Musical Conventions

film music Jan 20, 2021

January 20, 2021

“Let science work for you”

The amygdala, which is a part of the limbic system, is a fascinating part of the brain. It is programmed to regulate our response to threat (fight/flight response), controls anger and aggression as well as fear and anxiety. The amygdala also participates as a part of our memory. To be specific, it records the emotions attached to our anger, aggression, fear and anxiety. 

Why is this knowledge of crucial importance to the film composer?

If we can use a sound, a melodic phrase, or a rhythmic motif to trigger a memory of an emotion in an audience, we can manipulate the viewer’s emotional response. If we combine this with an image we can have extraordinary control over an audience’s emotional response. 

Fascinating isn’t it? 

In “Why is there music in film” I introduced the idea that music can manipulate a viewer’s emotions. But, how do we exercise this awesome power? 

Picking an appropriate piece of music goes far behind our personal taste. The first step is to understand how stories are assembled, the goal of the story (what the protagonist hopes to achieve), and where and when the story takes place. When we are armed with this information we can then examine the character attributes of our protagonist. Who are they? Where did they grow up? What character traits govern their behavior? This may seem overly analytical. And, it might be. But, there are also many benefits. 

If you can talk about the characteristics of your protagonist your conversation with your director will be about the story and not about the music. You will be able to discuss how the protagonist’s character evolves as the story progresses. You will have a deeper understanding of the motivations of the protagonist. This understanding will (or should) inform every musical choice you make. 

Imagine that. Being able to have a place to start before you start writing the music. 

Of course, there is more to it than that but the basic idea of understanding your characters’ motivations and backgrounds will make it easier to understand the directions you get from your filmmaker. 

It is not uncommon for a director to be very specific about what role they envision music to play in their movie.  Sometimes they have the money to pay for what they want. Most times they don’t. Budgets and music rights will be an issue. Schedule will also be an issue.  Changes in film will necessitate musical fixes. 

The challenge for the film composer is to translate their director’s desires into a product that can be delivered on time, on budget that also delivers the desired emotional impact. A tall order to be sure. But not always insurmountable. Here’s where a shift in mindset is helpful.

If you limit yourself to only thinking about the music then you may waste valuable time searching for the proverbial “needle in a haystack”. 

What if… you applied your creativity to solving the problem at hand? 

What if… you applied your creativity to musically solve the problems you’ve been given? 

What if you were to make your limitations work for you instead of against you? 

It IS possible to flip your perspective, and most likely desirable, if you get your mind out of the notes and become a problem-solver who thinks like a storyteller. 

A key attribute of a problem solver is to analyze the situation that needs an answer. So, here is an assignment for you:

The next film you watch ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What does the protagonist want?
  • What lesson will the protagonist learn?
  • What is the protagonist’s background and how does that influence the choices they make in the film?


These are questions that a filmmaker will want to know and information a director will have at the tip of their fingers. Learn to talk about a director’s concerns and you will endear yourself quicker than by randomly playing tracks hoping they find the needle you’ve put in the haystack.

Join us at “Crib Notes” for a deep dive into compositional techniques, tutorial videos, blogs and more here

Get your FREE copy of my personal branding ebook "What's Your Story" (and other goodies)


50% Complete

Being prepared is the best prescription for success.

Contact me directly and I'll be happy to talk about:



And - I will send you a copy of my ebook: "Finding Your Way Forward"