Daily Film Scoring Bits

Posted on Jan 1, 2018 in Daily Film Scoring Bits


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

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

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

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05/23/18: Be aware of how quickly you return to the tonic chord. Almost in every case, returning back to to the tonic chord feels like “closing off” a phrase, so every time you reach that chord, your listener’s perception will give him/her the feeling of finishing something. Inexperienced composers very often overuse the tonic chord and reach it every few bars so the musical impression always becomes a little short-breathed. You can not create a soaring melody that has a feeling of epicness and grandness if you keep sneaking around the tonic, so whenever you have the urge to return to it check if that melodic arc is doing what you want it to do or if you couldn’t do a side-step to another chord instead to extend it a little further.

#composition

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05/22/18: On some projects you might be requested or may want to write music that is outside of your usual comfort zone. In such cases, research is essential to first of all be able to deliver an authentic version of the style you want to write in but also to properly use this style. Research in general does not only mean to listen to a few tunes but depending how deep you need to dive into it, it requires reading, visiting libraries, watching movies that use the style successfully. Understanding the background and intention of a musical style is just as important as to know how it works musically. It is also essential to never underestimate any style. Even music that seems extremely simple and less challenging to write at first sight might have many stylistic details and things to take care of that you might easily be overwhelmed or in the worst case deliver music that maybe sounds believable to yourself  but is off for people who know that style. You should also be very self aware about what kind of stylistic stretch is whithin your reach and what not. If you are a classically trained composer with next to none listening experience in any sort of rock music, it will probably not be possible for you to deliver a believable rock score even with weeks of research. In these cases, you might be better off declining the job or get someone experienced on board instead of delivering something that is stylistically way off.

#filmscoring

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05/18/18: Even though some sample libraries on the market might imply that it is possible to let brass instruments play a sustained note at ff for several seconds it is not. Apart from the fact that in very loud dynamics, brass players run out of air quite quickly as producing loud notes takes considerably more air than soft dynamics it’s also a matter of muscle stamina of the lips as well as the diaphragm for the players. It is physically very demanding to keep up that much pressure for a long period of time. So when writing for brass, consider the human factor. Your composition and recording will benefit from giving the players time to rest and not demand full power from them all the time.

#orchestration

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05/17/18: Don’t expect every musician to be able to record with click tracks. Classical musicians who don’t do film work a lot often have big problems when recording with a click track which has several reasons: First of all, classical orchestras usually don’t play on the beat (that they get from the conductor) but slightly behind it and it is very tricky for them to just simply do it differently and play on the beat. Secondly, covering their ears with headphones that gives them a click (even if it’s just a one sided headphone) impairs their ability to hear themselves and other musicians which however for them is a massive part of controlling their playing and sound. So before you record with musicians, ask whether they are okay with click tracks. If you see a problem coming up, a solution would be to get a really good conductor and only give him/her click track. However the result might not be tight enough for certain hit points in movies as every musician only looks once in a while at the conductore (the other time being busy reading the score they’re playing of course).

#technical

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05/16/18: Many learning composers set a lot of priorities into being original and new every time they write something and into developing an own style. Very often, they are massively irritated if somebody tells them “your music sounds like x”. While it is of course understandable that one wants to develop one’s own voice in the world of music, you need to understand that first of all, it will not work to actively pursue the creation of an own style as this will be something that develops on its own. But even more importantly: having “a personal style” means being not original on other ends. Habits and preferences are what defines a composer’s style: specific chord progression, the preference of certain instrumental groups, specific writing patterns that they keep falling back into. All the pressure that many composers put on themselves as they measure their ability as a composer at the uniqueness of their ideas can lead to massive frustration. Once again, the analogy that learning to compose is like learning a language fits very well here: at the beginning you will just know a few words and grammatical constructions and it will feel very strange if you start to use really fancy words in such a context just to be “original”. After you’ve learned all the essential things of the language and know all the words, you will start to use certain phrases and constructions more often because you like them for whatever reason, you will start to talk in a certain style and use words that you prefer. Forced originality in music will feel like somebody talking with really strange words using really unusual grammatical constructions just to “stand out from the crowd”. And here’s the essential thing to understand for every learning composer: just because you use the same words that everybody uses and phrase sentences in a way that has been done many times before still leaves you any doors open to bring across an idea that is your own unique thought and view on the world. Of course that analogy doesn’t work in every detail as music is way more abstract than language but it still is a quite close and comprehensible.

#composition

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05/15/18: 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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05/14/18: 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. 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. 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.

#general

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05/11/18: In a situation where you want to spread out a triad or three voices over both violin sections, usually the better choice is to divide the second violins into two voices and leave the top voice to the first violins alone. Even though this might seem against logic (with the 1st violin section usually being bigger than the seconds) there are two reasons for doing so. The first one is to highlight the top note by putting the whole first violins on it as usually this line has a melodic quality that should not be underbalanced. The second and more important reason is, that, especially when you’re going high up in the register, you wouldn’t want to split the first violins into two parts and possibly having just a few violins on the top line when you have a fairly small line-up. The higher you get with violins the more instruments you need to sustain a substantial string sound that doesn’t become thin. So the preference is always to get as many violins as possible on the top line to ensure enough substance of sound.

#orchestration

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05/09/18: Using non-chord tones as bass note can create a fantastic effect of “coordinated dissonance”. As opposed to writing dissonance by the stacking dissonant intervals in the complete chord structure, this kind of dissonance still allows for very punchy and brillant sounds as you can still put clear triads in one orchestral register and use another register to provide the “dissonant bass note”. This principle works great in action scoring, however, you always need to keep an eye on the dissonance and possibly unwanted conflicts with other voices as very quickly certain dissonances might be too strong so they cover up the rest of the structure.

#composition

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05/08/18: Sometimes, when you have the feeling that no matter what you try to score a certain scene or sequence and it seems like nothing really fits or does anything benefitial for the scene, it might be the best choice to leave that scene or moment silent. As a composer, once the spotting session is through, you hardly ever question the choices that have been made there but some musical decisions will need you to rethink the approach of other scenes or simply will not work anymore as intended. Keep an open mind about possible and radical changes in the way the score works.

#filmscoring

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05/07/18: In general, flooding all sorts of companies that are roughly working in the field that you want to work in with emails or letters usually doesn’t work. Especially unpersonalized emails with a general text that doesn’t reference to the specific profile of the company will usually not be read at all or even get stuck in the spam folder before anybody sees it. The more effective method is to target your mail more specifically. Be aware about what the company that you’re contacting is doing exactly, reference to their recent work and shape your text more personally. That will be more work but you also get the chance to really find the companies that you’re actually interested in to work with. There’s no point in sending out a composer’s demo reel for a film production company that specializes in wedding videos. Also, calling by phone might be a more effective way as you can make sure to be heard and actually can try to get your way through to someone who actually has something to say and not being filtered out by a secretary already as it might happen with your email or letter. However, in general applications out of the blue have a very rare chance of success in that field. Networking happens rather on other channels like word-of-mouth, recommendation, chance or simply being at the right time at the right place…

#general

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05/04/18: When you’re writing music, at least have a basic idea about the orchestration while doing so. Writing something completely disconnected from the orchestration will cause compromises in the orchestration process later. The problem that will arise is that when you for example try to orchestrate a melodic line later on, you will want to pick the instrument(s) for this line that “struggle” the least when playing it or you might put it in instruments that can somehow pull it off but don’t really have this line sitting in an optimal way on their instrument. Knowing what instrument you write for will also influence your writing as you might be putting more effort in staying in a proper range with the melody or in general writing more idiomatic for the instrument desired. One of the most obvious things to see that are the countless very unattractive orchestrations of pieces that have originally been written for piano. The typical left hand arpeggios which sound great on the piano are very tricky translateable to orchestra without sounding dull. Most of the time, to get a decent result you need to go one step further and not only orchestrate but re-arrange the piece, changing these figures into something more orchestra-friendly which in return will cause the structure of the original piece to start dissolving, so you start fixing this etc. etc. All these things can be very easily avoided by just thinking more in terms of orchestration when you’re writing.

