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Where Has Melody Gone? (Warning: ranting ahead…)

My son was watching an animated cartoon of his. It was a direct to DVD superhero thing from Marvel, I won’t give the name.

It’s pretty good actually, story-wise, and we bought the DVD for my two boys to watch. It also has some of my favourite super-heroes from when I grew up represented in a very cool way. In many ways more true to the characters than the live-action films!

So I asked my son, who has watched it half a dozen times already, “what’s the melody?” He answered that he didn’t know.

He didn’t know!?

This is a cartoon here! With super heroes! And my 8 year old son can’t find a theme in there!? What?

(And you know, my son plays three instruments and he can sing you every tune John Williams has written. He can even listen to a CD of Star Wars music and tell you which scene it comes from. So that boy listens to film music.)

Actually there was a melody in that super-hero film, but it was so poorly written that a passionate 8 year-old who watched it 6 times or more did not even notice it.

And it’s not because it wasn’t mixed in well, either. No, it was just poor melodic writing.

Why? Why I ask you!!!

The answer is becoming more and more clear to me: samples.

Poor musicianship is being hidden behind fancy samples. Anyone can buy a computer and call themselves film composers now. But they can’t write music and wouldn’t be able to write for an orchestra if it wasn’t for their samples and a couple of orchestrators behind them.

The samples make their demos sound all nice, the producers and director get all impressed by how it sounds like an orchestra, but in the end, it lacks the soul, the essential element: melody.

It’s like a nice skin with no muscle, a pretty girl with no brain, a fancy car with no engine…put your own analogy here.

Samples have lowered the barrier-to-entry into film scoring, and now, more than ever, we have this type of mediocre scoring.

And a melody is not a simple thing to write, even when it appears simple. And by this I mean good melodies, of course!

Writing a good tune (or score) on demand is what a film composer does and it requires musical knowledge, experience and intelligence. Mancini, Shiffrin, Moriccone and John Williams had/have it.

So, for you directors out there, I say this: hiring a composer with musical training is a good idea, listen to his melodies not his samples, and hire live musicians to do your final recordings.

Just think of all those poor 8 year-olds watching direct-to-DVD animated super-hero films, haven’t they suffered enough?

Sound vs Score III: Melody and Voice-Overs

In last week’ s post, Scooby Doo showed us that melody is still an important asset to a production at any level.

One of the challenges is when to present your melodies and when not to. A common fear among directors is that melody will interfere with the dialogue.

Of course it is crucial for the dialogue to be well understood, but melody doesn’t get in the way like you would imagine when you are first listening to a composers demo or when doing the final mix, times when you focus your attention too much on the music.

Here is a recent example.

The great film “Memoirs of a Geisha” opens with a narration, a voice-over by Sayuri as an old woman. Under this voice-over her theme is played on cello with a light wind accompaniment.

The Sayuri theme is beautiful, melodic and distinct, yet it does not interfere with the words. (And music with voice-overs is a particular challenge since the audience does not have the lips and gestures to reinforce the words.)

Ask yourself, did any of you notice the music there when you were first watching the film? Did it detract from the narration? Of course not, since you were listening as audience members.

But now that I have drawn your attention to this, if you were to watch this scene you would listen to the theme more and start focusing on it with a film maker’s ear, and might say “there should be no melody here, I am listening to it instead of the narration.”

What decision would you have made if you had heard this melody as a demo from the composer or during the mixing session?

I asked my wife after she watched that opening scene if she heard the music. She said yes, sure. Did she hear the narration? Well, yeah… of course.

Melody under narration and dialogue works prefectly well. The audience’s mind can take both in simultaneously.

As filmmakers, it is important to listen to the music being put in your film from the audience’s perspective. It is wise to not focus on the music entirely either during a demo presentation or during mixing, but on the dialogue or the action, because that is always where your audience will be focused as well.

And when in doubt, put melody! A good melody makes music more memorable, approachable and likable, all of which can only make your film better.



Scooby Doo’s Film Music Insight

Actually, the insight comes from my four year old watching Scooby Doo, but first here’s the question.

How important is music to a film? How intrinsic is it to the experience you take home with you?

First, let me just say that I have never thought that music was as important to others as it was to me. I mean, I have loved film music since I was 4 and always paid attention to it, but others did not.  I could not be objective about the subject.

So up until now, I always thought people didn’t pay much attention to the score, but then I started noticing how my two young boys responded to movies. You can learn a lot about the psychology of the audience by looking at how children react to things. Their responses are pure and untainted.

Here’s the story: I rented the movie “Scooby-Doo, Pirates ahoy!”, a direct to DVD release for my two sons, 8 and 4 years old. I didn’t expect much, but what the hell, for $1.24 I wasn’t losing much!

The animation was run of the mill, the standard for such films, the story was fine and worked well enough. But what most surprised me was the quality of the music.

From the start the instrumental melody of the main title sticks in your brain and sets up a great mood for the show. The songs are also very good (with a few exceptions.) My sons liked it right away and loved the music.

Now, here’s the kicker. This really surprised me and opened my eyes.

Lucas, who is four years old, started asking for the movie by singing the music. He wanted to see it again and he didn’t remember the name of it, so in order to ask me to buy it, he sang some of the music!

“Dad, buy me that movie … mmm …. I can’t remember the name … (starts to sing).”

Of course, my first response was “wow, that’s amazing! My son’s a genius!”

But after I got over my parental pride attack, I started to realize how important the music was to his experience in watching this film. How those melodies stayed with him and were part of his positive feelings for the film.

I thought about this for a while, about what this meant. I was reminded of films like “Laura”, “Doctor Zhivago”, “The Magnificent Seven”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Love Story”, “The Pink Panther”, “James Bond”, “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Harry Potter” and all these great films with great melodies that stick with us, and I began to realize that, perhaps, these melodies were more important to everyone’s film going experience than I had first thought.

So, what conclusions can we reach from this? I am sure you can think of many. Here are some of mine.

People take home the melodies and it reminds them of the film the same way songs remind you of a person, an event or a place. It’s natural, human nature, make use of it.

A great melody that people like will make people like the film better. So do not be afraid of melody. too many film makers ask for “texture only, please”, afraid that a melody will detract from the actions or dialogue on screen. Trust me, it’s not true.

Memorable melodies are important! And trust me, writing a great tune like Mancini did and to do it on demand requires talent and training. Choose you composers wisely. Gear does not the composer make.

No temp tracks. Let the story, acting¬† and images inspire the music and don’t lock it into being an imitation of music from another film. This is your film, right? A temp track can hinder the music from finding its own voice, its own flow.

And my last thought: if a picture is worth a thousand words, then make it a moving image and add some music, and then words can’t describe it! That is the magic of film! So leave room for those moments.

So thank you Lucas and Scooby Doo for this little insight on the psychology of the audience.


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