Category: Composition

Thomas Newman on Lemony Snicket

Here’s a great interview with Thomas Newman on the Lemony Snicket score (one of my personal favorites of his). The link comes courtesy of Film & Game Composers, so thanks to Emmett Cooke for the original post.

The video concentrates on the orchestral recordings, not necessarily the most interesting or unusual part of a Thomas Newman score, but still fascinating and educational. He talks about the danger of overwriting, the trouble with describing characters through music, and his technique of experimenting with small ensembles and how that effects his orchestral writing. Especially instructive are his thoughts on having the director hear the music numerous times in his studio before the recording session, which allows the director to have plenty of opportunities to reject ideas while there’s still time to change them.

Forget Tech, It’s About the Notes

Photo by John McNicholas

I’m a little slow on the uptake this week, but my latest SCOREcast Online post went up on Monday. This month’s theme over at SCOREcast is technology, but I always like to stir up trouble, so I went in the opposite direction. Here’s an excerpt:

I know this month’s theme is about technology and all the hot new gear out there, but I wanted to step back from all that and share a bit of wisdom I’ve learned the hard way: when you’re composing, compose.

Don’t orchestrate, arrange, record or mix at the same time. Writing, orchestrating, recording and mixing are four independent processes which use different skills and different parts of your brain. Trying to do even two of them at the same time is distracting and counter-productive. It takes you out of the moment and diverts you down numerous paths that beckon seductively but will ultimately waste your time and weaken your finished product.

Read the full article here, and step away from your DAW.

Making Things Small

Photo by Brian J. Bruemmer

I am happy to announce that I’m now an official writer for SCOREcast. My first post went up today, talking about how to make a cue small. I’ve attached an excerpt below. Enjoy!

When it comes to film scoring, size definitely does matter. The trend in big-budget Hollywood films has been toward a bigger and bigger sound—enormous string and brass sections and 20-person percussion ensembles, all backed by massive beds of synths and samples. But often, especially with indie projects, what’s required is a much smaller, more intimate sound. Even a modestly sized orchestra might be far too large for a quiet drama about a family, a couple or a child.

It’s important for a film composer to know how to match what’s happening onscreen not just musically, but also in terms of size, feel and scope. Scoring The Avengers with just acoustic guitar and flute would clearly be wrong, just as using the orchestra from Pirates of the Carribean to score Juno would have also been a mistake. In this set of posts I’ll explore various ways to get your cues to sound really huge or really tiny. I’ll start this week with making things small.

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Quick Tip: Leave a Hole

Photo by Esther Simpson

In the TV series Classic Albums (now available on DVD), Roger Waters talks about the Pink Floyd song “Us and Them.” He says, “I find myself very very often, in my capacity as a producer, having to say to people, ‘No, leave a hole. Just play for half a bar and leave a bar-and-a-half empty.'” I love this quote, and think of it often while I’m writing. It reminds me that I don’t need to fill up every moment with notes. Sometimes music needs space to breathe, silence to give form and beauty to the sound.

As Daniel Levitin wrote in his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Miles Davis “described the most important part of his solos as the empty space between notes, the ‘air’ that he placed between one note and the next. Knowing precisely when to hit the next note, and allowing the listener the time to anticipate it, is a hallmark of Davis’s genius.”

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Making the Most of Reference Tracks

Photo by Tyler Heaton

I’m finishing up a job which was temped with an Explosions in the Sky song. My instructions were simple: create a score with the same vibe—mellow electric guitar escalating gradually to a euphoric climax. Explosions in the Sky are not terribly hard to mimic since their songs often follow a fairly specific formula, but the process got me thinking about the most efficient ways to make use of reference tracks. Basically it comes down to this: the more methodical you are with studying your reference tracks the easier it is to create a final cue that’s original and yet captures exactly what the client wants.

When I first started composing for media, my approach was a bit random. I’d create a playlist of appropriate reference tracks, listen to it for a while, and then try to duplicate what I’d heard without violating any copyright rules. Sometimes this worked well, but other times I felt like I was fumbling around in a dark room looking for the light switch. By taking a more measured approach, you can work more quickly and nail the cue more easily.

