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.
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.
Here’s the score for one of the most famous atonal pieces of all time with a cool, follow-along animation. For those not familiar with the piece it’s difficult listening, but I’ve always found it very beautiful in a weird way. And it’s a great primer in aleatoric music and unconventional scoring techniques.
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.
It may seem like melody writing is a gift, something you either have or your don’t, but it’s really not. There are guidelines you can follow that will help you in your quest for catchier themes. Here are just a few.
Make it singable
This is by far the most important principle. The reason great melodies are so memorable is because we can sing them. Great melodies are simple, and simple is singable. (Note that I said simple, not plain or dull. A great melody has to be interesting, but if it’s too complex people won’t be able to sing it and thus it won’t be as memorable.)