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 ¬†to define its ¬†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.¬†(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!
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 the¬† 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.
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 these¬†transitional¬†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.
This is what I wrote today on my Composition Journal, where I am writing about my work scoring a feature animated film.
I am currently working on the musical themes for the film, looking for inspiration everywhere and jotting down a ton of ideas.
As I do this work I always refer to a concept for the score, which I have clarified in my mind using a few words:
And just a few minutes ago another one hit me as being very important to get the right mood: story-telling.
These words help me clarify the general concept, or metaphor, that will unify all the music in the score, regardless of the mood the music has to express in any given cue.
[Read the rest of the post here.]
Directors should certainly think of expressing more than just the details of a film to the composer. Not just the scene by scene, cue by cue breakdown to where the music goes.
Getting a sense of the overall mood, or metaphor, or unifying idea behind the film, that is of supreme importance, and if possible, that should be discussed first, before the specifics.
Understanding the whole before discussing the parts.
And as you see in my Journal post, a few, meaningful words will go a long way! It doesn’t need to be a long description, in fact, it shouldn’t be.
Enjoy the summer!
Structure is a crucial element of beauty, and film is no different. As I wrote in the previous post, a music cue can do more than just highlight action or represent the subtext; it can also play a large role in clarifying or even creating structure.
To that end, here are some questions to ask during the spotting session (or whenever you think of it!)
- What is the inciting event that motivates the action that follows.
- Where does the action proper start? (Note: The music could start on the inciting event, creating a sense of musical introduction, and the main melodic material arrive when the action truly starts. This creates a cohesive sense of structure.)
- Where does the scene end?
- What event signals the end of the scene or sequence?
- Are there multiple scenes that form a whole.
- Should the music play through the cuts and scenes?
- What cuts are structural.
Example: Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade: the boat race in Venice.
After facing rats and burning waters in the catacombs under the library, Doctor Jones and Elsa come out from a man-hole, surprising tourists. Indiana says “Ah, Venice.”
When the two come out, the music from the previous sequence ended, leaving room for this comedic moment. This musical break also serves as a structural point, separating the previous, more serious sequence from the following lighter action sequence; the boat chase in Venice.
Kazim and the Brothers come running out of the church and the music begins. This is the start of this scene, the inciting event that forces Indy and Elsa to start running.
The music is played as an introduction as they all race towards the boats. The melody itself only starts once everyone is in their boats, on the cut to Indy, Elsa and one of the Brothers hanging on to the back of the boat. This is the start of the action!
To find out how the ending music is structured, go watch Indian Jones and the Last Crusade and find out for yourself!
During the spotting session it is time to decide where music cues start and end. There are many reasons to bring in music, many points of entry.
From on “The Track: a guide to contemporary film scoring.” by Fred Karlin and Rayburn Wright.
In general, music starts most effectively at a moment of shifting emphasis. This might be expressed as
- A new emotional emphasis or subject in the dialogue.
- A new visual emphasis with the camera
- A camera move, which almost always is conceived for emphasis
- A new action, such as a car driving off, a person leaving the room, a cop ducking behind a barrier
- A reaction to something that has been said or has occurred.
So remember, the action or emphasis is a good place to start a cue, and this does not always coincide with a cut.
Let the drama, not the editing, be the motivation to start the music.
I was watching the original Star Wars yesterday and noticed a very interesting musical point of entry. (I was showing the film to a friend of my son’s, an 8 year old who has never seen Star Wars!)
When Luke walks off with C3-PO and the red droid, the red one blows up and R2-D2 takes its place. Light, bouncy music comes in when R2 rolls towards Luke and C3-PO.
The cue begins when the group is finally together, the music signaling the coming together of these three characters as an arrival point.
Furthermore, the music acts as a bookend to the scene. Music is a strong help in establishing structure in films, an important use often overlooked and not mentioned in the “On the Track” list above.
More on this next week.
One of the important uses of music in film is to provide tension and momentum.¬† This is especially useful when the tension is in the subtext and not in the visuals or dialogue.
Jurrasic Park are a great example of this.
At 55:27 the character of Dennis Nedry begins the shutting down of the computer systems to allow him to steal the dinosaur embryos. This sequence is dramatically important, but the visuals are somewhat static and intercut with the characters of Alan Grant and Ian Malcolm humorously getting aquainted in the Jeep, oblivious to the danger ahead.
It’s all pretty quiet stuff which requires music to drive it along and give the right tone. The music is percussive, rhythmic and filled with tension, giving this sequence the necessary propulsion and the right sense of dread.
The Jeeps stop, the fences fail, Nedry escapes. It all is important to the plot but the dialogue and visuals are mostly static or slow with benign dialogue, so the music is important here and carries through it all. (This is not a failure on Spielberg’s part, but rather shows understanding of how to use music as part of the story telling.)
And then we cut to the goat at 1:00:21 and the music stops, leaving silence. We know the goat, it lets us know where we are and it also as a foreshadowing tool that lets us know something bad is going to happen. Music is not needed.
There is no music at all during the entire T-Rex attack.
Spielberg and Williams were smart to not put any music here. They knew that the audience was seeing something they had never seen before, a truly believable onscreen T-Rex. The shock of it was made even more intense by the relatively “empty” soundtrack, which must have bee especially powerful in a theater.
