Acoustic instruments tied to
American folk traditions can be
effective tools for film scoring—
whether the project is traditional
or completely original
|Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is an ideal case study of a score that sounds both authentic and timeless.|
Think about the phrase “music for film” and it’s likely that the
sounds coming to mind are either symphonic or electronic.
Your imagination may conjure up sustained strings, cymbal
washes, timpani, majestic horns, and their electronic
equivalents: synth pads, stabs, kick drums with enough
rumble to give a subwoofer a hernia, and—my personal
favorite—the throbbing synth bass. Thanks to sample libraries,
digital composers (most of whom seem to be keyboardists)
have easy access to thousands of such sounds.
But playing non-keyboard instruments—and more
important, knowing how to write for them—can lead to plenty
of scoring opportunities. Even better, your ability as a player
(or the ability of good session players you hire) can make a
much stronger emotional connection than any sampled sound.
Because they’re so strongly rooted in our collective frame
of reference, instruments from our acoustic traditions can
bring the audience into a story with an immediacy that
orchestras and electronica can’t match. They work well in
foreground and background, solo and as part of an ensemble,
and in both traditional and non-traditional settings.
So where are they best used in film? The
obvious answer might seem to be a setting that
calls for folksy instruments: a western or other
American period piece, for example, or something
set in the country. That may be true on the surface,
but it doesn’t describe their full potential.
While many of the ideas I’m about to discuss
apply to any instrument and idiom, I’m going to
illustrate this concept by using acoustic guitar,
mandolin, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and bass
as the main members of our scoring orchestra.
You could include flute (or a folk equivalent like
tin whistle), hammer dulcimer, ukulele, Jew’s
harp, and yes, even some keyboards. Because
these instruments have all been used in various
forms of American roots music, I like to think
of this approach as “scoring Americana.” But as
you’ll see, specific genre matters less than the
relationship between the sounds, parts, and the
What Does That Sound Mean? When
you’re being considered for a film score, one of
the first things you should ask the director and
producer is what they want the music to evoke.
Are they looking to convey the internal feelings
of one character, set an overall mood of the
scene as it relates to the complete story, or tell
the audience that they’re looking at a specific
historical time and place? The answer should
lead to two practical follow-up questions: How
“authentic” does each cue need to sound? And
what does “authentic” even mean?
Ry Cooder’s soundtrack to Wim Wenders’
Paris, Texas makes a good case study. (See
“Hear It” to learn where to listen
to much of the music discussed here.) Check
out the piece “Brothers,” which starts with a
spacious fingerstyle guitar part followed by a
strong slide guitar theme. As the piece evolves,
Cooder’s guitar gets some support from
droning strings and percussion. But it’s the
slide that stands out—and that’s also the voice
that carries over to the even simpler piece,
“Nothing Out There.”
Made in 1984, Paris, Texas isn’t a Western
or a period piece. It’s not set in the woods. It’s
a contemporary look at themes of dislocation
and loneliness. The action moves from the
desert to big cities like Los Angeles and
Houston. Yet the score sounds both authentic
and timeless—it works as well today as it did
nearly 30 years go. (Compare that to Vangelis’
synth-y score to Blade Runner—it’s cool, but
sounds oh-so early ’80s.)
Cooder’s approach influenced my score
for James Spione’s American Farm (2003), a
feature-length documentary about changing
times at a family farm in upstate New York. The
documentary includes contemporary scenes of the
farm and interviews with the farmer and family
members discussing times past and present. For
the contemporary scenes, we used mostly solo
guitar playing single-note melodies to underscore
the beauty and emptiness of the land. The film used
more structured music to recall the farm’s earlier,
happier history. Here, the guitar moved to the
background to support a fiddle melody. When we
returned to the present, the guitar was sparse again:
It was like a link to the past music that was down
to a small remnant. (You can hear examples on the
film’s trailer at youtu.be/OOd-VyBtTLE.)
You can create something new by
contrasting familiar points of reference,
especially if you’re willing to study the sounds
and styles of the past, as well as keep current.
