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How To Write A Film Score
An article on film music, particularly for Brickfilms composers, written by The Duke.
So, you want to write a film score, huh? Well, the title of this article might be a little deceiving. Writing music, be it for film or otherwise, is an art. As is the case with any art, film music composition takes a lot of creativity and experience. Not to mention a whole lot of good old hard work. There's no textbook, no set of rules to adhere to. However, there is a certain "language," if you will, that film composers use in their music. For example, you wouldn't have a huge orchestra hit for a guy sitting down to read the newspaper, or a heroic action theme during a love scene, or a piano sonata during a space battle. So obviously, there are definite styles of music that you will want to use for certain types of scenes. We'll talk about this in more detail a little later.
About film music
It has been said that "music is what makes a movie," and that is very true. Have you ever watched an amateur film that had absolutely no music? Pretty boring, huh? Good music can take a mediocre film and make it great. On the flip side, however, bad music can really hurt a film. I have seen many sequences from various movies that could have been very powerful, if the composer/director had used a better choice of music. Music is a very powerful tool in film.
What's up with film music?
In my mind, there are basically two primary purposes of film music:
Setting the Mood
Setting the mood.
This is probably the most important purpose of film music. Here's an example. Picture this: A girl is sitting by the fireplace, reading a book. Suddenly, a young man appears and begins to sneak towards her. In the first case, let's say we have some really tense, ominous music in the background. What does the music tell the audience about the young man's intentions? Well, any idiot would guess that his intentions are probably not too good. But in the second case, let's say the music is soft and romantic. Now what will the audience be thinking? Probably that the guy is going to walk up and kiss her or give her some flowers or something. In the last case, let's say the music is slow, sad, and heart-wrenching. Well, we would probably guess that the young man is about to tell her that her best friend just died or something. Can you see how the music alone can set the mood for a scene?
Music can also really help move things along in a movie. Imagine a film about an airplane pilot. There's one scene where he is flying his plane through the clouds. The imagery is beautiful. The sky is a deep blue, and the clouds are white and puffy. We see the plane flying gracefully through the sky, the clouds zooming past it. By itself, the scene is pretty cool, but it lasts for a couple of minutes, and after a while, it starts to get boring. Now let's add some epic, expansive music. The strings play a soaring melody, rising and falling with the action, accompanied by heroic harmonies and countermelodies in the horn section. Now we are pulled into the scene, and we become a part of it. We are taken out of our living room and we soar with the pilot to heights never before imagined. The scene is soon over, and we didn't even notice how long it was, because we were so caught up in it. Before, the scene was long and boring, but now, it's perfect. What changed it? The music.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I know to give beginning composers is to listen to professional film scores. Just buy as many good soundtracks as you can get your hands on, and listen to them until you wear them out. But don't just listen--concentrate on what you're hearing. Try to remember what was happening during each cue, if you can. Watch the film, concentrating on the music; then listen to the soundtrack again, and visualize in your mind what was happening on the screen. The more you get familiar with good scores, the better your own work will be.
Scoring a Film
Ok, think about this: I've just asked you to score a short Brickfilm for me. You've done a few little bits of music for your own films, but mostly just piano and maybe a few strings here and there. But I have asked you to write a fully orchestrated film score. So, what do you do? Well, first of all, watch the film. You don't have to think of any themes right off, but just think about what kind of mood you think the music should set. Should it be big and powerful, or slow and subdued? What kind of instrumentation should it be? Strings, brass, full orchestra, or maybe just a solo instrument. Watch the film over again a few times, and really think about what you want to do with the music.
To score, or not to score.
As much as I love music, I have to admit that some scenes just work better without it. However, please note the word some. Scenes that are able to stand alone without music of any kind are very unique, and not usually very long. If the natural sound in the film (ambiance, or whatever) is prominent enough, then music is not really needed. Sometimes a director wants to emphasize the sound effects more to give the audience the feeling that they are really there with the actors. In cases like that, music would only be cumbersome. in addition to scenes like this, there are also some scenes are just more powerful with silence. However, these are kind of rare. Usually, some other sound in the film will take the place of the music. But again, these types of scenes will only make up a small part of a film, and you'll need to score everything else.
