The Composition Process

After the spotting session is done and all details concerning the music are fixed, the most common procedure is for the director/producer to get back to other post-production issues and for the composer to go home/to his/her studio and to start working.

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What happens now is highly dependant on the personalities and working procedure of both parties, but the most common thing would be for the composer to find the material for the movie. This means that he/she sits down and sketches out the themes, motifs etc. and tries to come up with a general concept for the composition. Usually this takes a while and is a process that is not wise to rush. Creative sparks don’t come permanently and sometimes it takes a while to find the right musical “voice” for a character etc.  Some composers might invite you over to their studio during that time to present you a few demos to see how you react to that or they might send over sketches, others will dig themselves into a hole and not re-appear until they found the material that they see fits best.

The best thing is to not create too much pressure here by demanding to finally hear demos. Even though the process might seem too slow for you, once the material is found and everybody is happy with it, the creation of the score will be quite fast. The most important thing ist to not expect to be bombarded with new cues right from the start, it will take a while until a steady stream of new cues will come.

The order of music cues that the composer works on, should be left to him/her. Sometimes, the composer likes to start at the climax point and work his/her way back to the beginning, sometimes he/she will score chronologically, sometimes jumping around in the movie might happen, so be prepared to not get all cues in order of the movie.

 The quality of demos that you will hear might vary greatly. From “almost sounding like the real deal” to “sounds like my old computer from the 90s”, anything is possible. Most composers will put some effort into presenting you decent so-called “mock-ups” which are basically demo versions that have been created with samples on a computer to present an idea how it’s going to sound with the orchestra later. When you listen to these, you need a certain ability for abstraction. Computer generated mockups often sound very far from a real orchestra and when you listen to them, you need to be very self-reflective to find out whether there’s something bothering you in the mock-up sound (“these violins sound too tinny”) or if there’s an actual problem that you have with the composition (“I don’t like the tone of that cue”). Also, try to not get too used to the mock-up sound as it might be misleading to a certain extent.

So don’t focus too much on the sound of the mockup but on the musical content and find out whether you like this or not.

Trying to sync up actual results with expectations sometimes is a tricky thing. It even gets trickier when the syncing also has to happen between different people so there is a huge possible span of misunderstandings, taste differences etc.

Why mock-ups are sometimes misleading

Apart from the fact that emulating a real orchestra with a computer still is very tricky and usually not convincing, you might also be mis-lead by the “size” of the sound.

As an example: A standard sized orchestra uses four french horns. Sometimes all 4 french horns play the same melody together to create a big and epic and brassy sound, sometimes each of the 4 french horns plays a different part from the others. Usually, sample-developers record a section of 4 french horns playing together. Now if your composer uses these samples to emulate a french horn melody where all players play the same line, that is properly to scale.

However, your composer might also need to use these samples to emulate a passage where the four horns in the orchestra would play four different parts, however, as he now uses the 4 horn samples 4 times, you actually get a sound that sounds more or less like 16 horns. So this might sound much bigger than it might sound after the recording.

However, also be aware that the volume balance might not be as extreme as you might presume now. You generally need 4 instruments to double the volume of one of the same kind and 16 to double the volume of 4 and of course your composer will try to adjust the volume level in the mix of the mockup to be as close as possible to the final result.

Even the best preparation and spotting session will not neccessarily save you from creative differences. Again, it comes down to proper communication here to deal with these things. And as with actors and all other departments, remain motivating even though you don’t like a music cue at all. A feedback to the composer like “Good job! I really like what you did but I don’t think it fits too well into that scene, I actually want it much darker and less playful.” is much better than “This is total crap, do another one.” and will eventually get you the better results from your composer. Also, try to address your problems with certain cues. Again the best way here (unless you’re musicall trained) would be to communicate in terms of what you want to feel with the music and what you currently feel with the cue that you have a problem with. “It’s too heroic, it needs to be more toned down and humble.” for example is a great feedback for a composer as it will give him/her quite a clear idea of what needs to be changed without being told to “take out instrument x, add more strings”. Only when you are really bothered by something you should address it specifically like “I really don’t like the woodwind sound, could you try coming up with something else for that?” Also, references to other movie scenes and music that you see fit to illustrate your feedback are great to narrow down the problem.

After you get a new revision of a cue, or even a few more revisions later you hopefully end up with a cue that you’re happy with. In this case, you should definitely be able to “sign off” on a cue, so the composer can take this cue from his/her to do list and move on. It is not a very pleasant feeling for the composer to know that there is a cue that you are probably happy with but didn’t sign it off yet. The problem with this is, that the composer might want to base other cues on that cue and when you come up with changes again for this cue after a while, all the cues that are based on that cue will be in trouble as well.

The most important thing in this phase is to be supportive and motivating, be able to communicate and also reflect on yourself about what exactly you don’t like about certain music cues. Time is precious in this phase and you don’t want to let your composer guess what might be bothering you.


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