Archive for May, 2009

How to Study a Film Score – Part 2: Uniting Score and Screen

Posted on May 26, 2009 at 6:41 pm, by Ben


Script is King, but music is Queen.

The duty of a queen is to actively help and support the King. Though she is in submission, both king and queen are united by a common vision and goal – to uphold the law and protect the people.

The role of music in film—to aid, match, empower, uplift and strengthen the film by representing all the story elements, vision, ideas and emotions of the film—is very much the same. Like a good queen, the right score can prove to be an incredible blessing to the King (film) and his kingdom, but inversely, a bad one can destroy it. This is because music is not neutral. If it was, we wouldn’t have to worry about conflicting interests and storylines because all meaning would be purely subjective and relative. The Film Music industry functions upon the presupposition that music possesses the inherent ability to communicate a story. (if it didn’t, then there’d be no point in writing film scores at all!) When the director presents a melancholy scene to the composer and asks for “sad music”, that’s not meant to be interpreted as a relative term, but an objective one. Steven Spielberg declared that, “If I weren`t a director, I would want to be a film composer.” because he, along with all competent directors and composers, understands that every piece of music tells a story.

In fact, music tells stories so well that when score and script present conflicting emotions, the audience will always follow the music, rendering the original intent of the script moot at best, though downright confusing is more likely.

So what does it look like when you have a good, bad or indifferent queen?

Consider this Illustration:
You have a basic, three act film with a pretty standard story curve. (For more information on the three-act structure and basic story arc, read my brother Isaac’s article on his site.)
It’s a standard drama with standard emotional fluctuation that culminates on a high note with a happy ending that prepares the audience to leave the theater with a feeling of triumph and fulfillment. For ease of illustration, let’s propose that this film could take one of three different approaches with the structure of its score:

#1: The Queen is Indifferent
What the viewer feels upon leaving the theater: Indifference and Boredom—because nothing really happened. The film seemed like a whole lot of nothing because there was no emotional growth or fluctuation. Of the three examples, this is the most common, because so many filmmakers and composers don’t stop to think about the message the music is conveying.

#2: The Queen is Independent
What the viewer feels upon leaving the theater: Irrational Depression and Conflict—because although he was sure it was supposed to be feel-good film, it felt more like a funeral procession.

#3: The King and Queen are united towards a common goal
What the viewer feels upon leaving the theater: What a powerful and coherent film! There is no emotional confusion because the storyline of the music matched that of the script.

Notice that even though you have the exact same script, directing, acting, lighting, editing and effects in all three scenarios, in each one the audience walks away from a completely different movie experience, because music colors the way the viewer interprets the film and all of its elements. The fact that music alone can completely change a film has led some filmmakers to call the score the “second script,” because it can hold just as much sway in determining whether the film is a success or a complete disaster.

When used properly and wisely in the context of your script, the musical score can actually strengthen the story, improve the acting, beautify the cinematography and enhance the direction, but it can also destroy them all if it’s left to do whatever it wants. As I explained in Part 1 of this series, the right score won’t write itself; it needs to be constructed by someone who has done the hard work and the study necessary to understand the basics of how music works and how its emotional effect can be maximized to aid film. The obvious next question is, “What sorts of materials do you study to learn how to do this?”

Find out in Part 3.

The Power of Music According to IKEA

Posted on May 18, 2009 at 12:01 am, by Ben

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In the early days of cinema, film pioneers discovered that the potential of the moving picture to evoke emotion and feeling could be dramatically increased by the inclusion of music. But they also discovered something else:

Whenever music and images are combined to tell a story, the audience will always follow the emotional direction of the music over that of the film, because when paired, music creates an emotional grid through which the viewer interprets the events of the film. In other words, music doesn’t merely enhance the mood of the film: it determines the mood of the film.

If you understand this fact, you can use it to your advantage in strengthening the story of your film… or in persuading your audience to follow an utterly bogus storyline.

Five Soundtracks More Swashbuckling Than Pirates of the Caribbean

Posted on May 9, 2009 at 9:07 am, by Ben

Today, nearly everyone knows what pirate music sounds like because nearly everyone has seen the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But for whatever reason, the rich heritage of swashbuckler scores that graced the silver screen before the first POTC looted and pillaged the box office in 2003 has been almost completely forgotten.

This is unfortunate, because there was a lot of music written pre-Jack Sparrow that may actually capture the piratical and nautical nature of the traditional swashbuckler feature better than Zimmer/Badelt’s rousing and exciting Pirates of the Caribbean scores.

Note: I do not say five soundtracks “stronger,” “better” or “more enjoyable,” than Pirates of the Caribbean; I say five soundtracks more swashbuckling than Pirates of the Caribbean because my intention with this post is not so much to find the scores that best fit their individual films as it is to discover which music is most representative of the historic swashbuckling tradition as defined by the likes of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and R.L. Stevenson.