#orchestration

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05/03/18: 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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05/02/18: A lot of what makes today’s style in commercial orchestral music is actually defined by the limitations of samples. Certain things clearly can be pulled off more realistically with samples than others. This was even more true a few years ago when it was even more tricky to for example get a decent sound out of high soaring violin melodies. Instead it was easier to just play low string chords or staccatos in the low/mid register and add some percussive grooves to that. While it is perfectly fine to write in a way that you get out of the way of sample limitations when you write for stuff that will not be live, you should never forget to improve your craft beyond the sample world. Music can become very boring to listen to and play if these limitations are being translated to a real orchestra. Also, with sample libraries these days it is possible to get practically everything done somehow. Don’t fall into the position where you constantly just write in a specific way just because it is most convenient like that.

#composition

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04/27/18: One of the standard orchestration problems with learning composers/orchestrators is to write too many details in a too short amount of time. There are often two reasons for that. One being the  feeling of leaving too much empty space on the score sheet which can be very misleading at quick tempos and might make you believe you need to fill up more details even though the bars pass by very quickly. Another one is the fatigue of from hearing your own music. When the effect of you finding your main idea interesting wears off eventually you will automatically feel the urge to add something that makes it interesting again and when that wears off the same happens again. But you keep forgetting that your audience didn’t have that effect yet and will be overwhelmed by everything. So it always helps to take a step back from your piece and think about how much more spicing up is really necessary.

#orchestration

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04/25/18: Even with the broadest and most detailed knowledge in music theory and all sorts of composition principles, the highest instance should always be your ear and your gut feeling. Following every textbook rule doesn’t make good music and good music also can not follow most of the textbook rules and still be good music. Theoretical knowledge helps alot to solve problems quicker or to find new approaches once you’re stuck and makes it easier to analyze and categorize musical ideas but it does not compensate a lack of imagination, musical insensivitiy or just plain bad taste. If something sounds good despite breaking all rules or sounds bad despite being an academically perfect composition, let your ear be the highest instance.

#composition

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04/24/18: Take care to not musically anticipate hit points too much that should be a surprise. Working your way towards a hit point by doing a buildup or any other structure that makes it possible to predict it works quite nicely on hit points that are predictable anyway, for instance a motion on screen that will obviously find its conclusion at a certain point. However, if you build up a big dominant chord that leaves no doubt about the tonic that you will be reaching in the next bar it will be diminishing the impact of a hit point that is supposed to happen rather surprisingly. That doesn’t mean to leave the music ambiguous at any moment but try to find structures that are not bound to end at a certain predictable point.

#filmscoring

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04/23/18: In any creative job there is a certain amount of “double work”. Sometimes you decide by yourself that a cue doesn’t fit and rework it, sometimes a customer wants a rewrite etc. However, NEVER throw away any ideas that are not completely bad. There will be possibilities more often than you might think to re-use material “from the drawer”. The most important thing however is, to organize these old ideas so you find them again when you need them later. A good naming and sorting structure is highly neccessary. It might also help to have a bounce of the project as it was alongside the project files so you can quickly open it and listen whether it might fit without needing to actually reload it into the DAW or scoring programme.

#general

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04/20/18: When you’re writing a score sheet, especially when for a  film score, rather prefer to use the word “simile” or “sim.” (meaning “in the same way”) where you can instead of articulating everything. This has a massively practical reason for sight reading. If you for example have a long section where a string section is supposed to play staccato 8th notes ostinatos, marking the first bar with staccato dots and use “sim.” on the next bars without any more articulations is easier to read than having staccato dots on every note in that passage. The reason for that is, that your player would need to look way closer at every note when you use the dots because there could be the theoretic possibility that suddenly there’s one note without the staccato dot or a different articulation. When using “sim.” the player knows exactly that it should continue in staccato and needs to only read the notes properly. In more extreme examples the overload of repeating articulations can cause real problems in sight reading as it might just ask too much of your players to process at the same time. On the other hand “simile” helps to unclutter the score sheet which is always a great thing on sight reading scores. Many people have the feeling that using “simile” is an excuse for lazyness but actually it helps alot when used properly.

#orchestration

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04/19/18: After you have finished a project, put some effort into archiving it properly. Just because you know now that all final project files are in an obscurely named folder deep down in the folder structure doesn’t mean you will remember that in a year when you possibly need to revisit the project. So make sure to name and sort things properly before you archive them so you have a chance to find a file you might be needing in the future again. Also, with HDD memory becoming so cheap, you should keep every file of the project. A few years ago, many composers would make a habit of deleting everything apart from the final files of a project before archiving it which might be a good idea in 80% of the cases but there will always be this one time when you need to go back to an old project and pull out an early version or draft. If you store your archived projects on external HDDs, make sure to lable them properly as well (for example by time period) and also consider mirroring these projects on at least two disks as there are quite a few occurances of HDD’s crashing even if they have been sitting idle in a shelf for years.

#technical

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04/18/18: There are big philosophical discussions between composers about whether to write sketches, how detailed they are supposed to be, what to do with them etc. While sketches are a great tool if you really want to work out a piece, the reality especially in the film/media composing world is that there is hardly enough time to allow for several composition “stages”. Some people also consider the work in a DAW as sketching while the detail work follows later when bringing it to paper or notation form or actually doing the detail work in the DAW itself. My personal way at this is to have the sketch integrated in the final thing. I usually sketch out right into the final score sheet layout. By that process, I eliminate the time it takes to transfer what’s written in the sketch into the score sheet later on. However on some delicate sections I might be working quite detailled right from the beginning while other sections end up with nothing but chord symbols. I personally see the biggest advantage of having an overview over the complete piece in sketch form before doing the details in being able to shape your piece dramaturgically. If you start with detailed work right from the beginning it is easier to get lost. In the end, everybody has to find the way that works best for him/her on his/her own but spending an incredible amount of time by sketching several versions and stages is even with good budgets economically not really the best idea.

#composition

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04/17/18: Main title sequences have become quite rare these days but when you have the chance to score one, use it effectively. On a main title, you can set the overall mood of the score and the movie, you can introduce your thematic material and therefore prepare the audience for what is going to happen. Don’t just write “anything” over the main titles but make them also your musical overture. It will be much easier in the score later to work with themes  and motifs once they have already been established. One very good example from recent years of brillant main title scoring ist the opening of SIGNS with the score from James Newton Howard. Not only does he establish his main motif, but he also sets a tone for the movie and creates with the music a certain feeling that pushes you to the edge of your seat. Also, note how the music syncs up with the credits and therefore also has a visual impact on that opening titles.

#filmscoring

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04/16/18: When you’re working in the field of media music, once in a while, you will be in the situation when a friend asks you to work on some of his project “maybe for free or a very small fee”. You need to develop a proper understanding of such situations. When you make a living out of writing music, it is plain unethical by your friend to ask you to work for free or a very low fee. You should, in such situations, clearly seperate from private and business. You need to make a living out of your work and nobody would ever ask a car salesman to give away a car for free just because he’s a friend and neither should he/she ask you to work for free. If your friend does not understand this or keeps on argueing, he/she’s not really a good friend and you should rethink this friendship. Of course, there are always special situations where you might want to consider working for free but don’t let this become a habit.

