sheet music sits on a piano keyboard

Easy Film Scoring Strategy: Imitate The Masters

If you’re still learning the ins and outs of film scoring – or just need some quick inspiration – try looking at the work of film composers who have come before you as a template.  Film scoring is never truly easy, but you can help yourself out by basing some of your composition on existing music. This post will outline some ideas for implementing this, depending on what you need.

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  1. Accenting Pivotal Moments
  2. Mimicking Masters
  3. Analysis and Practice

Accenting Pivotal Moments

One of the main “jobs” of a film score is to punctuate pivotal moments on screen. This can also prove to be one of the hardest things to do, in a musical sense. When you think of a jump-scare in a horror film, or the triumph of the hero in a superhero movie, or the first kiss in a romance, what music jumps into your head? Many of these moments have stereotypical musical accompaniments associated with them. For some projects, using common musical tropes may be just fine. In other cases, you may want to find different ways to hit these accents. That is where turning to other successful film scores comes in.

Find Other Examples

The first step is to watch other films that have similar moments in them. Find other examples of films in the same genre or style as the one you are currently working on. Chances are a quick search on Netflix will turn up many candidates. Also look for the “classics” of the genre, the films that are considered the gold standard in the same vein. Also be sure to ask the director which films they admire that are similar, or that they are using for inspiration.

Watch these films for scenes that compare to the one you are working on, and listen closely. How was the musical score handled in that moment? Listen again and pay attention to the timing, the voicing, and the transitions around that key accent point. Make notes that you can refer back to later.

After watching a handful of examples, ask yourself which ones spoke to you. Which score was the most effective? The most interesting? Which didn’t work at all? Then ask yourself how some of these approaches would work in the context of the film you’re currently working on.  Try to narrow it down to a few select film scores that you can refer to later on.

Play Against Picture

Monitoring a film score on studio monitors

If possible, find the soundtracks from the films you were watching, and bring the audio files into your DAW. Now you can take the film score from those shining examples and play it against the scenes in your own project. Line up the pivotal moments in the scene with the accent points in the music.

Play around with timing here, and experiment with different juxtapositions. Audition several options against picture until it seems to “click.” You’ll feel it when this temp music hits the right emotional beat. It’s likely that most of the example film score won’t match up perfectly with your scene, so focus solely on the important moment that you’re trying to accent. When listening, try to concentrate on that portion, and forget about the rest of the timings for now.

Make It Your Own

When you’ve got temp music that you’re happy with, now the composing can begin. Use that example as a template in as many ways as you need to write your own cue that hits the right accent. You may just copy the timings, but take whatever part of the template music that makes it most effective and bring it into your own composition. Some possibilities may include the tempo, harmony, key, voicing/orchestration, effects, or something else entirely.

The important thing at first is to not worry too much about copying the temp music verbatim. As you refine the score, it will naturally evolve into something uniquely yours. Just focus on getting a similar emotional effect, using the device(s) that you found in other film scores.

Be sure to use this first pass as a jumping off point (I’m not in any way advocating plagiarism!). If you listen back to it and it feels too similar, introduce some melodic or harmonic variations that will keep it fresh. As you go through future revisions, it should become more refined and more unrecognizable to the original.

Mimicking Masters

Film composers are sometimes viewed as somehow “less creative” than concert composers. While it is true that film music doesn’t exist as a medium unto itself (it relies on the visual element), I think that it is an art form where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A great film with a great score can be just as emotionally impactful and artfully significant as a major symphonic masterpiece.

That being said, film music can sometimes become simplistic – especially given the tight deadlines often imposed upon the composing process. While you don’t need to be classically trained to be a great film composer, there is value in examining the works of some of the classical masters for inspiration.

Classical on Celluloid

There are many examples of films utilizing classical music in their score (Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in A Clockwork Orange). Other composers choose to quote parts of inspirational themes from classical music as part of their score (Holst’s The Planets in Star Wars). Famously, Stanley Kubrick completely discarded the original score for 2001: A Space Odyssey in favor of the temp music he used in the edit, which were all classical masterpieces. Some composers have crossed over into film music themselves, such as Dmitri Shostakovich.

