a harmonic problem if the 2nds are carrying essential chord tones. The only instruments that can stilly carry in pizz are the low cellos and double basses. In fact you could even use bass pizzicatos carrying a whole tutti section (as John Williams does it quite regularly). There are also a few other cases where it might make sense to split out sections to pizz and arco at the same time, especially when they’re taking over very different tasks but normally you would rather have all arco or all pizz at the same time with the above mentioned exceptions.

#orchestration

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11/06/14: The media world nowadays doesn’t work anymore without detailed mock-ups (aka sample produced demos) of cues. The times when composers just presented their ideas on the piano and the directors trusted them that it will sound great afterwards are over. If a project eventually will be recorded with real players, doing mock-ups for demo purposes needs to serve several things. You want to sell your track to your client but you don’t want to make the demo so good that he/she might be asking why to record live players at all. You also want to be time effective on them. One can polish a mock-up forever but especially when you do them by yourself, your main focus regarding time should be lying on composing rather than producing demo material. I’d like to present to the client music from former projects to clients, preferably pretty bad demo mock-ups compared to the final recording of the cue to give them an idea of how it’s gonna sound in the end. But it is also very depending on the musical knowledge of your client. With some clients I simply give them an audio of the pretty basic sounds of Sibelius and they know how it’s going to sound in the end while with others I’m producing very detailed mock-ups. But in general, always make sure to let your client long for more to justify spending a lot of money on a real recording.

#technical

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11/05/14: While studying and exercising four part harmony is still an essential part of many academical composition courses and is great to sharpen your musical understanding, it has only a minor relevance for orchestral writing in a filmic idiom. Many self taught composers run into confusion or frustration after studying books on classical 4 part harmony memorizing all these rules and not getting anywhere near a filmic sound by following them. While some of the rules are still very valid (especially the ones on voice leading) others like the avoiding of doubling certain chord tones are completely irrelevant for orchestral writing. Remember that these rules were designed to give a homogenous instrument family (choir) structure and balance. With the heterogenity and dramatic volume differences between the instruments of an orchestra, you won’t get far with these rules. I’ve spoken to young composers who wouldn’t double any of their lines in an orchestral piece in octaves because “those are all forbidden octave parallels” resulting in a completely messy piece with way too many inside lines and – even worse –  a frustrated composer who was doubting his musical talent. So as a general rule, when studying older books on 4-part harmony, harmony in general or even composition, always be aware of the fact that most of them have been written quite a while ago and many of the things written there are not that relevant today anymore. Still, I strongly encourage everybody to read and study such books as they all are great tools to connect dots and overall sharpen and broaden your musical understanding and control as a composer.

#composition

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11/04/14: Unaccompanied melodies can have a fantastic effect in a movie when placed cleverly. The “lonely” instrument or section filling up the musical space has a beautiful and haunting quality and can either create an extreme intimacy which is for example great for “tearing up” moments but on the other hand can create a strong sense of loneliness when placed in an appropriate context. It can also be a great entrance to a cue that eventually evolves to incorporating the whole orchestra. In general, slower melodies and gestures work better with this than fast and busy melodies.

#filmscoring

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11/03/14: Don’t be too shy or to proud to ask for help if a project asks too much of you. Every composer once in a while encounters a situation where he/she is pushed so far out of his/her comfort zone that it becomes a struggle to handle the project properly. Very often the argument is to get as much money out of this project as possible which will not allow to hire someone else to help you but the essential question here is if that extra money is worth risking your reputation (because you needed to deliver in a style that is out of your comfort zone and don’t deliver at your usual quality standards), worth risking not hitting the deadline because of just too much work, worth risking to create a budget disaster (because you didn’t want to hire that orchestrator and incomplete or wrong score sheets or orchestral writing slowed you down on the session in a way that you didn’t get it all done in time) or even worth risking your health because you overstretched your stamina. Remember that there is hardly any composer on the bigger scale projects who is working alone on it. I have made the experience that asking someone for help if you can predict that things are gonna get tight or not really up your alley always had a beneficial outcome just because of the psychological reason to not struggle through this problematic project alone. And delivering something that is spot on under problematic conditions will on the long run make you more money on follow-up projects than the money you lose to hire someone to help you.

#general

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10/31/14: Scary Halloween orchestral effects that are very often heard in horror/thriller movies are very often things that are not that easily notated. Most of the time it needs a verbal instruction of what you want the players to do. Of course that also means to know the instruments very well to know what they can do. Unfortunately orchestration literature on these matters is really sparse. The standard works by Adler or Rimsky-Korsakov only  briefly touch these playing techniques. One book that has a more comprehensive look on these things is THIS recently released book however it is quite expensive. It is also quite tricky to find score sheet of film scores that include a lot of such effects to study them. One that is available as sheet music is the music from John Williams’ CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND which contains quite a bit of these avantgarde effects. Also, unless you use prerecorded samples (that always have the danger of being recognized), doing a mockup of such things is practically impossible.

#orchestration

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10/30/14: On scoring session situations, audio clicks are way more tricky and problematic than using internal clicks from e.g. Protools. Audio clicks are basically audio files like an mp3 that contain a click track to which the orchestra will be recorded. It needs the proper amount of count-in bars etc. If you have an actual “session” set up in Protools for every cue that has the correct bars/tempi etc. using the internal click is way more flexible. Advantages are that you can change the number of count ins, you can change the click sound, you can easily do pickups by just telling the engineer to record again from bar 64 etc. Also, in case there might be something wrong with the clicktrack, wrong tempo etc., you can easily change it . If you have an audio click only, this might cause a nightmare. If you can’t get around having audio click tracks, you need to at least triple check every clicktrack thoroughly and read it several times against the score sheet to make sure that everything is absolutely correct. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t also check the Sessions in Protools thoroughly beforehand, of course.

#technical

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10/29/14: Besides certain instrumental colours, the sound of certain chords are probably the most instantaneous period/style identifiers for music and it is not just important to know their construction and sound but also their stylistical implications. Certain chords have been used in certain periods of time or by certain composers extensively so they shape a stylistic understanding of these periods. For instance tonic major7 chords in orchestral writing were a specialty of John Williams’ late 70s and 80s writing, including Superman and E.T. which both have been so iconic scores that using tonic maj7 chords very often create an 80s feeling. Full diminished chords or exposed and straight forward Dominant7  chords very often create a classical sound or (depending on context) a early 1930s jazzy quality. Maj6 or 6/9 chords often sound like old fashioned Jazz and Broadway tunes etc.  Of course it is possible to use these chords in a way that doesn’t trigger these connection but very often inexperienced composers use certain sounds and chords in a way that creates a stylistic blur. The essence here is as I’ve mentioned several times already that in the media music world developing a strong sense for style is just as important as developing ones craft on the technical and theoretical side. It is important to not just know what is theoretically possible but also in which context. Don’t forget to practice that as well when you’re aspiring to become a media composer. Listen to and analyze music from different periods and try to figure out what makes their sound special.

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10/28/14: While they are musically not spectacular at all, drones are very effective in film scoring. A drone is usually a long sustaining note or set of notes, usually in the lower register that keeps ringing without any or much musical variation through a scene. They are particularly effective in dialogue scenes where they are not intrusive but still work very well. Low drones connect to our brain in a way that we’re genetically programmed to react on low rumbling frequencies with alertnes and in extreme cases with panic as in history they most often meant life threatening things (earthquakes, volcano eruptions, thunderstorms, a horde of large animals). Therefore, entering a low drone in a dialogue will automatically give that dialogue more importance. This effect gets even more often used in thriller/horror movies where low frequency rumblings are usually part of the sound design and have been used in practically every suspense movie since the advent of subwoofers in cinemas and the revolutionary sound design in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in 1989. As stated above, while they work effectively, they are musically rather dull and while there are many examples of composers simply holding down a note on their keyboard for 2 minutes, there are also great examples for “composed drones” that create the archaic reaction they are supposed to but still have a musical quality to them. In the end such scenes are probably a good chance to catch up on your daily output rate if you’ve spent too much time on an action sequence but if you have the time to put a little more effort into such things, there is definitely a musically more attractive way to score “drone moments” than just holding down a key.

#filmscoring

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10/27/14:  The contrast between being under extreme pressure and suddenly not having anything to do at all can sometimes be quite extreme in the media world. While on one day you’re doing all-nighters to hit a deadline, the next day you might not have anything to do at all. That whole issue gets even more extreme when working on large scale projects that you’re working on over a long time. Especially after ending this project with a big scoring session at the end of the working process including all the adrenalin and joy that comes with that, many composers have the feeling of falling into a hole after that. Suddenly that moment you anticipated for several weeks or months has passed and there’s nothing left doing. It gets even more problematic when there’s no new project in the near future at that moment. And even if you could theoretically continue with the next project avoiding being idle at all, it might be a wiser choice to give yourself a bit of rest to regenerate. While this is different for everybody and some people might enjoy going into complete not-doing-anything-mode after a stressful project, my personal experience is rather that it is very tricky to radically do that switch without having some psychological side effects. So when you see such a moment coming, be prepared for it. Plan a short vacation etc. for the days after the project is done or something else that keeps you from being completely idle and set yourself a target to look forward to.

#general

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10/24/14: Don’t underestimate the importance and complexity of notating things properly for real musicians. Just because you have a good understanding of instrumental colors and can use them effectively in a sample context does not necessarily mean that you will be able instantly to transfer this into a form that will make it possible for musicians to replicate it. Mastering the question of how much to write in and how much to leave out of score sheets in order to get the exact result you want is actually quite complex and has a lot to do with understanding the psychology of your players. So, if at one point you want to write for real players and not just for samples, make sure to know how notation works. And that doesn’t only mean to be able to read clefs and pitches etc. but it also doesn’t mean to only learn musical terminology and fancy sounding Italian words. Look and read score sheets and learn from them how well notated music looks like. I can not stress this enough. One of the biggest causes for delays in sessions is scores and parts written by someone who doesn’t know how to properly do that handing out stuff printed out from logic to the orchestra etc. Additionally, it is frustrating for the players and really questions professionalism of the person who wrote these scores and parts so make sure to get your notation skills up to a level where you will not be embarrassed or hire somebody to help you with it if you get in the situation where you need notated music.