#general

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04/13/18: 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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04/12/18: Consider that the understandability of dialogue or monologue gets worse when the speaker is not seen on screen. A big portion of understanding spoken word comes from watching the mouth of the speaking person so if that is missing, it gets a little trickier for us. You should take that into account when you write music for a voiceover scene and be even more careful to not overpower the speaking register of the voice with music. Handle the speaking voice as if it was an instrumental solo that you want to free up in your orchestration texture as well.

#technical

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04/11/18: One of the common guidelines of doing chord progressions is to keep notes ringing that are part of both chords when progressing. This is part of the standard rules for voice leading. This concept, however can be extended quite a bit and might help you to connect chords that are quite remote but still will sound connected well with these sustaining notes. Imagine you have a C that you want to ring through a chord progression. This c could start out as the root of a Cmajor chord, going to be the 3 of an Abmajor chord, going to be the maj7 of a Db and the #11 of an F#. You can theoretically build a very interesting chord progression with these few chords and even though they are a little adventurous from the tonal side, it will work just fine because you have that one connecting note of c which glues it all together.

#composition

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04/10/18: Strong emotions that are portrayed visually in the movie (e.g. someone crying desperately) feel rather akward when they get doubled by the music. You are usually better off scoring such moments rather sparsely or possibly even leave them in silence. Scoring them musically in the same intensity will very quickly feel stylistically very old fashioned and operatic.

#filmscoring

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04/09/18: 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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04/06/18: 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 run that does nothing musical meaningful and most of the time feels randomly superimposed. That said, there are some rare 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 unclean and somehow strange. So the notes of runs need to be notated individually. 4.) It is perfectly fine to use strangely looking tuplets on runs, especially the 7-tuplet is great as it covers exactly one diatonic 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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04/05/18: Be realistic about your expectations about what is possible “in the post” and what isn’t. If you start off with a lo-fi recording with lot’s of intonation problems and bad performances, no mixing engineer on this planet could make this sound any good or edit it in a way that it sounds great. There’s just so much you can do to save bad takes/recordings. Some composers have some really wrong expectations about what can be achieved in that state. If you record one horn in your home studio, there is no way to make it into an “epic apocalyptic Air Lyndhurst horn ensemble”. So the bottom line is to always try to deliver as good as possible material for the editing/mix.

#technical

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04/04/18: It can be very effective to hint a new theme before its first real appearance in a few subtle ways as there will be a sense of familiarity with it already once it gets played out properly for the first time. This is not necessarily only working in film contexts but in purely musical contexts as well where the new but already somewaht familiar theme will also have a strong dramatical impact. One very prominent example of this is John Williams’ score from E.T. where the main theme gets hinted several times before the first real appearance of it during the first flying bicycle sequence. At that time the thematic idea is already so prominently in the listeners memory that the appearance of the theme just feels like “it was about time” instead of “oh, what’s that new thing?”

#composition

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04/03/18: Besides all the obvious factors, don’t underestimate the psychological factor it has when you switch from composing as a hobby to composing as a job. Even though you might feel prepared for it and have enough clients and jobs to make the switch from a financial standpoint, it is a massive factor to suddenly “be creative to pay your bills”. The pure pressure by that has created many stories of composers who suddenly struggled writing a note even though they never had that problem before. Even though being a composer full time might seem (and is) a dream job it also means to be creative when you don’t feel that creative and deliver results when you don’t feel like it at all. Don’t underestimate that in case you’re planning to make the step.

#general

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03/30/18: Orchestral balance is also depending on the room where the music will be recorded/performed in. In general, smaller rooms have the tendency to make the brass/percussion drown the rest of the orchestra much quicker than in larger rooms while in larger rooms the lack of definition due to the long reverb tail diminishes textural details from mixed sound colours. Of course these things are very depending on the actual room and its acoustic behavior but when you orchestrate for a real ensemble, keep this in the back of your mind to avoid surprises.

#orchestration

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03/29/18: With internet bandwidth increasing it has become more common to send cues for feedback to a customer not as an audio file anymore but already as a video file which contains the new cue. By that you can also make sure that the cue is placed correctly and there are no problems just because of a misread number etc. It is also more convenient for your customer as he/she can simply watch it and give feedback without going through the more time consuming process of putting it against the video. However, make sure to stay within common video compression rates. There is no need to showcase every version of a cue in 4k resolution as well as it is no good to showcase it in ultra blurry 320×240.

#technical

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03/28/18: The factor of having individual musicians improvise rather than writing every exact note for them should not be underestimated and is very often used in film music. This obviusly works especially well with musicians with a Jazz background as well as many ethnic instrumentalists. Besides avoiding the hassle of trying to notate things that might not even be possible to be notated properly you will most likely get a way more pleasing musical interpretation. I very often give musicians whom I know of their improvisation skills just a really basic guideline alongside with chord changes and possibly a few verbal instructions but then let them do their thing. The results are always way better than notating (even if you would notate the very same thing they are playing). However be aware that most orchestral musicians don’t feel comfortable in being asked to improvise something so you should always make it depending on which individual player you have. There are a few downsides of letting musicians improvise which would for example be the incompatibility (as a whole) of different takes but it very often works to cut together different phrases from different takes. Another one would be to not have real control over what is happening so you should make sure that you are in some form present during the recording so you can give guidelines of what you want.

#composition

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03/27/18: Scoring love scenes can be quite tricky as music in such scenes very quickly tends to feel too “over the top” and cheesy. Especially accenting kisses can cause quite a bit of unwanted amusement with the audience. Usually it works best to have some very sparse emotional music on such scenes and not accenting the kiss unless it is a VERY important situation. If you need or want to accent it, avoid big tuttis and broad orchestration, a small accent will usually be enough already. Of course, a lot of the way how you score it depends largely on the film genre. A comedy for example may WANT to create just this over the top feeling and fantasy and science fiction film kisses might usually be scored a bid broader than kisses in a drama or a romantic movie.

#filmscoring

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03/26/18: More than ever before, nowadays your online representation as a composer is essential so invest some time and money into that. This doesn’t only apply to your web site but all your internet profiles. Potential customers will most likely google you in order to find out more about you so make sure that what is being found about you leaves a professional impression. Invest time and money into maintaining your online portfolio. Nobody will give out a job to someone who owns a 90’s looking website with animated gifs at http://awesomecomposer.freewebsitehosting.com. On the other hand, don’t expect to get many jobs out of the blue through your websites. Most of the time, potential customers will be using your website to find out more about you and your work after they already know about you, so keep it rather as an extended business card than a “HIRE ME NOW!” page.

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03/23/18: 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.

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03/22/18: Invest money in a decently silent cooling system on your computer(s) if you cannot put them into another room or somewhere away from you. Working on soft cues with a constantly loud hiss/humm in the background can be a massive distraction and become very annoying. Also, silent cooling is not expensive at all anymore today so don’t save money on the wrong end.

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03/21/18: Even though using the variation of one or two small melodic motif(s) as building block for a longer melody is generally a musically very attractive thing to do, many learning composers tend to do this too strictly by repeating the rhythmic structure of the motif exactly several times. The result is very often a monotonous almost static melody that is massivley predictable and quite uninteresting to the ear. So when you write a melody based on a small motif, make sure you incorporate enough variety or different elements to keep the melody interesting.

