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.


  • Wow, great article! I’ll be looking forward to the next ones, for sure.

    Posted by Caleb on May 11th, 2009 at 7:33 pm
  • I am in total agreement with everything you said. I started piano about a year and six months ago, and because my teacher believes in VERY hard work and I had a true desire to play and learn, I have gone all the way up to level 5. I was beginning to give up a little, though, so your article has been most helpful. I, too, will be looking forward to more.

    Posted by Kay on May 12th, 2009 at 8:02 am
  • I also agree with what you wrote, but I also noticed that the vast majority of todays composers have the tendency to keep scores to themselves believing that it gives them a competitive advantage, I guess… which it doesn’t. As such it is sometimes VERY difficult to get (movie) scores to properly study.

    I would for example do a lot to get the (orchestral) score of LoTR, however, it’s pretty much impossible…

    So, I think that hard work and studying existing music to learn from it is very important but it is something that is made a lot harder than it should be.

    Just my 2c

    PS: That is why most of my work is and will always be fully open sourced…

    Posted by Remo on May 17th, 2009 at 3:52 am
  • Remo,
    I too would love to get my hands on the complete sheet music scores of many of these films, but the reasons why most sheet music never gets published can be due to any number of totally understandable factors:

    (1) A “finished” version of the score never really existed– half was sequenced on the computer (no sheet music) and/or there were constant revisions of the music up to and during the recording sessions
    (2) Ownership and copyright complications over who owns the printing rights for the music, potential legal trouble with contract violations, etc.
    (3) Union problems, such as unpaid royalties, compensation and added legal hassle
    (4) The studio doesn’t see market interest that would justify the time and expense necessary to compile, revise, condense, print and market the score. This is the most common reason.

    I’m not aware of any composers that are intentionally keeping their sheet music from publication, because not only do most composers not have any control over the music once it’s finished, I think this would seem to be contrary to the desire that most film composers have to get their music out to as many people as possible. All things considered, their work is very accessible. In fact, it’s more accessible today than at any point in music history (to our knowledge) because we have recordings. Claiming access to an incredibly wide range of high-fidelity recordings is a luxury composers in time past only had if they could be present for a concert, which was a relatively uncommon occurrence.

    Sheet music of a piece can be great to have, but not having it won’t keep you from breaking the piece down and analyzing it by ear (which would probably be a better exercise for most musicians anyway).

    Posted by admin on May 17th, 2009 at 10:40 pm
  • some interesting points here. It should be noted however that Bach wasn’t a blip on the screen untill 100 years after his death when his music was rediscovered by Felix Mendelssohn. Sometimes you never know if your work is really going to make a difference until after you’re gone. You might end up working and toiling your whole life, and never see the pay off. But thats not the point. The pay off isn’t the point. if a person keeps looking for a payoff, and it doesn’t come, they’re prone to discouragement.

    One reason some would say that no modern composer is capable of having the vast impact on music today as did say Bach or Beethoven, is partly due to the circumstances music played in society during their day versus music’s place in society today. In the iPod age, you’re more likely to make a lasting impression as an auto-tuned rapper than a classical composer. One must also be cognizant of the fact that the music composed by say Bach or Beethoven was largely considered “pop” music of their day. Only did the big distinction between classical and pop occur in the later part of the 19th century. Now there’s a distinction, a social stigma and so many other things that contribute to whether a modern composer could have that sort of far reaching impact. While we have unprecedented access, we also have lesser quality music education, as well as inundation or even over saturation of music.

    all in all.. good points here.

    Posted by Danny on December 13th, 2010 at 1:14 pm