#orchestration

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10/23/14: When trying to find a secondary melodic line to a main melodic line (e.g. you have your main melody in the strings but want an independent horn line as well to support it) try shaping that secondary melody in a way that it moves on different rhythmic moments than your main melody. For instance let’s say your main melody moves mainly in the rhythm quarter-quarter-half note, you wouldn’t want your secondary line to move close to that rhythm as well (as it will also make it trickier to distinguish the melodic movement). In this case, it might be a good idea to have your secondary line move rhythmically during count three and four (where your main melody sits on a half note). It might also be a good idea to have your secondary melody tie notes over bar lines to counteract the downbeat-heavy main melodic idea and help working against the statics of the main rhythm.

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10/22/14: A slim, focused and clean working setup is always better than having too many tools to work with. There’s no point in investing into endless amounts of libraries, synthesizers and plugins because you will never have the time to master them all. The by far more successful strategy is to pick a basic system that you really know how to handle and get the best out of. Streamlining your process in that regard is more effective and will create more output than constantly needing to search for sounds or trying out how things work with that one plugin you never used before.

#technical

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10/21/14: When scoring a movie by writing score sheets for the reason of having  it played by real instruments at one point, avoid fermatas and breath marks. These musical markings are very open to interpretation and it get’s even more complicated to create click tracks for cues that include them. If you want such a musical effect, in a film scoring environment, it is better to write them out in absolute values. Let’s say you want a fermata on count four of a 4/4 bar, in these cases you would rather make this bar for instance into a 5/4 and sustain count 4 over two beats. In this case, it is very clear for everybody how long that note will be and it is easy to anticipate when to continue after that note. This is something that purely applies for film scoring, especially with recordings to click. In concert music environment, there is no problem whatsoever of using such markings.

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10/20/14: 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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10/17/14: One very easy way to create a small sense of pulse in an orchestral piece is to not go for sustaining whole note accompanying chords but actually let these chords pulsate in a certain rhythm, like quarters or more complex rhythms. So not changing any of the tones of the chord but simply replace the whole note chord by for instance four identical quarter note chords. Unfortunately that principle is very problematic to achieve with samples as you would basically need sustain samples with soft attack coming with round robins as you don’t want to hear 4 times the exact same attack on these 4 chords which to my knowledge practically no library supports. You also wouldn’t want to layer soft staccato samples on top as in reality these pulsating chords would be executed with a quite soft attack. So unfortunately that technique is very problematic to pull off convincingly with samples but create a lovely effect with real instruments in passages where you don’t want to establish a strong pulsating rhythm just yet but want to give it a little hint of pulse.

#orchestration

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10/16/14: Every now and then, you have to learn how to use a new piece of software, for instance you switch to a new sequencer or simply get to know a new sample library etc. With quite complex software for music professionals, the learning curve can sometimes be very unpleasant. There are several different approaches to getting to know a new software. Some people work bit by bit through the manual, taking a very organized approach to learn every feature while others just go ahead and do the trial and error method. I’ve made the experience that the learning is faster and more fun if you just try to figure out by yourself how things work. Once you figure something out you have that little reward moment which makes your brain memorize things better than just reading about it. I only consult the manual or google when I can’t find a way out of a problem. Another effective approach is to have someone show you the main functions or guide you while you’re working on it. It might also be helpful to read a little bit through the manual once you know the programme quite well as then you might know the structure of how things work and certain shortcuts or hidden functions mentioned in the manual will further help you increase your workflow. I’ve mentioned it already in another tip a while ago but spend some considerable time learning and using all possible shortcuts.

#technical

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10/15/14: Many composers are concerned about their output rate and feel intimidated by hearing that composer x wrote the score for feature film y in just a few weeks or something like that. However this whole issue shouldn’t be bothering you too much. The more experience you have the quicker you will be in composing as many things will switch from “let me try if that works” to “I know this will work”. So if you’re just starting out and still learning, don’t worry too much about speed, you will get quicker at that automatically. It is also safe to say that without making quality compromises, writing a mean of two to three minutes of music a day is still pretty much a good rate to orientate yourself on. Considering speed rates of composers on blockbusters with supposedly incredible short amounts of time to write the music, you should be aware that ghostwriting or “additional music” is in such cases quite common with the main composer taking more of a supervising role and writing thematic ideas while there are more people to flesh out things, sometimes credited, often uncredited. So the bottom line is to not be too concerned about your general output rates as long as you can hit your deadlines.

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10/14/14: While a strong musical concept to scoring a movie is essential and can help to create a really strong symbiosis between movie and music, it also shouldn’t be too complex and demanding. Choosing a particular musical style to score a movie based on a concept that is very complex will most likely not resonate with your audience as they will not be able to make too complex connections. It gets even more problematic if your concept is massively based on knowledge about the story that isn’t revealed until the end. For instance in a movie that is generally set as a psycho thriller and until the end and final plot twist we don’t know that one main character in the movie is an imagination of the protagonist (e.g. Fight Club), you decide to score many parts of the movie with a music that has a strong feeling of being unreal, like a dream or very unfocused, even though the scenes might require more precise scoring or are simple tension moments might become just too much to process for your audience. There will be a feeling of disconnection for your audience while they are watching the scene as they will not understand why a suspense scene is scored with weird unreal music at that moment. Even if the concept behind that is clear and it all makes sense at the end, it will be distracting while watching. However it might very well work to score the suspense scene with real suspense music but add hints of it being unreal to it. And of course this is just an example and highly depending on how the movie works and how it is set. The bottom line is, to not expect too many complex connections to be made by your audience while watching the movie and keeping an eye of what the audience knows at that point in the movie.

#filmscoring

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10/13/14: Many especially young composers are looking for film material to practice scoring. And due to many of them wanting to write so-called epic music, it becomes even trickier to find footage as it’s not particularly easy to find amateur or student films that offer scoring such scenes. While it might be debatable why as a young composer one need to extensively practice scoring multi million dollar shots, many composers end up taking footage from blockbusters and scoring or re-scoring them. While for a purely practice context, this is completely fine, the problem starts when you use these as demos on your website or social profiles. First of all, the danger of running into rights problems with big studios is not to be underestimated as they run very often aggressive policies against piracy. Additionally, when using these things as demos hoping to get jobs, you can only lose. First of all, potential customers will know the original movie and will know how it sounded like. As a learning composer with limited access to HQ samples etc. you simply will not stand a chance to live up to or exceed the expectations. Even if your music on its own is quite good, it will most likely not have a chance against the music of established composers who work with huge budgets to record and produce. The other problem is that having a demo that consists of rescored scenes will simply say: “Hey, I have so much time because nobody hires me that I can spend days to rescore scenes from other movies.” which is not really something a potential client is looking for. For them, people who are constantly busy doing jobs are way more attractive. The problem is that particularly such demos are without a doubt identifiable as “I got no job and I am bored.” Even if you just used that music without picture to demo your work, it could be a track from an actual project and the client wouldn’t know. So the bottom line is: It is great practice to try and rescore scenes from blockbusters but there are several reasons why you shouldn’t use them in connection with the video as demo to get jobs.  However you still might use them as pure audio demos.

#general

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10/10/14: String instruments in particular have a very rich harmonic spectrum meaning that besides their “played” pitch, a whole set of harmonics will sound quite prominently as well. This applies particularly for the next few harmonics being an octave, an octave and a fifth and two octaves above the sounding pitch. The higher ones are sounding as well but get gradually softer the higher you go. This rich harmonic spectrum is part of the reason why the string section in itself often sounds so massively homogenous that it is often very hard to distinguish individual lines. For composers and orchestrators this property is relevant when voicing chords. There are two essential things to consider: 1.) octaves keep reinforcing themselves. If you have string lines in octaves the harmonics of the lower octave will reinforce the sound of the higher octave which in general will give you a more substantial sound. This also means having a chord where the highest violin note (possibly in small numbers (e.g. due to divisi or simply small line-up)) is not doubled an octave lower, there might be a tendency of this note becoming thin and shrill. 2.) Which is applied quite often in other contexts as well but works particularly well with strings: leaving out the fifth of the chord in the voicing. If you for instance need to have a 5-part chord sounding in a string quartet and you don’t want to use any double stops, an easy strategy is to leave the fifth of the chord out and plan it in as a “ghost note” from the fundamental. If your cello plays the the fundamental of the chord, you can count in the fact that there will be a quite strong sound of the fifth an octave+fifth above that sounding fundamental. This works better in softer dynamics than it does in louder ones (the louder the more off the balance becomes as the harmonic will not be able to carry that well anymore) but is a very easy way to get a full sounding chord with fewer notes than actually needed.

#orchestration

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10/09/14: If you can not mock-up an instrument convincingly in a piece (that eventually will end up without recording of real instruments in a score) due to the lack of decent libraries or just out of the fact that this instrument can not be simulated convincingly, you should rather leave it out and replace it by something else. Even if the rest of your mockup is convincing, just one element that sounds like “plastic” will diminish the overal effect of your production. Generally, when you need to write a score that will only be produced with samples, don’t be too adventurous on your writing but rather know what (your) samples are capable of and write as effective as possible for them. Even if your orchestration is stellar and would sound fabulous with real instruments, it will not be capable of compensating a mockup that sounds partially fake because your adventurous orchestration can not be reproduced with samples. Customers often find music bad because it’s not sounding convincing to them and often don’t find things as bad that sound convincing but might not be as detailed in orchestration.