Also note: This post was not written in any way to promote the biblically illegitimate vocation of piracy. It just so happens that the dashing style of music historically used to romanticize piracy is one that is very energetic and enjoyable.

Though I usually judge a film’s music based on how well it matches and strengthens its individual film, I am making an exception for this post, and am ranking the following five soundtracks based on how well the music stands on its own. Remember this, because otherwise my list will won’t make much sense.

5 – Treasure Planet – James Newton Howard
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I was not expecting a soundtrack this good or this fun from a film this crummy, but I love surprises (half of the time) — chances are this is one of those soundtracks that will lay claim to permanent residency on your ipod’s playlist.
My favorite aspects of this soundtrack are:

– A number of recognizable themes and motifs (not so common these days) that are really pretty good
– Well executed and clean orchestration that successfully incorporates a number of ethnic Irish and modern instruments to form some excellent instrumental textures
– With the exception of the two songs at the beginning, a very balanced and diverse track listing that sounds good from beginning to end.

Notable tracks from Treasure Planet:
12 Years later
Billy Bones
The Map
The Launch

4 – Hook – John Williams
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It’s very hard to place this anywhere besides #1 because –hey–it’s John Williams! As far as pirate music goes, this may not be the most definitive or representative score out there, and it’s arguable whether it should even be classified as pirate music at all. And it’s not even one of Williams’ best scores, but Williams’ duds are usually more masterful than most composers’ masterpieces.

Of the five films mentioned, this may contain the most masterfully crafted and complete melodies and it’s probably the best score to study and observe in the context of the film because no one (living or otherwise) has a better understanding of the relationship between music and film than Williams. If that were the contest there wouldn’t even be a runner-up. He is in a league all his own.

Notable tracks from Hook:
Prologue (Williams sure knows how to buckle a swash)
Presenting the Hook
You are the Pan

3 – The Sea Hawk – Erich Wolfgang Korngold
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In the world of piratical film music, the first step in determining whether or not a score is worth its sea-salt is by seeing how well it measures up to this 1940 release. If it can’t come close, then forget it. OK, maybe not every pirate score has been judged that way, but they often are because the music for The Sea Hawk has been so influential in defining this genre.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a transplant from the Austrian music scene applauded by the likes of Strauss, Mahler and others, moved to the US in 1935 to escape Hitler’s takeover of his native land. That same year he wrote his very first film score for Captain Blood (another swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn), which proved to be an excellent testing ground for Erich to play with the “pirate sound” which he would take to new heights five years later with The Sea Hawk. Though he is best known for The Adventures of Robin Hood (yet another rollicking Flynn feature), this is arguably Korngold’s single best work for film.

Notable tracks from The Sea Hawk:
Main Title
Doña Maria and Capt. Thorpe / Elizabeth’s throne room
Condemned to the Galley / Doña Maria’s Song
Escape from the Galley / Fight on Deck / “Strike for the Shores of Dover”

2 – Shipwrecked (called Håkon Håkonsen outside the US) – Patrick Doyle
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It usually takes a film composer several tries before he really comes into his own as a veteran of the musical score, but Patrick Doyle wrote like one right from the start with Henry V, his first feature film outing. Disney’s summer b-release Shipwrecked marked his second, the soundtrack for which has become very difficult to obtain for a reasonable sum due to the limited popularity of the film.

Shipwrecked’s strong points are its strong melodic approach and the smaller, more intimate set of instruments Doyle used to set the tone for the film and match its (intended) period feel. These days it seems like every score is trying to be bigger and louder than the others, so by contrast a smaller sound can be very refreshing and striking to the listener. Be sure to look out for very economical and effective use of the classical orchestra, with emphasis on the strings.

Notable tracks from Shipwrecked:
Opening Titles
Off to Sea
The Chase

1 – Cutthroat Island – John Debney
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This film is so bad that when it was released in 1995 it was given the black spot by critics and moviegoers alike, finishing with an abysmal $10 million box office haul when about $200 million would have been required for it to break even.

In the rush to forget the film, John Debney’s brilliant score fell by the wayside and was relegated to the wastebins of cinematic history where it collects dust and appears on ebay every now and then. But now that everyone has forgotten the film, it should be safe to bring the soundtrack back into the light and enjoy it for its own merits, which are legion.

Is the soundtrack for Cutthroat Island:

Over the top? Likely to make you run off to sea? Filled with exaggerated bravado and an overblown sense of reckless adventurism? Fun and rowdy? Eschewed by the critics and musical academia who have labeled it as cheap, compromised and commercialized musical entertainment?

Yes. Otherwise it wouldn’t make #1 on this list!

Notable tracks from Cutthroat Island:
Main title: Morgan’s ride
To the bottom of the sea (great intro)
It’s only Gold/End credits

Honorable mention – Muppet Treasure Island – Hans Zimmer
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I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hans Zimmer’s first pirate score, Muppet Treasure Island. Just don’t listen past the first two tracks and you won’t be disappointed.
I know this is getting repetitive, but this is also a very hard-to-find soundtrack. I wonder why…

Free Sheet Music online at the IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project)

Posted on May 8, 2009 at 4:27 pm, by Ben


I wish this resource filled with over 28,000 public domain scores had existed back in my piano playing days, but I still find it helpful for a number of reasons.

