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.

Then there were the other entries, where it often seemed like the director got a batch of songs from a friend in a punk band and dropped them haphazardly into the film. This arbitrary approach occasionally yielded some interesting juxtapositions that actually worked, but in the majority of instances these “scores” did little to help the film or even actively fought against it. In the worst cases the music was distracting, took the viewer out of the story, and dragged the film down.

I also noticed that a surprising number of the films simply took one song and repeated it over and over throughout the movie as a backing track or as transitional music. Even when the music was a perfect fit for what was happening onscreen, the overuse of the same material caused these films to feel static, like they weren’t going anywhere. A good film takes the viewer on a journey. If the music remains stuck in one spot it fights this momentum and holds the viewer by the ankles. A talented composer may reuse the same musical elements many times throughout a film, but they’re always changing and evolving, flowing along with the story and the characters.

Scoring a film is a strange and difficult process. It’s rarely easy to find the right music for the moment. Fitting a cue to a pre-cut scene can involve all sorts of complicated musical acrobatics—dropping or adding beats, shortening or extending melodies, jumping from key to key, and all of this must be done in a way that doesn’t distract the viewer. Even in those cases where the music is able to roll along under the scene and doesn’t need to hit a lot of marks, it’s still important for it to evolve with the emotion and the action of the scene. There are some non-film-composers who are able to do this intuitively, but it’s a rare gift. Most of us need to study film composing for a long time before we’re able to artfully and creatively score a movie in a way that truly serves the needs of the film and the director’s vision.

For the composers out there, it’s one of my goals with this blog to help you further your craft and improve your scores. For the filmmakers, I hope to show what magic a talented composer can weave for your films, and help you find a composer and communicate your needs to them.

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