#technical

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10/08/14: In final V-I cadences of a melody but also of a piece, especially when the melody also lands on the root note, sometimes it just feels too boring to go straight for the tonic again. A very common way to make this more interesting is to delay the tonic for a while. There are quite a few very common ways that keep appearing and work quite effectively. So for instance instead of doing a G7-C (with C in the melody on the C chord), you could also go G7-Dbmaj7(with c on top) and then to C, or G7-Ab-Bbadd9-C, or G7-F-C/E-Dm7-C. You could also come up with your own way including more complex chords that include the melody c.

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10/07/14: One of the most annoying things are misleading briefs by clients. It’s not too uncommon to get a temp track or a comment by a client that completely sets you on the wrong track of what they actually want. One classic is the temp track which you understand as the way you are supposed to go musically but actually the client only likes a certain instrumental combination, or one musical element from it that he/she wants you to incorporate into your work but forgets or is not musically literate enough to communicate that properly. One also very popular possibility to be thrown off completely is musically uneducated clients trying to communicate in musical terms and throwing words around they think mean something specific they want but actually mean something completely different. There is no real recipe against such misunderstandings, the only thing that helps a little is to ask many questions, if possible also “trap” questions that might shed a light from a different angle on what the client said. This is all part of the job and starting out composers can get really frustrated by that also doubting their communicative skills but there always is once in a while that client where this happens, also to the most professional composers. So get used to it and most importantly react professionally on it. For instance it is a very very bad idea to embarrass or lecture your client over his/her shortcomings in musical understanding even if you could. Just deal with it and let it go.

#filmscoring

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10/06/14: Once you’ve finished a project that is rather big for you considering your portfolio, don’t fall in the state of “Now, I’ve done this, time to relax a bit.”  Use the momentum of the project and try to aquire new jobs. It is much easier to push open doors with things like “Yes, I’ve just done *major project X*, maybe you have heard about it on TV/Cinema/Website etc.?” Even if you haven’t done a single job worth mentioning befor that project, being in the position of saying something like this makes you appear like “Wow, this guy seems to be busy getting the big gigs, we should consider hiring him.” Even if you do this just a few months or even weeks after your project, the momentum gets lost quite considerably. Things like “Half a year ago, I did this one project, maybe you remember?” always have two downsides. 1.) Your possible new customer might not remember even if he/she noticed your project when it was hot. and 2.) That provokes the question or thought “So, you haven’t done anything (worth mentioning) in the last half year? Seems like you’re not really big in the business.” So never rest once you’ve completed a cool project but use it to move yourself forward.

#general

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10/03/14: High entrances out of the blue are a nightmare for every brass player and particularly tricky for horns (due to the way they produce their tones). The chances are quite high they the tone will be missed or there will be a split in the unison sound or the attack of the tone is not spot on. This is practically gambling for the player and is nothing that can be overcome with professionalism. Even the best players on earth will miss some of these entrances. Without going too much into detail why this is happening, the essential thing is that you try to avoid that unless it is absolutely necessary. It makes life for your players way easier if you gradually lead them to these high notes. Have a mid high entrance one or two bars earlier and gradually move them higher up will make the chance of them hitting it right much higher.

#orchestration

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10/02/14: When you’re working with true legato sample patches (where the transitions between notes have been sampled as well) be aware that depending on the instruments, the lines will always feel more or less late. Real players will always play in the way that they have reached the target note on its rhythmical value having the transition slightly before that while the MIDI event that might be sitting right on the downbeat will trigger the transition at that point reaching the target note slightly late. So it is always wise to pull the midi events on such patches a little early to compensate for that.

#technical

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10/01/14: One of the things you should keep an eye on when writing music is the form of your melody. Very often, inexperienced composers fall into repeating short-breathed almost identical 2-bar phrases. While it is perfectly fine to do that once in a while and in the appropriate situation, it will prevent a melody to bring across a long melodic arc, even though the repeating “chunks” might form a 8- or even 16 bar melody. Essentially most longer melodies are sub-dividable. For instance very often you might find that 8 bar melodies can be subdivided into two groups of four bars or even four groups of two bars. However successful melodies also manage to variate their elements enough to stay interesting. If you keep repeating the same rhythmic 2 bar model four times and just change a few pitches, you will actually end up with an eight bar melody, however it will feel quite unmusical and uninteresting. So if you’ve come up with a cool head motif for your melody, keep an eye on whether you incorporate enough variation and different elements to keep it interesting. By the way, that doesn’t mean to not repeat at all. In fact, repetition is one of the strongest elements in music. Just make sure to find a good middleground between “Yeah, cool, that motif again!” and “Oh no, that motif AGAIN!”

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09/30/14: The exact placement of musical hit points is very often a matter of psychology and should be done quite carefully. On quite a few hit points it’s not the most effective thing to place the musical accent exactly on the visual action but rather prefereable to leave bit of time to let it “sink in” with the audience.  This is particularly important on musical reactions on things that are a little more complex to understand. e.g. in a dialogue scene where a character says a “game changing” sentence but you simply need one or two seconds to understand and realize what it means that he/she just said. In this case, you don’t want to be too early with the reaction in the music but give it a moment and then follow the reaction time of the audience or the other character in this dialogue. Of course there are also hits that need to be dead on like explosions etc., something that is clear from the visual impact and doesn’t need a lot of “processing”. But when you’re laying out hit points to a sequence put some thought where it would be best to place them.

#filmscoring

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09/29/14: This one seems like a no-brainer but actually listen to music. It is very often surprising how little time professional musicians and composers spend listening to music other than their own. “When I leave the studio in the evening, I don’t want to hear a single song or track anymore.” is one of the sentences I’ve heard quite several times and while this point is understandable when working long hours in a studio on time consuming projects, not listening to any music at all is probably one of the worst things you can do as a composer. Not only does it mean that you will not get any input and possible thought provoking new influences but you will eventually miss the development of music, which is one factor that is crucial when working in the field of media music. Besides that, not listening to music is also a step in the direction of actually losing the fun in music. Make it a habit to listen to music, in your car, while working out, while having dinner etc. but also make it a habit to sit down once in a while and actually listen consciously and with your full attention to music. Don’t just listen to music that you instantly enjoy but also try listening to things that are outside of your comfort zone. In my opinion all that is not just a simple “Yeah, I’ll do it when I got time.” but rather one of the most important things when being a composer.

#general

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09/26/14: When orchestrating music, one of my favorite strategies is to orchestrate from most important to least important which means that you start off with the element that you need to be perceived as the main idea and work your way down to the “filling texture”. This of course doesn’t eliminate to have a general plan on how you want to orchestrate that passage but it makes orchestrating work pretty time effective. This strategy follows the differently weighed layers that your listener will perceive when hearing the music. If the thing that you want the audience to focus most on is in the brass, make sure to orchestrate that first and make it as punchy as needed, things that are less important (side lines, accompanying figures etc.) can be done after that and you will also get a better idea of how to interweave the less important things into the main idea. If you want to have your main idea in the woodwinds but still want to use the usually way louder brass section, with a bit of orchestration experience you automatically will use the brass very carefully and soft in dynamics after you have worked out the main idea in the woodwinds and don’t run into danger of overpowering your main idea just because you started with brass and figured out that your woodwinds will not have a chance against that and need to rework it. This concept applies for written orchestration but also for orchestration in a DAW with a well balanced template.

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09/25/14: 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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09/24/14: Melody writing has a lot to do with melodic tension and proper resolution. Usually, the degree of tension is determined by the underlaying chord. An f in the melody over a C major chord has a strong tension and wants to resolve stepwise upwards to the g or downwards to the e, of which both are chord tones. Jumping away from this f to another tension note will feel melodically weaker and not much plausible to the ear. Also if that happens over a chord change and jumping from one tension into a new tension note over a new chord will usually feel pretty awkward. Jumping away from a tension note to a chord tone that is not a step away is melodically possible but can also feel melodically weak. When you’re writing melodies, you should always have an eye at the degree of tension certain notes have with the underlaying chord. Of course this is again depending on style. For instance Jazz tunes generally prefer to stay in quite strong tensions while other music tries to avoid tensions as much as possible, so your musical language is defining of how much might still be possible and plausible and when it feels musically and melodically disconnected. There are also a few other limitations to that guideline but it’s a good rule of thumb.

#composition

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09/23/14: One of the most challenging scoring approaches is comedy scoring as there is always a very thin line between actually being funny and getting silly. As there are so many different layers of humor between extremely subtle pun humour and overblown slapstick humor hitting the right tone is not always easy. Many inexperienced composers tend to overscore the humor factor which has the completely opposing effect to what is desired and feels like explaining the point of a joke. A usually quite often working approach to score comedy is to take it dead serious which will make the joke of these moments very often even funnier. But that too is not a general recipe to score such scenes. The most important thing is to rather be understating in comedy situations than overscoring it.

#filmscoring

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09/22/14: So-called typecasting happens quite quickly and is a very annoying situation for most composers or practically any creative person. Once you have a notable success in a genre or in a job, most probably follow-up jobs will be more or less of the same kind. “I heard your fantastic horror movie score in XY, i’m shooting a horror movie, do you want to score it?” or offers like that will be very often heard. Some people feel very comfortable putting all their effort into one specific genre or style of writing, while many others get annoyed by this. Looking at the portfolio of some major Hollywood composers reveals that even the big names aren’t safe from being typecasted. If you want to avoid that, you have to become active and sometimes prefer smaller jobs of a “new kind” over bigger jobs of potentially typecasting dangerous projects. Of course, financial reasons are often a major argument but the most important thing here is, that if you want to avoid being typecasted, you can’t stay passive with an attitude of “Oh well, I’m sure other projects will come.” At a certain point, when you have a diverse portfolio, the hassle of working against the typecasting problem will solve itself as the follow-up projects will most likely remain just as diverse.