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03/20/18: The conceptual idea behind a score will make at least 50% of the work. If you have a clear vision of what the score is going to be, writing it will be much easier as you have strong guidelines to work along. It is never a good idea to start to work on something without putting thought into the concept. So before you write a single note, you should have a very clear answer for yourself on all the questions that define a concept. For example: What sort of line-up will you use? Orchestra? Hybrid? Will you feature any solistic instruments/vocals? Who/what will get a theme? What harmonic language will you use? How prominent will the music be in general? Also, when you have a strong idea behind your score it might also be easier to sell it to your customer. So remember, it’s not just about finding themes as in “melodies” but it is also about finding themes as in colour, texture, harmony, rhythm etc. Spend a considerable amount of time to get that right and it will pay off during the actual writing.

#filmscoring

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03/19/18: If you’re meeting a potential client for the first time (or even when having a skype call with him/her for the first time), be as well prepared as you can. Invest some considerable time into research, not only about the person him-/herself but also about the company, projects etc. This knowledge will not only help you to get a better idea of what/who to expect but also is very useful to impress. Of course, directors feel flattered when you say something like “Hey, I’ve seen your other movie XY the other day, I really loved it. Especially that scene at…” So these things are great to get him/her on your side as well as giving a lot of fuel for potential slow conversations. Being unprepared at a first meeting is mostly leaving a pretty unprofessional impression.

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03/16/18: In scoring session situations where time is precious, cautionary accidentals can save a lot of time. Notation softwares come with functions for cautionary accidentals but sometimes they are not completely reliable. Especially in bars where there are a lot of notes that might be repeated later on in the bar, it is always better to restate an accidental once again when needed even though it might be written already at the beginning of the bar. With this procedure you can minimize error quotes on scoring sessions quite drastically, especially on cues in accidental-heavy keys or lots of key changes. However it is also not desirable to clutter the optical impression by having too many unnecessary accidentals in the score/parts. The ultimate target should always be “Write in as less as possible and as much as necessary.”

#orchestration

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03/15/18: Against what is common in current music, when doing a score for a film, try to keep as much dynamic range as possible in your music. The dynamic range of (orchestral) film music is one of the many factors why it works dramatically so well in a visual context. From the softest ppp tremolo to the loudest ff tutti hit, you can already create a quite considerable emotional effect just with that range. Compressing it to “practically equally loud everywhere” will take away this effect. Be aware that the sound systems in cinemas are capable of recreating the original dynamic range of an orchestra so you shouldn’t worry about very soft music not being audible. Also, there might be some compression being added in the final audio mix of the movie anyway.

#technical

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03/14/18: The phrasing of melodic lines or figures can make a huge difference in how they sound and what kind of musical impact they have. Many composers coming from the sample world don’t pay enough attention on these smalls but essential details as they simply very often load just one articulation and play the whole melodical line with it ending up with endless mechanical staccato rows or gluey legato lines. Invest time into thinking about how a musical idea could be phrased differently, where you could throw in a short legato bit in a staccato ostinato, where there might be an accent making things more interesting. It actually helps to sing to yourself the different variations to find the one that you find most attractive and invest time to use key-switches/different articulations in your sample productions to get more life into your music.

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03/13/18: It is a common and well known way to hit hit-points that don’t lay on the downbeat of a bar by inserting one odd meter bar in order to make it fit, however it is also a quite common problem that learning film composers place that odd bar very often as the last bar before the hit point which very often creates a not very pleasing musical result and feels just as it is: an inserted strange bar. Try placing that one bar a few bars earlier into a phrase that makes it feel like that odd bar is not inserted but needs to be there as part of a plausible musical phrase. However, there is also a justification to have the odd bar right before the hit point which is when the new hit point is not expected or should not be expected as of course placing a hit point on a predictable downbeat makes it often very easy to anticipate which is not what you need for example in moments of surprise or shock. This is of course highly depending on how rhythmical and pulsing your music is.

#filmscoring

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03/12/18: When building a career in composing, don’t ever have the assumption that it will be enough to write good music only and eventually projects will come to you. No matter how good you are, nobody has just been waiting for you to eventually turn up in the business to be hired. Spend a fair share of your time doing networking, keeping contact with your business partners etc. Don’t have the false pride to not ask for jobs, to not send out demo reels etc.  If you want to step up, you need to work for it, no matter at what position you currently are. Of course, the more references you have the easier it gets but unless you are really high up at the game, the networking never stops.

#general

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03/09/18: There are some sections in a real orchestra that constantly switch between different instruments without you as a composer even noticing it. The most prominent examples are the Clarinets and Trumpets. Even though a part might be written all the way through for Clarinet in Bb, you might have your clarinet players switch to Clarinet in A or keep alterning between Clarinet in Bb and A. This has mainly something to do with convenience as some key signatures are really awkward to play on the Bb clarinet and easier on the A. With trumpets you might be getting switches between Trumpet in Bb, C and Piccolo Trumpet due to convenience reasons again. Some passages simply sit better on the C Trumpet than on the Bb trumpet and especially when there’s a part written for quite high trumpet that needs to be precise and defined, your (first) Trumpet player might switch to Piccolo Trumpet. The decision for these switches should be left to the players and you should also not try to prevent them from switching as in the end they only do it to give you the best possible result. Also, you don’t need to worry about writing them another part for the alternative instruments. They will do the needed transposition in their head. Of course it is also possible to write specific parts for instance for Piccolo Trumpet if you are going for the specific tone colour but in a section, it will hardly be noticeable when one player is switching to it. Also, the Tuba player might switch instruments without you noticing and there are also sometimes switches between different instruments in the Horn section. However, don’t be worried that all sections will do that. There is no danger of a flute player switching to piccolo for convenience reasons without you telling them to as the tone colour changes quite heavily in that switch. However instrument switches between instruments that don’t have a very prominent difference might be common a s mentioned above.

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03/08/18: Unless absolutely necessary, do not update any software component of your working system during a project. Even though it might seem just like a small maintenance update, experience shows that there is always a chance that things won’t work or behave anymore as before causing massive delays/reworks etc. which are incredibly frustrating when you’re under a rigid deadline. So unless you absolutely need to install a certain VST to work on that project or update some software because you need its new functionalities save these update routines for after the project when you have time to deal with technical issues.

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03/07/18: 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 weak, also if that happens over a chord change and you jump from there into a new tension note over the new chord. Jumping away from a tension note to a chord tone that is not a step away is melodically possible but usually weaker. When you’re writing melodies, you should always have an eye at the degree of tension certain notes have with the underlaying chord and whether they should resolve.

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03/06/18: Music can alter the perception of time. While most of the time when scoring a scene it is important to hit the right tempo, you can use the discrepancy of obviously wrong tempi for dramaturgical effects. Obviously too fast tempi will make the scene feel like it is “too slow” and lagging behind the music, which is great to highlight nerve wrecking waiting situations while too slow tempi can make the scenery feel too quick. However, make sure that the discrepancy is obvious when you want to use that effect. Slightly too slow tempi will rather make a scene feel dragging while slightly too fast tempi can “push the adrenaline”. Another word of caution: of course the intensity of pulse is important here. If you have a fast tempo without any rhythmical activity the effect gets lost. Also, it is highly depending on the scene. Some scenes feel different with “wrong” tempo than others. Sometimes actually quite contrary. E.g. a too fast tempo might make one scene feel totally overpaced while on another scene it makes it feel like slow motion. So never just “apply” any of these tips here blindly without checking it against your specific filmic situation. There are just too many factors involved in such things like filmic tempo to make a too general statement.

