blank musical notation page

Film Composing Process – Sketching

The composing process is different for every film composer. When you’re in the studio, staring at the screen, how do you make your first move? How to you begin to put notes down on paper (real or virtual)? It doesn’t have to be scary. In this post I walk through how I approach the beginning of the actual film composing process – or, what I call sketching.

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  1. Background
  2. The Sketchbook
  3. Sketching Ideas
  4. Inspiration
  5. Early Feedback
  6. Timeline

Background – Is The Page Really Blank?

Okay, yes. Yes, the page in front of you really is empty when you sit down to write music for your film. And that can be pretty daunting. The first move feels like it has a lot of importance to it, but really, it’s all in your head. Try to take some of the pressure off of yourself – this is the fun part!

Plus, the film composing process starts long before you get to this point. If you’ve read about my film composing workflow, then you’ve already done a ton of work before getting to this point. Yes, the page may be blank, but you are set up for success.

Before writing the first notes down, you’ve already been gathering your inspiration, done an initial spotting session, and found the voices you want to use. Even if you haven’t followed my workflow example, you’ve at least hopefully got an idea of the script, had a conversation with the director, and thought through some relevant examples or inspiration.

The moment you got hired for this project, your mind has been working away (whether you realize it or not). So let’s take the material that’s in your head, and start to turn it into music.

The Sketchbook – A Place For All Ideas, Good And Bad
musical samples arranged in a DAW

A cliche for brainstorming sessions is that “there are no bad ideas.” While I’m sure we can all think of some truly terrible ideas that have come out of brainstorming sessions, the beauty of the film composing process is that music is subjective, mutable, and able to evolve.

The goal, at this step of the process, should be to get ideas out into a form they can be examined, played with, and varied. But never thrown away. Even if it’s the dumbest idea, write it down if for no other reason than to get it out of your system. Who knows? You might end up referencing it later, where it fits a scene perfectly.

Rather than use a whiteboard or a Google Doc, when composing a score for a movie, I like to use what I dub a sketchbook. This is essentially a master DAW project that I add to as ideas come to me.

My sketchbook project usually ends up being much longer than the amount of music I will actually deliver, but this depends on how much time I have to work in this stage of the film composing process. Length isn’t as important as fully exploring some ideas.

Like an artist’s sketchbook, this project should be something you can refer back to, or copy and paste from. When you write your cues to a picture-locked scene, you can hop into the sketchbook to pull out sections of musical ideas as appropriate.

You can sketch out full orchestrated pieces or just single melody lines. Maybe you spend a few hours writing out variations of a percussion line for a chase sequence. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s written out and recorded for later use.

This sketchbook becomes both the foundation and jumping-off point of the film score.

Important to note: Keep track of each different idea so they are easy to refer back to later. Set markers on the timeline in the project with something memorable. This could be just the date and time, a sequential number, or a phrase that conveys some recognizable meaning to you. As long as you can look back and find what you’re looking for, it works!

Note: Hans Zimmer has a similar process, and refers to it as a “diary.” Check it out in his Masterclass.

Sketching Ideas – Actually Writing Music!

Okay, the sketchbook idea sounds cool, but how do I actually write some music? Well, again, I can’t look into your imagination and tell you how your creative brain should work. But I can tell you how I approach it.

On one film I was composing music for, I just looked at the notes from the spotting session, checked out what was needed for cue #1, and started improvising until it started sounding interesting. Then, when I was happy, I would move on to cue #2, and so on.

I wouldn’t compose this way again. If you’re like me, there are one or two cues that really stand out in the spotting session. These are scenes or moments when I had a really clear idea of what the music should be doing in that moment. Even if I wasn’t imagining it in musical terms, I was probably feeling it in emotional terms.

These moments are the ones that I would start sketching first. You’ve already felt the emotional tug of the music, and it speaks to you the loudest. It’s almost like picking the lowest hanging fruit from a tree – why wouldn’t you start there?

If I have a clear idea of a melody (this is rare for me!) then I will usually write it out in a higher voice. Then I’ll fill in the harmony and texture around it, playing around with timing, feel, phrasing. There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, and there’s no wrong way to improvise a melody line. You’ll know when it feels right instinctually.

handwritten musical notes

More often than not, I don’t necessarily have a melody in mind, but more of a mood I want to evoke. This can be specific to an instrument or tempo, so I’ll start there. Many times I find myself writing in the bass voices first, or even the percussion, until the right mood is being created. Then I’ll play with different harmonic progressions to tell a story, or place the sketch clearly into a certain emotional realm.

However you work, know that these are just preliminary sketches. The beauty of DAWs is that every note is easily edited, duplicated, pitch-shifted, or deleted. You can always move notes, harmonies, tempos around later if need be.

