Category: General

Best Scores of 2011?

Image courtesy of Roy Mattappallil and

It’s the end of the year, which means it’s time for the annual parade of “best of” articles. I’ve been pondering a post about the best scores of 2011, but I’ve actually found this past year to be a bit lacking. There have been quite a few good scores, but not many that I’d consider great.

I thought I’d throw the question out to you, my humble readers, and see what you lot think of the past year’s soundtracks. Is there anything that stood out to you? Anything you absolutely love? Anything you think deserves an Oscar or a Golden Globe? Post a comment below and let us know your thoughts. In the meantime I’ll work on my top five scores of the year and publish the list in a week or two.

Why Music Can’t Fix a Flawed Film

Photo courtesy of J Boontje and

Great film music can do a lot of things, but one thing it can’t do is “fix” a broken film. Yet composers are often asked to do just that. I suppose it’s bound to happen—we’re typically one of the last people to touch the film. Sometimes a project’s problems don’t really come to light until the editing phase, and music is often the next stage in the assembly line. Money is tight at that point, and there aren’t many other options available. So the director hands his baby to the composer and says, “Is there anything you can do?”

When asked to repair a director’s terribly flawed film, Bernard Herrmann famously said, “I can dress the corpse, but I can’t bring it back to life.” Music, as wonderful as it is, can only do so much. It’s great at enhancing what’s already there. A great score works with great writing, acting and cinematography to intensify the audience’s experience and pull them into the drama. But if the movie is weak, the score may help distract from the badness at times, but that’s about it. Imagine a poorly-paced car chase that’s obviously happening at 20 miles per hour. Putting super-intense action music behind it isn’t going to make it seem that much faster, and in fact it may make the scene more ridiculous. Audiences are savvy, and if what they hear doesn’t match what they see, they’ll feel manipulated and may even turn against the film.

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Indie Film Doesn’t Have To Suck

Photo by Gregg Bucken-Knapp

The following post is from Seattle’s own Ben James and his Dilettante Douchebag blog:

We’ve all experienced it, struggling to sit through the uneven, incomprehensible film offerings of our compatriots. To quote local film maker Geets Romo, “If that was a fight, they would have stopped it.” But there is so much good stuff coming out of the Seattle indie film scene it’s clear that indie film does not have to be lame.

Read the rest of the article at

The Role of the Score

Image courtesy of Peter Szustka

Music is an integral part of movies. As proof, the list of successful films without scores is quite short: Annie Hall, Catch 22, Network, The Birds, Dog Day Afternoon, and just a few others. Why? What is it about music that makes it so common in films?

Music provides several elements in a film that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other ways, and it is of tremendous importance in reinforcing other aspects and strengthening their impact. Here’s just a partial list of what music can add:

One of the most common uses of film music is to heighten or enhance the emotion of the onscreen action. Ideally, the actors will deliver much of the emotional impact of a scene, but the score can help the viewers connect more directly with the characters and their feelings.

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Compose Something Every Day

Here’s a great tip from fellow composer Jeffrey P. Fisher. Be sure to sign up for his free weekly music business success tips:

Image courtesy of Carlos Sotelo

The best way to make sure you get the most from your talent is to use it. So, write a piece of music every day. This doesn’t need to be extravagant or even complete, rather just put your first thoughts down on paper, HDD, disc, etc. Make composing part of your daily routine. Not everything you do will be “good”, but the exercise will yield some bits and pieces that you can later turn into something special.

Too many people believe they must be in a creative mood to compose. It’s infinitely easier to procrastinate than to just start working. I fall prey to this distraction occasionally myself. But I’ve learned to work through it. You can’t be seduced by this unfortunate behavior either. You must banish those “ifs” and “buts” and start writing. That’s the key. Just begin and see where it takes you.

Read more at Fish(er) Tales

Sad Music and Its Effect on Our Brains

Here’s an interesting listen: Why Do We Love Sad Songs? was the topic on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge last Sunday. Up for discussion: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the science behind the minor 3rd, a brief history of country music, and the melancholic sound of Bach’s Cello Suites.

