How Is Film Music Composed? Soundtrack from Vision to Completion

How is film music composed? Making film music is not only an art, but a highly organized endeavor. The following editor will introduce the five most important work steps of film soundtrack:

As a film composer, I have to position myself in film scenes, interpret them and compose appropriate music. Ultimately, my work should generate an emotional response in the viewer.

Film Project: Understanding Vision

Behind every good movie there is a strong team. Film composers are a big part of this and, in addition to musical talent, must have excellent social skills such as teamwork, good communication skills and, most importantly, an ability to take criticism. Important qualities, then, to be successful in music or to be a film composer.

Director and composer usually work closely together. This is how collaborations that take years or decades to build develop. Past examples include Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg and John Williams.

In addition to talent, the following skills are also important for film composers:

  • Communication: It is essential to understand the director’s expectations
  • Organization: the composer must manage his time and compositional structure
  • Discipline: The creation of a soundtrack is a huge endeavor, often meaning extensive revisions before the last note is set
  • Critical skills: the ability to self-reflect and accept criticism is an important quality for film composers

What is the point of this movie?

At the beginning of the film’s music, the composer and film director sit down to clarify the following questions: What is the purpose of this film, and who are we making it for? What is the target audience?
It makes all the difference whether the film is trying to attract as many viewers as possible to theaters or if it’s designed to serve a niche market. Hollywood productions have different goals than independent films.

Is this a movie with a big budget, or is it a movie with no budget? All of these will have an impact and affect the final result of the soundtrack.

How long should the movie be?

For film composers, the length of a film is important. Not only can the timing be better, but the arc of suspense can be thought out ahead of time, and maybe certain things can be pre-conceived. Hans Zimmer developed various music suites before editing was complete, which gave him early access to the film’s music catalog in post-production.

What genre does this movie fit into?

Of course, the style of film music depends on whether it’s written for a horror or a romance. Is it hilarious like a comedy, or dramatic like an action movie? Or is it even a mixture? Here, it will be decided what tone and atmosphere the music should ultimately create in the film.

What is the director’s vision?

The director certainly has his own vision for his films. What is he trying to express? What’s the news? How does he want to express in the film? Every director has his own style. At this point it is decided whether the director’s point of view and the composer’s point of view can be reconciled.

plan with the director

Once the director and composer have developed a common language, the actual production process begins. From here, the director gives the composer an overview and feel of how the music should sound and initial instructions for implementation.

understand the director’s goals

There are different types of directors. Some people just want the music to sound “cool” or “epic,” while others have fixed ideas about score. So, as a composer, you can expect everything there; from constructive comments to “do it” statements. Depending on the genre, the composer needs clear instructions or rough ideas here to develop a suitable sound. If both parties are talking to each other, things will go wrong.

Temporary Track: Placeholder Music

If the director already has a vision for how his film should sound, a temporary soundtrack is usually used. Temp tracks, well known from commercials and movies, simply don’t fit the movie – not in terms of length, tempo, arrangement or instrumentation choice. Film composers can use these as a guide. It often happens that such temporary tracks make their way into the finished film.

Communication with the director is the most important

In order to meet the director’s expectations, or in the best case, exceed them, communication between composer and director is fundamental. Every director has his own taste in music. Film composers and directors must agree on a common style here. At best, the director said, “I need a sound like The Dark Knight.” That would give the composers a basis for collaboration.

Positioning: Specify the scene to be dubbed

Spotting is the process by which the director and composer go through a rough cut of the film and determine where the music should be used. The tasks and functions that music takes on at the expected point are also discussed – music should be more supportive or driving. Therefore, timecodes are defined with annotations of musical characteristics.

Soundtrack: Film Score

The actual creation of film music begins with the soundtrack. Composers use so-called DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations). With this, he composes music on the computer at points previously determined by timecode. Well known DAWs are Cubase, Ableton, Logic or FL-Studio.

Release and Ideation

When a composer watches a film, the music is already being composed in his head. In the best cases, he even has a kind of schedule. The important thing is that each scene to be scored is a piece of the puzzle of the overall suspense arc. Therefore, each scene should fit into the overall concept of the soundtrack. Answering the following questions can help:

  • Is the range of ingredients known? (film length, number of scenes to score)
  • Was the director’s vision properly understood?
  • What should the music for each scene say?

But the most important question is:

How does the music in each scene affect the structure of the overall score?

scene structure

Each scene can have a separate suspense arc and be coherent. Usually a movie scene consists of three parts.

  • heightened tension
  • climax
  • reconciliation

During the “increased tension” phase, the music’s listening range should not be overpowering or drown out the dialogue. Soft strings are usually the best choice here. In many cases, music is also completely suppressed. “Climax” dramatizes the conflict—whether it’s important information or physical action, like a hit or a chase. “Transition” is defined by the fact that the tension in a scene is slowly released, or the momentum takes over to the next scene and points to further conflict.

Completion: Symphony Orchestra Performs

If a film composer completes his composition in a DAW and it is approved by the director, then it is considered complete. In big Hollywood productions, the notes are transcribed into a score and then played by an orchestra. For smaller productions, the production is done directly in the DAW (no orchestra).

In the example below, you can see how the soundtrack for the film Inception was created. It’s interesting how the responsible composer, Hans Zimmer, worked closely with director Christopher Nolan to create not only a visual work of art, but an acoustic one as well.

I hope I have given you some insight into the production process of film music. Feel free to message me if you have any questions or suggestions.

If you’re a director or filmmaker looking for a soundtrack for your project, I can provide you with a commissioning service.

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