#general

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09/19/14: 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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09/18/14: Combining sample libraries or recordings that have been recorded in different rooms with different ambiences in one piece is usually not that much of a problem as some people think or make believe. Especially in more tutti situations it is very tricky to hear the different rooms anymore (unless you’re combining pratically dry samples with samples that are very wet from the beginning, in this case you might want to use a reverb on the dry ones). If you’re combining room sounds in a more exposed way (e.g. solistic lines) it becomes a little more tricky but helps to add the same reverb to all signals (and adjust according to how wet the individual signals were) which is also something that helps in the tutti situation to give it a bit more of a uniform sound. Be aware that that argument of “You should not combine different rooms because it might sound problematic” is mainly an argument that sample developers like to use in order to have a selling point to make you purchase a whole line of samples that have been recorded in the same room. In reality, I haven’t experienced many problems from combining different libraries.

#technical

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09/17/14: There very often seems to be a battle of arguments between different groups of composers whether one should be well versed in music theory or not and both sides use self justifying arguments to prove their point. The important thing that is to know about music theory knowledge is that it is just a tool. Having a profound knowledge about music theory will not make you a better composer as not having it will not make you a worse composer. In fact developing an understanding of music that only lives in the traditional boundaries of music theory can prevent you from ever thinking outside the box while doing everything by feeling and ear can tremendously slow you down on things where people with good theoretic knowledge find a way in an instant. The ideal way to compose is to simply have the music flow out of you and simply write what you’re hearing in your head, subconsciously following the theory. To that point it doesn’t make much of a difference whether you know your theory and understand what you’re doing subconsciously or not. The one point where theory knowledge comes much in handy is when you reach a point where you’re getting stuck and don’t know how to continue your piece. In these cases falling back to the theory and simply knowing “theoretically I could go on like this or this or this or this, let me try what works best” will give you very often a very quick and effective way out while people without that knowledge need to struggle out of this blockage by using trial and error. So the bottom line is that knowing theory is quite important, helps you to get quicker and more effective results and gives you a fundament to communicate about music on a deeper level. However, if you have a strong musical imagination, theory doesn’t have that strong importance on composition as some academically trained know-it-alls like to make believe.

#composition

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09/16/14: Sometimes, the description of what the client wants your track to sound like is very vague, ambiguos or even not understandable at all. In such cases instead of guessing and shooting into the blue, it always helps to send over a few existing reference tracks that might go along with what they want and let them pick which one is closest. This might take a little while at the beginning but will save you a lot of time with trial and error.

#filmscoring

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09/15/14: Nothing beats face-to-face meeting. Even though the internet and Skype have made it possible to work on a project over long distances without constant personal meetings, meeting a client in person and spending an evening together at a restaurant or bar will most of the time make a big difference in your working relationship. If you are a person that is generally fun to hang out with such a personal meeting will most likely do more for your career and future projects than months of writing emails. So as a general advice, whenever you have the chance of meeting a client in person that you want to work with on more projects it might be even worth doing some extra effort to meet them (even if it involves a trip that wouldn’t be 100% necessary).

#general

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09/12/14: There are a few commonly seen misconceptions about woodwind and string runs and their use and notation so keep the following things in mind: 1.) The purpose of a run is to create a blurry swirling effect without being able to actually hear the individual notes in the run clearly which needs a more or less specific number of notes in a certain time, trying to get a run at 100bpm with sixteenth notes will not give you the impression of a run but the impression of a melodic idea. Trying to do 32-notes at tempo 180 will especially on the strings give you a glissando sound and not the actual feeling of a run. So keep the speed of your run at reasonable rates. 2.) Runs need to have a purpose. There hardly ever is a good reason to have a woodwind run that does nothing and most of the time feels superimposed to have that. That said, there are some moments where this sounds good, but most of the time it doesn’t. Make sure your runs lead somewhere, may it be an accent or a new downbeat but don’t simply use them in the middle of a bar with no apparent reason. 3.) Runs are not glissandos and should not be notated like that. It is bad notation to simply write two notes and connect them with a wavy or straight line to indicate a run. It is always important to be in the right scale, so when you are in C minor and your player connects the two notes by going over the C major scale, it will sound very noisy and somehow strange. So runs need to be notated. 4.) It is perfectly fine to use strangely looking tuplets on runs, especially the 7-tuplet is great as it covers exactly one octave when being followed by a target note. Don’t worry about it feeling rhythmically akward as it will be a gesture anyway without being able to hear individual notes distinctively.

#orchestration

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09/11/14: There are quite a few people who spend a considerable amount of time in cleaning tracks from real recordings and trying to remove all noises. While to a certain extent this is a good idea, remember that “natural” noises are part of what makes a recording organic and real. Things like key clicks, breath noises, briefly hitting a neighboring string on string instruments, bow noises etc. are part of the sound of acoustic instruments and for the sake of sounding natural should remain in your recordings and only really problematic and loud noises should be removed.

#technical

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09/10/14: 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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09/09/14: 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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09/08/14: In the excitement of getting to start working on a project, it is not uncommon to forget to negotiate about smaller things that in the end might become reason for frustration. One of these things is your credit. Not negotiating the place and way you will be credited beforehand might become really frustrating for up and coming composers as they might be buried in tiny font in the end credits roll etc. So negotiate such things beforehand so nobody gets surprised. On the other hand, prominent on screen credits are a nice push for the ego and a nice way of appreciation of your work, but they are nothing more than that. I personally haven’t gotten any job by somebody calling me up telling me they saw my name on the title credits nor do I know any composer who has. It is way more important to have done that project and have it as a part of your references and when googling about the project finding your name than having it written in 5 feet letters on the screen. So in general, it is of course nice and also important to get a proper on screen credit, but there are more important things in your career than that.

#general

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09/05/14: 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 become 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 point 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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09/04/14: Whenever you’re working for any projects that are at one point going to be shown in cinemas, make sure that the monitoring situation where you mix them is equipped to get a clear image of the very low end of the frequency spectrum. Many “traditional” and especially orchestral mixing studios are not equipped accordingly as normal orchestral instruments hardly every produce any frequencies below 35Hz. This is a very common weakness in not high end mixes that this range is lacking complete control because it is not properly played back in the monitoring situation. In cinemas that problem will be magnified as most cinemas are equipped with a decent amount of subwoofers, where either the lack of “low end punch” or the complete overpowering of this register will be obvious. This is also the reason why very often composers are quite surprised about how different their music sounds in the cinema than what they thought it would sound. So investing in a good subwoofer is practically mandatory when working on cinematic stuff unless you have monitors that can cover that range without loss of volume (which small speakers can’t do for purely physical reasons).

#technical

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09/03/14: There is quite a bit of (old) literature on the psychological feeling of different key signatures which some people keep following these days still. With the advent of tempered tuning, there is theoretically no difference between the different keys, so as long as you keep it on a neutral instrument (e.g. piano), all keys are practically equal. However when modulating to keys, there is mostly a psychological effect of feeling more brightness when modulating towards sharp key signatures and more darkness when modulating towards flat signatures. It all gets very different when “non neutral” instruments are involved. With an orchestra, different keys can sound incredibly different as they are depending on the resonance of the individual instruments, so the key signature characteristics really are still important there and should be part of every composer’s decision when writing.

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09/02/14: Unless you get to work on long-term projects alot, being a composer for the media quite often also means organizing and juggling several things and projects at once. While this is not just a challenge from the standpoint of keeping an overview over all the things, it is also challenging to constantly reset your mind to a different project when you need to switch. If possible working constantly on one project for one day and switching to the other one the next day is probably the most effective option, however very often you need to work on several things on the same day. While some people don’t have a problem at all with switching instantly to something else, others really struggle doing that. Still it seems to be something that you can train and get better at. Of course, try making things as easy as possible by for instance placing your meals breaks between two projects so you don’t need to switch instantly but have a few minutes to just get into the “state of mind” for the next project. An upside of this is that sometimes it really helps to stay creative, as you could use these several projects to simply switch to something else when you’re stuck or tired of one projec and get back to it later.

#general

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08/29/14: One of the things that makes music interesting and lively is variety in articulation and phrasing. Many composers coming from the sample world hardly ever think about whether a line might work better having it not completely in staccato or not completely legato. Still, the difference of sound in possible variations is quite  big. Just imagine a musical phrase of 4 eighth notes and sing or imagine possible variations of this. All 4 staccato, all 4 legato, first two legato second two stacc, first two stacc. second two legato. first note staccato, second to fourth legato with an accent on the second. All of these will feel and sound very different and especially the ones with mixed articulations will have a more musical feeling than the static articulations. Even though it might seem a little strange but it is really worth the time and effort to sing through a phrase that you’re just writing with possible different articulations to find the best or most interesting one. Of course, programming mixed articulation lines with samples is a nightmare and takes a lot of time but it is really worth the extra mile.

#orchestration

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08/28/14: 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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08/27/14: 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 ssimply 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. (By the way, this concept can be found in many areas, another one being “The Simpsons” which for instance appeal to kids with slapstick humor but also to grown ups with political and social humor).

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08/26/14: Sometimes, brief moments of silence in a cue can have a wonderful effect and create lots of dynamic. The concept of inserting silent moments or even silent bars works especially well in comedy and adventure scoring. Great moments to stop the music are for example “thinking pauses” where the character/audience waits for a reaction of another character on something. Also, comedyesque sneaking scenes are perfect for such moments where the music doubles the movement (playing on “visual” movement, stopping on waiting/looking around moments). A cue that is executed and timed well in such a style can create a fantastic, lively and dynamic scoring atmosphere. However, make sure that (unless it is a very surprising moment) the “stop/start moments” are musically plausible (e.g. harmonically stopping on a dominant situation – pause – continue on tonic) and that the pauses are not too long to lose the musical relation and rhythmical pulse. Also, as with everything, make sure not to overuse this effect as it can become annoying as well.

