Scoring Your First Film

People often ask me about scoring music for film. It seems like a complete mystery to most people; even other musicians. If you’re a musician and you want to get into film scoring, the first thing you should do is score a film.

But I Just Told You…

Ya I know, you’re a complete beginner and don’t have a clue how to score for film. Luckily for you, these days it’s really easy to get started. First of all there’s more than enough material as far as films to write to. Just go to any YouTube type site and you’ll see thousands of videos and films just aching for your soundtrack. Just find something that you like, download it, and start writing. Remember, we’re just using the film to write our own stuff to, so we aren’t doing anything illegal here. The good thing about YouTube is that the videos are short. You want to start with something short so you can try lots of different styles and scenes without going into a long drawn out affair. Start with some footage that is more in your style. Which brings me to the next point. What should I write?

It’s Your Thing

The music that you should start with is the music that you are most familiar with. Remember, this is just to start. We’re going to get into other stuff shortly but why put all of the tricks on the table at once? If you’re a rock guitarist, find some footage of a car race or some sort of action that would suite that style of music. It’s best to start with music and genre that you’re familiar with so you can focus on the other aspects of scoring first.

Before You Start…

When scoring for film it’s not just the style of music; it’s about how you make the music support the picture. There are many things to take into account here. How does the film move along? Are there a lot of quick shots and tons of edits? Are there some shots that need special consideration?…a slow shot of the driver, a shot of an extra (a child, something out of place?), is there something coming up in the sequence that you want to warn the viewer about? You want to take some notes before you start composing at all. What parts of the sequence are you going to treat differently? Are there any special hit-points? Is the tempo going to change? Where exactly does the music start and stop? These are all extremely important decisions that are going to have to be made before any music is done at all.

The Composing Part

First, try writing a couple of different things. Don’t complete the whole score right then and there. Sketch out some ideas, put together a quick arrangement and see how it works with the picture. Now, don’t stop there. Try another idea. Try something that goes in another direction. Put together a quick arrangement and see how it works with the picture. You may notice some things right away. If they’re two different pieces of music, they’ll affect the video differently. One may work and the other may not. One may make the video ‘feel’ a certain way and the other may make it ‘feel’ differently. By writing different pieces of music to the same film, and seeing how they work, you take the first step in scoring for film.

Get used to writing many versions to the exact same scene. It happens in score writing all the time.

Hitting the Hit-points

It’s not about placing a repeating riff under a scene and hope it works. We’re trying to compose for picture here. For this first example we want to try and follow along. Don’t be happy with writing a 4-bar loop and letting it go. We want to try our hand at writing to the film and not making the film follow our arrangement. That means writing a part for the first part of the scene. Maybe start with a set up; let the viewer know what’s coming. You’ve heard these millions of times. It’s that ominous string patch just before the unsuspecting victim opens the cellar door. If it’s a crash scene, maybe a short distorted loop before the real action begins. You get the idea, it’s the intro to our film scene. Next, write the main part. If may be the main piano melody to your heart-wrenching scene, or the guitar riff to your chase scene. Don’t worry if your music is cliched or not hip. It’s about working to picture at this point. We’ll let the editor in later. Finally, make sure you’ve taken care of any special shots or hit-points. You either want to change the music at this point or put some special parts in your arrangement to pull these hit-points out.

Edits and More

If you’ve written a couple of different tracks for the same scene, do a review of all of the tracks to the scene in one sitting. Thankfully we’ve picked a 5 minute video, so that should be easy to do. What are your impressions of each? Does one work better than the others? If you’ve tried different styles, you may find that one style works great for the opening scene, but another works better for the end. If this happens, try and do an edit. See if you can work the first part of one arrangement with another part of another. This is another aspect of writing that happens all of the time. Making one part fit into another seemingly separate part is all part of the process.

Again From the Top

Congratulations, you’ve written your first score. It may be genius, or it may be garbage. It doesn’t matter. When it comes to writing for film, it’s all about the process. The best thing to do at this point is to go in and do it all over again. You may want to try another scene that’s completely different from your first. After a while you’re going to want to spread your compositional wings and write in other styles. That way when you watch a scene, you have tons of options as to what direction the music will take. Beyond just writing in different styles, you’ll want to write in one style and interjecting other genres within that style. The sky’s the limit when it comes to film composing.

It’s Not About You

Remember, you’re writing for the director and the film. You’re working with somebody else who has control over the final product.  They will be asking you to write something that’s in their head, not yours. Or, you may be trying to create something original, when all they want is something that ‘sounds like the temp track’; or even better, something that ‘sounds like… (insert famous composer that they couldn’t afford here)’. Either way, you’re going to have interject your own creativity and sound while trying to convey someone else’s vision. That means writing an appropriate piece of music that you feel really suits the film, just have to go in again and redo it. Have fun!