What are the functions of a film score?
In my opinion, it is the first thing you should identify in the scoring process.
I am starting work on a new feature film called “The Performance“, and my initial steps are to spot the film, see when and where there will be music, to unearth the form of the score and Â to define its Â function.
Why not just start writing, see what comes up? Would that not be faster?
My answer to that is simple: you need a target in order to aim.
And furthermore: how do you know if you hit the target without having one in the first place? You’ll know when I hear it? No! Just throwing notes around to see what works is haphazard and random, and how can you achieve anything of quality if everything is by chance and not by design?
Well, maybe it’s just me…but this works very well for me.
So, what is the function of a film score? There can be multiple functions of course. Here are a few.
CHARACTER INFORMATION & DEVELOPMENT: developing a part of the character and his/her development that either supports the acting or shows things that are not present.
SUBTEXT: showing a part of the story that is not on the surface.
FORESHADOWING: (see this Getting the Score post from a while ago, it’s a good one.)
MUSICAL SIGNALS/SIGN-POSTS: story points that benefit from musical emphasis, and perhaps motivic one too that return and have an arc. (I’ll post on that soon.)
MOOD & TONE: this helps the audience understanding the story, what it’s about, what the mood and tone of the story is…
ENERGY & MOVEMENT: action music of course, but this can also be during a visually static scene where there is an underlying tension that is not visible and that the characters are not privy too.
And there is more for sure. If you have any ideas leave them in the comment section!
For “The Performance“, which is a character-driven and dialogue-heavy drama, I am looking at what the music could enhance story-wise and how I could build an arc with it. Perhaps this is not possible, but having a structured score that uses symmetry, repetition, development is what I am looking to do.Â (This is something I was able to achieve with “No Letting Go“, which ended up with only two themes for the whole film.)
So there you have it, my first steps for this score. Please comment below and share!
The pacing and balance of a film score is a very important facet of the art of film-scoring. No cue we write exists in a vacuum. It is always affected by what came before and what comes after, whether that is silence or source music or another cue.
Every genre and every film will have its own approach, but some of the questions I often have are:
- How much music?
- How often to repeat a theme?
- How much new material can we have?
- What is the impact of the source music on the score?
- What is the impact of silence?
- How long can the cues be?
I do, I have these questions (and a ton more) all the time, and I find it important for myself to learn from the greats. To look to those who have done great films and scores and “stand on the shoulders of giants.”
I don’t know everything, clearly, and doing this it stops me from re-inventing the wheel and allows me to get my work done better, faster, more creatively and with confidence because I understand my reaction to the score I am using as a springboard to my own.
When I scored the film “Primary” I turned to “American Beauty” as a model to answer some of the questions about structure, pacing and balance I had for this particular film. I had stated those questions to myself after watching the first cut ofÂ “Primary” Â the first time, and I felt “American Beauty” would be a great model.
You see, here’s a little truth about composition.
When we are composing we don’t have the best outlook on certain things like the repetition and development of our material. We might think we are repeating too often because we heard it already 5,000 times that day. That’s because we are working on it and we’re already sick of it!
This is why I think having a model is so useful,because this way you understand your reaction to that score as a listener, not as a composer.
So as I was saying, I had questions about scoring “Primary“:
- How short can scenes be? Are really short cue a problem?
- How repetitive can the music be / minimalist before I started to get bothered by it.
- “On the Track” – the film scoring bible – recommends to not leave small gaps between cues, it’s better to sustain the music. Is this true? Can I have a small moment of silence between two cues?
- How much music should this kind of drama have?
- How long can we go without music without reducing the cinematic quality of the film?
So I watched the whole film, taking down rough timings for each cue, each piece of source music and every bit of silence to get an overview of the pacing and the balance between the three in the film. I wrote it all out in Excel and colour coded it. Yes I did! I am kind of crazy that way, but I wanted to have a good view of it. Solid and tangible and quantifiable right before my eyes. Not just this vague impression of it.
(The notes are my original notes meant for myself only, and I didn’t correct them.)
And here’s the result!
Click to view larger size, or right-click to download.
Some of my conclusions:
- Early in the film: mostly short cues building to longer, climactic cues and moments during the film’s dĂ©nouement.
