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Mood vs. Melody

film music Jan 13, 2021

Every story is different. Every film is different. Every production is different. Every filmmaker has different tastes and preferences. 

So how do you decide what type of music would be most appropriate? 

 I started getting opportunities to score films because I was a competent, if not precocious, musician and composer. That got me in the door. But, it didn’t adequately prepare me to be a film composer. The reality was my hubris propelled me forward but I was hopelessly unprepared. I would follow my emotional reactions to what I saw on screen but, if I misinterpreted the story I was lost. Making matters worse I had a difficult time communicating with filmmakers. They didn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand them. After a particularly bad experience I realized that I had a big problem and, if I wanted to continue to write music for film I would have to change my approach. 

 I figured that if I learned a few buzz words to help me communicate with director’s I’d be cool. Problem solved. So, I took a screenwriting seminar. It was a 4 day affair held in Hollywood with actors, directors, writers, producers in attendance. I think I was the only musician. I learned about story structure, characterization, how scenes were constructed and what their purpose was in the overall narrative and more. To be honest, it was overwhelming.

After sitting for 4 days I was transformed. I had entered the seminar as a musician and when I left I had become a filmmaker...whose contribution was music. 

So, back to the original question: how do you decide what type of music would be most appropriate for the story/film? 

The answer is you have to have a thorough understanding of ALL aspects of the film. You need to know the goal of the protagonist. You have to know where and when the movie takes place. You have to know the motivation of the protagonist, the antagonist. You have to be able to identify subplots. Does the audience discover the story simultaneously with the protagonist? Or, is the audience given clues so they know the challenges the protagonist will face in advance?

 All of these issues are relevant to how the music is constructed in a film. Why? To be an effective film composer means you have to think like a filmmaker who makes music. Trust me: if you approach writing a score from a musician’s perspective you’ll more than likely run into the same issues I faced early in my career.

Mood music vs. Melody?

The film will tell you. If you know how to listen to what it is telling you. The added benefit is that you will find it easier to communicate with your director and producer. 

 Understanding how movies are made is a huge  hurdle to overcome for most musicians...but absolutely necessary if you want to build a career as a film composer.

 The unintended consequence is that if you understand how stories are constructed you’ll become a better composer, songwriter etc.


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