Cooder drew from Blind Willie Johnson’s
classic “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the
Ground,” in Paris Texas, evoking that song’s
feeling without paying too much homage to it.
Had he gone too far into any particular blues
style, he’d have disconnected the characters
from their onscreen reality. In the same way,
you might try scoring an urban character by
using a solo guitar (or harmonica, or whatever
instrument you choose) against, say, a prerecorded
drum loop or a synthesizer bed. The
guitar might represent the character’s internal
thinking, the percussion might be the world
Stylistic juxtapositions can also produce
comic results. Carter Burwell’s use of banjo,
ukulele, jaws harp, and yodeling in parts of
his Raising Arizona score is a great example
of how effective the “fish out of water”
approach to arranging can be. The overall
score itself isn’t rootsy or traditional, but those
down-home instruments reinforce the absurd
fantasy world that the Coen brothers created
in the film.
Get Real! If, however, the setting is supposed
to be more rooted to clearly defined time and
place, the instrumentation and playing style
should be more accurate and idiomatic. It
doesn’t necessarily have to be exactly from
the film’s era, but it should be close enough to
convince the audience.
Jay Ungar’s famous score for Ken Burns’ The
Civil War is based on a piece Ungar wrote in 1982
called “Ashokan Farewell.” Although it wasn’t
written specifically for The Civil War, the waltz—
which is based on a Scottish lament—sums up
the whole period without being tied to a single
point of view (the way something like “Battle
Hymn of the Republic” might have been). In the
best-known recording, a plaintive violin goes
solo for about a minute before a guitar comes
in for gentle support. It’s as simple as arranging
gets, but it’s incredibly effective.
|Tenor banjo was used to contrast 5-string banjo in “Dueling Banjos” in Deliverance.|
No matter what, it pays to do some
research. I faced this when scoring a
documentary series called Our Island Home,
set in Virginia’s Barrier Islands. The producer
wanted banjo. I play the guitar. No problem:
Borrow a banjo and play it. Heck, even a
sample could work.
But the banjo wasn’t there to be a sonic
texture—it needed to remind people of the
culture of those islands. My first attempts
sounded like a guitarist playing the banjo. Fail!
Homework time. Should the part be
played on the five-string or four-string banjo?
Bluegrass style or folk style? I had to learn how
to tune the instrument—five-string banjos are
usually tuned to open G, and the short fifth
string is the highest. I had to get used to playing
with metal fingerpicks, which contribute a lot
to the trademark sound. But once I got those
details down, it worked. I didn’t have to play
like Earl Scruggs, but it helped to sound at least
like I’d heard of Earl Scruggs.
Mandolin is another instrument that found its
way into Our Island Home. It’s tuned in fifths (G, D,
A, E, low to high, just like a violin) using unison
pairs of strings—making it a great tool for writing
violin parts. It’s bright sound works well for
intricate lead lines, but it’s also a great rhythm
instrument thanks to its percussive attack. Most
players choose a small pick using an alternating
picking motion for single-note phrases and a
snapping downbeat motion for rhythmic chords.
Mandolins don’t have much natural sustain, so
players hold long notes using a tremolo technique.
For fiddle, the most authentic sound
may not come from a traditionally trained
player. You (or your session player) should
avoid smooth classical bowing techniques
in favor of rougher attack of the folk fiddler.
Slides, drones, and double stops are also
really effective. You might also want to
minimize vibrato, saving it up to add drama to
the longer notes.
Breaking the Mold If you plan to use
acoustic instruments (or their electric
counterparts, for that matter), it also pays to
experiment some non-standard techniques—in
other words, to break all the established rules.
I’ve played the guitar with pencil erasers,
used banjo to play a blues, created beds by
scratching a violin bow between the bridge
and tailpiece, used a cello to fake upright bass
(and a bowed bass to play cello parts)—and
they’ve all worked.
Alternate tunings can be especially
effective. On guitar, open tunings evoke folk
styles and can be used for both slide and
standard playing. Modal tunings like DADGAD
evoke more exotic sounds. Tuning a step or
two below concert or using a capo way up the
neck can change the character and tonality of
the instrument in a range of interesting ways.