- Very short cues, as short as 23 seconds, are fine and feel complete natural – as long as they follow the narrative.
- Short breaks between cues, like the 16 second break between the final cues. (Depending on the narrative, as always.)
- There is an almost even balance between scored (50 min) and unscored Â scenes (43 min).
- During the early part of the film there is this almost even flow of score and silence.
I would love to hear what conclusions you get from this little exercise as shown in my spreadsheet. Go watch the film with it in hand and what you find instructive about this breakdown of the score as it pertains to pacing and balance in a score.
And don’t forget to share!
PS:Â By the way, using a model doesn’t mean you copy it! Far from it. It’s about having a reference and building an understanding of the concepts behind it. Here is some music from “Primary“… I don’t think it came out like “American Beauty” at all.
Alain is a film composer, orchestrator and conductor. He isÂ also the author ofÂ ScoreClub.net, where he just released the first module of hisÂ composer training courseÂ currently on sale.Â You can find more information on his career and music onÂ his website.
POV stands for “point of view”, and is used to indicate that the audience is seeing something from a specific angle or through a particular characterâ€™s eyes.
Considering POV makes a HUGE Â difference in the decision making process when scoring any given scene. As I mature as a film composer I think about POV more and more and it really informs my choices.
Here is an example from the film I just completed called “No letting Go”.
There is a scene where the young boy named TimÂ is being taken away to get help as his mother and father look on. Without divulging too much about the film, let’s just say it is a very sad and emotional scene.
There are three characters in this scene: Tim, his father and his mother.
It is not a loud scene, although there is some screaming at the start, and at one point the sound drops out entirely and it is only music and visuals.
On the surface, the most obvious choice would have been to score the sadness of the scene, and perhaps to score it gently in order to avoid making it trite or overly dramatic. I considered that briefly but I don’t think I even wrote a note of music music in that direction. It didn’t work. And the reason?Â You guessed it… POV.
Thinking it through I realized the scene was from the mother’s POV. Every shot and angle the director chose supported this. And thinking about the events from her perspective I realized she would not be feeling a quiet sadness, but rather a guttural pain, an overwhelming sadness, a silent scream…or perhaps not so silent as the scene does indeed end with her crying and screaming off-screen.
So, having made the decision to represent the mother’s POV in the music, the composition/decision process just flowed, and I used the strings fairly high at times, building up to aggressive triple and quadruple stops leading into loud, sustained double stops for a full, rich sound that represented that crying out of the mother. This is not meant to sound like an actual scream of course, but more musically stylized.Â (Listen at 1’06”)
So in the end, something that might have seemed over the top in another context was exactly right for this scene because of the POV, and it became a very powerful statement.
Here is part of the resulting cue.
Alain is a film composer, orchestrator and amateur cook. He isÂ also the author of ScoreClub.net, where he just released the first module of his composer training course. He is available for one-on-one composition/orchestration lessons over Skype. You can find more information on his site here.
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.Â 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”).Â 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 personallyÂ Â 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…
Here are some random thoughts as I score my current feature.
I just scored an important dialogue scene that takes place over the phone at the start of the film where the inciting event takes place. Here are some things I was conscious of while writing.
- Know the mood. In this case; questioning, unsure, dark, moody.
- Pace the film, this was the start of the film so I made sure the music was appropriate for this point of the story.
- Important story beats and structure of the scene, music is a big help for that. For this scene it was about building to the Â inciting event/ that moment of decision that gets the story under-way, and making sure the music is part of it.
- Using thematic/motivic elements that will come back later as this story element develops. This requires planning so don’t jump the gun and start writing too soon, get your material first.
- Don’t over-plan either, at some point you need to just go and start writing.
- Don’t be afraid of re-writing. Leave time for this if you can, because it can lead to great things by giving you perspective. Scripts aren’t done in first drafts.
- Plan your tempo carefully. I adjusted the tempo at the end of this cue at least half a dozen times until it was spot on.
- Good dialogue writing can blend in the background, that’s perfectly fine. When the music fits so well that it ‘disappears’ then you did great.
- Good dialogue music doesn’t need to be invisible either. You can play melody as people talk and it’s fine. It’s more than fine actually, it’s great. It depends on what is happening with the characters and the part of the story you are in. It’s all relative.
