Scoring Dialogue Heavy Films – comparisons

Alain Mayrand Music and Story, Score Works, Sound vs Score 6 Comments

607As a film composer I can tell you this, everyone wants to score the big epic space battles, but your ability to score dialogue well  is the mark of great  film composer.

I am currently scoring a dialogue-heavy film and I am earning my stripes, I’ll tell you that!

As preparation and continued inspiration I have been watching films with lots of dialogue.

I started off with “American Beauty”. I’ll do a post on that one at some point since I wrote down every single cue and timing/duration to get a sense of the ratio of non-scored scenes to scored scenes to scenes with source music (the source music is very well used in this film.)

With “American Beauty” I noticed a few things. The music material is all related (Dorian and Mixolydian) but doesn’t repeat much, so no theme really stands out to the casual listener, just this fantastic mood. Very loooong notes abound during dialogue with short piano interjections. It works amazingly well, so it was a great lesson for me that long notes can be great.

“Mermaids” is a film I really enjoy, with a perfectly cast Cher and Winona Ryder. Very sparse score, much less music than in “American Beauty”. Music is kept for transitions and the more dramatic scenes towards the end of the film. This one was a great lesson in score pacing and letting scenes work on their own. Lots of source music here that is part of the story and mood of the film. Of course this is a dramatic comedy and much less moody than “American Beauty” and the following film I watched; “Presumed Innocent.”

“Presumed Innocent” scored by John Williams. This one has a main music pattern that represents Harrison Ford’s obsession and is repeated constantly. I saw this a week ago and I still remember it. The main theme has a few sections which are used exclusively throughout the film. The film has a lot of moody, introspective shots that seemed to be designed to have music. Only a few scenes in the film, including the final revelation, do not use that main theme – which makes complete sense in terms of the storytelling. This one was a great study in using limited material with a strong sense of story structure… and also writing a memorable score. (And Raul Julia was an impressive presence in that film!) Also, I don’t remember there being any source music in this one.

Yesterday I watched “Primal Fear”. This score by James Newton Howard was all over the place. The first cue of the film (which is not the first piece of music heard) I thought would be the theme but I didn’t hear it again through the film. And I must admit I did not understand some of the musical choices for the underscore, but the choices for the source music made complete sense and worked great (Mozart’s “Requiem”). The lesson here was this: we can over-think our scores and in the end perhaps it’s more about mood than a great over-riding concept and musical arc. Because this film was well received and put Edward Norton on the map! And personally  I enjoyed the film and the music’s lack of homogeneity and central musical theme didn’t not bother me when I watched it way back when. Of course, watching the film now it feels quite dated in story-telling, acting, visual style and music, but that’s another story…


6 Responses to Scoring Dialogue Heavy Films – comparisons

  1. Ryan Leach

    I’ve gotten around this problem by only taking on projects that can guarantee a big epic space battle.

  2. Oscar Fogelström

    Haha! Good call! Yeah, I just did a very slow paced, dialogue heavy drama/thriller. I though it was really hard finding the balance. I didn’t want the music to be too intrusive but at the same time felt the film needed a strong thematic structure to help the story. It was kind of hard to write strong themes/melodies when the music needed to be really sparse. Thanks for an interesting post!


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