Photo by Nick Kenrick
A problem young composers often have with their work is that they try to say too many things at once. I don’t think this is to show off or try to brag about how much theory they know, but more of a fear that if they aren’t saying “a lot”, they aren’t saying “enough”.
A metaphor I like to think of is the postcard vs. the novel. A postcard is a single image and a few lines of text that convey the bare minimum of communication. Usually something like “wish you were here” or “get well soon”. It doesn’t go beyond a single emotional state and only exists for a moment. A novel, on the other hand, is long and dynamic. The story has ups and downs, characters come in and out, entire settings change frequently, and it takes many hours to read.
I believe that a piece of music should be approached more like a postcard than a novel. Your music should live in the moment it is trying to express, rather than try to squash an entire lifetime of emotions into a few minutes. When you focus your attention on a single moment, your music will breathe and you will actually be able to express yourself more freely.
Let’s say you are trying to write a two to three minute instrumental “epic fantasy battle” cue. A common approach would be to try to tell an entire story. Soldiers arrive at the field, tension builds, the battle begins, the hero emerges, the enemy is defeated, the battle is over, the fallen are remembered. It might sound like a joke but this is often how many twists and turns people try to cram into a single piece. Not only is it difficult to listen to, it’s difficult to write!
Instead think about approaching each of those moments as a single piece. “Soldiers arrive at the field” could easily make for a compelling two minute cue. “The Hero Emerges” must surely bring some ideas to mind for themes or orchestration. To think of it in another way: a cue is a scene, not a movie. (I realize how obvious this sounds, but you wouldn’t know it from how schizophrenic some of the music I hear is!)
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about library music was “if the editor wants the music to change, they’ll change to different music.” He meant that a library cue should represent a single mood, rather than trying to express an exciting and dynamic composition. So don’t “start tense and build into triumphant”. That’s too specific and could only ever be used for a scene that happened to start tense and end triumphant in the exact same way. In other words, it would be mostly useless! Instead you write two different cues, one that’s tense and one that’s triumphant. The editor decides which to use and when.
Library music is commercial and arguably not “artistic”, but I believe the same principle applies to non-commercial music as well. The only apparent exception is extended forms, ie. longer pieces of music. But in most of those cases you’ll find that each section is expressing a single mood before transitioning to the next section. A six minute piece by Chopin might have two minutes of sweet, three minutes of brooding, and back to a minute of sweet again. So really there are only two moods, and each one can be absorbed in a postcard’s worth of expression.Read more