Welcome to the Daily Film Scoring Bits section of my website!
On this page I publish on a more-or-less daily basis small hints, tricks and advices concerning the creation of music especially for film. These hints cover the fields of composition, orchestration and film scoring but also things concerning the workflow in this field, like the working relationship between composer and director etc.
If you want to read more Tips, Tricks and Hints, head over to the other DAILY FILM SCORING BITS ARCHIVES!
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01/23/15: For a learning orchestrator, score sheet studies on classical works might become quite confusing considering the notation. Quite often, the performances in recordings of certain articulations in the score sheet are very different from what you might expect and you might end up being completely confused about what a certain articulation means. Additionally, orchestration books might even make it worse (for instance Adler claiming that in order to get strings to do a “martelé” using a regular accent (>), a hat accent (^) or a wedge is practically the same). There are actually two reasons for all that mess. One being actually different understandings of articulations in music history, sometimes even down to a specific preference of a composer in a specific decade, where composers used articulations in a different way than we would do today. The other one which might lead to discrepancy between how it’s written and played is simple performance traditions. Works that have been recorded and played many times have a certain common way to perform them which has been established over generations of conductors, recordings and concerts that simply divert from what was originally written, sometimes because the composer originally requested it or it simply worked better. So don’t get too confused by these things and trust your gut feeling and experience when articulating or phrasing a score sheet.
01/22/15: Always ask for working copies of the movie that you score that contain a visible time code in the video. So many things can go wrong regarding the sync of music and movie (e.g. wrong framerates, weird video codec glitches etc.) that you should not leave any chances for them to happen unnoticed. Once your scoring software timecode and the timecode printed on the video are in sync (also still at the end of the video) chances are good that actually everything is running at the correct speed and correct frame rate and you can start composing.
01/21/15: One flaw of every theory book (which is however not resolvable) is that fact that there is hardly any qualitative weighing of theoretical strategies, meaning that these books only list what is theoretically possible but not whether it really is musically tasteful. Of course what is tasteful is depending on each individual, musical style, location and period (which is of course the reason why books can’t include that) but still developing a stylistic feeling and taste is probably one of the most important things for every composer, especially film composer. You need to know which things are currently “in style” when being asked for it or you will simply not get the next job. One example that is probably one of the most clear ones is doubling a melody for a long time a third or sixth above (or below) basically ending up with two melodies playing parallel a third or sixth apart. While this is theoretically perfectly fine, and even desirable (as it infuses more harmonic context into a melody), in most musical styles it is considered really unbearably cheesy and something you really don’t want to do, while there are also a few styles which work a lot with it.
01/20/15: Thematic references need to be quite on the nose in movies. As the attention of the audience is only partially focussed on the music, thematic references like “There in this scene where I brought in the main theme but in minor, played reverse on the basses with new chords” might be musically cool but nobody will get it and therefore nobody will get the dramatic reference. Such musical “gimmicks” should only be done when the thematic reference is not necessary to understand the dramaturgy. A great example for this is the end of Star Wars Episode 1 where John Williams uses the Emperors Theme in a major, fanfaric version. Practically nobody will get this reference when seeing the movie for the first time but it is not absolutely necessary to get it to understand the movie. However people who get the reference will understand the hint that the victory that is shown there actually is a victory for the emperor which will be revealed in the next episodes.
