Composing for Film, Part 1: Before You Score

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Imagine audience members nestled in their seats, popcorn in hand, the lights dim, and music fills the theater. Goosebumps cover their skin as they feel... excitement, dread, happiness? They’re feeling what was expertly crafted after months of planning, meetings, discussions, first, second, third attempts, notes, revisions, editing, tweaking, etc. Scores are true labors of love. They can take on a life of their own and breathe soul into a film, or they can distract the audience and detract from the film.

Close your eyes and think of the music for Star Wars, Terminator, or James Bond. Immediately, you can remember the melody, the film, the emotions you felt as you watched iconic characters fight villains, fall in love, build friendships, and even sacrifice themselves. Never underestimate the power of a score; if done well, it can completely elevate the full experience and stay with moviegoers long after they’ve left their seats.

Film composers differ because they don't write music to fit their brand, band, album, or artist identity. Instead, they create an auditory representation of the director’s vision for the film. Ultimately, the director has the final say and, sometimes, score decisions are made months before they even have a conversation with their composer.

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the role of a film composer is that they are in a partnership, but the director has more than 50% of the power—making this a difficult symbiotic relationship to establish. This is probably why there are so many repeat partnerships, like Burton and Elfman, Nolan and Zimmer, Spielberg and Williams, and others. Choosing the right music for the visuals is a combination of artistic vision and efforts, starting with the director, leading to a spotting session and the creation of a music summary chart.

The Film Director’s Vision

The director has a vision for the completed film, from the visuals to the coloring, down to the typeface for the credits. Auditory vision, on the other hand, is like describing a complex emotion to someone who has never felt it. Music is subjective and a moving target, but the director needs to decide on musical timing, emotions, transitions, theme song vs. ambient, silence vs. music, and so on. So the director needs to start with some of these questions, and the composer needs to know the answers to them.

  • What are the goals of this film?
  • What type of music is needed for each scene?
  • When should there be silence?
  • Are there any ulterior messages, undercurrents of themes the music needs to capture?
  • What are the characters’ motivations, feelings, conflicts?
  • Should a theme be associated with any characters or concepts in the film?
  • Who is the intended audience for this film?

Spotting Session

Once the director has an idea for the music, they will sit down with the composer and carve out a mutual understanding for music expectations during what’s called a “spotting session.” A spotting session occurs prior to any composing; it's when the director and composer watch the project to decide on music placement and what the music needs to achieve. During this process, the corresponding spotting notes or music summary document will be developed. The resulting document keeps everything meticulously organized.

While every project is different and the dialog on music is ongoing, below are some questions to answer and elements to be considered during the spotting session. Having a comprehensive conversation at this point will help align the director and composer.

Approach Each Scene in the Film and Ask Questions

  • What style of music is needed for the scene? What fits the imagery, characters, theme, emotions of the scene? Orchestral surges? Maybe a quirky combination of instruments like banjos and music box strings? Frantic Strings to build tension, or smooth piano to build a sense of romance? What is the time period of the film? Should the music honor any sense of history? Have historically accurate instruments to fit the visuals, or should the music clash against the time period to make a statement like in A Knight’s Tale?
  • What is the emotional state of the characters in the scene? Should the music enhance the acting, or go even deeper? Music has the power to add a different emotion or thought-provoking layer to an already compelling scene.
  • If contending with dialog or FX sound, how should the music interact with everything, or should there be no music? Silence can be a powerful tool.
  • Does the music need to hit any cuts? Would the scene benefit from the impact of mickey-mousing, or a sense of connectivity with continuous music?
  • If a theme has been crafted, how should it be utilized? Themes can be used in a multitude of ways, to hint at a presence, to solidify connections. The aspect of psychological impact will be discussed further in Part 3 of this series.

Music Summary Chart

It’s important to create detailed spotting notes/music summary document. This document ensures that the director and composer have one master source to pull from with precise SMTPE timecode in and out and descriptions of what the music should be accomplishing. Having a clear and descriptive document allows the complex process of composing an effective score to go more smoothly.

Some information that should be included in the music summary:

  • Cue #: Depending on how long and complex the project is, the numbering system may change. For instance, a TV Show might be broken into Season, Episode, Scene: S1E2S1.
  • Cue Title: This could be something like “opening credits” or “Will exits the barn.” This can include a clip of dialog or anything that is an additional identifying element.
  • SMTPE In: This denotes when the music starts. It needs to be broken into Hours/ Minutes/ Seconds/ Frames (H/M/S/F).
  • SMTPE Out: This denotes when the music ends. It needs to be broken into H/M/S/F.
  • Duration: This is the total measurement of music needed for that corresponding cue. It needs to be broken into H/M/S/F.
  • Description of Scene: This can be a more in-depth description of the scene and may include notes about motivation or action that drives the music choice.
  • SFX or Music: Identify if the specified area needs composed music or something else including SFX, diegetic music, or another sound design element.
  • Music description: This describes the type of music needed for the corresponding cue in terms that were discussed and agreed upon.

Music Development

Musical development is incredibly important. Obviously, each scene and the overall film will evolve. These visual developments need to be paralleled with music. The director and composer will want to determine how each scene and experience needs to unfold.

  • What scenes need musical transitions? Do certain scenes need to feel connected?
  • Does the music need to shift slowly, or should there be a hard shift? While continuous music can create a sense of continuity, hard shifts can be used for humor or shock.
  • Do you want to maintain the melody, but tweak emotions with a key change? Key changes are very effective in maintaining the integrity of a theme while creating a different layer of emotion for the corresponding scene.
  • Do you want to transition by melting in a secondary melody? Blending two different melodies can be very psychologically satisfactory to the audience. They will pick up on the transition and feel relief when the song finally resolves into the secondary melody.

Breaking down scenes, looking at the bigger picture, and creating continuity with instruments are all essential steps toward deciding what music or sound design goes with what visuals. These carefully crafted decisions can have a profound impact on the overall experience, even if the audience is unaware.

At last the film is picture locked, the composer and director have discussed expectations, and a music summary chart has been created, now the composer can finally begin.

Rosie Record is a film and media composer in NYC who breathes emotions into films, web series, and other mixed media with her unique take on scores. She's known for creating stunning, epic and emotional music to accompany any experience captured on screen. To hear and see more of her work, please visit her website at https://www.rcrecordmusic.com/.

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