The Time is Now.
Well, now that you know what kind of music you want, now it's time to write it. Profound, huh? Well, it's a lot easier said than done. To start with, if you're going for an orchestral soundtrack, you need to have some way of simulating an orchestra, that is, unless you just have access to a real one, and most people don't. The most common way to simulate an orchestra is with something called MIDI. Now, if you want to learn about MIDI, Google it. I'm not going to go into that in this article. For now, let's look at some of the tools that are available to help us on our musical journey.
If you're like me, you feel more comfortable writing music the old fashioned way: on a blank sheet of music. Thankfully, there are programs out there that make it much easier to write with notation. One of the greatest things about these types of programs is that you have immediate playback, something that Beethoven probably never had. Here is a list of programs that are used for notation. Note that these do require some prior knowledge of music! If you get one of these and you've never played an instrument, and don't know how to read music, you will probably not know what to do with it.
Finale Notepad - A free program for Windows or Mac that allows you to write music, note-by note, with up to eight staves.
PrintMusic - A relatively inexpensive program much like Notepad, only with more features.
Finale - A top-of the-line music notation program with more features than you could learn in a lifetime. It is a little more complicated, and may not be the best program for beginners, but if you're really serious about composing, this might be the program for you.
Some people feel more comfortable writing music with a keyboard. In fact, this is the way a lot of composers start out, picking out themes on the piano. Also, a lot of professional film composers write all of their music on a keyboard, and they have a staff of orchestrators that set it to music so that it can be played by a real orchestra (Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and James Newton Howard, among others, write their scores this way.). If you are good at playing the piano by ear, than this method will most likely work best for you.
GarageBand - This little program is by far one of the greatest and simplest programs for beginning composers. It uses synthesized sounds, but they can be tweaked to fit virtually anyone's tastes. It's a simple interface, but it has great features like reverb, graphic equalizers, and other effects. If you own a Mac, get this program. If you have it, use it. It's great.
FLStudio - Although this program seems to be more focused on loops, it does seem to have a fairly good library of orchestral sounds. I have not used this program myself, but from what I've heard, it's fairly good. Plus, it works on Windows, so those of you that miss out on GarageBand because you don't have a Mac will be able to use this program.
Cubase - Another top-of-the line program, Cubase is a software sequencer that allows you to not only create MIDI files with a MIDI keyboard, but also to edit them, play them through VST instruments, and add reverb and other effects. However, the program is not limited to MIDI. You can also open and edit virtually any type of audio file. The only drawback is that it's a very complicated program to learn, especially for a beginner. But if you can figure it out, the possibilities of this program are endless.
Another thing that will help you achieve great orchestral sound is a sample library. Used with a sequencer, these libraries usually consist of VST instruments (AU Plugins for Mac), which can be assigned to different tracks in a MIDI file. This allows you to play orchestral instruments, and even sections, on your MIDI keyboard. Of course, it takes a lot of tweaking to get it to sound realistic, but the end result can be truly fantastic.
GarageBand Jampack 4: Orchestral - If you have GarageBand, and you are just not satisfied with the included sounds, I would highly recommend getting this library. It may not be the best--but it's cheap, and it sounds much better than the synthesized sounds.
East West/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra, or EWQLSO - This is one of the best libraries I know of. The lower-end version, the Silver Edition, is $200, but when compared the best version, which is around $3000, it's not too bad. The Silver Edition, which I own and use, has more than enough sounds and articulations for a beginning composer, and enough to satisfy even an experienced one. I use this library with Cubase SX3, and I've been very satisfied with it.
Enough with the commercials, let's get to the good stuff.