And there is context to consider as well. The shot of the goat which starts the T-Tex sequence was preceded by a long stretch of music. Silence makes a bigger impact when it is preceded by lots of sound.
After the T-Rex attack is done, we cut back to the control room with a slow zoom-in to dialogue about lines of code. Not the most exciting stuff. The tension here is in their obliviousness to what is happening outside, the subtext, so the music returns here to keep the tension and momentum going.
As a side note, when adding rhythmic music to a scene, it is always amazing to me how the music changes the tempo of a scene, making it seem to go by much faster.
Bottom line: Music is great at keeping tension and momentum going, especially when there is a subtext of tension that is not necessarily present on screen. Music is not always necessary when there is strong and dramatic on-screen action.
What is the relationship between music and all other sounds on a film’s soundtrack? Should the composer and director consider one when working on the other?
It seems that the answer should be an obvious “yes”, but I was watching one of last summer’s blockbusters and at one point there was a foot chase accompanied by hand percussion.
Aren’t the sounds of running feet and hand percussion almost the same? Yes! And I found it made for a messy and confusing soundtrack.
Location sounds, folley, sound effects are all sounds that can clash with the music if they are not taken into consideration during composition.
The trick is to make the music either complementary or supportive of the other sounds.
For example, the hand percussion in the above example could have been avoided since it clashed with the sound of running footsteps on the street. And in any case, the sound of running footsteps provided a rhythmic drive and an immediate emotional reaction that was very much like the hand percussion, making their inclusion redundant.
Sustaining instruments (strings, winds) would have been a better choice, being more complementary to the footsteps, and would still have been be able to provide the necessary drive and tension the scene required.
To consider sound effects is the job of the composer during his daily work, that is for sure, but it is easy to forget when the work piles up and one gets carried away with the musical idea.
So it would be wise for the director to consider important sound effects during the spotting session, or during morning calls or at the very least when reviewing cue mock-ups.
Music in a film doesn’t exist on its own, it is part of the total sound package. And that is the bottom line; music and the soundtrack are partners to create a complete emotional experience.
“Cast Away” starring Tom Hanks is an interesting and unusual example of spotting.
The film has no underscore until the final act. None!
If you remember the film starts in the holiday season and there is source music there. You know, holiday music.
Then there is that amazingly well done plane crash which brings Tom Hanks to his island. No music there either. When something is as well done and so powerful as this plane crash sequence, the visuals and sound effects are more than enough.
Not only was that sequence great without music, but adding music to the plane crash might have removed the feeling of realism, turning it into an adventure perhaps, which would have gone against the realism that set the tone for this film.
During Tom Hanks’ time on the island there is no music either.
Sure. there are moments when there could have been music, like when he removes his own tooth or when he first makes fire, but the absence of music has much more impact than its presence.
The first and most obvious result of having no underscore is that the feeling of being alone on the island is heightened.
But what isn’t as obvious is that music would have added something familiar, even comforting, while the emptiness of the film’s soundtrack created a feeling of uneasiness which must have been palpable in the theater. (I only saw this film on DVD and I still got that feeling! It must have been great in a cinema with a few hundred people all sitting in stunned silence.)
Having no music for the first two acts of the film was a bold choice for sure, but it pays off big time when Tom Hanks finally departs the island.
Do you remember the scene? He is on his raft and he finally breaks free of the breakers, that barrier which had held him on his island for years!
When he realizes his is free and looks back on his island which had been his home for so long the music starts, a gentle string adagio.
It’s brilliant and a great film moment, visuals and music coming together in a way that can only happen in film.
How much melody can there be under dialogue?
It is common for directors to fear that melody will get in the way of the dialogue. This is an understandable concern, of course, since the coherence of the story relies in large part on the dialogue being assimilated by the audience.
Anything that gets in the way of the story should be cut or simplified, right?
However, an instrumental melody can be easily assimilated by the audience simulateously with dialogue. (Notice I said an instrumental melody here, more on this later.)
A good example is the helicopter ride in Jurassic Park, the scene where the main characters are chatting away in the helicopter on their way to the island.
Here is the music from that scene; “Journey to the Island” by John Williams.
As you can tell, this is music filled with clear melodic lines, rhythm and colour. Did you remember the music from this scene? Did you even remember there was music in this scene? Perhaps not and that is exactly the point!
Audience members are completely able to assimilate melody and dialogue all at once because they do not step on each other’s toes!
Songs, on the other hand, do step into the dialogue’s territory because our minds are naturally drawn to the voice and will attempt to understand the lyrics and dialogue all at once… not always successfully. Oh, it’s still possible to have songs under dialogue, but approach with caution!
Off-screen dialogue requires more care while underscoring. Dialogue without the reinforcement of facial expressions and lip movement requires a bit more effort to be clearly understood, and thus the music must make a special effort to stay out of the dynamic range of the speaker’s voice and avoid sweeping melodic statements.
But then again, perhaps a big sweeping statement is exactly what is needed!
PS: Could this Jurassic Park scene have worked well without music? I don’t believe so. The music was important to this scene at this point in the movie especially because it was all dialogue.
You see, this scene occurs during the journey to the island, but the sitting down dialogue could have easily negated the feeling of excitement and anticipation which was required at this point in the film, otherwise the momentum would have been lost. Gotta love a good use of film music!