#filmscoring

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08/25/14: A quite common problem with clients is the question when a project is too small to negotiate a contract for it. While it is clear that there should always be a contract on larger projects, on smaller projects it often feels inappropriate to ask for a contract or you might think that asking for it will scare off the client because it is “too complicated” to work with you. The truth is, that it is also in the interest of the client to have a contract and the general rule is to better have a contract on as much as possible. In my opinion the only projects where it doesn’t necessarily need a contract are the ones you do for clients that you know already and have a history of successful projects with and that are simple “paid and done” jobs. On any job that will have royalty revenues or license fees of any sort, there is practically no way around a contract. Also, on every new client, I would ask for a contract, just to make sure you get what both parties agreed on after the job is done. Still, trust your gut feeling. If something feels strange about a project, secure it with a contract beforehand. If you work with a friend whom you totally trust  he/she will do what has been agreed on verbally, you might also decide to not work with a contract on a larger project. Still, with contracts it is better to be safe than sorry.

#general

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08/22/14: One of the biggest misconceptions about orchestration is that people who just start to learn it think there is a definite set of rules to follow by in a way of “If situation x then always do y.” There are no such things as “Top orchestration advices” or “Do’s and Don’ts about orchestration.” There are of course a few specific limits and things to follow by but knowing them doesn’t make you into a great orchestrator in an instant. The most important thing to know is that orchestration is massively depending on context. The very same decision that works great in one context may be disastrous in another one. So it is wrong to begin with to ask questions like “How does one orchestrate the brass?”. A more appropriate question would be “How do I orchestrate the Brass if I want to create something that feels like the first 8 bars from the Star Wars Main Theme?” Applying the concepts of Brass orchestration from this passage to general Brass orchestration will simply not work as orchestrating the Brass like this in a sweepy love theme or a delicate drama cue will simply not be appropriate. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Following that road there will also be a difference of how to orchestrate that beginning Bb major chord of the Star Wars Main Theme if it was G major instead. Orchestration is a series of microscopic decisions that are picked according to context and not by following a list that has all the general rules on it. The essence about this rant is to understand that there simply is no shorter way to learning orchestration than gaining years of experience to simply know or have a feeling for what to do in which context.

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08/21/14: The romantic image of the film composer sitting in his composing room at the piano writing score sheets with pencil on paper and presenting everything just on piano is not true today anymore, no matter how you feel about it. In the current days you need to have a technical understanding and the ability to work with the technology. These days it is generally expected to deliver a decent mockup before any scoring session plus the current music style with many hybrid and especially synth elements make it even more necessary to master the technology. While it is totally understandable that many composers aim to one day be able to write their music with pencil and paper, it is nothing that is practical in the industry anymore today. However the attitude of many composers who just start out to simply want to write music without dealing with any technology is guaranteed to not work out in the industry of current times. Only higher up in the game, you might have the comfort again to outsource the technical things again but still it is mandatory to know how they work.

#technical

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08/20/14: Doubling melodies in thirds or sixths (e.g. first violins playing the main melody while 2nd violins double in a third below) is in general something that is musically quite effective, however it is quite problematic on the taste level as it very often sounds cheesy and very old fashioned. This is especially problematic on melodies that move rhythmically quite quickly while it is practically no problem on melodies that are rather slow moving. It gets even more problematic if these two voices are texturally exposed (as described in the example above). If you double in complete chords with more instruments, it is stylistically not that problematic however might become quite thick on the orchestration side of things.

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08/19/14: On rhythmically active music, tempo changes are quite obvious and can drag so much attention on themselves that they might not be appropriate in certain scoring situations. But of course they might be necessary as the scene changes pace etc. A good way to get more smooth tempo transitions is to disguise them. A very common way is to hold a chord/note for one/two bars without any pulse and then continue in the new tempo. That little gap will smoothen out the transition a bit as it avoids a radical contrast. Disguise is always possible by stopping or making a rhythmical pulse more ambiguous before going to the new tempo. Another thing that might make it more smooth is to change into a tempo that is related to the old tempo with doubling or halve being the smoothest one. But also plausible fractions like “old dotted quarter length becoming the length of new quarter” will feel quite natural. It might also be noted that in some cases contrasting tempos are actually a quite clever and well working idea.

#filmscoring

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08/18/14: Estimating your working speed on a particular project beforehand is also difficult for quite experienced composers. However it is probably one of the most frequently needed things to do when working in the industry. Even if you know your working speed quite well and work very constantly, the style of music  might change your output dramatically. Doing busy action scoring might have a very different output rate than sustaining string pads. So before you tell your client an estimate, try to get as much information about the project as you can. There’s probably nothing more frustrating when finding out that one needs to work under massive pressure and it is one’s own fault because of bad time estimation.

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08/15/14: 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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08/14/14: Applying radically different reverbs to different instruments in the same cue or recording instruments in different spaces has become very common these days.  This has very often something to do with practical things (e.g. you don’t want to drown the drum kit in the same orchestral reverb than the orchestral instrument) to keep a certain transparency in the mix but also sometimes is a purely artistic decision to create a specific sound. One of my favorite examples for radically different reverbs/rooms on different instruments is James Newton Howard’s Main Title to SIGNS where the solo violins are very “on the nose” and upfront in the mix while the orchestra is quite far back in the room (especially noticeable on the horn staccatos). The old argument that the mix will fall apart sonically when you work like this is still partially plausible, though. In this cue it feels quite like an inhomogenous mixture, however this is obviously intended. With hybrid productions and band instruments entering orchestral mix, it is mandatory to keep them in a different space in order to give them punch and presence. What happens if you have them recorded in the same acoustical space (either actually physically or by adding the same orchestral reverb later) can be heard in many recordings like for example this one. Of course this creates a specific nostalgic sound but neither the bass nor the drums have any punch at all.

#technical

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08/13/14: There is hardly a more effective and important concept in music than voice leading, which means at its basic form to move the individual voices by the shortest distance possible to the next chord, ideally in chromatic or diatonic steps. Our ear responds so strongly to that concept that everything that follows it feels more or less musically plausible. By knowing that you can make the weirdest chord progressions plausible to the ear as long as you move as many voices as possible in chromatic steps. Also, chromatically or diatonically descending or ascending bass lines make practically every chord progression plausible to the ear. But also in a normal context, chords that are connected by proper voice leading create a way more musical feeling than chords that simply jump around. So even if you decide to not use that concept as composition tool, always try to make sure that your voices move in plausible ways to the next chord.

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08/12/14: One quite often ignored danger in film scoring is the overuse of one particular theme. Especially inexperienced composers try to squeeze in their protagonist’s theme practically everywhere into the score which is most likely too much even for the most attractive theme. You don’t want to have your audience feeling “Oh no, not that melody again.” So remember to use themes for dramatic purposes and not just because that particular character is in frame.

#filmscoring

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08/11/14: 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.

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08/08/14: Remember that just because something is theoretically possible on an instrument doesn’t necessarily mean it is a particularly clever idea to use it. For instance for most instruments the extreme registers (high AND low) are increasingly difficult to handle but also develop an increasingly unpleasant sound. You need a really plausible reason for using these registers. Also, imagine being the musician who is constantly being forced to play notes that are very tricky to produce or sound bad on your instrument. This would be a good chance for getting frustrated. It get’s even worse and more frustrating if you write super tricky things for your musicians to create an effect or sound that could be achieved almost exactly like this by changing a few things around and making things more idiomatic and easier to play for your players. So unless you have a really specific reason to ask your players to play something tricky or not great sounding, stay in idiomatic writing and use your instruments in ranges that are more controllable and better sounding. The overall sound of your piece will benefit from that as well.

#orchestration

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08/07/14: One often heard problem with mockups but also with real orchestra recordings are small timing issues. Some sample libraries are edited not very precisely, so especially on short notes you might have audible delays. If these patches come with round robins that are not constantly “off” it gets even more complicated. If all samples are a little late, of course offsetting the track by a few ms might help to place the impulse of highest energy of the note to the desired rhythmic point, if it keeps altering the only way would be to bounce it to audio and manually edit these passages. This might seem like a small issue but especially with everybody these days trying to mimick the “Hans Zimmer Staccato Strings” precise machine-like timing is essential on these things. If your samples are inconsistent and off, the whole effect will get lost. So once in a while it might be worth the extra struggle of editing things. With real orchestra recordings being off it gets a little trickier. A while ago I already described the small trick to edit and adjust the timing on the spot mics of the “off” instruments and leave the tree signal untouched which helps more than you might think but only with timing issues within a quite small time range, if you overdo it you get audible “delay” effects.

#technical

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08/06/14: Accompaniment patterns should never be just static ideas that keep repeating unless you are going for a particularly minimalistic effect. It always feels way more musical when such accompaniment patterns carry a melodic idea within itself, even if it is just a small melodic gesture that keeps breaking it up from being a mechanically repeating figure. So if you’re for example using chord arpeggios to accompany a section, try to give these arpeggios a little bit more of a melodic idea, give them maybe a development in waves over a few bars etc.

#composition

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08/05/14: 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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08/04/14: Getting an agent seems for many starting out composers 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.