01/19/15: One of the most frightening things in being self employed, especially at the beginning, is the mostly complete unpredictability about your stream of income. This is even more scary when being a composer where you’re depending on projects that might come or not come at completely unpredictable times. Starting out as a freelance composer trying to make a living from it probably scares everybody at the beginning, not knowing whether you will be able to pay your rent for the next month etc. The upside is that probably everybody needs to go through this. Of course it is easier at the beginning of one’s life. Building up a network and a stream of income while you’re studying and are probably (partially) supported financially by your parents makes things much easier than having a family, quitting a regular job and trying your shot at being a composer. For most people (including me) it helps or has helped to get some predictability in your income by doing a related side job like for example teaching where you always can count on a specific amount of money at the end of each month. Another thing that is important is to be as widely spread as possible with your clients. Don’t just rely on a few clients that bring you in big jobs but once they break away for whatever reason you will be having big troubles compensating for it. So even when your current project situation looks good, there might be a need to go for new contacts in order to have more security later on. Also, don’t think that just because you’re having a phase where you turn down projects because you can’t handle them all, it will stay like this forever. The golden rule here as usual of course is also: save as much money as you can for worse times. Unfortunately as with every self employed person, they might come sooner or later.
01/16/15: Circular breathing is a technique used by woodwind and brass players to create a theoretically endless stream of air being able to play theoretically forever. The technique works in the way that you fill your cheeks with air before breathing and quickly inhale while using that air to keep the stream that goes into the instrument flowing. While this allows theoretically to play forever it comes with a few things to consider. It is technically quite demanding and not all players can do it. Additionally for instance flutes who need to keep their mouth/lips/cheeks in a specific position in order to control the sound really struggle doing circular breathing. The most important thing however why this technique can not be used forever is that your players will sooner or later run out of oxygen. Most of the time the air that is inhaled and exhaled during playing and that passes through the instrument is not enough to meet the demand of breathing of the player’s bodies. So sooner or later your players need to get the chance to breathe normally. Keep that technique only as an option for special cases, not every day playing.
01/15/15: Be realistic about what is achievable in a professional mix and what not. Especially on orchestra recordings where the whole orchestra has been recorded in the same room at the same time, there is no real possibility to heavily alter the mix. Usually every instrument is present more or less on every microphone so raising the level of one microphone might also raise the level of the instruments that are sitting nearby. No mixing engineer can turn a bad sounding orchestra in a bad sounding recording venue with bad orchestration into a first class hollywoodish sound. Apart from the levels that can only be adjusted in a very small range, also the room itself can not really be heavily altered. You can add reverb but on a small recording stage, the result will just sound like a small room with reverb and not like a big recording stage. A good mix will add a certain transparency and balance to the sound, will influence slightly the sound characteristics of the ensemble but will never have a huge difference compared to what you heard in the monitor mix. If you want more mixing freedom you need to record the ensemble in separate groups which however comes with downsides on the performance side.
01/14/15: Final V-I cadences in important form sections (e.g. like the end of your main theme) can start to sound quite pedestrian and boring especially when they happen several times in the piece. Of course, the quality of a V-I cadence is one of the strongest structural element in music but due to it’s absolute predictability, it’s not particularly exciting to hear them every few seconds. Therefore it might be a good idea to break the expectation once in a while with a deceptive cadence that doesn’t (immediately) go back to the I. In classical music theory a deceptive cadence is going from V to vi and continuing from there. However you can also extend a V-I cadence by inserting chords in between and therefore prolonging the time until it goes back to the I. Some of the standard solutions are the following: V-bIImaj7-I (E.g. G(7)-Dbmaj7-C), V-IV/I-I (e.g. G-F/C-C), V-bVI-bVII(add9)-I (e.g. G-Ab-Bb(add9)-C) (all of the V could also be Dominant7 chords but nit necessarily) There are quite a few more. All have in common that they only work if the melody sustains on the root note after the V. If it goes somewhere else, you need to find other alternatives.
01/13/15: There are usually several perspectives from which you could score a certain scene. Usually, you have the character’s perspective, the audience’s perspective and the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Often, there are even more perspectives and sometimes perspectives overlap but in general, you have a choice, which point of view to take. Picking the perspective is up to the situation and the development of the story and should be a concious decision by the composer. Obviously, when scoring movies that have a story twist, it is not the wisest choice to take the perspective of the omniscient narrator too often with the music.