All right, so now that you know about all the tools that are available to you, you can start composing. Once you have gotten all your ideas together, it's time to start thinking of themes. You will probably want some kind of main theme. This may not always be the case, but for the most part, you will probably want to write a main theme that the audience will remember. Sometimes you may want an additional theme for one or more of the characters. The score to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, composed by Howard Shore, featured over 80 leitmotifs (themes or short motifs that identify a certain character or object)! You will probably not want to try to make up that many themes, but it would be a good idea to think up some theme motif that you will associate with the main character. After you have thought up your themes, sit down at the piano (or keyboard, or whatever) and start playing them. Try to play chords along with them, and then write the chords down on a piece of paper. If you're going to use a sequencer, then go ahead a record a rough version of the theme with a strings sound, so that you'll have it down for reference later. If you're using notation, get the theme written down as soon as you can, even if it's just the melody line. You'd be surprised at how fast you can forget even a really great theme if you're not careful.
Ok, I've got my themes. Now what?
Now it's time to start actually scoring the film. You've got your themes, so now you need to decide where the themes are going to be played, and what kind of instrumentation you will use for each scene. There are certain places where you will really want to bring your themes out, but what do you do in between those times? Well, you could just keep playing the theme over, and over, and over again, but that would get pretty boring.
Making your music fit the movie
Lets say that in the film, the hero comes onto the scene. Cue the theme music! You've written this really cool trumpet theme for the hero, and it works perfectly while he's standing there with his hands on his hips, looking out over the city. But then he walks over and starts talking to a man on the sidewalk. Now what do you do? Well sometimes, you might need to tone down on the music. By that I don't mean simply turning the mix down, I mean having the music go softer during the dialogue. It shouldn't be silent, unless the director wants it to be, but it shouldn't be more prominent than the dialogue. You may want to switch the theme from trumpet to mid strings or maybe a wind instrument, played at a softer dynamic level. The main thing is that you just don't go over the top. If your music is going to play throughout most of the film, and that is the ideal score, then it's going to have to adapt to what's happening on the screen. Sometimes you may want to finish a theme out, but it just doesn't work. Say the hero is riding through the streets in his car, and you have the theme music playing again, full blast. But then, all of a sudden, a gangster pulls out in front of him and starts shooting at him with a machine gun. Well, your cool theme may just have to be interrupted by an orchestra hit or something. Your music is going to need to be versatile.
Ok, now for the big question: How do you write good action music?
Action music is one of the hardest parts of film composing, but it's also one of the most enjoyable and rewarding parts. The main thing to remember when scoring an action sequence is: the music should fit the action perfectly. The tendency would be to write a cool action theme for horns and percussion, and then just have that playing in the background. This can work, but it gets old. Good action music should be constantly changing with the action on the screen. If the hero is suddenly in some kind of peril, then the music should get tense and heart-pumping. When the hero does something cool, maybe throw in a fast version of your hero theme, but don't draw it out too much. If you have to, switch right back to some more intense action music. Just watch the scene and think about the feelings you have during each part: are you scared, are you excited for the hero, are you on the edge of your seat waiting to see what will happen? All of these things should be emphasized and strengthened with the music. A great example of music like this would be "The Flying Circus" from James Horner's The Rocketeer. If you have the CD, listen to that track, or if you have the film, watch the scene where Cliff rescues Malcolm from the biplane. Watch how the music constantly changes, and how Horner is still able to throw his great themes in here and there.
When is it appropriate to use vocals or pop-style music?
One thing to remember about using vocals is, you should never use vocals in the background during a dialogue scene, because it's distracting. It's like there's someone else talking at the same time as the characters. About using rock or pop in your film: well, that is usually up to the director whether that kind of music will be used, but sometimes it may be left up to you to decide. There are many cases where rock or pop fits very well, but it can be overused. Try to keep as much orchestral music as you can, as it tends to be more cinematic. That is, if that's the kind of soundtrack you're going for. It really depends on your tastes, and the tastes of the director. Personally, I think rock and pop have their place in some cases, but for the most part, they should be avoided. I guess I just like a purely orchestral soundtrack. But that is by no means a rule.
When is it appropriate to use piano solos?
