I’ve been experimenting with MIDI software and DAWs since the mid-1990s. I can still remember my first experiments with MIDISoft when I was around 12 years old and how I was absolutely amazed and captivated. Of course I’ve moved on to more contemporary software since then, but the DAW still remains the number one place where I write complete pieces of music.
I resisted this for many years. Every once in a while I would “force” myself to write something in pure notation, either by hand or in Sibelius. I was somehow convinced that this was the only “right” way to compose, and that my method (the one that was actually working for me) wasn’t good enough. “Real” composers use notation, and therefore if I wasn’t using notation I was not a real composer.
An interesting rule-of-thumb I read about in an interview with a composer was to try to have 7-8 major moments in a piece of music. (Unfortunately it was long ago and I can no longer find the source.)
The details were not specific, but I take this to mean both seven-to-eight main sections and/or seven-to-eight special events.
Why 7-8? The number might be a little arbitrary, although seven has come up as an important number in religion, literature and art for centuries. Seven seems like a good balance between few and many, between simple and complex.
How is this helpful to keep in mind? Simply put, it’s a handy way to make sure you have enough happening to keep your listener interested. For example in a 3 minutes piece, it ensures that you have something significant happening every twenty to thirty seconds that will keep people engaged.
This rule-of-thumb also helps you add length by forcing you to think about how many sections you have. If the piece you are working on is feeling a bit short, or you just aren’t really sure how to keep things going, be conscious of trying to get to seven or eight main segments. This might mean you need a secondary theme, or you need a bridge/contrasting section. Or maybe there’s room for a lengthy intro or outro. Whatever the solution, keeping the number seven in mind can help you expand appropriately.
What are some examples of “major moments”?
When the whole band drops out and there’s nothing but four piece a cappella
The first entrance (or return) of an instrument or section (solo trumpet, epic drums, choir, etc.)
A rhythmic break
The first entrance (or return) of a major theme
A unique hook or cool lick (not just a repetitive ostinato)
A big boom or other special sound effect
You could also use this idea to structure your piece into 7-8 distinct sections.
For example: Introduction, A theme, B theme, return of A theme, bridge/episode/C theme, final return of A, coda.
Or a standard pop song form: Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Bridge, Chorus
I don’t remember this “rule” every time I write, but just like the “Rule of Three” I think it is an interesting guide for creating well proportioned and effective work.
Writing original music for film can be a complex and nuanced endeavor, with hundreds of different unique topics to study and develop. However the most important elements can be simplified down to a few basic principles.
Three of those important fundamental principles are how the music feels, how the music fits to picture, and how a single cue relates to the overall score.
These are the most critical elements to focus on. Let’s look at them in more detail, and in what I believe to be order of importance.
I’ve written about this in the past, but the topic is so central to creating compelling work that I will never stop coming back to it.
So much music out there is BORING. And it’s boring because it’s average. Middle of the road. Medium. Lukewarm. Safe.
A simple tip to avoid falling to in the trap of neutral gray? Opposites!
Here are just a few examples of opposites that a composer can take advantage of:
Major vs. Minor
Quiet vs. Loud
Fast vs. Slow
Legato vs. Staccato
Simple vs. Complex
Thin vs. Thick
Strings vs. Winds (or Brass vs. Percussion, Piano vs. Bass, etc.)
Ambience vs. Rhythm
Steady vs. Syncopated
Single line vs. Harmony
How can exploring one of these areas help you make your work more interesting? What if you took a straightforward 8 bar phrase and split it in half, the first four bars played very loudly, and the second four played very slowly? The late Baroque and early Classical composers took advantage of these exact kinds of simple opposites, taking straightforward harmonies and melodies but making them exciting through extremes of mode, dynamics, and other treatments.
The more extreme your opposites are from each other, the more exciting and dramatic the result will be.
As they say, you can’t have quiet without having loud.
A simple tip I picked up back at Remote Control was the importance of labelling your files with good version numbers. By using a simple system for labelling project sessions and mixes, you avoid all kinds of confusion and wasted time.
Master composer and teacher Alain Mayrand has written a great post about his study of Thomas Newman’s score to American Beauty. He gains insights on pacing, timing, music vs. silence, and length of cues. The whole article is worth a read, and after reading I had a few additional thoughts of my own.