This is done in a general way through the use of melody. I find that for the most part using traditional formal structures and tunes that play over scenes (as opposed to shifting along with cuts and actions) tends to be perfectly suited for creating a sense of introduction or conclusion.
Tone is also very important. This is hard to explain and will vary for every film, but an example would be to get a storytelling feel or tone to the music. You know what I mean.
A great example of music being integral to the feeling of conclusion is the ending of Raiders 3.
I started the clip a little bit early to lead to the start of the conclusion. The obvious start of the ending is when the Raider’s theme begins. It starts once Sean Connery has said his last, insightful line and gives that little look. The music comes in with the B section of the theme which is great as it saves the primary theme when Indy takes off after Marcus and the dialogue is done. Awesome.
All through this scene the melody plays right through the dialogue. This is not underscore that hits important words and pauses, it’s a melodic conclusion to the film.
But what about the music for when they come out Petra, where the Grail was kept? The melody there is the family theme for Indy and his father. Is that giving us a feeling of conclusion to the film? It is also very melodic and plays right through.
And what about earlier as they run through falling rocks to make their way out to safety. The music plays the Grail theme. Is that part of the ending since it is melodic and not actually following the action?
I originally thought that it was when they exited Petra and Indy and Henry had a little talk about illumination that the conclusion music began. But now, I think perhaps it actually starts as they look at the knight and Indy says “come on dad”.
[frame align=”left”][/frame]Being a film composer is not just about the epic film scores. In reality, it’s mostly not. Your craftsmanship at musical story-telling is in large part made up of what you do during those small moments.
So today we’ll take a brief look at how John Williams, known for his epic film scores, handles a small transitional cue.
But before we do, here’s a few questions to ponder.
How short can a cue be? If they are very short, do they create an episodic TV feel? Cues can be very short as long as the editing warrants it, but short cues should not happen too often because they will quickly become apparent to the audience and grow tiresome.
Should there be thematic material? Overall, I would say that the score, just like a good composition, should be consistent in tone and content. Other factors are important to consider.
- The Length of the cue: If the cue is too short for thematic content, then don’t put a theme in.
- The type of film: A short thematic leitmotif would be appropriate in a fantasty film, but perhaps not in a serious drama.
- Where you are in the arc of the story: Once the characters are more fully developed it might be more relevant to put in a melodic association even in a short cue. But then again, perhaps you wish to build a sense of mood and character early on.
Short cues are often transitional, so this means they will occur during important structural cuts, taking us from one scene to another.
Entrance and exits are also important. I remember reading “On the Track” where it stated that cue entries should be invisible, so it’s best to come in with a light crescendo in the strings or something like that. That’s not exactly the quote, I didn’t bother looking it up, but I have personally found that this is not true.
A good entrance will be “invisible” if it’s properly motivated by the story. It’s not a volume issue, it’s a story issue! Well, that’s another post entirely, so I can revisit the subject of cue entrances later.
For now, watch the cue below with everything discussed in mind. Watch it a few times.
A video of John Williams conducting the Train Chase from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade live with an orchestra.
This one is especially insightful as we get to see the streamers and punches used for synchronizing the music to the film during recording sessions.
This requires a very good sense of rhythm and solid baton technique.
This is something I did for a good many cues for my “Legend of Silk Boy” score, conducting the Evergreen Orchestra with streamers and punches to guide me. It was a challenge!
this is called “free conducting”, when not using clicks, and this is great for when the music is very rubato in feel and you wish to achieve a musical result. The click, when it comes to rubato, can make things feel very stiff.
However, for a rhythmic scene like this train chase, where the tempo is pretty steady throughout then clicks would work just as well I would imagine. On the other hand, free conducting allows orchestral musicians to listen to each other the way they normally do, to achieve intonation and phrasing. And if you use a group of musicians used to playing together then that is a real advantage.
So here’s the video!
When you see on-screen action (fighting, running etc…) the music tends to follow along in some way. It might hit some of the action or play along with some cool action music.
But when do you not follow theÂ action?
I am currently scoring the feature film “Comforting Skin”, and there is a moment where a short fight occurs that did not need musical emphasis.
Without giving away too much, I can describe the scene this way: the protagonist has just revealed something important to her friend. This is a climactic moment in the film, an important part of the story’s arc, and the music is a part of it.