Ok, I'm a pianist, and I love to play the piano, and I love to listen to piano music. But as a film composer, I have to admit that the piano can very easily be overused. Sometimes, nothing fits better than a lovely, delicate, piano solo. But when piano solos become overused is when they are the only kind of music in a film. There may be some films out there that will work with this kind of music, but for the most part, it just gets old too fast to hold anyone's interest for very long. Even when accompanied by an orchestra, piano should still be used sparingly.
The Most Important Thing
There is one thing that will determine whether your film score will be just good, or outstanding. The only way you will be able to write a truly great film score is if you really love the film you're working on. It has to be something that you can get excited about, something that you can connect with. If you really love the film you are scoring, and really put your whole heart into the music, then your score will show it. But if you just throw in a few orchestra hits and crescendos at different places, and not really put your heart into the project, then that will show, too. Remember: as a general rule, if you don't get excited about your own music, don't expect others to.
Well, I've covered a lot of ground here,, and it's been kind of all over the place, but hopefully some of the things we've discussed will help you. The biggest thing is that you just get started. Just go write some music. If you can, play it for someone and get them to tell you what they think about it. Just keep on practising. Make up themes, get them down in your notation software or on your keyboard, experiment with different types of orchestration; just be creative! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me via private message or email. I'll be happy to help you out any way I can. Also, I love to critique music (preferably orchestral), so if you'd like me to hear some of your work, just let me know.
How To Write A Film Score: Part 2
A sequel to the article How to write a film score, written by The Duke.
In our previous discussion of film music, we introduced you to the art of film scoring, and we covered the basics of how to score a film, and additionally, we looked at some of the tools that are available to us as composers. In this article, we will take a more detailed and in-depth look at the process of scoring a film, and we will look at some different techniques and approaches that can be used for various types of scenes. We will discuss times signatures, key changes, tempo, and some basic orchestration techniques. To understand most of the concepts in this article, a musical background of some sort would be beneficial. So are you ready? Let's get started!
Themes, Undertones, and Cues
First off, let's look at some of the basic parts of film music, themes, undertones, and cues.
Writing a theme can be both the hardest and easiest part of film music at the same time. It's easy, because once you have your theme, you can build an entire soundtrack around it. In the case of Brickfilms, which are rarely longer than 20 minutes, one or two themes will usually be enough to build an entire score out of. However, writing themes is not always easy. For some, themes just come naturally, but it might not be so easy for others. You may encounter a few situations where you will be watching an un-scored film, and themes will just jump out at you from the beginning. If this happens, write them down as fast as you can, because it doesn't happen too often! Usually you will have to think about the film for a while after you watch it, then watch it again, and think about it for a while longer, and then repeat the process until you come up with something. Remember, there are many factors that go into determining whether a theme will fit a particular film, such as time signatures, tempi, and instrumentation. We will discuss these in detail a little later.
Undertones are themes or passages in a film that do not stand out as much as a theme, but are used in the background of say, a dialogue for example, to set the mood for a scene. You may think that since people don't really notice them because of their subtlety, they aren't very important. On the contrary, these elements of a score are very important in setting the mood for a film. They can be hard to write, though, since they are not as straightforward as a theme. Sometimes they consist of simple string chords played very softly. One thing that sometimes works is using the chord progression of the main theme, rising and falling with the dialogue or action on the scene. Be subtle, but not boring. Try to think up interesting ways to set the mood. Always remember that every single measure of music that you write should compliment the film in some way, and if it doesn't, then it shouldn't be there.
In general, a cue refers to any piece in a score. In music, a "song" is a piece of music with words, and anything else is a "piece." In film music, a piece is called a "cue." But a cue can also refer to a specific instance in a scene where the music should match up with the action. This is one of the most important aspects of writing a score. Getting your score to match the action is a very difficult process, but the result is well worth the trouble. Usually, the director will have some specific cues in mind for the score, but apart from that, you will have to decide where your cues will be. An obvious example of a cue would be in a scene with an airliner flying along with a bunch of passengers, and suddenly it is high-jacked. As soon as the high-jackers strike, the music will need to be scary and suspenseful. However, not all scenes are that cut-and-dry. You will have to use a lot of creativity to think of good cues.