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Dovetailing

Photo by Miles Bintz

Film music tends to be sectional. A cue will be happy for a bit, then turn sad, then anxious. It’s the nature of the beast. Sometimes we want the changes to be abrupt, but sometimes the movie calls for a more invisible transition. I like to call this dovetailing. Just like in woodworking, dovetailing requires a carefully constructed overlap of two sections. Following is a quick tip for smoothly moving from one segment of a piece to the next.

Rather than allowing one section to end before beginning the next, start introducing elements of the later part into the first or vice versa. If your first bit has an eighth-note feel and your second is mostly whole notes, begin softly bringing in whole notes under the end of the first section. You can also fade the eighth notes at the end of the first part or carry them softly into the second to create more of a bridge and smooth the transition.

In my experience, dovetailing mostly involves the accompaniment. If one section uses arpeggiated figures in the background, carry those over into the other segment. If both parts use arpeggiation but of different types, change the arpeggiation before or after the section change. It’s really just a matter of gradually altering the accompaniment rather than changing it suddenly. It’s also easiest at first to focus on the rhythm. A triplet feel can slowly give way to a quarter-note pulse by gradually replacing triplets with quarter notes until you arrive at your destination.

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Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker

Following up on my last post about sad music, here’s a great article from the Wall Street Journal about some of the musical secrets behind Adele’s Grammy-winning smash hit “Someone Like You.” Emotionally intense music, whether happy or sad, releases massive amounts of dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brains, acting like a drug and making us yearn for another dose. Intensely sad music behaves just like happy music in this sense—it causes physiological reactions in our brain that keep us coming back for more.

The article also details a couple of musical tricks that help to intensify the emotion, including the humble appoggiatura. In a study 20 years ago, the psychologist John Sloboda found this seemingly minor accent present in 18 out of 20 (unnamed) tear-jerkers. As the song’s co-writer Dan Wilson told Minnesota Public Radio, neither he nor Adele knew what an appoggiatura was when they were working on “Someone Like You.” They used it instinctively. As Wilson said, “Hey, if I had a scientific method for making a heartbreaking hit, I would do it every day… But it’s not so easy.”

Modal Interchange

Photo by David Hawkins-Weeks

Tired of using the same old chords in your cues? Modal interchange (also called borrowed chords) is a great technique to add variety and interest into your chord progressions. It’s an idea borrowed from jazz, but I guarantee you’ve heard it in hundreds of pop songs and film scores as well. You’ve probably even used it yourself without realizing it.

Modal interchange combines two rather simple principles. The first is the harmonized major scale. Simply put, that’s a fancy name for taking the notes of the major scale and building triads or sevenths on top of each one using notes diatonic to the scale. In C major, you end up with CMaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, FMaj7, G7, Amin7, and Bmin7b5.

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Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Stems

Photo by Rob Sheridan, L.A. Times

This just in: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have made the stems from five Girl With the Dragon Tattoo cues available at Tunecore. They’re up until March 31st, 2012, so download and enjoy.

Aslo, if you like these two, the L.A. Times  interviewed Reznor back in December.

Incidentally, I haven’t seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
yet, but I plan to sometime this week. I’m rapidly getting caught up on my list of possible best scores of 2011, and I’ll fill you all in soon. (For the record, I’m not anticipating GWDT will make the list, but Trent and Atticus did win the Oscar last year, so I feel obliged to consider it.)

Quick Tip: Scoring Around Dialog

Photo by Julia Freeman-Woolpert, courtesy of sxc.hu

Writing music for a dialog-heavy scene is one of the trickier aspects of film scoring. It’s not too difficult if you’re just writing a simple pad or drone, but often the music needs to be more detailed than that.

As we all know, in a movie dialog is king. Rightfully so, since that’s where most of the story lies. It may be a pain, but as film composers it’s our job to stay out of the way. Writing a melody on top of dialog usually means your music will be mixed so low you can barely hear it. Keeping the music in the gaps between lines is still the safest approach, but here’s a little trick for those times when that’s impossible:

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