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film scoring

Tips for Getting Into Film Scoring

[frame align=”left”][/frame]I get asked this more and more often, so I thought I would write a short blog post about this subject.

My career is starting to take off, so I feel that I can actually share my thoughts on this subject with some certainty and hopefully help those who read it.

The information may not be complete yet, but please read and comment, ask questions and I will perhaps flesh this out and create a stand-alone page out of this.

Best of luck to you in this promising new year!


[heading]First is the Music[/heading]

Be a solid composer who knows his craft.

As a film composer you will need to write quickly and with facility. You must be flexible and be able to capture a wide variety of moods on a deadline, which means you must have a big palette of colours at your disposal. How do you get that? Music theory and experience both musically and with writing to picture.

There will be no time to experiment under the gun and you won’t get a second chance.

Be a Dramatist

Writing film music is really about being an actor with notes. So make sure you understand story and character and how music plays a role in all that. (“Getting the Score” often deals with that very subject.)

Be unique

Is is a good business decision to work on having a unique voice in your writing. You must stand out because there is a sea of composers out there. So knowing who you are musically is just as important as being flexible. It’s ideal when you can balance both. Although many have made a living being chameleons, you never notice chameleons, they blend in too well.


So the bottom line is, study, study, study.
[heading]Second: Networking[/heading]

Build quality contacts

Work on projects for new film makers to build your reel, but be a little picky at the same time. You can waste a lot of time saying yes to every project and have them go nowhere, and you right along with them.

Contacts are built by:

  1. Sending a demo – done mostly digitally now: it must impress and stand out since they get a lot everyday. (See above.) It must be custom tailored to their project.
  2. Following up on demos a week after.
  3. Get a face to face meeting if possible.
  4. Keep the relationship going and don’t just say hello when they have a project.

“Big follows small” is a law of marketing which also applies to self-promotion in film. Start with small films, build your resumé, and move up.

Do Good Work & Put it Out There

Being heard is important to build contacts. So put your music out there. Everywhere. The best place is in a film, but Facebook and other social media are also good. Don’t spam.

It’s About the Film

“We judge ourselves by what we believe we can do, others judge us but what we have done.”

I forget where I read this, but it’s the truth. Especially in film. Your credits will be important and filmmakers will hire you based on them.

Composers ride the wave of success and failure of a film, just like any other part of the creative team. So make sure you pick the best projects that are available to you.

If you don’t have any credits, look to the first point.

[heading]Third is the Work[/heading]

Know how to talk to film makers

You must understand everything you can about films: story, editing, directing, acting and especially story structure and screen writing. This is important in order to be a good dramatist (see first point) but also important to have meaningful discussions with the film makers.

Treat every director and his film like if it was Spielberg

Then you will get hired back.

Don’t be a Yes Man

Come prepared to spotting sessions, have opinions and ideas on how to make the score truly an asset for the film. They hire you for your expertise, so be an expert, bring something to the table and they will appreciate that, every time. Just don’t be a jerk.

Be a Good Listener

Yes, that goes right along with the point above. It’s your job to find the right balance between the two.

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So there you have it, a short primer on getting started in film music. Like I wrote above, it’s not complete so please take the time to comment, ask questions and I will fill it out further.



Chasing Indy

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!

Functions of the Score: Foreshadowing

There are three tools a filmmaker can use to engage his audience: Suspense, Mystery, and Dramatic Irony.

Suspense is where the audience knows as much information as the protagonist; mystery is where the audience knows less than the protagonist; and dramatic irony is where the audience knows more than the protagonist.

Foreshadowing in story and in the musical score is a part of dramatic irony, where the filmmaker privileges the audience.

Foreshadowing can be done with visual clues and hints in the story. It can also be done by simply telling the audience what is going to happen, like in “American Beauty”, where we know the main character is going to die but don’t know how and why. This deeply affects how we view the entire film.

Foreshadowing thus affects our perception, simple scenes are completely transformed. Because we know the Titanic is going to sink, James Cameron was able to have simple scenes of people walking on the deck of the doomed ship which would have normally been extremely boring, but because they are on the Titanic, it becomes a poignant scene.

Dramatic Irony was the favourite tool of the great Thriller/Suspense director Alfred Hitchcock. He knew that if you SAW a character place a bomb in the room  it would be much more effective than not having the audience see it being placed because they would be on the edge of their seats waiting for it to go off.

Music works like all of those examples above: it can give you hints about what is going to happen but it can’t tell you exactly, making it the wonderful foreshadowing tool!

The musical score can only give the audience a sense that something will happen (good or bad) but cannot communicate what that will be, and this is a wonderful way to engage the audience.

The typical example of musical foreshadowing is the scary music before someone gets attacked. This is a simple device, but it works.

Why does it work? A scene with someone walking is boring and trite, making the scene appear like filler, but add a dash of eerie music and suddenly the audience gets involved, sit on the edge of their seats and primed for the upcoming surprise.

Jaws is the perfect example of this, of course. In Jaws, the clever two-note motif lets us know the shark is coming, even when we don’t see it, heightening the sense of dread. Spielberg and Williams never fool the audience however, they only present this music when the shark is actually coming. It never becomes a red herring.

But foreshadowing is not just for building suspense in scary movies, it can presage anything the film is about.

The big, sweeping main titles of “Laurence of Arabia” tell you that this will be an epic story. Similarly, the magical main titles of “A Night at the Museum” foreshadowed the magic to come, which carried us through the decidedly non-magical first act setting up the father’s motivations: his personal and financial problems.

Music can highlight foreshadowing elements on screen, both visual or story-based, making them more obvious and feel more important.

We could go on and on, so I’ll just close by saying that foreshadowing is an important storytelling device, and music is a natural for it. It can be brash and obvious and extremely subtle, it can be suspenseful or heroic, or anything the story is about. Using it wisely is part of creating a more cohesive, propulsive and engaging experience for your audience.

Perhaps musical foreshadowing should be part of screenwriting?



(Many thanks to director/writer Kevin Bottomley for proof-reading this article, the first two paragraphs and that bit about Hitchcock. Thanks Kevin!)

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