Tempo, Key Signatures, and Time Signatures
The tempo is a pretty basic part of a cue. Obviously, you will need slower tempi for slower scenes, and faster tempi for faster scenes. Sometimes if your cue doesn't quite fit perfectly, a simple tempo adjustment will help. Sometimes your music may have to change tempo frequently as a scene progresses. Just make sure these changes aren't confusing to the listener.
When writing music, the tendency is to want to write everything in an easy key, like C major, or A minor. It is usually easier to write this way, especially if you are composing on a keyboard, but don't overuse these keys. If you need to, write the music in C and then transpose it to another key when you finish it. Also, don't be afraid to change keys. A key change can really help keep your music moving, especially in an action scene. Some common key changes are up one second (i.e. from C major to D major), and up one fourth (i.e. from C major to F major). The following clip is an excerpt from the end credits of "Edison," in which the key goes up one fourth, and then one second.
Edison Key Changes
Key changes like this can change the momentum of your music to keep up with the pace of a scene. But if you change keys, do it for a reason. Don't just do it for the sake of doing it. Again, every bit of your music should have a purpose.
12/8 vs. 4/4 - Most themes don't have to be confined to one time signature. If your main theme is in 4/4 time, you could change it to 12/8 to make it sound more "bouncy" for say, a chase scene. Here are two examples, again from Edison, of one theme in two different time signatures. The first is in 4/4 time, and it was meant to convey a kind of "inventor" feel. The second example is the same theme but in 12/8 time, which was used in the end credits. While the first one is fast, the second one seems faster because of the triplets.
Can you hear what a completely different atmosphere the different time signatures created?
Triplets - Triplets are very useful for montage sequences, and they can also be used for chases (usually somewhat lighthearted), heroic swashbuckling music, and so on. Examples of heroic themes with triplets include "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" by Michael Kamen, the main title march from "Superman: The Movie" by John Williams, as well as the main theme from "Hook," and the chase sequence from "The Mask of Zorro" by James Horner.
Orchestration is one of the most intriguing aspects of film music. There are so many different combinations that you can use in your music, and the possibilities are endless. It is such a vast subject that we could never cover it in this article, so let's just look at some of the basics for now. To start with, let's take a look at each part of the orchestra.
Most likely you will use the string section more than any other section of the orchestra. It is the most versatile group, and also the largest (some string sections have up to 60 players). Strings can be used to convey so many emotions: happiness, love, sadness, tension, and even the evil and ominous. Even when other instruments are playing the melody line, the string section is almost always doing something, even if it's just filling in the extra notes of the chord, or a playing a low, almost inaudible pedal tone in the bass section. The string section playing in full force can provide an epic and sweeping atmosphere that no other section can achieve. On the other hand, it can provide a very tender and delicate atmosphere.
The brass section is the powerhouse of the orchestra. A full brass section usually consists of trumpets, trombones, French horns, and one tuba. Other brass instruments include the cornet (a smaller, higher-pitched trumpet) and euphonium (similar to a tuba, only smaller). Let's take a closer look four of the most common brass instruments.
Trumpets - The trumpet is a very heroic instrument, and when played in a group of three or more, these instruments are able to get a lot of volume. Listen to the main title from Star Wars, or the main theme from Superman. The trumpet is great for bombastic, heroic themes. However, as a solo instrument, it can also be very sad and sombre. An example of this would be the main theme from Jerry Goldmith's "The Last Castle." Listen to this song by Rednote audio. The trumpet solo at the beginning is a great example of this.
End Credits by Rednote
Trombones - The sound of the trombone is similar to a trumpet, but lower. If the trombones double the trumpet line an octave lower, it can add some power to the trumpets. They can also be used to play chords to accompany strings, giving them more power as well.