And did you know that banjo players will tune
the B string down to B-flat for minor chords?
Finally, it’s always fun to get your hands on
the less-common members of an instrumental
family. Viola play many of the same parts as
violin yet can sometimes lend a richer timbre;
12-string and baritone guitar can be nice
alternatives to the standard six-string. Grab
a string and a broomstick to make a washtub
bass. (You can fix the pitches with your DAW!)
Tenor banjo offers a good contrast to the
5-string banjo—something used to great effect
in “Dueling Banjos,” which appeared in the
soundtrack for Deliverance.
Play it Up How good do you have to be
to play these acoustic parts yourself? That
depends on context. I reserve featured parts
for the instrument I play best: guitar. I’ll
play banjo, harmonica, and mandolin in an
ensemble setting, but only after I bone up
on the correct techniques (and consult with
friends who can tell the difference). Simple
piano or accordion parts are no problem, but
more complex ones get farmed out to session
players. I played the viola and violin as a kid
and can still find my way around. I’ve used
them to help write better idiomatic parts for
session players, but I’ve also recorded them
with the help of Melodyne, which can at least
help with pitch accuracy. (Which leads me to
an aside: Grab that instrument you played in
school and practice it a little. You may never
get really good again, but you’d be surprised at
how useful it can be.)
A pitch-to-MIDI program like Melodyne
can also be a lifesaver if you don’t have
access to a lot of acoustic instruments. Try
improvising a violin part using an instrument
like guitar—just try to be conscious of the
violin’s natural range and tuning. Record
(or import) it into Melodyne and export the
results as a MIDI file. Use the MIDI file to
trigger a sampler. It may take some editing, but
you’d be surprised at how well that works.
Recording quality is just as critical in film
scoring as it is in any kind of session. There’s
no one correct approach here; it’s up to you
and—even more important—the director,
producer, or music editor who’ll have to
incorporate your music into the film’s overall
When you’re asking a solo instrument
to support a stretch of onscreen action, the
more faithfully you can capture all the subtle
characteristics of that instrument, the better.
Sending a pickup through a DI and directly
to disk works—you can hear that all over
TV music—but if you want to draw upon
the instrument’s full emotional power, good
microphones are more effective. Consistency
is important, especially if you’re recording a
series of similar cues for a film score. Any one
instrument’s tone shouldn’t change radically
from cue to cue unless it’s in a completely
different mix. So take note of mic positions
and preamp settings and be disciplined about
returning to them for every session.
On an instrument with a broad frequency
spectrum like the guitar, it pays to capture
the lows and low midrange of the body,
especially when you’re recording a sparse part.
When it comes to melody, finger-style parts
seem to blend better than flat-picked parts.
While others may prefer small-diaphragm
condensers and/or ribbon mics, I find
large-diaphragm condensers very effective,
especially on solo melody parts. Try a brighter
mic like the AKG 414 (cardioid) pointed
toward the neck and use a warmer mic like the
Audio-Technica AT4047 to capture the body.
Strummed chords can benefit from a
brighter sound. You can change the tone
without moving mics by simply switching to
a lighter pick. You might also mix in some DI
sound from the pickup. (But if you do, record it
on its own track and only add as needed.)
Unfortunately, even if you’ve got a lot
of experience with guitar, it may take some
experimenting to get good sounds on other
acoustic strings. Banjo can be especially hard
because it can sound harsh, especially when
close-miked. Some people use condensers,
but you might instead start with a dynamic
like the Shure SM57, 12 inches or more from
the instrument, pointing between the player’s
right hand and the neck.
On mandolin, small-diaphragm condensers
capture the attack nicely, but you can also get
pretty good results with a large-diaphragm
condenser, positioned about a foot away, or a
combination of mic and pickup. Ukulele can be
recorded in pretty much the same way, though
you might move the mics a little closer to
capture the instrument’s intimate character.
Fiddle can sound really scratchy and nasal
when it’s miked too closely, but that might
be just what you want for a folksier sound.
For more bow attack and a bright tone, try a
condenser 8–12 inches away, above and pointing
at the bridge. For a warmer, richer sound, move
the mic two or more feet from the instrument.
