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:

We all tend to speak at one particular pitch. Our voices wander up and down a little, but it’s much less than you think, and most of us stay within a third or fourth of one central frequency. The secret is to identify that note and leave a gap of a sixth on either side of it. This gives the dialog a comfortable range where it’s all alone, and you’ll find you can turn the music up quite a bit before you lose intelligibility.

Melodyne in action

Identifying the pitch of a particular voice can be difficult. I use Melodyne to help me, but most other pitch correction software would work equally well. I analyze the chunk in question and locate the central pitch. As you can see in the screenshot to the right, there are sometimes a few errant pitches due to especially prominent overtones, but most of the dialog is centered around the low F at the bottom of the screen. (Make sure you identify the proper octave as well. In Melodyne you can click and hold on a blob to play the pitch. Then it’s easy to find it on a keyboard.)

Once I’ve identified the central note, I mark out a sixth on either side of it and keep all my instruments—even the accompaniment—out of that region. When you’re done writing, you should find the dialog stands out beatifully. If it is still being obscured, it could be that overtones of one of the lower instruments are getting in the way. Mute tracks until you identify the culprit and add an EQ dip at the root frequency of of the voice or at one of the multiples of that frequency. Identifying the proper frequency is easier if you use a conversion chart.

There are many other tricks to writing around dialog. I’ll talk about others in future posts.

2 comments

  1. Terence Jones

    This is a fantastic piece of advice. Of course I always knew that staying out of the way of the dialogue was important when writing underscore, but having a methodology for doing so laid out before me is really helpful, cheers for this!

  2. Eric Goetz

    Haha, that’s pretty neat. I never thought of using Melodyne. I usually do it by ear, but it’s very tricky with some actors’ voices. Yours is such a simple and practical technique for scoring under dialog. I love it!

    Another effective technique (albiet much more challenging than yours) is to write the piece such that there’s either a rest in the melody during each dialog, or the dialog is happening during a long note in the melody. This is especially effective if the melody is in instruments like guitar and piano — because of the natural decay of those instruments, the notes tend to die away before the dialog begins. A classic example of this technique is the infamous “bag scene” from American Beauty (Thomas Newman):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qssvnjj5Moo

    Actually, it’s a great example of both techniques. Note that the melody in the piano is three octaves about the dialog, the string pads are using an open 5th voicing, with no notes anywhere close to the dialog. Furthermore, the melody tends to avoid the dialog altogether, by moving only in the spaces between each line of dialog.