Then a secondary character attacks the friend from behind and a short and violent struggle ensues. (Only about 4 seconds of screen time.)
I initially tried music that followed along the short fight, a short burst of musical violence, but it was immediately clear that it didn’t work.
So I thought about it for a minute and asked myself some questions:
Q: This climactic moment is about who? What is important? What is this scene about? (All variations of the same question.)
A: The scene is about that climactic revelation between the two main characters who have the central relationship in the film. This moment is an important one in the arc of their relationship. It is not about that secondary character fighting.
Q: How does this fight relate to this moment?
A: It ties up that secondary character’s role in the story as she gets almost knocked unconscious, but does not affect the core of that scene.
With that in mind I wrote a cue which responded to the climactic reveal; light, ethereal, surreal music. And I played right through the short fight, completely ignoring it, and it worked wonderfully- because it made dramatic sense!
If music hit the action it would emphasize what was not important to that scene and would take away from the important story element.
So, what is the answer to: When should you not hit the action?
The answer is: When it is not driving the story.
I am currently scoring a feature film called “Comforting Skin”. Right now I am in the planning stages, setting goals for the score and there is an approach I plan on taking I’d like to discuss here.
This is a dramatic piece with horror, suspense and some supernatural elements. Because of the genre, this is not going to be a big thematic score.
However, there will be motives and themes, and after reviewing the story and film and discussing it in detail with the director, part of my current plan is to have a theme or motive for “dread”.
Dread, this feeling of impending doom, is a main thematic element in the film, it is the drive of the story. (I am being simplistic in order to not give anything in the story away, but you get the idea.)
As the story advances, my plan is to have this motive, or theme, develop in length and strength. I will only hint at it at the start and it will gradually overtake everything.
It will be present when appropriate as other melodies or textures are played and will not be associated to any specific character.
The bottom line is this; a motive or theme doesn’t have to be associated to a character, place or event, but can be something that drives the tone, mood or a concept in the film.
One thing that became clear while working on Silkboy was that melody and the function of a scene are intertwined.
Some scenes are more important than others in a movie: some scenes are big, important, flashy scenes, while others are transitory, functional scenes that take you from point A to point B so that the story makes sense.
Both of course are important and part of storytelling, and very often the skill of actors and directors shine the brightest in making those functional scenes become interesting and alive and not simply functional.
Since Silkboy was animated, that meant wall to wall music, and I had to navigate theseÂ transitionalÂ scenes musically. For advice I turned to the master of themes, John Williams, especially the Harry Potter and Indiana Jones films, both of which had a similar musical approach to the score I was writing.
The bottom line is this:
Giving a big thematic moment to a transitional scene goes against the grain. It is better to write transitional music instead, e.g.: a bridge in a song, or an episode in a fugue or invention.
The transition scene can use secondary musical material, development of main material or simply a sequence (a musical one) or something that leads to the next scene. It is a case where musical structure again supports film structure!
Hey there, I got offered to write a guest post at the popular film composer website Score Cast.
I wrote a post about finding form during spotting.
[Excerpt from Alain Mayrand’s blog.]
I just completed a dialogue scene which had a difficult mix of moods to navigate; emotional discussion/sharing of wisdom interspersed with some slap-stick humour. It was tough, but I pulled it off.
Another thing I wanted to write about here was pacing. It something i am very conscious of and that makes a good score a great score, in my opinion, and something John Williams is a master of.
Right now I am still working on the the opening act of the film so I am writing in a specific way to support that:
- Avoiding being too big with the music. The big moments are at the end so the music needs to wait for that â€“ to a certain degree.
- No magical textures in the orchestra. The magic is in the second act, so right now I am using more urban sounds: rock, Chinese traditional, city feel like Gershwin meets Shanghaiâ€¦ sort of.
- Being more melodic as I lay down the main themes. Thatâ€™s what John Williams does in Harry Potter, he presents the themes often in the first act. This helps give an opening feel to the story-telling and also makes the theme stick in the memory more. After that, I will incorporate them in other cues, but more as leitmotives that are sprinkled over a different melodic structure.
