Know The Lingo: 17 Film Composing Terms Explained

Depending on your background, film composing terms can seem like a foreign language. Even if you have a strong musical background, you’ll encounter unfamiliar jargon that is unique to scoring a picture. Learn these 17 common terms so you can talk the talk on your next project.

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Composing Terms

Scoring music for a film on sheet music

These terms are unique to music composed for picture. So, even if you are a seasoned musician, you may not have heard of them before.

Cue

A cue is the basic building block of a film score. Essentially, it is one complete piece of music from start to end, meant to play against a scene or sequence. Think of it this way: if the score was to be released as an album, one cue would be one track. The term comes from the cue sheet, which is the master list of all music in the film, along with the timing of each. So, think of your film music in terms of cues instead of songs or pieces.

Spotting

Spotting is the process where the composer (often with the director) watches the edited film and decides which moments need music. A rough draft of the cue sheet would come out of a spotting session. There are many things to consider when spotting a film, and each project is different. Initial spotting can start with the script; you don’t necessarily have to wait to see an edit of the film to know the fight scene is going to need a cue, or that the love scene is going to need a theme. (Read more about efficient composing workflows here)

Beat

This may be more of a filmmaking/scriptwriting term, but it will come up a lot while scoring a film. Not to be confused with the musical “beat,” this instead refers to a specific moment in the film. Often used in a story context, directors will talk about emotional beats in a scene or story beats in a script. These are the moments – maybe a look, a closeup shot, or a line of dialogue where there is an important shift in the subtext of a scene. Often, these subtle moments will call for a musical accent in order to convey the subtext to the audience.

Temp

Temp is short for temporary music, which is what the editor will place under a scene while assembling the rough cut. Often, temp is just pulled from the soundtracks of other films. It gives the editor something to edit to, and gives the scene emotional subtext without necessarily accenting all the key moments. Temp music can be great because it can give you a starting point to talk about musical ideas, mood, timbre, tone, and accent points. However, it can also be the composer’s worst nightmare because, after many long hours in the edit room hearing the temp, a director can become overly attached to it. If that happens, a director might stifle your creative ideas because they want it to sound just like the John Williams soundtrack they’ve been editing to. (Read more about working with directors here)

Stems

Music stems come into play at the end of the composing process. They are submixes of various instrument groups and voices in your score that the music editor can mix independently when assembling the final audio mix. It can be beneficial to have stems of percussion, strings, synths, etc. so they can more easily be mixed against dialogue or sound effects. These are not always required, however, and if you’re on a larger budget project, you probably won’t have to make them yourself.

Soundtrack

Film score and film soundtrack are not interchangeable! Don’t look like a newbie by making this mistake. Soundtrack is more of a layman’s term for a film’s music. Use it to refer to the album that is released along with the film. For example, “I made a ton of money in royalties from that soundtrack on Spotify.”

Kirsch

This refers to getting approval on a mix for changing something when, in fact, you haven’t changed anything. It is a bit more esoteric, but definitely a useful concept. For example, if a director wants the french horns toned down a bit but you disagree, you could make a show of tweaking a few knobs that do nothing, then play the cue again. A kirsch would occur when they say, “Great! Now it’s perfect!”


Filmmaking Terms

digital cinema camera behind the scenes

These terms come from the filmmaking world, and are important to know so you and the director are speaking the same language.

Scene

This one may seem self-explanatory, but it is worth defining. A scene is delineated in a script with it’s own heading. For example, a scene heading usually reads “EXT. BEDROOM – DAY.” During a shoot, the script supervisor is responsible for numbering and keeping track of each scene. When composing cues, it is important to follow the same numbering convention so that communication between you and the editorial department is clear and precise.

Sequence

The big brother of the scene, a sequence is several scenes that combine to hit several key beats, or describe an important arc. For example, the Death Star Escape sequence in Star Wars: A New Hope comprises several scenes. Put together, they tell a cohesive narrative arc. Sequences are useful to identify, because cues can often span multiple scenes. When that happens, you are writing a cue for a sequence rather than a scene.

Picture Lock

Picture lock is an important concept for the composer: the edit has been completed and approved so that no more changes will be made to the visual timing of a film. At this point, you can accurately compose for exact timings, durations, and onscreen accents. Without picture lock, there is a chance you would need to go back and change the timings in the music to match. Often, picture lock happens on a scene-by-scene basis, and there is always a chance the director may change their mind.

Reel

Even though most films aren’t filmed anymore, movies are still often divided into reels for post-production workflows. Traditionally, a reel was roughly 20 minutes, or 2,000 feet of film. When you watched a movie in a theater, the projectionist had to change reels at a precise moment between scenes to show the next part of the film.

Dailies

This refers to all of the footage shot in one day of filming. Again, this term comes from the film days, when cans of exposed film had to be developed at a laboratory overnight. The next day, the director would finally be able to watch the previous day’s work. For the film composer, viewing the dailies during production can get you into the look and feel of the film well before the editing process begins.

MOS

Allegedly, this refers to a German director in Hollywood with a very thick accent who decried “Vee vill shoot mit out sound!” (We will shoot without sound!) It now refers to any scene in which no production audio was recorded. These scenes may heavily rely on music to carry the story since there is no dialogue.

ADR

Another part of the alphabet soup of acronyms, ADR means automatic dialogue replacement. There is nothing automatic about it; it refers to when an actor will come into a recording studio to re-record their lines for a particular scene. They have to perfectly match lipsync with picture to give the illusion that it was recorded the same time as the visuals. Often, huge percentages of Hollywood films are ADR-ed. Usually this happens because location sound quality was poor (think action scenes with explosions, or filming on busy streets). A director can also use ADR to change lines of dialogue for offscreen characters, or change the delivery of certain lines.


Film Theory Terms

Music notebook with notation

Here are some ideas that may not come up in the day-to-day life of a film composer, but are important concepts to keep in the back of your mind while spotting.

Diegetic Music

This refers to music that is heard while the source is seen on screen. The most basic example is a scene at an opera house where you see the orchestra and hear the music being played. This is usually a cheat, so that the sound from the location is not actually used in the edit. However, the effect is that the music in these scenes is 100% motivated. Most film scores are non-diegetic because there usually isn’t an orchestra floating around, playing the accompaniment to a space battle, for example.

Anempathetic Sound

When the mood of the music is at odds with the mood of the scene, it is anempathetic. For example, a character might be depressed, but the music sounds happy and uplifting. To a lesser degree, this could also be when you use slow, plodding music during a fast chase scene. It creates a contrast between the character’s mood and the score’s mood, often calling extra attention to both. This is close to breaking the fourth wall, wherein a director addresses the audience in some way.

Synchresis

Again, a fairly highbrow concept, but important to think about. Synchresis is the idea that an audience will merge the sound and picture together in their minds, with lots of leeway. Think of it this way: when Bugs Bunny slips on a banana peel, you hear a slide whistle. This musical element matches perfectly with the visual action, so your mind associates the two. A composer has the opportunity to do the same with a film score, being as blunt or as subtle as they want to. Drums can stand-in for thunder, shrieking strings can stand in for stabbing (as in Psycho). Reinforcing visuals with music can be a strong weapon in the composer’s arsenal.


Conclusion

Film composing terms can be hard to decipher, but hopefully this guide has shed light on some of the jargon. Start throwing these terms around on your next project to be able to communicate more effectively with other members of your team. If you come across a term not listed here, or are just interested in learning more, check out The Dilettantes Dictionary. Pretty much every film sound term you can imagine is listed there. Happy composing!

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