01/12/15: Clients most of the time value more how easy it is to work with you than your musical expertise. It is one of the biggest nightmares for any producer/director etc. to work with a composer who isn’t able or willing to communicate properly, has a big ego etc. So as a composer you should make sure that you make the collaboration with you as smooth as possible (even if your client doesn’t act the same way). People will remember a good collaboration experience more than brillant musical results. And even more: people will remember bad collaboration experiences even stronger.
01/09/15: For practically every woodwind and brass instrument, there is the general rule that the closer to the limits of the range you get, the less controlled the sound will be. This means that either the intonation gets problematic (low horns often have that problem) or the dynamic possibilities get more limited (high trumpets can’t really go anything lower than mf in their highest register), or both. So in general, you should always have a good reason when you push any instrument towards its range limit. While of course trumpets at their top end give a fantastic and edgy sound, trying to use that register in a softer setting will most likely not end up well. Be aware of these things. Samples might trick you into believing that on all instruments, all notes are equally easy to play as on a keyboard and the range limit is only set by the fact that you’re running out of keys but this is not the fact. Writing notes close to the edges of the range of most orchestral instruments is a struggle for every player and in general these notes have certain shortcomings that you can compensate for in a sequencer but that are really tricky to control in a real orchestra situation.
01/08/15: Real musicians don’t work like samples which brings advantages and disadvantages. Musicians are people with a musical understanding and a sense of context, you don’t need to explain to them the obvious things, neither in written form nor verbally. This includes translating your CC11 controller movements to hairpins on an expressive solo. Just because you are moving that controller heavily doesn’t mean that your solo oboe player needs to have that information written in. Telling him/her that it is “espressivo” will give enough information to play it like that. There are a few more things that you might consciously program into your samples which happen naturally with real musicians, for instance a slight decrescendo on the long note at the end of a phrase. These information written in or told them will either be redundant or simply feel to them as if you think they were stupid. On the other hand, real musicians don’t have endless stamina. If you’re planning on filling a 3 or 4 hour session with your brass playing through at ff, you need to rethink. Plan sessions in a way that especially the brass players get enough rest in between. Also, super complex off beat rhythms that are easily to program on a computer might become really problematic with real players. So whenever you’re making the leap from going from sample composing to real orchestra, be aware that there are a lot of differences.
01/07/15: One thing many learning composers/orchestrators struggle with in orchestral music is to keep up a rhythmical momentum without relying on a drum kit or trailer music like ostinatos or trailer music like use of the percussion section (aka as a surrogate drum kit), which in all cases carry the rhythmical momentum on their own. It is important to keep an eye on the overall movement of the music and make sure that it doesn’t stall on several spots. For instance if your main melody mainly moves in 8th notes but at the end of its melodic phrase holds a whole note, you will lose all the rhythmical momentum that has been established beforehand in this one bar if you don’t counteract it with another voice/instrument that takes over the 8th note movement in a side line etc. In such cases, it helps to reduce all the voices down to their rhythmical activity and check whether the 8th note movement is kept alive by any voice at practically any moment you want the rhythmical momentum to push forward. But also be warned to give back and forth the rhythmical activity in small chunks between several voices and instruments in a too active way as this will create a very nervous effect and should only be used in special cases. And also as usual, trust your ear. Sometimes it works perfectly fine to give the music a rhythmical rest and pick that up again instead of keeping the rhythmical movement rolling.
01/06/15: There is a very thin line between scoring something funny and scoring something silly. Inexperienced composers tend to overwrite funny scenes by composing silly music. Not every character who has a clumsy side needs to have a score that points its finger at that. Usually, the humor is more effective when the scoring remains quite subtle in such situations. This doesn’t only refer to mickey-mousing, where you musically highlight every “slapstick” moment, but also how you use obvious scoring clichees (trombone glissandos, vibraslap, lots of pizzicato etc.). This gets especially annoying if something isn’t that funny and you’re trying to make it funny with music.
If you want to read more Tips, Tricks and Hints, head over to the other DAILY FILM SCORING BITS ARCHIVES!