Totally Cool

I recently scored a comedy video called “Totally Cool”. It was directed by David Odio and produced by Jordan Rozansky, the guys behind Assassin Banana which stars Nathan Fillion as the eponymous banana and Scarlett Johansson.

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How to Maintain Musical Neutrality

We all know how to make music happy or sad; just use major or minor chords! But sometimes I need to create a musical bed that doesn’t really sit on either end of that basic mood spectrum.

When I need a more neutral middle ground, there is one very simple technique that I always immediately jump to: avoiding the third.

My best trick for harmonic neutrality is to use sus chords, particularly sus4 and sus2. This means using the notes CFG or CDG, instead of CEG like a typical major triad. The result is a wide, open, fresh sound that is open to interpretation. It’s not minor, it’s not major, it’s neutral.

Another great feature of sus chords is that you can move around to different roots with ease. Because Csus4 isn’t really tied to a major or minor tonality, you aren’t restricted to only use the chords in those keys. Csus4 moves to any other sus4 chord pretty naturally, thus allowing you to have even more ways to have the chords “progressing” while still avoiding a major or minor identity.

Very useful for corporate videos with a lot of voice-over, or for a scene that you need music to keep the energy moving but don’t really want to force a specific mood.

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“Class Act” from SoulPancake and California Lottery

I am very proud to have been a part of this wonderful series from SoulPancake and the California Lottery called “Class Act”. The series features California public schools teachers who are making a real positive impact in their student’s lives.

Every episode is very authentic and moving. The first came out today and profiles Sadie Guthrie, a Special Ed teacher at Lawton Alternative School in San Francisco, who uses a mobile coffee cart to teach her students real world skills and an entire school about compassion.

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Fire City: End of Days Released on Amazon and iTunes

Fire City: End of Days, the epic demon-noir thriller I scored, is now available for purchase or rental on Amazon and iTunes. Just in time to get your demon fix before Halloween!

The film was written and produced by Brian Lubocki & Michael Hayes, and directed by Academy Award winning creature designer Tom Woodruff, Jr.

I was very excited to see it featured on the top banner of the iTunes store!

Here is a selection of music from the score:

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The Only “Right” Method Is The One That Works For You

photo by Paweł Kadysz

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.

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Seven Major Moments

photo by Niklas Morberg

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 modulation
  • 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.

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The Three Fundamental Principles of Film Scoring

Photo by Jeremy Brooks

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.

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Use Opposites to Stay Interesting

Photo by Dean Hochman.

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.

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Film Scoring 101: Version Numbers

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.

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“Getting the Score – Pacing in American Beauty”

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!

Be sure to read Alain’s original post and check out the other articles on his great site!

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