French Horns - The French Horn is a very unique instrument. It is considered a brass instrument, but it's very different in sound from any other brass instrument. It is considered the bridge between the brass and the winds, and at times, the horn can sound almost like a wind instrument. It has a very warm, mellow tone, but when played at full volume, it has a blasting, epic sound. Many examples of this can be found in Howard Shore's scores to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. James Horner uses the horn brilliantly in his score to Braveheart to convey pain and defeat after William Wallace is betrayed and defeated at the battle of Falkirk. Accompanied by strings, this French horn cue ("Betrayal and Desolation" on the CD) is one of the most powerful and emotional moments in the film.
Tuba - The tuba is most commonly used to play the bass line, but when it carries the melody, it can have a playful sound, and is often used for a bumbling villain. An example of this would be John Williams' score for Home Alone, the theme for Harry and Marv. When played in the lowest registers, the tuba has a very blasting sound.
The woodwinds are normally used in soft, lyrical passages, although there are other uses for them. Let's take a look at some woodwinds.
Piccolo - A very high-pitched instrument, the piccolo can also be very loud. One common use of the piccolo is a fast run, such as in many of John Williams works.
Flutes - The flute is a pretty common woodwind, mainly for its relative easiness to play. It's a very light and lyrical instrument played with vibrato, and can be used for love themes, etc. It can also double the piccolo an octave lower in a run.
Oboes - The oboe has a very elegant, romantic sound. A great example of an oboe solo is the beginning of John Williams' "Across the Stars" from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. It has a very reedy sound, and is played with a lot of vibrato.
Clarinets - The clarinet has an interesting sound. In the lower registers, it sounds almost strange, and up high, it sounds similar to an oboe. It is often used in jazz and big band music.
English Horn - Very much like an oboe, only lower, however, not as low as a bassoon. An example of an English Horn would be Dvorak's Adagio from the New World Symphony.
Bassoon - This instrument is sometimes used to play the bass line, but it can be used to play the melody. Down low, it sounds playful, but in the high registers, it can sound eerie and mysterious.
Contrabassoon - Basically a bassoon that goes a lot lower. It is not used as commonly as a normal bassoon.
Percussive elements are sometimes called "fireworks," and they can really spice up a piece. But they should be treated like icing on cake, if you eat the icing all by itself, you'll probably just get sick. Just like it tastes better to eat the whole cake, it's better to use the whole orchestra and use the percussion to compliment the rest of the orchestra. Let's look at some basic orchestral percussion.
Cymbals - These are the most common elements of the percussion. A cymbal crash can be very loud and be used with an orchestra hit, and a roll can be used to great effect to build up to a higher dynamic level.
Timpani - The timpani can be used to accent loud notes, playing the bass line, making the music more bombastic. A timpani roll can be very loud and powerful, and is a great way to build up your music.
Chimes and Bells - Wind Chimes can add a magical effect to a piece, and church bells can be used in a wide variety of situations.
Glockenspiel, Xylophone, Vibraphone - These are known as mallet instruments. The glockenspiel sounds kind of like little bells, and a xylophone has kind of a cartoony sound. The vibraphone sounds very eerie and mysterious down low, and up high, it sounds much like a music box, as in the opening of John Williams' "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter.
Snare Drum - This drum has a very militaristic sound, and can be used for battle sequences, or basically any type of action sequence. It can also be used effectively with quiet brass to create a somber atmosphere, as in the Rednote Audio theme from the section on trumpets.
Bass drum - This drum is very low-pitched, and it can be used to accent loud notes like the timpani. When played in sync with the snare drum, it adds a powerful bass effect to the snare drum. John Williams used this effect in The Patriot when Tavington and his redcoats march on the farm.
I know that is a lot to chew on, but we have only scratched the surface of orchestration. For more information on orchestration, you should read Rimsky-Korsikov's Principles of orchestration.
Well, we have covered a lot in this article, but there is still so much more to discuss. Keep an eye out for more articles in the future. Again, please feel free to contact me via email if you have any questions.