It’s an interesting subject—sad music—especially for a music-psychology geek like myself. What is it about a particular piece of music that makes us feel down? Why is the minor 3rd interval so tied to sad music? And why do we crave depressing music? My friends would probably all describe me as a generally happy person, and yet I love a great sad song. Why?

There’s a good deal of compelling content here, of interest to musicians and non-musicians alike. For example, the minor 3rd is common in sad music, but it’s equally common in speech, especially when we’re feeling gloomy. And the discussion of Adagio for Strings is fascinating, describing the piece’s incredible popularity, and its ability to sustain a single, melancholy emotion for a full eight minutes.

Listen to the audio of the show here:

SoundWorks Collection

Here’s a cool website to check out: The site is mainly geared towards sound designers and not composers, but there are still a decent number of videos about music alone (or more often, sound and music).

Of particular note, there have been excellent videos recently on the music of Cars 2, The Fighter and 127 Hours, as well as the video games Angry Birds and Halo Reach. One quibble: clicking on Videos > Original Soundtracks doesn’t bring up a complete list of music-based videos, so you’ll need to search through the archives a bit to find the videos on film music.


My name is Jeff Tolbert. I’m a film composer. I started this blog because, honestly, it’s something I would want to read. I’m a big fan of continuing to educate myself and improve my skills. I’ve been searching for a blog like this on the internet, and I can’t believe none exists (at least none that I could find), so I figured I’d write it myself.

My goal with this blog is to demonstrate some of the tricks I’ve learned over the years in school and on the job, and to include tips from other composers as well. I’m hoping to provide useful info for all film composers, whether you’re a student or a seasoned pro. I’m going to talk about all aspects of the business, from getting work to writing great themes, from effectively orchestrating your cues to creating an awesome mix. I’ll also periodically critique other film scores and provide links to additional film scoring resources out there on the net.

As for me, I’m a composer and musician living in Seattle and writing music for films, advertising and video games. The films I’ve scored include Walk Right In, Life On Fire, Modern ViewsBobby Ellis Is Gonna Kick Your Ass, The Last Virgin, Safe Passage, Scamp, Brains, Facing the Dragon, and the dance short Slip Cadence. I’ve written music for the games Nightmare Solitaire, Faerie Alchemy, Chimpanzee Catastrophe, Faerie Solitaire and Ramps, and for the childrens’ story app Dragon Embers. Advertising and corporate video clients include Happy Candidates, Bakon Vodka, Outsource Marketing, Createria, MovieMaker Magazine, and the Seattle non-profit PATH.

I am the past president of the Seattle Composers Alliance, and was the President from Nov. 2009–Nov. 2011. I’m also the author of two ebooks on Apple’s GarageBand software, Take Control of Making Music with GarageBand and Take Control of Recording with GarageBand, published by Take Control books. I studied film scoring with Emmy-award-winning composer Hummie Mann and classical and jazz composition with Tim Huling. I currently bass for Seattle singer/songwriter Tiger Zane as well as guitar, piano, ukulele, trombone, and various percussion instruments and household objects. Other bands I’ve been in include The James Howard Band, What Fell?, the Goat-Footed Senators, the diary of Anne Frank String Quartet, 80 Bones, the Penelopies, and the Fireproof Beauties.

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Why Hire a Composer?

Photo by Daehyun Park

I recently helped judge a best original score competition for a small local film festival. The entries were the definition of “a mixed bag.” Some were clearly the work of gifted film composers, while others appeared to have been recorded by someone’s boyfriend’s band. The differences between the two approaches was striking.

The film composers knew when and where to place music, and what to write to support the scene. The music followed the arc of the scene in what was sometimes a magical way, and several created an entire world for the movie, giving it a strong sense of place, time, or mood. The music enhanced the films in question, and elevated them above what they could have been otherwise. These scores sometimes even took a mediocre film and made it significantly better, causing it to feel more professional, more exciting, and better executed than it actually was.

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