The best way to make sure you get the most from your talent is to use it. So, write a piece of music every day. This doesn’t need to be extravagant or even complete, rather just put your first thoughts down on paper, HDD, disc, etc. Make composing part of your daily routine. Not everything you do will be “good”, but the exercise will yield some bits and pieces that you can later turn into something special.
Too many people believe they must be in a creative mood to compose. It’s infinitely easier to procrastinate than to just start working. I fall prey to this distraction occasionally myself. But I’ve learned to work through it. You can’t be seduced by this unfortunate behavior either. You must banish those “ifs” and “buts” and start writing. That’s the key. Just begin and see where it takes you.
When I first started writing orchestral music, I was a bit overwhelmed. There are so many instruments! How was I supposed to know what to do with all of them? I would write for the whole orchestra at once, in my sequencer, and gradually build a complicated mess. It turns out I was making things a lot harder for myself than they needed to be. The secret? Start with a sketch.
These days when I write an orchestral piece, I always write on piano first, and create a three-line sketch. The melody goes on top (you are writing a melody, right?), and the accompaniment goes on the other two staves. Using this method, it’s much easier to tell if you’re writing good music because you’re not distracted by all of the bells and whistles of a full orchestra. Writing on piano—using just melody and accompaniment—lets you hear your music for what it really is. You can instantly tell if its good or not, and you’re not overwhelmed by choices.
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.)
It seems that the art of melody writing has been forgotten in some circles. I’ve heard a number of film and TV scores in the last few years that feature huge percussion beds under whole-note string and brass chords, but not a shred of melody. Don’t get me wrong, these cues usually sound great—full and rich and super high-fidelity—but nobody’s walking around humming them. They’re all surface and no substance.
I’ll admit, I’m a bit old-school when it comes to film scores. I love Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. And there are plenty of more recent composers on my iPod as well: Michael Giacchino, Howard Shore, Thomas Newman and Patrick Doyle, to name just a few. Sure, these composers all write modern-sounding scores, but they also write great melodies, and melodies are what really gets people’s blood going.
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.