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03/05/18: Never develop an arrogance towards any musical style. Even if a musical genre seems super simple and like it could be pulled off instantly with a bit of musical knowledge, it takes a considerable amount of time to master it and do it decently. If you develop an arrogance saying something like “Oh, that genre is so simple, I can do that without any research for any project.”, people who actually know and listen to that genre will most likely find your approach pedestrian and un-authentic. The important factor that is often overlooked by musicians who develop such an arrogance is the question of style. For instance a lot of electronic genres are indeed musically quite simple, but knowing the style of music, what sounds to chose, what structures to build takes knowledge and experience. For score composers who do mainly orchestral music, a good comparison would probably be to think about people who have a deep knowledge of composition and orchestration and still can’t get anywhere near the “film music” sound, just because they don’t have experience in that style. That applies to ANY musical style so as an intelligent and open minded composer, you should bite your tongue for any deprecating comment you want to make about any musical genre. My personal approach to any style that I’m not comfortable with involves either a thorough research or bringing someone in who’s proficient in that genre.

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03/02/18: Many learning composers/orchestrators have problems in distinguishing the functions of the Bass Trombone vs. Tuba in the orchestra. This might also be a result from many sample libraries nowadays offering simply a “Low Brass” patch. Even though both instruments overlap in most of their range (with the Tuba being a little more comfortable at the lowest end), their functions do differ. Due to its conical tubing and deep mouth piece, the Tuba has a quite substantial, carrying and “boomy” sound being able to provide a profound and strong enough bass to balance out a whole brass chord. Yet, the sound is rather round and without much brassy edge even at strong dynamics. With the Bass Trombone it is the other way around. It provides a great brassy and quite edgy, at times evil low end with a quite sharp tone quality especially at strong dynamics, giving the tone a lot of definition. Yet, due to its cylindrical tubing, it doesn’t really have a lot of substance in its sound and provides way less “carrying bass” than the Tuba. So be aware how you use them in a musical context. Want an evil low brass stab? Don’t go for the Tuba alone. Want a substantial bass with long loud brass chords? Don’t let the Bass Trombone carry it all. A final word on the combination of both: it does give you the advantages of both instruments however also evens out their individual unique features a little. Also, it drags a lot of attention on itself and needs a lot to be balanced out which is not what you might necessarily want for a longer time as it feels like “orchestrating with the fat edding”.

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03/01/18: When recording real musicians, always plan in some set-up time at the beginning of the session. Even in big studios you will need to spend some time when everybody is in the room to adjust some things. I usually tend to start with a medium tricky, loud but not massively important cue so that practically everybody plays, gets a chance to warm up and the engineer gets a chance to adjust levels, fix microphones etc. This will always happen and inexperienced composers get nervous in these first few minutes quite often because you don’t really get a lot of music recorded in that time but once everything is set (and your musicians have warmed up) the recording speed will increase. It also helps to start with a loud tutti cue because if you start with something soft, there will need to be some adjusting done in the later cues when more instruments join in. I prefer to have that done in one go and then be able to record without many more interruptions.

#technical

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02/28/18: Remember that dissonance is not just “pressing random notes on they keyboard until it sounds dissonant”. Creating musically attractive dissonances is just as tricky as creating well sounding chord voicings. Many learning composers consider dissonant passages in music just as something that is “chaotic” and “non structured” and therefore write these passages in a similar way, for example using the whole palm to create an uncoordinated cluster etc. Remember that dissonance doesn’t mean intransparency. If you simply press random notes, you will get a random (quite dissonant) but not very attractive sound. The secret with great dissonances lies in using just a few well picked notes to create the dissonance. Creating a bone-chilling dissonance with just 3 or 4 notes is quite a challenge but when you succeed it will be very transparent and “comprehendable”. Also, considering your playability, your musicians will find their role much better in the sound you’re after when the dissonance is well structured and has musical quality. So next time you need to score a horror passage, really invest time in getting the dissonances right there and train your ear to pick up on the subtle differences in dissonant harmonies.

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02/27/18: It is well known that sometimes directors or customers fall in love with temp tracks and want you to practically replicate it which is always a nightmare for any composer especially when the temp track doesn’t fit that well. But a more overlooked problem is actually YOU as a composer falling for the temp track even when you have more freedom. This happens especially when the only work edit of the movie you get is one with temp track (which unfortunately happens quite regularly) and you constantly listen to it or watch the movie with it. So as a general advice, you should always make sure you get a work copy without any temp track on it and watch the movie maybe once or twice with the temp track but after that go to the “silent” version to make sure you dont explicitely remember how a scene with the temp track “sounded like”.

#filmscoring

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02/26/18: Working in the media world means to make compromises. Many people who get newly into the field feel rather frustrated by not being able to write exactly what they intented to and feel that they could have done much better on their projects if they were just allowed to. While this is probably true, there’s no point in being frustrated about that. Nobody in the film composing world is protected from such a thing. Even people like John Williams need to stand through such situations (e.g. Star Wars Ep 1-3 being massively edited after the music was written already causing major really horrible cuts on the music).  Everybody needs to set for him/herself what kind of compromises he/she is willing to take but not being willing to make any compromises at all will not bring you very far in the business.

#general

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02/23/18: Changing the position where you bow the strings on string instruments will have a quite drastic effect on the sound. There are two possibilities of where you could go: either move closer to the fingerboard or move closer to the bridge. The closer you get to the bridge the more higher harmonics the sound will have so moving away from it further to the fingerboard (aka “sul tasto”) will make the sound softer and more silky which is a nice way to replace con sordino in case you don’t have enough time to put on mutes. However be aware that it is not possible to play really high up on the strings with sul tasto as you will basically need your bow to be where your left hand is or vice versa. Going closer to the bridge (sul ponticello) creates a very metallic, slightly eerie sound that is most effective in tremolo and often used on thriller/horror scoring. Here’s a nice demonstration video.

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02/22/18: 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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02/21/18: Cadential harmony (aka using a lot of V(7)-I and other standard chord progressions) is something that has two sides to it. While it is musically very convincing and everybody understands this harmonic language, it is also something that due to being used for so many centuries already, can sound very old fashioned and “classical”. While for example Jazz music tries to compensate the simplicity of these progressions by spicing up the individual chords with added tension notes, most of today’s film music tries to avoid overly cadential harmony as much as possible (with a few exceptions that are mostly stylistic decisions). In case you get a comment by a client of “sounding too old fashioned”, this might be one of the first things to look at. Besides that, these things show once again that a sharp stylistic understanding and ability to switch between harmonic languages is essential for any composer working for the media. As a side note: Of course is for instance a V-I an incredibly strong force to create formal structures in music and is also used regularly in film music but most of the time in a more modern sounding way (e.g. sus4/b9 etc.) in order to avoid a straight forward dominant Seventh sound which in most cases feels “dated”.

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02/20/18: When making musical decisions on how to score a scene, always look at the big picture. Sometimes a scene might suggest a very different way of scoring in connection with the plot than the actual scene might indicate. A very good example is the opening sequence from SILENCE OF THE LAMBS where we see Jodie Foster’s character doing a training run through the woods. While from a microscopical level this scene indicates a rather energetic “work out” score, composer Howard Shore wrote a quite dark and ominous score on top of it indicating the general mood of the movie as well as setting the tone for what’s about to follow. While the images only slightly imply what this movie is about (foggy, darkish atmosphere while she does the course), the music very clearly tells us where this movie is going to and enters this unsettling feeling right at the opening credits.

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02/19/18: Being a composer very often is a very lonely profession. The combination of projects that require long hours, working in a home studio, being a one man show and not really needing to go out to make money can sometimes result in phases where one disappears for days or sometimes even weeks from social interaction. While of course many composers do have a partner or family, the lack of interaction with the “outside world” can become psychologically problematic. Things that are an automatic everyday business for “normal” people become tasks that a composer has to actively pursue. Most people will have a problem with this sparse social interaction so being a composer means that you need to find ways and invest more energy into your social contacts. You don’t get to see “friends from work” everyday anyway, so you need to actively compensate for that. Make sure to not lose sight of your friends, call them up regularly, arrange social events and visit each other, even when deadlines are tight and you should rather work on that one cue. Sometimes having a good talk with a friend, attend a party with your friends etc. will have a more energizing and inspiring effect than sitting all day in the studio trying to find an idea.