Studying scores with a specific purpose in mind is the best way to do it. If you just think to yourself “I’m going to check out the score to American Beauty” you will probably lose focus and get caught up in the film, and try to absorb so many aspects of the music at once that you’ll miss important insights. Better instead to choose a single purpose of study, in this case the amount of music vs. space and the length of cues. This study was more about time and pacing than about themes, harmony, orchestration etc. All valuable things to study, but if you can get yourself to focus on a single point you will end up gaining far more value.
“Very short cues, as short as 23 seconds, are fine and feel complete natural – as long as they follow the narrative.” I used to think that very short cues were to be avoided at all costs, because you ran the risk of making the score sound less like a film and more like a TV show. I can even remember telling this to directors on some of the first features I scored. But now looking back, I think I was just parroting something I had heard in school or from another composer. If it makes sense for the story, then it doesn’t really matter how long or short the cue is.
There is a certain risk in comparing what works for one score with what will work for another. It’s kind of like counting the bars in one specific movement of one specific symphony. “Well if the second movement of Beethoven’s 3rd has 185 measures, then my piece needs to be 185 measures!” The best remedy is to study a wide range of scores in a variety of genres. Then you will begin to gain a sense for universal approaches and don’t run the risk of focusing too much on what could turn out to be an outlier. “Castaway” famously has no score for the first 30 minutes of the film, but it doesn’t mean that always works!
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.
Last month I scored the lovely short film “Battle”. The film was shot in Dublin and directed by Megan K. Fox, with a premiere screening at the Prince Charles Theater in Leicester Square.
The film stars Irish actress Kelly Thornton and is “an uplifting short film about finding strength through music that aims to fight some of the stigmas surrounding mental illness. Our story follows a brave young woman called Molly as she prepares herself to perform on stage at her school Battle of the Bands. Through her performance she will face her demons and prove to herself that she is strong enough to pursue happiness in the face of her ongoing battle with depression.”
The score was very minimalist (Megan had me strip down my already naturally sparse style to even less!) and focused on the isolation and “stuck” feelings of depression.
At this year’s Asians on Film Festival in Los Angeles I will have two films screening on the same night!
The first is Descendants of the Past, Ancestors of the Future, directed by Albert Chan who will be in attendance with Golden Globe nominee actress Tina Chen.
The short film Carry On, directed by Yatao Li, will also be screening. Yatao licensed a piece of my music to use as the underscore for the film. In a strange twist of coincidence, the piece that they used in Carry On is from the score to The Commitment, my first film with director Albert Chan!
If you have ever spent some time in an art museum, you may have noticed an art student with a sketchpad and pencil drawing a work of art. Sometimes they are sketching the main outlines, sometimes they are going into every little detail, but either way what they are doing is copying. By actually putting a masterpiece down in their own hand, an artist can feel and think about the work more intimately than simply by looking at it alone.
I propose that composition students take the same approach when learning how to write music. By literally copying a piece of music you can learn far more about what makes it work than by simply listening. Depending on the style this might mean literally writing out the notation, or it might mean trying to duplicate the music exactly in your DAW.
This can’t be a passive task, however. Mindlessly copying out notation while you watch TV is about as useful as using a photocopier. I’ve made this mistake before, thinking that if I simply copied out twenty pages of Debussy I’d somehow absorb everything and become a brilliant orchestrator. But I was merely drawing notes, not paying mindful attention to the music, and so I wasted my time.
You need to actually pay attention to the work, to think about each note. You need to question it’s existence. Why did the composer use that motive there? Why the decision to change to that harmony? Why two half notes instead of a whole note? And so on.
I read about a composer who used this method in an even more challenging and brilliant way. I believe it was Ernst Toch, author of The Shaping Forces in Music. He would copy out by hand the entire exposition of the first movement from a Mozart string quartet. Then when he reached the development he would stop looking at the Mozart and instead write his own development section.
Afterwards he’d go back and compare his development to Mozart’s. Every single time he was blown away by how Mozart had handled the same material, but more importantly he really understood WHY and HOW Mozart had done it. He had lived intimately with the themes and motives of the exposition. He knew them in his bones, and so he had a better insight into Mozart’s decisions than practically anyone else who was merely listening.
It’s hard work. Really hard work, especially when you are first starting out and the approach is new and difficult. But if you want to reach elite status, hard work is what it’s going to take.