#general

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08/01/14: One of the most overused things in midi mockups are true legato and even worse: portamento patches. With everybody using these patches overly extensive the result is very often a piece that sounds like chewing gum. Realize that these things are considered bad taste amongst musicians. String players for instance would hardly every play a portamento and only do that in very specific individual transitions. Brass players on the other hand very rarely play a real legato, especially in ensemble lines there is most often a quite deliberate separation of the notes. Be aware that legato is not the default playing technique for every player. The only section that quite often plays real legato is the strings and even then it is tried to keep the actual transitions rather short and tasteful.

#orchestration

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07/31/14: There are probably thousands of philosophy of how to add reverb to a recording. Especially with orchestral tracks, many people are concerned about creating a proper field of depth within the orchestra and create a proper impression of distances of the instruments. Mixing strategies go from putting an individual reverb on every track to putting a reverb on the sum and anything in between. So there doesn’t really seem to be one right way. However don’t go for the first reverb you get under your fingers. A bad reverb can ruin a perfectly fine recording. Here are a few strategies with reverbs that I observed with mixing engineers or heard about, not necessarily to use them but giving them a try and see whether you like them: 1.) Low cut the signal before you send it into the reverb to avoid low frequency mud. 2.) Use several sends of the same reverb but EQ these reverbs differently so you have a darker and a brighter version of the same reverb and can use them according to mood (and automate them). 3.) Automate the amount of reverb and/or add additional reverb just for special passages on special instruments. E.g. instrumental solos benefit from having a bit more reverb on the spot mic while they play. 4.) Combine different reverbs as sends (often an IR reverb and a processed reverb) to have flexibility on the “air”.

#technical

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07/30/14: One strategy of finding a plausible way to a specific chord or to a key change is to work backwards from the target chord. This works particularly well if the music that you’re writing is mainly cadential harmony as you can simply look at your target chord (let’s say C) and find a way to it by adding a dominant chord before that (G(7)), if you now look at that dominant chord, you could either place a IV(F) chord in front of that or a ii(Dm) and so on. There are of course several paths that you could use. The advantage of working backwards is that it is easier to find strong chord relations. As mentioned before, this works very good with classical cadential harmony but also works in a more filmic context by using “filmic cadences” (such as bVI bVII I etc.) while the strategy of working backwards remains the same.

#composition

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07/29/14: The nightmare for all composers is a new edit of the movie or scene after you’re done scoring but unfortunately, with digital editing this happens quite often these days. There are several ways to adjust a cue after things have been edited again and while none of them are really optimal, depending on the complexity of the edits, you can sometimes even get through with almost the exact version of your old cue. Here are some things to try to make it fit. 1: Try the old cue exactly and see if it maybe even still fits and you just need to make it a bit longer or shorter. 2. Try adjusting the tempos slightly (within the range of +/- 5bpm) and see if that works. 3. Don’t cut out single bars from 8 bar patterns etc as this often will feel very strange, try to keep internal forms and maybe shorten it to 4 bars and recompose 3 bars as a “new idea” 4. Shift the beginning of the cue to a slightly new point to make up for small offsets. 5. Insert single irregular bars in positions where it is not rhythmically noticeable. There are of course way more possibilities but they are depending on the specific cue. The above mentioned methods usually work an any cue if you use them elegantly.

#filmscoring

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07/28/14: The life and job of a composer working in the media world needs to be quite focussed on delivering something in time and therefore self discipline is a very essential thing. Being self employed might lead quite a few people into having unstructured working days with shifting sleep patterns, irregular food intake etc. While that is sustainable for a while, eventually it will have an effect either on your health, your productivity or your psychic well being. Developing a self discipline and certain daily routines is essential in this job. Practically every successful composer in this field has quite structured and routined working patterns. That doesn’t mean you need to lead a 9 to 5 life (even though it might be better compatible with the lives of people around you) but the essence here is to maintain a consequent pattern how you structurize your day. Of course there might be the once in a while super stressful project where you need to throw your structure over board but there is a massive difference in having such a life for a few days or having it constantly.

#general

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07/25/14: One of the really easy ways to create colour in an orchestral arrangement is to switch between having a brief switch between a single line melody and a chordal melody. Many learning orchestrators leave the configuration of their orchestration quite intact for most of a passage, meaning that for instance strings remain in their function as an accompaniment while the trumpets play the melody in unison on top. However switching the trumpets into a chordal melody on specific spots gives a really nice colour. One of the most prominent examples for that is the STAR WARS Main Theme. The melody on the first theme statement does exactly what I described before. The trumpets play the main theme in unison, however the final 4 notes of the A-theme (in the video above at exactly 0:25) are not the trumpets in unison but split into chords. Just this brief moment creates a very nice colour counterpoint just by switching the way how the instruments are arranged with still using the same instrumental colours and not having a too radical shift there.

#orchestration

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07/24/14: This is probably one of the oldest computer advices but there still seem to be people who ignore or forgot it: never update any software or your system etc. during a project. Every update you do has a risk that something will not work afterwards which is not what you can afford during a project. There are still composers who get excited because they realize that their software now has a function they were always looking for and update in the middle of a project and suddenly need to spend several hours or even days to get it back to work. So make sure that you update only when you actually have time to fix things of something goes wrong.

#technical

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07/23/14: 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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07/22/14: Using well-known musical pieces or melodies in a film score (even if they are public domain) can become quite problematic as everybody will have a personal association with that well known piece. What’s even worse will be the effect with the audience of “Wait, I know that tune, where is that from?” completely pulling them out of the story of the movie. So unless you don’t have a really plausible reason or concept to use well known pieces, you should try to avoid it as it is a high risk factor of pulling the audience out of the story.

#filmscoring

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07/21/14: Many composers need a while to get “into the zone” in order to compose something and be creative and often need that time again after they have been interrupted by a phone call or something like that. The problem is that with time sensitive projects one simply cannot allow oneself to take that much of time. Things get even worse with having a studio at home where the strict separation between work and home is more problematic. However, there are a few methods how you can get your brain to get into the creative state more quickly, by doing rituals that you can actively execute. For instance, some colleagues drink a special sort of tea when they work which works a little like the Pavlov Effect which in reverse can set the brain into the composing mood when drinking that tea. This works with quite a few rituals however it is important that you exclusively connect them to “being creative”. On the other hand some people simply need a piano under their fingers in order to get into the creative mood while others even could work in a crowded subway.   So it’s highly depending on the personality but if you struggle to quickly make the switch to work, try out to connect an active ritual with it which has helped quite a few people already.

#general

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07/18/14: 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.

#orchestration

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07/17/14: Workplace ergonomics are highly essential and so many composers/producers invest a fortune into the latest gear and software but sit on a chair they bought just for a couple of bucks. However it is not just about the chair but also about reaching and seeing everything conveniently. If your master keyboard is at an awkward height or you need to hold your arms up in order to reach your mouse or anything, this is a guarantee for pain and problems. If your screens are at a strange angle and you need to look up or down to it, it will also cause a lot of problems. Invest some time and money to create the most convenient working environment. Regarding your chair you should make sure it has armrest so you can rest your elbow on it while you work with the mouse or play on the keyboard. Still, the best and most ergonomic work environment will not save you from getting up once in a while and doing at least a little bit of sports in order to stay pain free, especially when you work long hours every day.

#technical

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07/16/14: The melodic quality of voices within a composition is not just important for the actual melody or side melody of a piece but can have a huge influence on the general quality of a piece. For instance the melodic quality of a bass line can make the difference between a chord progression that feels random and a chord progression that feels logical. You can justify almost any strange chord progression to the ear as long as the bass line has a good voice leading. Same applies for inner voices that you don’t necessarily hear as melodic ideas in a dense piece but where you will hear their absence. So whenever you write a piece, don’t just focus on giving the main melody the best possible melodic motion but pay attention to the inner voices and bass line as well. The ideal situation would be where every single instrument in the orchestra has a melodically interesting part to play.

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07/15/14: Themes are not the only thing that can be used to identify characters/locations/situations musically. In fact, using too many themes especially on a genre that usually doesn’t have many themes might just become feeling strangely operatic and even worse, be more confusing due to just too many musical ideas. There are other excellent ways to identify certain things without going the way of thematic overload and which will also feel like a more modern scoring approach. For example using a specific harmonic language or chord progression, using a specific sound or a specific orchestration can create just as strong connections as a theme and works even better on things that don’t neccessarily need to have the option to be used in several musical contexts (what you could do by presenting a theme in different ways). Using such things will in general give you a clearer concept and structure on your score than overloading it with themes in most occasions.

#filmscoring

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07/14/14: Keep and build good relationships with musicians. Not only when you’re working with an orchestra but also with solo musicians in your local area. There will always be this one project coming round the corner where you might need their help, maybe even to work on spec for something. Haaving a big pool of musicians  in your network will make life much easier once there comes a project around where you need that one special instrument or a good solist who can play style x to play on it even though the turnaround time is super fast. With the internet it has become much easier to hunt down special musicians or musicians in general but it still is a much more comfortable situation in times when you need every single minute to compose, when you can just call somebody you know instead of starting to hunt down somebody.

#general

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07/11/14: With every brass and woodwind instrument, there is the general rule that the closer you get to the extreme ranges (low and high), the harder it becomes for the musician to control the tone. Especially dynamics get more and more limited the closer to the extreme ranges you get mostly with the low end being hard to play loud and vice versa on the top end (again with a few exceptions). So when you orchestrate be aware that you get the best control and variety of tone in the comfortable middle register of every instrument, however the extreme registers (preferably the high registers) are often used to create an edgy sound (particularly with brass). Still be aware of the difficulties in these registers and also of the fact that playing in extreme registers is particularly straining for players.

