Writing Music for Film: The Sonic Palette

It’s pretty obvious that music has incredible power to invoke many different moods. It’s for this reason that it’s such a big part of film. Part of the composer’s job is to create the music that helps impart the mood that the director is trying to convey. It usually comes down to the composer’s ability to create pieces that fit with the overall mood of the film but also the demands of the particular scene. In this way we have the larger framework (ie the overall feel of the film) and the consideration of the scene within this framework. Therefore we must consider how to create certain moods within certain frameworks. One of the best ways to do this is to start with a sonic palette.

The Framework

Generally, the genre of the film will determine the overall feel of the film. Once you know that the film is going to be a romantic comedy, the overall general framework has been established. It’s up to the composer to work within that framework. Is the director going to go with a generic type of romantic score or is something special needed here? If the romantic comedy is a period piece, then is that going to be part of the score? Do the characters have any special characteristics that the composer may want to highlight? If there is some internal conflict with the character, is the composer going to make that obvious, or underplay it? Maybe interject something small into the score to hint at something internal?

Pick Your Palette

While some of this may be obvious, it’s something that the composer must be asking right from the get go. How are you going to approach this film? Once you have an idea of the general mood of the film, you can go about getting into some of the details. Some composers like to start out by creating a sonic palette. By selecting your instrumentation and sound palette from the beginning, you create the overall ‘sound’ framework that you are going to use. This palette doesn’t have to be written in stone but a lot of composers will usually stick with what they started with barring any objections from the director. Rather than limiting the composer, choosing a framework from the beginning will free up the composer from having too many choices when creating the score. In this case, more isn’t always better. So, it the case of the romantic comedy are there special sounds or instruments that may help the score along? If it’s a period piece but the director wants a modern score, you can interject a special instrument to signify the era. A good example of this is John Williams’ use of solo violin and Jewish folksong idioms in ‘Schindler’s List’.

Creating Some Cues

Once the overall feel and general instrumentation is determined, the composer then can go about and start creating some parts. It’s usually good to just try different ideas and see what works instead of trying to over think things. Remember we took time at the very beginning to make some creative choices and now it’s time to use those instruments that we chose and see if we can make them work to picture. Part of the sonic palette choice may include the choice to feature certain instruments over others. For example if the piano going to be a major instrument, taking some cues on it’s own? Or is it always going to be part of a larger ensemble or just play background parts? Remember these aren’t written in stone but it’s a good idea to consider this from the outset.  Once you have these things considered it becomes a lot easier to put together some quick cues and see if they work. If you have put together some quick cues and have a chance to get some feedback from the director, you at least know if you’re on the right track. Is your sonic palette close or completely off? Hopefully, if you’ve got good communication with the director, you won’t have to make that many changes. The good thing about this is once you have done all of the choices, you may have to only make small changes from here on out.

Mix and Match

Your sonic palette and framework for your film are intrinsically intertwined. Once you’ve decided on the instrumentation, what are the extremes that you can take this to? For example, we have a romantic comedy but it takes place in an inner city urban community. Does the director want to include some urban elements into the underscore? If so, how are you going to go about this? This is where your training in different styles comes in. For example the director wants a ‘traditional’ romantic comedy score but want to include some elements of urban music since that’s the environment for the film. How do you go about this. Obviously, since a romantic comedy, the score is going to consist of orchestral elements, heartwarming strings along with some ‘drama’ and emotional orchestral cues; but what else?

The Extras

Since its an urban environment and you want to include some urban musical elements into the score, you have to decide what and how far to take it. The director mentioned that a romantic score is essential, so you may want to be subtle initially. That means just taking one or two urban music elements and interjecting them into the score. Since there may already be urban music and hip-hop licensed into the film, you will take a couple of urban elements and put them into a cue. For example if the scene is a couple walking down a street, chatting and getting to know each other, you could use some string along with a subdued urban beat. If the beat is too much you can try instrumentation that suggests urban music or use cliches from that genre.

Easy There

It’s easy to get carried away here but you will usually want to be subtle about interjecting these elements. It becomes too easy for the cue to become clichéd. You want to choose elements that suggest certain elements without over doing it. Some bad clichés would be; some generic pentatonic scale with an ethnic instrument to suggest an Asian element, or the generic military snare or solo trumpet in a war film. We’ve heard these things so many times, that it has become cliched to use them in these contexts. Suggesting these elements in a completely different context though, can be interesting and add some depth to certain cues.

Know Your Stylez

For example, in our urban example above, what elements are good to use, and which ones are clichéd? Unless the score needs some retro feel, steer clear of any sounds that are dated. Any big hits, fast breakbeats and dated samples may make your score sound dated right from the start. It’s important to know these things about the different styles of music you’re working with. This all becomes part of your sonic palette. In this case it would probably only take one or two elements to interject an urban feeling into your score. If you’ve chosen your sonic palette well, these instruments can incorporated in many ways that suggests ‘urban’ but doesn’t overwhelm us. For example, if you where using an 808, you could use it on certain hitpoints throughout the score. Or, a hip-hop bass could make up some of the lowend in other cues.

The Color Spectrum

By choosing a sonic palette from the beginning, you create a color spectrum to work with. Colors may be added and taken away but having that palette gives you a springboard for your creative ideas. It doesn’t have to be written in stone but don’t take it too lightly. Choose your palette carefully; it could be different between a wonderful experience, or an exercise in frustration. Once you’ve had the experience of working from a great sonic palette, you’ll never go back to ‘winging it’ again.