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02/16/18: While they are really popular in current scoring, ostinatos are not the most ideal things to write for an orchestra and only few instruments really can sustain an ostinato over a certain length. You should be aware that ostinatos that last very long are always quite straining for the players. If you look at well orchestrated ostinato pieces that really work with an orchestra (e.g. Duel of the Fates by John Williams) you will find that the ostinato is quite often switched between sections and especially the sections that have bigger problems with sustaining an ostinato (especially Brass) are treated with a lot of care and are given rests to regain energy as well as really joining in on the ostinato only on the climax moments (follow the trumpets especially). Mostly, this piece is driven by the strings who can sustain an ostinato with the least effort (not meaning that it is possible forever). In spite of all the care that went into orchestrating that piece, it is still a massive challenge for every orchestra and by far nothing that can be played easily. So keep that in mind when you start copy-pasting your ostinato for 5 minutes the next time.

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02/15/18: Buying and deciding for a sample library can be a very frustrating process especially when the budget ist tight and you need to make a conscious choice. The biggest problem is that official demos are usually written exactly in the way to not show the weaknesses of the library and due to the fact that there often is no money-back and a no-resale policy for libraries, you basically have no chance to really test a library before you buy it. What helps to make decisions is of course to read reviews but also to read forums about other user’s experiences. What is also a very good way to get a better idea of what you’re going to expect is to talk with someone who owns the library about potential weaknesses etc. Be aware that there is no perfect it-can-do-everything library out there so if you’re looking for that, you will never find something. Also, don’t trust what you read on forums blindly. In the recent years there has been a group of people developing who could be defined as “sample collectors” who usually have a non-musical well paid day job and buy practically every library that is being released and enjoy talking about that but have practically no real-world relation and no pressure to write a certain amount of music in a given time or even don’t write music regularly at all. This combined with the occasional esotheric attitude regarding sound and music will not give you a really good idea of what you can expect. So my personal first go-to way when I want to know something more about a library is to talk to colleagues whose judgement I trust who own it.

#technical

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02/14/18: One of the common rules of doing chord progressions is to sustain notes that are common in both chords when progressing. This is part of the standard rules for voice leading. However this concept can be extended quite a bit and might help you to connect chords that are quite remote but still will sound connected well with these sustaining notes. Imagine you have a C that you want to ring through a chord progression. This c could start out as the root of a Cmajor chord, going to be the third of an Abmajor chord, going to be the maj7 of a Db and the #11 of an F#. You can theoretically build a very interesting chord progression with these few chords and even though they are a little adventurous from the tonal side, it will work just fine because you have that one connecting note of c which glues it all together. This c could either sustain or for instance also become a key note in an ostinato which will also connect these chords quite nicely.

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02/13/18: Sometimes, when you have the feeling that no matter what you try to score a certain scene or sequence and it seems like nothing really fits or does anything benefitial for the scene, it might be the best choice to leave that scene or moment silent. As a composer, once the spotting session is through, you hardly ever question the choices that have been made there but some musical decisions will need you to rethink the approach of other scenes or simply will not work anymore as intended. Keep an open mind about possible and radical changes in the way the score works.

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02/12/18: It happens quite often recently, that you’re involved in pitches for a project which means that you create a music for a project as an “appetizer” and compete against other composers who do the same and the one who is liked most by the clients gets the job. There are a few very nasty sides on these kind of things that you should be aware of. Of course it is safer for the client to check out certain composers and see who does the music they think fits best, however often there is no budget for pitches which means that for example 5 people do work for free and don’t get hired while one does. So when you’re participating in a pitch, you should try to find out whether there is a budget for the pitch and if not you should clearly think about whether you want to take the risk to spend a lot of time and work for possibly nothing or rather want to move on. In any case, you should manage your ressources cleverly when participating in a pitch and by any means avoid any additional costs for you like recording musicians unless you are really sure that you want to do everything possible to get the project.

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02/09/18: Many people coming from a band background who start to write for orchestra mistake it for a band replacement which is not that idiomatic for an orchestra. The orchestra is not the most ideal ensemble to play constant grooves etc. and also pattern-like writing (as with bands) usually tends to feel very flat in the orchestra. In general, when you’re coming from such a background, be aware that in the orchestra any instrument can theoretically take any function, so there’s no such thing as for instance an analogy to a rhythm guitar. The orchestration will become very boring if you orchestrate in a way that your high strings end up just playing “staccato chords” because you simply gave them the job you would normally give to a rhythm guitar. For orchestra, you need to throw many of the things you know from band arrangement over board.

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02/08/18: Overdubbing the same instruments to create a bigger and more epic sound only works to a certain extent. While it is possible to overdub a quite large string section to give it a little bit more substance and power against the brass/percussion, trying to create an ensemble sound from a solo string instrument by layering it several times will not work convincingly as the vibrations and resonance in an acoustic space behave very differently between the individual instruments than with digital addition. The bottom line is, that overdubs will never sound as big as if you had the same amount of instruments in real life. Still of course, in situations where there is not enough budget it might be a wise decision to try to get the sound a little bigger with overdubs (and/or adding samples).

#technical

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02/07/18: The most successful music on a commercial level is very often music that pleases listeners from several levels of musical literacy, which is a concept that is followed in most fields of “commercial art”. John Williams’ success probably bases a lot on the fact that he has probably written some of the most simple and catchy film themes that are practically not far away from child tunes (e.g. Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones) which please the musically uneducated audience by being easy for them to capture yet still he at the same time attracts musically educated people and academics by incorporating interesting harmonic shifts, melodic sidelines and complex orchestration. So when writing music, in my opinion one of the most effective strategies to write compelling music is to keep it simple from it’s basic structure, mainly the core melodic ideas and add sophistication in the execution of these ideas. The approach followed by some composers of starting off with complex material is of course valid as well, but it limits the audience who will be attracted by that music. Of course, the decision of whether you want to appeal to as many people as possible or whether you want to position yourself more in a niche is completely up to you but keep in mind that especially writing for the media means to reach the broadest audience possible.

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02/06/18: When writing a film score and being in doubt about what to write and how to approach that scene, it very often helps to consider all possible perspectives. Do you score it from the point of view of the character, or rather the POV of the audience or maybe from another POV. Just consciously weighing these possibilities against each other might help you to find the best solution. Another important factor to consider in such moments of doubt is, that there is never just one right way to score a scene. It always is possible to score it in several ways and even most of them will feel right in the context of the movie. So don’t get overwhelmed by the “blank canvas” syndrome but when your gut feeling doesn’t tell you anything, fall back to a more analytical approach or simply let it rest until you come up with an idea.

#filmscoring

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02/05/18: For clients, one of the most important considerations to hire a composer is (sometimes maybe even before musical quality) how easy he/she is to work with. The way how you handle communication, how you deal with feedback and customer requests and how you react on your customer’s considerations are some of the most essential things that are put into consideration when hiring a composer. Even the word of mouth recommendation between your customers very often works the way: “Hey, if you need a composer, ask this guy, he’s really great to work with.” So besides working on your craft, also work on your skills in these regards. You should be offering a service that also includes customer care.