#orchestration

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07/10/14: Software emulations of hardware effects (especially reverbs like Lexicon, Bricasti etc.) usually don’t sound as good as their hardware counterpart even though it is claimed to be the same effect algorithm. The reason for that lies in the fact that to actually mimick the multiple DSPs  that are built into these hardware effects, it would need a big part of an i7 CPU power (around 50-75%) to run a single reverb instance which would be practically uselss for most customers. So many of these effects are slimmed down for use as a VST compromising the sound quality. So even with software solutions advancing tremendously these days, for some things, an outboard solution is still the better and more qualitative choice.

#technical

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07/09/14: Music theory and particularly rules that are set by it are generally a good idea to follow but the most essential things to understand is that nothing of that is written into stone and breaking the rules can sometimes lead to fantastic effects. One classic example is the 11 chord in major. While under “normal” chord structuring circumstances you wouldn’t want to have a chord that has the major third and the regular 11 at the same time (for example THIS chord) as the fourth and major third would clash heavily, there are always examples of where it works absolutely fine and creates an incredibly beautiful sound. One of my favourite examples for this kind of chord is HMYN TO THE FALLEN by John Williams. After the big climax there is a passage of 2 Bassoons and 3 Clarinets playing. The chord happening as the dominant to G exactly at the 5:11 mark in THIS video is exactly THIS voicing with the rub of the 3 and 11 even on top and exposed. Before that chord there is a Cmajor with the g on top already which just keeps ringing into the D-chord and therefore isn’t reached as a surprise but has been prepared which helps alot to smoothen out the dissonance. Still, this wouldn’t work in any context. So the bottom line is to always keep an open mind about unorthodox things that still might work.

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07/08/14: 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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07/07/14: Many customers are still impressed by big studios with impressive blinking outboard gear, large mixing consoles etc. even though practically everything can be done in a computer these days. Especially in the commercial world clients often follow the assumption that impressive studio = great music. So even though you might not need it, there might be some psychological reason to invest into something that makes your studio look more like a studio especially when you often have customers coming over. Of course not all customers get impressed by that and others are actually focused on what you do rather than how your studio looks like but from own experiences and also experiences from colleagues, once in a while the composer with the bigger studio (and worse quality) might get the gig over the one with the modest studio.

#general

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07/04/14: Invest time to deliver correct and good looking parts and scores to your musicians. This has not just a practical reason but just as much a psychological reason. Many errors and cluttery layout are simply not pleasant to read and have a negative effect on the mood of your players. Additionally to that, it is a really annoying psychological situation for any musician if he/she has wrong notes (accidentals missing) and plays an audibly wrong note. Even by playing everything correctly that has been written it might set the psychological pressure on him/her to have the feeling to have messed up. So even if you have a lot of time pressure on writing or have the attitude of wanting to fix things on the stage, it still is a massive mood killer if the players need to play from bad material and even if things get fixed, it will not restore the mood. On the other hand musicians really enjoy playing from well written scores and the result with them playing all the things with confidence will eventually give you better results and better performances.

#orchestration

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07/03/14: Every acoustic instrument makes noises and sometimes these noises even define the authenticity of an instrument (e.g. small (!) fret noises on guitars). This also applies for orchestral instruments. There will always be a small amount of noises on instruments, such as string players briefly hitting a string next to the one they’re just playing, breath noises on brass and wind instruments, key clicks on woodwinds. For instance in a medium tutti, you will often be hearing  the key clicks of the Contra Bassoon more than the actual tone. All these things should influence the way how you produce such music. Depending on where you’re coming from musically, some genres are “clinically” cleaned up not wanting any unplanned noises. However big parts of what makes an acoustic recording authentic are imperfections (not just noises but also intonation differences etc.). Quite a few sample libraries come even with additional noise samples (e.g. breath noises on Woodwind libraries). When you edit or clean up a real recording, consciously leave in some or all of these noises even though it might be technically possible to clean them. You will eventually get a more authentic result with these recordings.

#technical

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07/02/14: One of the things that learning composers unfortunately very often don’t pay a lot of attention to is voicing. The difference between a chord and a voicing is that a chord defines just which notes should sound together while voicing specifically defines where which notes are. Especially with orchestral music, voicings can be crucial. The very same chord can sound disastrous with a bad voicing and spectacular with a good one. So if your strategy of writing chords has so far been of just playing them in a standard triadic form, start experimenting with them. Displace individual tones of the chord by an octave down or up and see how the sound can change dramatically. Try what happens when you consciously double individual tones in different octaves. And then of course experiment with how it sounds to orchestrate voicings differently. The essential thing is to invest some time to find the best sounding voicings and not simply go for the standard root position of the chord.

#composition

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07/01/14: 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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06/30/14: In spite of what many people claim to be the right way to make a living in this field one of the biggest advices I can give and that has proven to work out quite well for me is to specialize. Become the guy who is known to be really good at x and who needs to be called for that. Many composers try to base their career on being able to write in any style for anything. However in the end they do everything a little but nothing right. I always imagine if I was  a customer who needs for instance a rock track for his video/game etc., I wouldn’t call a guy who does everything and also rock but I would call the guy who is the real expert at writing rock tracks. Of course at the beginning of your career you need to take every gig in order to make a living but as soon as you have more freedom, in my opinion it works better to shape your career into one specific way and on top gives you more joy as you focus more on the stuff that you really love.

#general

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06/27/14: There is no lazy shortcut on learning orchestration. I quite often get questions like “How does one use the brass in film music?” or “What are the general rules for getting a filmic sound?”. The answer to all these questions is that it is always context depending. There are no “Top 10 orchestration tricks” or anything like that. These questions are all like “What are the top 10 words of a foreign language that I can use in order to have a conversation?” If you want to become serious about orchestration, there is no short way around studying it properly. The decision of how to handle which instrument always comes from deciding what sound or feeling you want to create. In a specific case one way of handling the instruments could be a brillant idea while in a different case handling them like that would be disastrous. Orchestration is a life long process and even seasoned orchestrators in their 60s that I’ve spoken to have said to me “You know, still every orchestral session is learning something new.”

#orchestration

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06/26/14: A pretty common and easy way to “clean up” a mix that is still often forgotten is to low-cut recordings/samples of high and sometimes even quite low instruments. Many recordings will have rumble noises in the very low register which will be quite messy in a mix. By low-cutting them you get a cleaner mix result. It also might help to low-cut the really low frequencies on the low instruments that not really are audible but still disturb the precision of the mix.

#technical

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06/25/14: In a homogenous sound mixture (e.g. string section) the ear tends to hear the highest line as a melody line. While this concept is not so specific in heterogenous mixtures (e.g. Trumpets playing the melody while Violins are on top of them) there is another issue connected to this which is when you cross your main melody with another melody with similar presence. One of the classic 4 part rules forbids to cross voices in most instances which is not as problematic today anymore (e.g. crossing inner voices) but still it will confuse the ear when your melody gets crossed by another melody that after the crossing is higher (even if just for a short moment). Your ear will try to follow the highest line and will mix up the melody but at the same time become confused. So the general rule is to leave the main melody some space and when you plan on adding a counterpuntal melody to it to not have it cross. Remember that this just applies to melodies that are perceiveable as actual melodies. Crossing accompaniment figures will most often not create any problem.

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06/24/14: As a film composer, it is necessary to train yourself to watch movies analytically. Of course, the first impulse to score a scene should always come from your spontaneous emotions and feelings but especially when working out details or when being stuck at one point, it might help to pay attention to the things that normal viewers only perceive subconsciously. One thing that helps me a lot to define the tone of a scene is to pay attention to the colour scheme of a scene as well as the light/shadows etc. If a scene is more yellow orange and warm you might also want to give it another musical “hue” than it being green/blue. Also special perspective like close ups or bird’s eye shots etc. are always a great thing to orientate your music on. A standard work to read for every film composer should be James Monaco: How to Read a Film which is a great book to gather a basic knowledge about the technical things behind filmmaking as well as esthetical decisions.

#filmscoring

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06/23/14: Many composers are reluctant to outsource parts of their work to somebody else and rather prefer doing all the work themselves. However there are quite a few jobs that usually take a lot of time and that are easily outsourced to someone else. These could be things like part extraction, mockup work, proofreading, preparing sessions etc. The argument of many composers is that outsourcing that work will of course diminish their income which is of course true, especially when you actually have enough time to do it all by yourself. However, I generally outsource a few things on bigger projects to someone else, things like doing mockups for the customers, transcriptions of score sheets or part extraction, but also printing and sorting parts etc as these are parts of the job that I don’t enjoy as much as writing music. My personal reason to do this is that first of all it gives me more time to focus on the work that I really like which will make me mor productive as you’re generally way more productive on jobs that you enjoy. Of course everybody has to find his own way with these things but my personal experience is that outsourcing work in the end makes me more productive and happier in my job which is in my opinion essential in a creative job.

#general

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06/20/14: A quote from an older orchestration book I once read said “The strings are the only instruments the ear doesn’t get tired of after a while.” While I don’t think that is entirely accurate and depending  on context it actually contains another important orchestration advice. The change of instrumental colours is a vital aspect of keeping a piece interesting. Besides of it being a physical strain for most players to play without break, any colour will eventually become boring and uninteresting. Especially with the “standard layout” of these day’s “epic” tracks and trailer stuff with horns playing a theme for minutes it is essential to find something that keeps the track interesting on top of that. With traditional orchestration you would switch sooner or later to another instrument or group. Still there might be a need to change something on your track if you realize that basically the functions of the instruments involved haven’t changed for several minutes.

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06/19/14: Transparency in the mix is a big issue for many pop and radioplay productions and while a general sense of transparency is also important in orchestral music, it is by far not as crucial as in the “pop world”. The orchestra works partially in a way that sounds melt together and create a new texture as well of some instruments just playing to massage the sound but not really being heard distinctively. Especially the woodwinds very often play a role of “augmenting” the sound but not being heard as an individual instrument. People coming to orchestral music from a pop background often try to mix an orchestra in a way that you get to hear practically every detail and every instrument which is not the way an orchestra works and therefore these mixes feel quite unnatural and overly clean. So while it is of course important to not drown everything in mud when mixing orchestral, try keeping an amount of “unspecific substance” in the mix.

