Writing Music for Film: First Steps

Continuing along the lines of the last post about disciplines for film composers, today we’re going to talk about some beginning steps and considerations in writing music for film. This post is for all musicians new to composing film music. Regardless if you’re a new comer or a seasoned veteran, writing for film is a discipline of its own. Much like writing a hit pop song or a great dance tune, there are rules and conventions to learn. Writing for film has its own set of rules and skills that must be mastered. Just because you can write a pop song doesn’t mean you can write a score for film (and vice versa). I often hear musicians saying that they would like to be film composers. They write a song and say something like ‘that sounds like something that would be good in a film score’. Just kind of messing around and ending up with something that sounds ‘soundtracky’ and actually writing something that adds to a film and enhances a scene is something completely different; not to mention the overhanging loom of unrealistic deadlines.

Pre-requisites

Before we get into the nitty-gritty about writing for certain scenes, let’s talk about some pre-requisites. It’s not imperative that you must master each of these styles and disciplines but it’s important that you’re familiar with each. It’s a good idea to start with whatever discipline or style you are most familiar with and grow from there. Why? Because a) it’s probably what you’re best at*, b) it may set you apart from other composers and c) it may be part of your individual ‘sound’. Beyond that you’re going to have to sit down, stretch yourself, and go through specific exercises and studies to learn the craft of writing music for film.

*You may be better (or really good) at composing in other styles without even knowing it…I talk about this more in an upcoming post…

The Styles

In the last post I mentioned that composers must be able to write in various styles. There are quite a few musical styles that the composer must be familiar with in order to make great film music. Some music styles are pretty much a pre-requisite whereas others aren’t as essential. For example, it may not be as important to know all of the various forms of klezmer as it is to know how to write a modern symphony; although knowing a little about klezmer can’t hurt.

The Orchestra

There are certain styles that will always be part of a film score. Traditional symphony orchestras will have a part in most scores depending on the popularity and type of film. Symphonies are the defacto standard when it comes to most films. They are used in everything from comedy, to drama to horror. Therefore writing for traditional orchestral instruments is something every film composer should know. Keep in mind this isn’t just writing for the orchestra but also for the separate instruments in a traditional orchestra. This can run from a small horn ensemble, a string quartet or any solo instrument (or combination). That means being intimately familiar with most of the instruments in the traditional orchestra.

Conventions

Even composers who start out in other styles (for example electronic musicians) find that knowing how to score for orchestra can really enhance their career and the prospect of making a lot more money. Just writing for orchestra isn’t enough. There are different styles and conventions to learn. For example there is a difference between ‘concert music’ and film music. Knowing something about the history of film music and conventions used in the past can help. Keep in mind I’m not talking about studying the entire history of film but if a director makes a reference to a Neumann or North score, you should have an idea of what they’re talking about.

There are some themes, arrangements and stylistic elements that are used over and over in film music. If you sit down and study film scores you may find a lot of themes and styles coming up again and again. These are the elements that I’m talking about. It’s important to know something about the various forms in classical music. That includes 20th century atonal music. traditional romantic and classical symphonies, etc. Modern scores may include some 20th century atonal elements, traditional symphonic melodies and arrangements, married with electronic and rock textures. It’s not atypical for a modern score to include most if not all of these things within a single score.

Not Just the Orchestra but…

If you’ve read any book on orchestration, you’ll notice that the first half of the book (if not more) will be focused on the separate instruments, their ranges and special notes on each. This is simply the first step. If you’re going to write for an instrument, the more you know about that particular instrument the better. For example when writing for trumpet it’s not enough to know the range of the instrument, you have to know what the instrument will sound like in the different registers. You should know some of the technical problems with the instrument ( for example which trills are hard to play, and/or what keys are easier). More on this in an upcoming post.

The First Step

As you can see, we’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to learning the craft of writing for film. Like any other endeavour, it starts with a single step. Take what you know so far and grow from there. If you’re an electronic musician, try writing to certain scenes with your current set up. With all of the videos online, there is no lack of sources to write to. Start with your instrument and grow from there. Try some of the ideas I’ve listed here (for example writing for certain instruments). If it’s all completely new to you, get some material and get started. Try writing something right away. As soon as you learn a new skill, use it in your writing and memorize it as quickly as possible.

In upcoming posts we’ll get into the different styles and other skills you will have to master to become proficient at writing great underscore.

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