A Guide to Scoring Movies

  • 10/5/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

One of the reasons I am so attracted to music and composition has to do with the power music can have over the listener’s emotions. Composers have a huge responsibility and hold much power as they have the capacity to make people feel happy, sad, scared and much more.

It is no mystery why most Kings and important leaders have hired the most talented musicians to help them in their dominium. Today we will study different ways to experiment with that power. We’ll take a look at practical ways to write music that bring to a moving scene emotional character.

Knowing Your Tools

Just like a painter would add color to an image, the composer will use a set of musical tools to add life to a movie. In today’s age of modern technology, most composers will use a computer. This will allow you to synchronize your video with the music you are writing. Most music sequencers will allow you to open a video track and work within the software directly. A few free options are available to you. Reaper (http://www.reaper.fm ) is a free sequencer that will allow you to work with video. If you are using a Mac, you may use the excellent Garageband for your scoring needs. If you’ve been writing music on your computer for while, chances are that your current software already allows you to import a video track.

Thinking Outside of The Box

Before starting discussing the actual techniques involved, it is important to realize that a movie score is not like traditional music. A score is meant to support the video and often won’t work on its own. Listening to a musical score without seeing the video can sometimes sound like it is jumping a lot from one tempo to the other. Remember that writing music to video is meant to enhance the experience and go hand in hand with what the audience is enjoying. With this in mind, we’ll look at ways to build our score and make sure it fits the action on the screen.

Finding the Beat

The first thing you need to do before writing your piece is to build a tempo map. This will be the skeleton of the score and will give you a good idea of what the action looks like in your video.

There are many ways to come up with a map. The key is to find something in the movie that you can tap to. This can be anything that moves to a set tempo. You will always find something if you know where to look. Remember that sometimes, the tempo can be given by an element that is in the background of the scene (a clock ticking, birds flying, waves, etc.). Once you found an element, add a simple click to it.

This process should be applied as often as you can. Find elements that are in beat throughout the movie. That is why your final score will most likely have several tempos and sections just like a classical piece would have different movements.

As you prepare your tempo map, don’t worry too much about measures. Your focus should be on planning a series of tempos to match the action on the screen. This preparation is crucial, don’t burn this step! Remember that sometimes there are more than one things happening at the same time. Tempos can overlap each other. Listening to your finished map can be confusing to the ear, but the next step of the scoring process will smooth everything out and make your work sound like real music.

Preparing Your Palette

Now that you have your tempo mapped out, it’s time to add the melodic elements to your score. This will really bring life to your score. The first thing you should decide is which colors you want to use. The choice of instruments can really influence the way your video will feel.

If you are new to scoring, choosing a classical orchestra set of instruments is a great place to start. This will give you a great opportunity to get comfortable with instrument ranges and give you the experience needed to write better movie scores. Take the time to listen to scores you like and make a list of all the instruments you hear in the same score. Some software instruments will help you decide which instruments go well together. Most software will also guide you in the instruments range making it impossible to play the notes outside of the original instrument’s range.

Of course classical instruments are not the only choice when it comes to video scores. Any combination of tools is allowed. You can even mix instruments from different times together. However, orchestral music is a great way to get into scoring as it will teach you all of the fundamentals.

Melodic Moods

Now that our skeleton is built and matches the action on the video, we need to fill it with musical content. I see this much as a painter who adds color to his sketched image. The notes and chords used can have a very dramatic effect on the video. This is where you really need to decide what you want the audience to feel when watching the scene you are working with. Getting to know your chord choices is crucial to writing a piece that will correspond to the mood you wish to give to your score.

The following exercise can be quite subjective and should be taken with much reserve. It can however be a good way to familiarize yourself with the sounds and moods of the chords you play.

This exercise consists in getting more acquainted with the sounds you are producing. Too often guitar players rely on shapes they are comfortable with. Although this can be a good thing, it is beneficial to expand your sonar palette and get used to new sounds and shapes. The first step here consists in moving your fingers across the neck while imagining a scene. Closing your eyes might help you really focus on what you are hearing. As you do this, try to create a strong mental connection between what you are playing and what you are envisioning. You might find this exercise difficult at first, but after a while you will start anticipating the notes you are playing. Start slowly and don’t worry about sounding strange. As you develop this aptitude, take note of any chord progression you find interesting and write down a few words that describe the picture you were seeing. After working on this exercise for a few days, you will have a good library of new small ideas that you will use to give your score the desired meaning.

The next step is to do the same work with a video. Place the moving picture in front of you and play according to what you are seeing. This can be quite challenging at first but it will teach you a lot about nuances and moods. Note that this exercise does not need to be done with your guitar. Why not try this with a keyboard? This will force you to think in terms of sounds and colors as opposed to being guided solely by what you have learned on your instrument. If you have the necessary equipment, film your sessions. This will allow you to watch your work and see how well (or poorly) you did. Take notes of anything you like or dislike.

Putting it all Together

As opposed to a song designed to be heard on the radio, movie scoring doesn’t necessarily need to be conventionally structured. It wouldn’t make much sense to have a verse/chorus/verse type of system unless the action on the screen calls for it. This can be seen at a glance if you look at the tempo map we prepared earlier in this article.

Your goal at this point is to add color to the map you created. You don’t need to start with the beginning. Just decide on a section you want to work with and start adding chords and themes that will be synchronized to your tempo map. The first section you work with will determine the others. You might find that only a few notes are necessary to give you enough inspiration to move on to the next part of your score. As you write your themes, you might notice some sections that just don’t work well together musically. Don’t worry about it too much for now.

Remember that you are writing something to fit a moving picture. Your composition always should go hand in hand with the video you are working with.

Smoothing the Edges

By now, you should have a good collection of themes that are specifically written to the action on the screen. As we previously discussed, some of the sections might no be very coherent with each other. Let’s talk a bit about ways to make your arrangement sound a bit smoother to the ears.

The first trick you can used is based on the roles of harmony. As you should know, a note by itself doesn’t hold much signification. To become something interesting, it needs to relate to another note. If I play a high A note over a G, that A will sound like a 9th (or a 2nd). This creates color and gives the note A a meaning. Changing the G to an F will make the same A note sound like a Major 3rd.

This simple concept allows you to make any given note sound like something different. That idea can help you write a score that is more coherent. For example you can start a theme, finish it on a long held high note that will tie in two sections of your score. Changing the chord to something else right when that transition takes place can help you emphasize the change of mood required in your score. Remember that you are writing something that is meant to enhance the video you are working with.

Another idea you may use to make your composition a bit more coherent is to think about recurring themes. Perhaps write a simple melody that fits a particular character? This theme could come back each time the character is seen on the screen. A recurring theme can make your score flow better and help the listener connect more with your soundtrack.

Final Thoughts

Movie scoring can be a very gratifying experience and give you an opportunity to apply all the music lessons you have learned. One of the greatest aspect of writing and scoring is that it forces you to think outside of what you might be used to. It keeps you sharp on your musical skills without limiting you to a particular style or technique.

Always record your work and have people watch it. Always ask for constructive criticism and keep an open mind. All your scoring exercises can also be used as a demo reel. You can use this to promote yourself. Hands on experience is always a good thing. Get in touch with young uprising video producers and offer your services. This will do wonders for your music and can be quite an enjoyable experience.