Assuming you’re not going for an electric
Chicago blues sound, harmonica should be
recorded with the mic on a stand, and the
player standing at least a few inches away.
Don’t eat the mic: You might get a little more
breath than you want (though this is easily
edited with a DAW).
Finally, there’s no reason you can’t use
your acoustic instruments with digital tools.
Years ago, I read something in Jeff Rona’s
“Reel World” Keyboard magazine column that
has really come in handy a few times. When
working with samples, Rona recommended
layering one track of a real instrument to give
the part more life. I’ve tried this with bowed
strings a few times to great effect; just one
track of real violin on top of a bed of string
samples makes the whole thing seem more
The Heart of the Matter Overall, scoring
with acoustic instruments adds one very
important factor—the emotion of performance.
Cooder explained it well in a 1986 Los Angeles
Times interview about his Paris, Texas score.
“You have to find the ‘sound’ that fits the film and
you’ve got to agree on that sound,” he told Robert
Hilburn. “I can only do the film if his musical vision
fits mine. If a director called and said, ‘I expect
to hear 100 accordions here,’ I’d say, ‘Skip it, I
can’t do it.’”
This rings true whether you’re writing for
picture or composing for a sound library. If
you’re doing what you think will be “stock”
Americana—competent blues, country, folk, or
whatever—it’s probably going to fall flat. The
music has to connect to you, and you have to
believe that it connects to the action onscreen.
When it does, the audience will feel it.
To take full advantage of your acoustic soundtrack, it’s important that the players
produce great tone, and that you deliver a mix the client can really use.
1) If you’re recording session players, start by asking them how they’ve
recorded in the past. This is especially important if you’ve never (or rarely) recorded
the instrument in question, but even if you have recorded a particular kind of instrument
many times, it’s a good idea to at least try it the player’s way. Remember, with acoustic
instruments, the sound is a combination of the instrument itself and the player’s
technique. Two people might sound completely different on the same model of guitar
2) Control dynamics—but don’t overdo it. Almost everything we hear these days
seems to be compressed flatter than week-old beer. Big dynamic peaks don’t work well
in soundtracks—they always seem to cut through at the wrong time—but a pumping
compressor may be worse. So unless you’re instructed otherwise, go light on the limiting,
knowing that the music editor will probably apply more dynamic control in post.
3) Print with and without effects. That “cathedral of doom” effect may actually
sound really good on your guitar, but too much echo can tie the filmmakers’ hands.
Remember, the film scene itself may have some ambience. So avoid using time-based
effects on track inserts and apply them using sends and returns. Print a version with the
mix you like, but then use your DAW’s buses to print stems—separate audio files with the
dry mix and for each effects return. As long as these files have the same start time and
length, the music editor will be able to load them and create his or her own blend.
4) Offer to print individual tracks. Speaking of stems: If you’re mixing multiple
instruments, ask if the filmmakers want separate audio files for each one—in addition to
the entire mix. This way, they can adjust the balance as needed without making you go
back and remix.
5) And incidentally . . . Because a film’s theme music and underscore are part of a
larger artistic statement, they don’t necessarily have to reflect the same era and setting of
the film’s story. That’s not the case with incidental music, which is designed to sound like
music the characters onscreen are either hearing or playing.
Incidental music is really about believability. The instrumentation and sound should
reflect the scene as accurately as possible. So if a character is listening to country radio
in the 1940s, the guitar shouldn’t be recorded direct. (Acoustic pickups were decades
away.) You should never hear an electric bass. (It was invented in the 1950s.) And the mix
should be mono! But period accuracy should be within reason—in other words, I don’t
think you’re going to get away with using 30 seconds of incidental music as an excuse to
go buy some tube mics and an old reel-to-reel machine. But, nice try!
Spotify users can check out
a playlist I’ve created called
“Scoring Americana” at tinyurl.com/scoring-americana to
hear some examples from wellknown
film scores. Links to
other music examples will be
listed in the text, as well.
Emile Menasché recently scored the
documentary Incident in New Baghdad,
which was nominated for a 2012 Academy