#general

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02/02/18: Snap pizzicato and fingernail pizzicato on string instruments are quite regularly described as being the same thing (for example in Adler), however they are not. Both techniques cause a percussive pizzicato sound but the cause for that is different. With the snap pizzicato, the string is being held between two fingers and pulled away from the fingerboard so that it snaps back on the fingerboard when released. On fingernail pizzicato, the strings are plucked with the fingernail rather than the pad of the finger as on normal pizzicato. The reason for the mix-up might be that some snap pizzicatos are not executable, mainly the ones on high strings and high registers. The tension of the strings there is so high that you can not make it snap back on the fingerboard without damaging the instrument so that players automatically use fingernail pizzicato. The sound difference between both pizzicatos is however noticeable. Especially on instruments and in registers where both are executeable (e.g. low cellos and basses), the snap pizzicato has a more violent and percussive sound than the fingernail pizz.

#orchestration

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02/01/18: Always mix cues roughly at the volume level that they will later have in the movie. In soft cues, our ears need more bass in order to have a balanced listening impression, so when you mix these cues too loud they might sound rather unbalanced and lacking bass later in the movie when they are very soft in the background.

#technical

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01/31/18: Do not underestimate the power of voice leading and invest sufficient time in trying to get that right. Sometimes, a chord progression just works because of good voice leading and doesn’t at all with bad voice leading. It really pays off investing time into finding inner lines that move along in steps and have an inside dramaturgy. Even if you don’t neccessarily hear these inner lines later in the final recording, it still adds to the overall musical impression of your piece.

#composition

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01/30/18: When watching scenes over and over again to write music for them, there is always a big danger of wanting to overscore them as the emotional impact of the scene as well as the general feeling of the context wear off pretty dramatically after seeing it that often. Try to be conscious about the fact that the scene might need less than you feel it needs and try to remember your initial instincts. When totally in doubt ask somebody with a bit of understanding of film music to give a bit of feedback on whether you’re overscoring already.

#filmscoring

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01/29/18: Everybody has to do the occasional gig that just pays the bills, even if you don’t like it at all. The problem is when it becomes a permanent situation. Especially in creative jobs, doing only things that you don’t enjoy and you do just to pay the bills will eventually lead to massive frustration. And while money is of course important, it is not everything. Working on a badly paid but really enjoyable project from time to time can be very benefitial for your creative health and is something that many composers (even high profile ones) do. The creative joy you get from doing music for a project that you thoroughly enjoy is way greater and will give you way more motivation for the less enjoyable projects than any money could buy.

#general

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01/26/18: When orchestrating a piece or rather a section of a piece, it is quite effective to work your way from the loudest to the softest instruments. When heavy brass/perc are involved, orchestrate them first in order to make sure that the acoustically most prominent “backbone” of the passage sits right and creates the desired effect. From there on work your way to the strings and then woodwinds. Especially when you rely on playback rather than imagination this might help you to not accidentally put important lines into weak instruments and cover them up with loud instruments afterwards.

#orchestration

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01/25/18: Know at least basic things about file formats and compressed / uncompressed files. It always leaves a quite unprofessional impression when you send over huge uncompressed audio files to your client to get a feedback or deliver massively compressed mp3 files as a final product. This also applies for video formats. Some video formats like wmv are practically not used (due to platform problems between MAC/PC) in the professional world and sending anything in that format will also feel a little unprofessional to your customer. So get a rough understanding about video containers, codecs etc. There are some good reads on the internet about that.

#technical

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01/24/18: In the media music world, being very aware of musical style is massively essential. You need to be able to deliver “something that sounds like Elfman” or “something that sounds very modern” or “something that brings back good old memories” etc. Such things are constantly being asked for and you need to know quickly and precisely how to create that style. So apart from working on your craft and absorb everything musical, you should also start to sort it in your memory into boxes. Spend some time figuring out what makes the sound of Elfman etc., try analyzing how golden age music works, figure out what chord progressions “modern scores” have. It is not just about knowing what musical solutions are possible in general, but what musical solutions to gravitate for in certain circumstances. Train your ear and your stylistic sense by listening to and analyzing a lot of different music. There is hardly a worse situation than needing to deliver something very quickly and having no idea how to pull it off.

#composition

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01/23/18: While from a purely musical standpoint, static drones are quite unattractive, as a scoring device they can have a very strong impact. Scoring a dialogue or monologue with a low drone will automatically raise the attention of the audience and give it that “something important is being said”. In movies, drones work over quite a long time without the need to change. Some scenes might even just need exactly that one drone while anything else might feel overscored. So while this device has been extensively used and doesn’t really show off your composing chops, in some circumstances, it might be the best choice to score a scene.

#filmscoring

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01/22/18: Criticism on one’s own work is always hard to swallow, especially due to art being very often something highly subjective with people just not liking it without plausible reason. The most important thing, no matter who’s criticising, is to react professionally. Even though you disagree on possible arguments, never react like a diva or respond in personal insluts etc. Always think about who’s criticising, whether he/she has some reasons for why not liking your work (if it’s just a “I don’t like it”, there’s nothing you can really do about it) and whether you might agree on that. Of course, when being young and just starting out, you might react even more sensitively on any criticism, but this could also lead to becoming massively frustrated when taking al critizism too serious. The best way is always to be your own biggest critic, trust your instincts but also question whether you could have improved on your work. If you are confident and happy about what you’ve done, you shouldn’t let yourself bring down by somebody who says “I don’t like it”. However, you will get a lot of criticism in your career, mainly from your clients, so learn to handle that professionally as soon as possible.

#general

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01/19/18: On string instruments, doing large skips from low to high notes very often involve to cross one or even two strings (e.g. playing on a violin a low passage on the low G string and moving from there to a high passage on the high E string). These skips can not be done seamlessly and instantly but always will have a little gap as the bow needs to be consciously lifted and carried over two strings. Even though on first sight it might seem quite rare for these huge skips to happen, they actually might occur way more often than you might think. Most often they are overlooked between sections on texture changes. For instance, you’re playing a 16th note string ostinato in one of the sections and instantly switch to playing the theme in a high register without any gap in between. What is most likely to happen in the “real world” is that your players will drop the last 16th note from the ostinato in order to have time to move the bow to the other string and to hit the downbeat with decent timing on the melody. So as a consequence, it is always better to plan in these movements. A more elegant way to solve that problem would be to either write them in a little rest before the theme entrance or build them a “bridge” to the high register by doing for example an arpeggio on the last few 16th notes that moves them gradually upwards to the new high register.

#orchestration

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01/18/18: When you’re working on a project where there’s a chance that you might need to revisit it for whatever reason in the future (e.g. library tracks that need to be adjusted according to the wishes of the client), always make sure to bounce all sections to individual audio tracks before you leave that project. There’s a good chance that due to software and sample library updates that project might in the worst case not open up anymore but more commonly sound differently than it used to when you worked on it. Re-adjusting everything to get back to the original sound might become a nightmare. If you’re lucky, everything will work and sound as it originally did but chances are quite high it doesn’t. In these cases, the bounced audio tracks might not just come in handy but be a huge time saver.

#technical

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01/17/18: When listening to a melody, our ear doesn’t just follow the structure on a note-by-note basis but also follows longer developments in the melodies. One thing that our ears pays special attention to is the development of the top notes of a melody. If your melody in general (as most melodies) have a wavy conture, the ear will follow the peaks of the waves and set them into relation with each other. When analyzing musically attractive melodies, you will very often find an own melodic quality in these peak notes. If you strip the melodies down to just these notes you will very often find an ascending motion, an arc or a melodic idea that feels musically attractive while melodies that keep going back to the same peak note over and over again (in spite of all other melodic qualities) will always feel static and as if they have a weak development. So when writing melodies, try to consciously keep an eye on the development of the top notes.