Where to Start

The catalogue of classical music is much more vast than the relatively small number of film scores that have been composed. With thousands and thousands of pieces to choose from, where do you start when looking for inspiration? I suggest starting with the Romantics. Most current symphonic film music is more or less written in a style that mimics closely the Romantic period. To a large degree, we have John Williams to thank for this. His Romanticists-influenced scores redefined modern film music with their success and popularity.

An obvious starting point is Beethoven, whose timeless music could lend inspiration to film composers forever. However, other notable composers to check out include Brahms, Wagner, and Mahler. Each of these composers built on their Romantic colleagues with music that became more expressive, more complex, and more lengthy. Wagner in particular is noted for massive orchestrations and thunderous music.

Play Against Picture

When you find a piece that inspires you, or particularly moves you, think about where that would fit into a film. Would that swell in the strings fit a particular dramatic moment? Perhaps that harmonic texture would work great underneath the protagonist’s theme? If you aren’t working on a specific cue at the moment, file that piece away for later reference.

As outlined above, take the piece into you DAW and play it against a scene to see what the effect is. Play around and have fun, finding new meaning in music that was written several hundred years ago. Placed into a film context, what does it do for the subtext of a scene?

Leitmotif, or Themes

A common film composing idea is theme, a specific musical idea that is related to something happening on screen. It could be a specific character, subplot, or idea. Theme in this context comes directly from the classical idea of leitmotif, which was a short musical idea carried throughout a major work. The most notable examples of this are the recurring snippets of melody in Wagner’s operas. Listening to the Ring Cycle is a masterclass in the use of melodic themes to signify important characters and events.

Sheet music

The major benefit of referencing classical music for inspiration is the ready availability of sheet music. When you hear a particular melodic figure or harmonic texture in a Brahms Requiem, you can easily find the exact notation and orchestration for that moment. If you can read musical notation, following along as you listen will fill you with possibilities for your next film score.

Analysis and Practice

Maybe you aren’t looking for inspiration or a short cut to writing your next cue. What if you just want to develop your film composing chops? Mimicking great film composers is a great way to add to your film-specific musical vocabulary.

Find Your Faves

If you adore the music by a specific film composer, listen to their scores with an ear towards strategy and technique. Bring those audio files into your DAW and play around with mimicking a similar voicing, tempo, and harmony. Go deeper than the casual listener, and try to figure out what key they were writing in, what chords they were using, and what voices in the ensemble served what purpose.

Then examine how they handle specific moments. Try to compose a score for a chase sequence in the same style as Hans Zimmer, for example. Using one of his cues as a close reference, you will learn how he accents specific moments on screen, how he ducks music under intermittent dialogue, and how he transitions between beats in a scene.

Build a Library

Once you’ve copied cues from a composer, you’ll start to be able to anticipate how they handle scenes. You’ll recognize a signature sound, or the way a string section takes up a melody as uniquely belonging to that composer’s style. File away these details in your composing brain for future reference.

The next time you encounter a moment in a film that is similar to a cue that you’ve analyzed and copied before, you’ll have Hans Zimmer‘s take on a chase scene at your fingertips, if you want to apply that style to the current film. Do this with many film composers for many types of films, and soon you will have an enormous library to draw from.

Uniquely Yours

Of course, you don’t want to become the film composer equivalent of a comedian that just does impressions. You don’t want to be known as the composer who sounds like a cheap knock-off of Hans Zimmer. You want to take away lessons and wisdom from breaking down successful composers’ work, so that you can apply them in your own unique way.

Knowing what the “masters” would do gives you a comfortable base to build off of. Just because a popular film composer wrote a chase sequence a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the best way. It just becomes another tool in your toolkit to utilize because you’ve spent the time and effort to analyze and work through re-creating it.

Editing the music score

Synthesis

In the end, what’s right for your project might be an amalgamation of many different tricks and methods you’ve learned along the way. It could be one part Hans Zimmer, one part Danny Elfman, and one part John Williams – all in the same cue. But once you’ve scored it under a scene in your project, it becomes uniquely yours.

Conclusion

In the end, using other composers’ music as a reference point is a great way to get started, or try out different ideas. That makes this a great strategy for easy film scoring. Taking the time to analyze and mimic different composers with different types of scenes is a great way to build up your film composing toolkit. Just remember that no two films are alike, and no two cues will be the same. What works in your film is dictated by the unique story and characters, and your job is to compliment that with its own unique music as well.

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