#technical

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06/18/14: The whole tone scale (a scale consisting only of whole tones) has a quite open and unfocussed sound that as a film scoring cliché has been used quite a lot to portray weird dreams, drug fantasies and other unreal situations and actually works quite effectively for that. However, the whole tone scale can be used in  mainly two different ways. First of all, you can use it as an actual source of melodic and harmonic ideas writing a piece or a passage in a “whole tone sound” as it is done in THIS PIECE by Claude Debussy. However as the whole tone scale also has a dominant7 chord with a #5 included, it can theoretically be used in any dominant situation, inserting that “whole toney” sound just briefly in an otherwise “normal” composition. A very prominent example is the intro of Stevie Wonder’s YOU ARE THE SUNSHINE OF MY LIFE, where there is the whole tone scale used twice on the dominant chord.

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06/17/14: When you’re communicating with a client about the music for his/her project, be aware that most often there’s no point in using musical terms and even if musical terms are used they might be meant in a different way and therefore misleading. Of course it is important to find a common ground for communication with a client. In my experience, one of the best ways to communicate and still to get a very clear and precise idea for both sides is to ask the question “How do you want this scene/sequence to feel like?”  Asking questions in this way will give you a very precise idea of what your clients expects from the scene and leaves you all the freedom for how to interpret that. Some directors/clients feel the need to try to communicate on a musical basis with you even though they don’t really have a deep knowledge about music. In this case, the communication can become very problematic and misleading while a simple talk about how a scene should feel like, what should be transported emotionally through the music leaves a way clearer impression for both parties.

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06/16/14: There is a probably no answer to the question how a perfect demo reel should be constructed and I see a lot of discussion about that going on. The two most common options are several small tracks labled individually according to genre/mood etc. or one longer track edited together from such passages. While probably both options work equally well one of the more important things is to get to the point quickly. So it’s probably not the best idea to put a 6 min dialogue underscore into a demo reel. However it is usually a good idea to tailor a demo reel specifically for a project. If you’re trying to get a job on an apocalyptic movie, you can definitely get rid of the dramedy tracks from your demo reel. Another important thing is to not overload your demo reel, even if you feel like you have done so many tracks worth showing, make sure to put only the very best into your demo reel. Another question constantly arising is whether to showcase the music with visual context (eg the original scene it came from or just a video that supports the emotion of it). From my personal experience, it doesn’t make much of a difference but there might be other people claiming the opposite thing.

#general

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06/13/14: For everybody coming from a piano background, a trill usually feels quite noisy and dragging a lot of attention on itself due to the many audible attacks of the notes that you get when you do a trill on a piano. This makes many composers coming from this instrument shy away from using trills in their orchestral music. However there are some instruments where a trill can be an extremely subtle and just a little shimmering effect which will give a very effective sound when trying to create shimmering and “boiling” effect. On all string instruments, a soft trill will be very smooth and silky not having any of the noise that you might be used to from the piano. But also woodwinds like the flute and particularly the clarinets (all of them) are capable of creating an incredibly subtle trill which can be used in many ways without being intrusive or attention dragging at all.

#orchestration

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06/12/14: If you’re coming from a classical notation background into the field of scoring for media, you need to adjust your actual way of notating things a little bit to this world. The most important thing is to notate as readable as possible as most of the players will need to do sight reading on your sessions. In spite of some music universities teaching to always write scores “grammatically correct” (e.g. if there’s a chord of D major there shouldn’t be  a Gb anywhere in the score) in the “real world”, if for whatever reason the Gb will be easier to read (e.g. chromatically descending line), go for that Gb. Another more technical issue is to write for the click. Unless you do the quite rare streamers and punches method, you need to go away from musically unprecise notations. Most problematic are fermatas and other “musical breaths” as they can be interpreted differently. In the scoring world, you would avoid such things as much as possible and rather write them out into actual length (e.g. a 4/4 with a fermata on count 4 should rather be notated for instance as a 6/4 with count 4 holding exactly for 3 beats) depending how long you actually want it to hold). So anything that cannot be timed and calculated exactly should not be used in the notation for film scoring. Exceptions are of course aleatoric passages with just vague timing that of course will need way more time to record and get it right.

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06/11/14: A very often seen problem in learning composer’s music is the staticness of rhythmical ideas. Very often they fall into one rhythmical pattern and keep repeating that over and over again without any or just very few variation. But also melodic ideas are very often put into a repeating rhythmical shape. Another problem that usually comes on top of that is especially with melodies a strong tendency to rhythmically hit every downbeat making the overall musical feeling very static and heavy. So when you write music, don’t just pay attention whether your melodic shape and harmonic progression is interesting but also whether your rhythmical idea keeps being interesting and with melodies try leaving free downbeats of bars once in a while.

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06/10/14: A film music cue should never start out of the blue. There should always be a “cue” from the movie to start it. This could be of course something visual (scene change, movement, something coming into frame etc.)  but also an important sentence in a dialogue, an emotional shift or just the change of a facial expression. The entrance of the music should usually happen right on that filmic cue or a little after that depending on whether it needs a bit of time to settle in. However it should be clearly in connection with the cue. If music starts without any indication it will not really have any justification and feel quite random.

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06/09/14: Once in a while there comes a project along that is emotionally so straining that it becomes very difficult to work on it. This could be for example due to a topic of a movie that is hard to digest (especially when you work in the field of documentaries) or it could just be a scene that reminds you just a little too much of an emotionally painful situation in your own life. While these strong emotions of course can be used to draw inspiration and ideas from, in the end it still might leave emotional impacts beyond the work. From talks with colleagues, everybody has an own way to deal with these situations. While some can simply shake it off and see it entirely professional others fall in a really bad mood over the time of the working process on it. The essence is to have a clear idea of whether you will be able to handle it or not right at the beginning. You shouldn’t agree on a project to later admit that you can’t do a scene or the whole project because the emotional response you have from it just makes you unable to write music.

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06/06/14: Don’t underestimate the nobility of the brass section in low dynamics. With film music very often these days pushing the brass to double forte and really going for the brassy sound, it is quite rare to hear this section as a section used in soft dynamics even though it can create a really fantastic effect. One great example from recent times is the cue Mother from SKYFALL by Thomas Newman (starting at 0:42). The homophonic writing of the brass in their lower registers and low dynamic has a really intense emotional impact here which gets enhanced by the joining of the strings later on. So when writing soft passages, don’t forget the brass section.

#orchestration

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06/05/14: It is technically not possible to push a signal that has been recorded with very close micing believably further back into the room. When you record any acoustic musical instrument with close mics, you will get sounds that will not be heard anymore just a few meters away from it. On orchestral string instruments you will get the noise of the bow dragging across the strings, on brass and woodwind instruments you will get more air noise etc. Even when you try to put these signals further back in the room by adding reverb or using complex IR’s, you will not get rid of these close-mic effects so it will always sound like a close-mic signal with reverb. Acoustic and especially orchestral instruments need room around them to sound good, for instance the carrying power of a Tuba will only develop in a room, with a close mic signal it will hardly carry. So whenever you record instruments (even in your home studio), make sure you have room around them that you actually record with it. There are also some sample libraries that follow the strategy of recording  instruments very dry and very close miced which of course gives you more freedom on the way how to use them but you will never get a “big” sound out of them.

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06/04/14: When listening to a melody, our ear doesn’t just follow the path of the actual melody but also tries to make sense out of the larger structure of it, mainly following the top notes of melodic phrases. A melody always sounds more interesting when these top notes in itself create a melodically pleasing line as well, very often they ascend by steps (e.g. a wavy melody line where the peaks of the wave keep going higher). A good example for that would be the flying theme from E.T. which keeps moving higher and higher. So when you write a melody, always keep track of these peak notes and particularly avoid having stationary peak notes (constantly hitting the same high note every phrase) or making the peak notes form an unmelodic gesture.

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06/03/14: Dialogue scoring is not necessarily the most inspiring thing to do when scoring a film and many inexperienced composers see it as something that you can quickly rush through as there’s not much musical activity going on anyway. However doing dialogue scoring properly is quite a challenge. You should see and treat the voice(s) as an instrumental solo meaning that you neither would want to put anything else into it’s frequency range but also avoid having too much stuff going on while it is “soloing” and rather carefully weave musical movement into pauses of the dialogue. However this is quite a challenge when you still want the music to make some musical sense with that. Also, try to capture the emotional hues that happen in a dialogue with the music and never just stay emotionally static unless of course it is dramaturgically needed.

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06/02/14: One of the things that is intimidating for many young and starting out composers are the constant talks of seasoned composers saying that you need to get used to 14+h of work a day or doing all nighters when you want to be a film composer or work in the media. It somehow has become a habit of composers trying t impress each other by saying such things to appear hard working. The truth is, there are only a very few guys in the industry who work like that and this is neither a particularly healthy nor usually successful way of working. Most great film composers have or had a healthy workload of around 8 hours a day and from personal talks with friends and colleagues it seems like nobody is really working such long hours. Apart from that, you will probably not even get more work done in 14 hours than you can do in 8 or even less as your effectivity just will drop tremendously. From my personal experience I can say that I have only twice done an all nighter and never worked for more than three days in a row 14+hours/day. My regular work day has a max of 8 hours just like any regular job with actual creative work hardly ever more than 5 hours/day. Only when there is a really tough deadline just around the corner I would extend that and usually it extends at the cost of quality. If you still feel like you need to work 20 hours a day to be a really good composer, HERE’s a brillant chart showing working hours of some of the most creative people who have ever lived.

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