#composition

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01/16/18: Always be aware that when scoring a movie or actually any audio visual content, the attention of your audience lies mainly on the visuals and only a small fraction on the music. With this in mind, subtlety with thematic/motivic references is very often not the best solution. If you’re trying to hint a character’s presence with a theme, it will not really work to do that in a very subtle, reharmonized, re-rhythmizised etc. version but you rather need to state it very prominently, especially when it has an important role for the storytelling and you need to make sure that everybody in the audience gets it. Even with the great masters of film scoring, most of the time, thematic references in scores are done very clearly. Even though you might have the ability and desire to reference a theme with musically more advanced techniques, in such situations it is usually the better idea to hit the audience on the nose.

#filmscoring

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01/15/18: Many composers who just start out in the field are often unsure about how much money to ask for a job before they are hired fearing that if they ask for too much they will lose the job. Also, the insecurity often comes from simply not knowing what “one normally asks for this kind of work”. When I do a calculation for my fee, I usually break it down internally to hourly rates. Trying to estimate how many hours of work I might need for a certain job multiplied by a decent hourly rate might give me a rough estimate about where I should be heading with the fee I’m asking for. This technique has proven to be quite effective to figure out how much money to ask for. When you estimate an hourly rate, however don’t take regular 9 to 5 jobs and their hourly rate as baseline. Usually, rates should be considerably higher as you also cannot simply write music and be creative effectively 8 hours a day but also have a lot of unpaid things to do around that (phone calls, negotiations, meetings, bookkeeping etc.), as well as costs for your studio, gear etc. that “normal” employees don’t have.

#general

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01/12/18: It very often creates a quite hard contrast when you introduce new instrumental textures right on downbeats or the beginning of a section. Unless you deliberately want to create that contrast, it is usually a more fluent and more pleasing musical result to introduce with a smooth transition. For example if you want to switch from a string section passage to a woodwind section passage, don’t switch them with a cold contrast “on a barline” but rather introduce the woodwind sound with a few pickup notes in the bar before or have a small crescendo chord in the woodwinds before the new section starts. That applies for radical textural changes like in the example mentioned but also helps to make small textural changes (e.g. introduction of an instrumental solo) more fluent and musical (unless you want a harsh contrast of course).

#orchestration

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01/11/18: Mixing and mastering has a lot of placebo effect potential and considering all the esotheric advices and approaches that some people advocate for on the internet regarding the improvement of their mixes, it is also a field to get incredibly lost in. Try to remain objective when you’re mixing/mastering. It is great to experiment with a few things to see whether they have an objective influence on the music but if you just “feel” that there’s something different, it is most likely a placebo effect. If you are unsure, try to get a second opinion from someone with trained ears. But working in the media world with the financial and time constraints, focus on getting the job done and applying the things that obviously have an effect.

#technical

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01/10/18: Parallel movement of many voices in general sounds quite unattractive. Try to avoid for example to move all string voices into the same direction on a chord change which can happen quite quickly especially when you’re recording several voices at once by playing them in on a piano. In general, the ideal situation would be to have an even spread of voices that move down, up and sustain. As this ideal situation is not always possible in the situation described above you should try to have at least one voice move in the opposite direction to compensate for the motion of the other voices. As a side note: there are some arrangement techniques (e.g. big band block voicings) where it is part of the style to have a lot of parallel movement and some composers define their style by also writing a lot of parallel moving structures, but trying to avoid that is in general a good starting point for a learning composer/orchestrator.

#composition

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01/09/18: The timing of sync points (moments where the music accents the action on screen) might vary and not always will it be the best thing to place them exactly on the action. Always look out for the hit points that need a moment until the audience has realized the consequences of that hit point. If the main role confesses to her husband “I’m pregnant.” and it has a strong influence on the path the story goes, you will most likely not accent that right away but give it a moment to sink in so the music reacts according to the audience’s reaction. How long this will be always needs to be determined individually and trusting your feeling might be the wisest thing to do there. The most important thing is to not simply go for placing all the accents exactly.

#filmscoring

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01/08/18: Many creative people need to “disappear” communication wise in order to work concentrated. Unplugging phones, turning off mobiles and being offline might be really helpful to work without interruption and losing the “red thread” but unfortunately, in the media world, it is nothing that you should really do. Most importantly because there might be last minute changes on the cue/project that you are working on which might force you to completely rethink or scrap the cue that you are working on. Secondly, and also very important: customers get very very nervous when they can not reach the people who are working for them. If you disappear from the radar comunication wise, it will very likely leave a negative feeling with your customer and even if you deliver everything on time in good quality, you don’t want your client to have a feeling of discomfort when working with you. So the bottom line is, to at least stay connected on one channel while you are working and learn to deal with interruptions during your work.

#general

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01/05/18: Using mutes on string instruments needs some important things to consider and remember. Mutes as seen on this picture have no influence on the vibration of the strings but alter the way of how the vibration of the strings is transmitted over the bridge (the wood “blade” where the mute sits on) into the body. Therefore, string mutes have only a very small influence on the volume of the instruments. The essential effect of a mute is to give the instruments a more covered, less bright sound. There are a lot of different types of mutes (metal, rubber, wood etc.) though you should leave it to the musician to pick his/her favourite mute. Important to know is that when you need to rush to put the mute on or off, it will be quite noisy, so it is always a better to leave enough time to change to or from mutes to do this silently. The sound of string mutes is often used in emotional warm string pieces in scores or similar passages for example this theme from CAST AWAY, but also the very agressive main theme from PSYCHO uses the whole string sections under mutes for sound texture reasons. Unfortunately, most sampled muted strings don’t transport the warmth and texture that real muted strings can create so they’re often underused in sampled music.

#orchestration

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01/04/18: Learn and understand the basic technical principles and terms of filmmaking. While it is nothing that you might need directly for your own work, it helps tremendously to communicate with people involved in the film project that you’re working on (most importantly the director of course) and even more importantly understand work processes and also get a feeling of how complex certain processes are during the filmmaking. It might be very embarassing if your director talks to you using technical terminology from film and you have to constantly ask what it is. In general, it leaves a better impression when you are informed about the things that you’re working on. Also, developing a more analytical view on the project that you’re working for might also help you to consciously see things that you wouldn’t have noticed normally and highlight them a little more with the music etc. One of the standard overview works of film theory is HOW TO READ A FILM by James Monaco which has also been published in several languages, but there are also a lot of other books on that topic as well.

#technical

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01/03/18: It is very convenient and easy to copy-paste complete sections of a piece and have them repeat exactly but most of the time, this feels very redundant. There are a lot of pieces in classical music where parts are being repeated exactly due to “formal balance” reasons but in general, it feels more musical to give repetitions some new musical information. Three of the most common things that could be added when you repeat a part (for example restate a theme) is to introduce a secondary melody line that goes well with the primary theme, change the orchestration and to reharmonize the passage (or combinations). These things can be observed in practically every John Williams Main Theme. If you listen for example to the Star Wars Main Theme, there is not a single identical repetition of the main theme fanfare in that cue. Even though it takes more work to work like this, it keeps the piece way more interesting than just repeating the very same thing exactly as it is.

#composition

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01/02/18: One of the biggest arguments for hiring a composer instead of using library music for a project is a general musical concept. Choosing library music will always feel like a patched together score due to different musical styles, thematic ideas etc. Use that advantage as strongly as possible when being hired for a project by giving the music a strong uniform language. Most important in this regard is always to not just score the movie scene by scene but always keep your musical language uniform. Especially on scenes that stand out from the rest of the movie and may imply a very clichéd scoring approach (e.g. kissing scenes, scenes where people sneak through houses etc.) you should take special care to mold them into the rest of your score. In the end the score and the film will feel more uniform and leave a stronger impact than a score without a strong unifying concept.

#filmscoring

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