I am avoiding the magical textures because I do not have an foreshadowing opportunities. Itâ€™s sort of like Back to the Future; the orchestra only rolls out along with the DeLorean, when the film changes tone completely. Before that plot point there is no orchestra at all.
In my film, the first act presents the protagonist and we do not expect that he will be taken on this journey into another world. (Well, I guess you do because I am providing spoilers hereâ€¦ ah well.)
Actually, I am lying hereâ€¦ I do foreshadow! The main theme that occurs over an areal shot ofÂ 19th Century London is something I designed to come back as a hero theme in the end.
I havenâ€™tâ€™ seen the end, though, so I hope it works out! I am sure it will be fine.
How many times do we state a theme in a film? Once? Twice? Most director really don’t pay attention to this, and that’s fine, because I do (and your film composer should, too) so they don’t have to.
Some films take more melody than others, such as fantasy films, animation and similar genres, but for the sake of example, I’ll take the first Harry Potter film.
I am choosing that film because it’s a great example of a recent score where the theme became very well known. I have taught piano and guitar for many years and that theme was often requested when the film came out, and it still is today. How many films do that? John Williams knows something about themes, not just about writing them, but where to put them in the film.
Here are the instances of “Hedgwig’s Theme” in the first act of Harry Potter.
- 0:00 Hedwig’s Theme over the Warner Brother’s logo
- 0:25 Magic theme
- 2:10 Hedwig’s Theme full
- 2:50 Hedwig’s Theme under dialogue
- 3:45 Hedwig’s Theme in celesta
- 4:02 Magfic theme over credits
- 7:25 Quidditch theme as snake escapes
- 7:50 Hedwig’s theme
- 8:36 Hedwig’s theme
- 9:20 Quidditch theme
- 9:33 Hedwig’s theme
- 10:05 Magic theme
- 10:58 Hedwig’s Theme
- 11:58 Magic theme
- 12:40 Family theme
- 15:09 Magic theme
- 15:53 Hedwig’s Theme
- 17:40 Hedwig’s theme
- 18:22 Family theme
We hear Hedwig’s theme a total of 10 times in the first 18 minutes or so. Not to mention that he also uses a few of the other themes that come back throughout the film for various cirumstances.
It’s a great theme that is for sure, but part of the reason we remember it is that he states it throughout the film at important points.
Here is Michael Kamen on themes;
When I was doing The Next Man […] there was a fellow named Carl Prager, who was the music head of United Artists Pictures, which was the distributor. He was an old hand, he had supervised film music for many years and he taught me a great lesson: He came to my house to listen to the themes that I was writing for The Next Man, and I’d say “now in this scene I want to use this theme.”
He’d say, “That’s a great theme, you could use that.”
I’d say, “And in the next scene, here’s this cue I want to use.”
I played it, and he said, “Well, where’s the theme?”
And I said, “I’ve just played the theme and now I have to do this.”
He said, “No, no, play the theme again.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in film you play the theme, and then you play the theme again and then you play the theme and then you play a variation of the theme and then you play the theme…”
And it was very instructive; I had been writing it like a piece of symphonic music where Theme a comes and then Theme B and then the development section and you might even bring in another theme – not so in film. Monothematic, and with very few exceptions that is the rule of thumb for all films. If you have a melody you drive it home; if you have two or three make sure that they’re related to each other – or completely, starkly opposite.
PS: I would like to thank my two boys, Brandon (8) and Lucas (5) for helping me breaking down the themes in Harry Potter.
In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” there is a scene where Indy and his father go the get the diary back and, in the process, meet up with Hitler.
That scenes begins with the score functioning as source music. John Williams wrote music that an unseen brass band would be playing in the square as the Nazis burned books.
As Indy gets pushed to the center and meets up with Hitler, the music becomes underscore by performing an ominous drum rhythm only, letting the brass drop out for a while as the tension plays out.
When Hitler picks up the diary and signs it, we realize all is well and the military march resumes! There is, of course, no way that the military band present in the square would have done this! So the score here has actually switched roles and become underscore.
It starts up again with the same melodic material as the source music, but almost immediately cadences on the scene transition, the way underscore does!
So this musical sequence blurs the line between source and score, something I recently did as well in a score I wrote, which is why I thought I would bring this up. Something good for directors to be aware of;
Music in a scene can function as both source and underscore!