If you are a student of composition, I recommend you go to the IMSLP and download some of the full orchestral scores hosted on the site, and study them while listening to an mp3 of the actual piece. This has been helpful to me in the past because the sheet music shows you exactly which orchestral actions create which results. “Ah… so that’s how Tchaikovsky got the woodwinds to sound that way….”

How to Study a Film Score – Part 1: Why Study?

Posted on May 7, 2009 at 4:08 pm, by Ben


“Students’ questions are always very pointed about ‘How do you do this, how do you do that, how do you write in these styles, etc.’ My response is always to ask, ‘Have you dissected the popular songs of all the eras to find out what makes them work? Have you analyzed them to find out what the chord progressions are, what the melodic tricks are, what chord tones on what chords created a certain sound in a certain era? And can you sit down and write a song in that style because you have spent hundreds of hours dissecting those songs?’ And they say, ‘Not yet.’ Well, I have. I have spent thousands of hours dissecting and playing those songs. It’s a matter of craft, it’s a matter of study.”
~ Alf Clausen, Film and TV composer

Great music takes a great deal of hard work to create. It won’t just “come,” no matter what your music teacher says about “letting the music flow through you”. Music is not a spirit. Music is a medium of communication and as composers we need to learn to direct the vast amount of communicative potential it possesses. We can learn how to do this through careful observation of creation, hard work, diligent study and academic humility. Proverbs tells us that “the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Pro 10:4) and “The desire of the sluggard puts him to death, For his hands refuse to work;” (Pro 21:25), so why do we think we can experience great musical success if we don’t work for it? We live in a world where reality is defined by God rather than man, and if we want to succeed in it we need to live according to the principles of creation that He has placed therein, such as: “Whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (Gal 6:7)

If you don’t sow, don’t expect to reap.

It is interesting to note that in times past this (correct) attitude towards honest toil used to be the culturally accepted norm, even in “artistic” fields. Rushdoony points this out in his article “Genius”:

“In Christian Europe, the artist was not an artist in the modern sense. He was a craftsman, an artisan, and a businessman who was a specialist in his field. …The Christian artisan did his work like any other skilled specialist, without any pretensions.”
~ R.J.Rushdoony, from Roots of Reconstruction

Noted historian Paul Johnson has this to say about Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), a Christian artisan who arguably became the most influential musical figure of the last millennium:

“Bach was by far the most hardworking of the great musicians (emphasis mine), taking huge pains with everything he did and working out the most ephemeral scores in their logical and musical tonality, everything written down in his fine, firm hand as though his life depended on it—as, in a sense, was true, for if Bach had scamped a musical duty, or performed it with anything less than the perfection he demanded, he clearly could not have lived with himself. It is impossible to find, in any of his scores, time-serving repetitions, shortcuts, carelessness, or even the smallest hint of vulgarity. He served up the highest quality, in performance and composition, day after day, year after year, despite the fact that his employers, as often as not, could not tell the good from the bad or even from the mediocre.”
~ Paul Johnson, from the book, Creators

Consider Bach’s theory on academic success:

“I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.”

Here’s some food for thought:

bach-190If Bach, who did not have as great a wealth of musical content to learn from, or technologies as advanced as we have to benefit from today, was able learn so much about music in his 65 years—couldn’t we (theoretically) have just as much influence on the course of music history as he did?


At least, this is what I’ve been told by several musicians upon their first hearing that I was an aspiring composer. They’ve informed me that there is no possible way I could ever be as good as Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. It’s just…impossible. From the perspective of my flesh, this is a convenient lie because my ego would rather believe my music is shoddy because I’m inherently under-privileged than because I’m a lazy student. Ouch. Were these above-mentioned men providentially granted gifts and abilities by God to be proficient in music? I believe so… but I also believe that any one of them would be deeply offended if you suggested he achieved that level of proficiency without having to work at it.

Hard work is distasteful to many, so it’s not surprising that scores of musicians today embrace an emotional, mystical and spiritualistic viewpoint that dismisses music-as-craft requiring hard work and industry to achieve excellence in it—because excellence is arbitrary!

Fact: If you want to write for films, the going will be tough.

There is no such thing as an easy path to musical greatness, and the relativistic “I just gotta wait for the right mood to hit” attitude is going to be completely unacceptable to any good director because a wise filmmaker understands that composition is a matter of craft, it’s a matter of study.

Will I ever be as masterful a musical craftsman as Bach? Beethoven? …John Williams? That’s really hard to imagine, but if I convince myself that that’s impossible and if I never strive after excellence with as much unrelenting dedication as they did, I never can be.