This freedom to edit is part of what makes the first step in an empty project hard. Again, try to get over that by working on the moment in the film that speaks to you loudest. Other ideas will come off of this first one, like a chain reaction.

Once you’re happy with a sketch, or you’ve exhausted yourself trying to achieve the impossible, move on to the next idea. A good place to go is the next priority cue on the attack plan, or cue sheet. Chances are it will be a moment in the film that needs a character’s theme, or to underscore a pivotal dramatic moment. Take it head on and sketch out some ideas!

Inspiration – When The Well Runs Dry

There are entire bookshelves at your local library dedicated to finding creative inspiration. In this, the early stages of the film composing process, you shouldn’t have to look too far afield to find inspiration.

For myself, the voices I have chosen provide a certain amount of inspiration themselves. For example, picking unique instruments like a toy xylophone or sampling cartoon sound effects immediately give you unique possibilities that can be explored. Even if you’re working with a traditional orchestra, changing up the voicings to include pizzicato strings or prepared piano can send you off in a completely new direction.

You may have pulled some references and inspiration at the start of the project, but maybe they’re not doing it for you anymore. In that case, look to classic film scores and how their composers tackled similar cues. It may seem sacrilegious to start with a “cliche,” but this is just your sketchbook – no one else has to know! Maybe composing an idea the same way it’s alway been done will spark ideas for making it fresh.

Finally, take inspiration from your own work. A great way to push through writers block is to look back at your previous sketches and make tweaks or variations. If you really liked a particular sketch, take it and break it. Twist the tempo, transpose the melody. Turn a sad cue into an upbeat, triumphant melody. For me, this can lead to new ideas and new directions. At the very least, it gives me more diverse material in the same thematic vein to draw from later on in the film composing process.

When all else fails, I like to reference Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. They are strange, but sometimes they are just what the doctor ordered. Pick up your own deck here.

Early Feedback – Pulling It Out Half-Baked

musical notation on a piano keyboard

It’s likely that you’ll love a couple of ideas in your sketchbook. They may not have timings yet, but the sound, the feel, it’s perfect for the film! Even though it’s not finished or mixed or correctly orchestrated, send it to the director.

That’s right, take your incomplete, half-formed idea and let the director hear it.

Now, this comes with some caveats. Only play the ideas you feel proudest of, or think are best suited to the film. Let them know that these are extremely rough, but you wanted their early impressions.

The goal of this it to get some early feedback before you go too far in a non-useful direction. Is this sketch even in the ballpark of what the director wants? Are they feeling the emotions you are trying to convey here? Does that theme fit the main character’s personality? Could the director see the scene playing out with this music underneath?

The sketches you audition at this stage likely won’t make it through to the final film in the current form. They will evolve as the film evolves. That’s okay, the feedback you receive will help you hone the score towards that final goal.

One bonus to this part of the process is that the director will have early musical ideas to use as temp music in the edit suite. Better they are cutting with your music, rather than another composer’s!

Note: I wouldn’t take the director’s feedback and revise anything at this point, though. Nor would I throw out any material they didn’t like. I would just take their comments and use them as I moved forward in the composing process.

If you absolutely want to revise a sketch based on the director’s feedback, do it as a variation. Take a duplicate of the original sketch, and incorporate the director’s notes. Always keep the original, though. You never know when they may come back, three days later, and tell you that you know what? That original sketch really grew on them, and they really like it now!

Timeline – How Much Is Enough?

This early stage of the film composing process will help propel you smoothly through the next stage – writing to picture. The more time you can spend sketching ideas, the better prepared you will be for future steps in the workflow. The bigger and more filled-out your sketchbook project is, the more material you will have to draw from later on.

Therefore, spend as much time as you can in this sketchbook phase. If you’re working on a small-budget feature, spend at least a week sketching out ideas. Two would be better.

This is your time to work (somewhat) freely. While you’ll never be free of budget constraints, you can sketch musical ideas here well before the film is edited. So, you’ll be working without a deadline cliff looming just around the corner.

Enjoy the time spent in the sketchbook project, where all ideas are valid, and you can play to your heart’s content. Have fun!

3 thoughts on “Film Composing Process – Sketching

  1. First of all, thank you for your blog and for all your insights. I was wondering as how important you would evaluate the skill to actually read/write notes – traditional pen&paper scoring so to say – in the industry today. Could the lack of this skill necessarily lead to problems at some point?

    1. I think you can absolutely score films without needing to read/write musical notation. If it sounds good, it doesn’t matter how it got there. If you start working on bigger projects and have to start collaborating with other musicians or music supervisors, though, you would start running into communication issues. Basically, for DIY or indie projects, you’d be fine, but for more professional gigs you’d run into trouble. There are a lot of software tools that will take your music and turn it into formal notation for you, so there are some workarounds. Maybe I’ll do a longer post on this in the future because I bet a lot of people have this question!

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