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.


  • Very cool analogy. Looking forward to Part 3!

    In Christ,

    Ben C.

    Posted by Benjamin Coder on May 27th, 2009 at 2:48 pm
  • Great post. I’m thinking back to some of the films that really impacted me for one reason or another and most–if not all–had tremendous film scores. FIlm music is so fascinating.

    Posted by Alexandra on May 27th, 2009 at 6:13 pm
  • That was really interesting!
    I couldn’t agree more about music. It is key to movies 🙂

    Posted by Ëarwen on May 29th, 2009 at 10:25 am
  • Ben,

    Can you give examples of scores that fit in each of the three categories?


    Posted by Kyle Shepherd on May 29th, 2009 at 1:55 pm
  • Kyle,

    Every film’s story and music curve is going to be a little different, so I wasn’t as much trying to outline “The Three Types of Story Arc” as much as I was trying to create an illustration that would summarize my points about how music and film work together. There are story scenarios that look nothing like the charts I posted, which is why I wanted to prioritize getting to the heart of the issue, which is the relationship between score and script.

    I will be talking some about which scores fit their respective stories better in future posts, so keep watching the blog.

    Posted by admin on May 30th, 2009 at 2:10 pm
  • Nice illustration! I just visited this website for the first time and really enjoyed listening to the music you composed; especially the tracks “Birds”, “Flying Away” and Buccaneers”. One question. I know you obviously don’t just sit around and wait for an inspiration to hit you, so I’m wondering, what methods do you use to come up with a theme? Obviously your composing program allows you to add different layers of music in order to come up with the entirety of each piece,but again, how do you come up with the basic melody?

    Posted by Esther Bowman on June 4th, 2009 at 8:45 am
  • Hey Ben,

    Hope you are doing well. My friend you have mastered the art of movement in your composition. I L O V E the Pavane for Cello. This is the most realistic sampled cello I have ever heard. Is it sampled or real ?

    Your music is so beautiful. Great Job!

    Willem (Hein)

    Posted by Willem van Wyk on June 4th, 2009 at 9:37 pm
  • Thanks for the post! I quite agree with you; music ought to support the film, not overwhelm it or be just background filler. Our actors and our composers deserve better than that!

    What are your thoughts on the use of silence in film? For example, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, there essentially is no score (or at least as traditionally understood). Instead there is what I simply call “organized sound”, background noises (or lack of them) carefully crafted to underscore onscreen action and story contour. The result is sometimes extremely compelling and other times hilariously ironic. But that blend of irony and suspense as created through script, story, and music is the essence of a Hitchcock film. “Rear Window” would not be the same film had Hitch used composed music.

    That is just one example; I’ve thought about this a lot! Any insights for me?

    Posted by Molly on June 5th, 2009 at 4:38 pm
  • Esther,

    In my case, I work through the melody in my head and develop it there before it is ever performed or arranged for the orchestra. On a fundamental level, all composition has to take place in one’s head because the tools that we have are just that–tools… they do not compose music for you, but they help you in making the ideas you already have a physical reality.

    As far as methods go, the best starting place is to get familiar with a lot of good music. I also suggest that you try to learn a lot of that music by ear, because it forces you to think through a lot of the same questions the composer had to. Though this is contrary to a lot of modern composition training, I believe that because music is a craft, the better you understand that craft the better you will be able to communicate with it and –interestingly enough–your music will also be a lot more original.

    Posted by admin on June 5th, 2009 at 4:54 pm
  • Willem,

    Thank you for your kind words! I wish I could say that I had programmed a sampled cello to sound that good, but it is in fact a recording of a real cello.

    Posted by admin on June 5th, 2009 at 4:57 pm
  • Molly,

    Thank you for bringing this up–there are many examples of films I could mention that utilized silence wisely, but I’m planning on saving that for a future post on the use and power of well-placed silence in film, and the relationship is has with music.

    Posted by admin on June 5th, 2009 at 5:04 pm
  • Hello Ben!
    I was the girl who wanted to talk to you at Crossroads. Thanks for the info. I was wondering how I could get a copy of some of your music? I would really like End of the Empire if you could tell me how to get it that would be great! Thanks.

    Posted by Natalya on July 27th, 2009 at 5:39 pm
  • Natalya,

    The only music I have for sale at the moment is the Return of The Daughters Original Soundtrack, which is on currently on sale.

    In addition to that, offers my Michael Billing memorial as a free download.

    Posted by admin on July 31st, 2009 at 12:49 pm