I stumbled across this blog post on Documentary.org while wandering the Web. It’s an interview with six film composers about the peculiar art of scoring documentary films. They talk about the idiosyncrasies of the music in documentaries, when they typically get brought on board, schedules and budgets, and much more.
By being involved earlier I had a longer time to conceive of the music…. You can’t speed up the process of just ruminating on something creatively.”
As a composer currently working on two docs, I found numerous bits of wisdom to take away. One of my favorite parts was the lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of temp music and how best to deal with temp scores (always a hot topic). They also talk a lot about the power of music in documentaries and what it can bring to the table—great fodder for your next negotiation with a client who’s balking at your bid.
While geared toward documentary composers, there’s plenty in the post for dramatic composers and filmmakers as well. Much of the discussion centers around the composition process and every film’s need for great music. These are universal topics, and the composers in question speak eloquently about the subject. All in all a worthy read.
You may have seen this video already, as it’s been making the rounds on Facebook and YouTube in the last few days. It’s not specifically about film scoring, but it is an amazing look at the power of music. It’s part of the Music & Memory project, dedicated to improving the lives of the elderly and infirm through the use of personalized music and digital technology. Visit their site here.
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.
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.
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.