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Learn Composing | Home-Brew Film Scoring, Part 2

November 1, 2011
Go ahead, whistle.

Go ahead, whistle.

In September, I talked about prepping your studio for scoring. Now we are ready for the real deal, so to speak. Remember that it takes years and years of training to learn the craft of film scoring, but it only takes seconds to have a brilliant idea. Here, I''ll show you some ways to implement that idea.

It''s important to understand what the nature of the film is, as whole, but also know that you need to work in small chunks to get it done. Unlike a CD project, which you usually create by writing smaller chunks (songs) and assembling them into a whole, for a film, you need to start from the macro and move into the micro. Know where your story line is going, conceptually, and then fill in the blanks. I know this seems incredibly obvious, but when you have to put together 90 minutes of music, it can get daunting. Bite-size is good and tasty!

A character is an individual person or thing that appears on the screen many times throughout the film. A concept is more abstract—it can represent the mood of a scene or it can be an idea designed to push action along. These ideas can be expressed the same way, musically, or be treated quite differently.

A good example of music that illustrates both a concept and character of a film is the motif in Jaws. It is a two-note figure that expresses the mood of the whole movie while acting as a theme for one of the main characters (the shark). On the other hand, Star Wars has a very bombastic fanfare theme, but the characters all have different motifs; the storm troopers sound different from Luke''s theme.

Usually, you only have somewhere between three and 15 seconds to get your musical point across, so get to that point fast. Simplicity allows the audience to easily identify between the visual and the aural. A great example of simplicity in thematic development is the whistling theme from Ennio Morricone''s brilliant score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Here, a simple whistle lets us know what is going on and whom it''s going on with. One voice disseminates a monumental amount of information.

This is a great way to keep motifs fresh and exciting throughout the film, while embedding a great hook into the listener''s ear. Try moving the motif around from a violin to a bass and then over to a bagpipe. Then go back and restate it on the violin. The music becomes an “old friend” that we welcome back to our world. If we go back to our The Good, the Bad and the Ugly example, we ultimately hear the theme expressed on various instruments. Sometimes only parts of the whole motif are played, but we can still identify it.

This is my favorite part of the whole process. I find it more challenging to write between or under film moments than to be given a full measure to have my say. (Not that I don''t love to have my say!) When I think of movies that have inspired me musically, I always go to Thelma and Louise: Composer Hans Zimmer weaves in and out of majestic scenes with small legato lines that underscore the characters'' chase through the deserts. Generally speaking, you will not have very many large moments in the score to really show your most powerful passages, because strong musical moments can get in the way of dialog movement. So most of what we write lives in the small moments of films—the walks down the street, the pensive moments on the beach. Make these moments count, because they give the viewer a chance to identify with the character. Be personal. Make a solo instrument speak volumes about a character. Whisper (so to speak) in the audience''s ear and tell them something about the character that they didn''t already know.

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