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Film Independent Wed 10.24.2018

Know the Score: How Directors Can (Effectively) Communicate with Their Composer

Each month in Know the Score, composer Aaron Gilmartin will step out of the scoring stage and explore, in detail, some important aspect of movie music. After all, film is as much about what you hear as what you can see. 


As a composer, I desperately want to understand what a director wants music to do for her film. When working with a filmmaker, sometimes all of our references will be the same. Other times they’re different, and we have to invent a new shared language together. I’ll try anything, even dance or pantomime the rhythm and intensity that I imagine for the music (luckily there’s no video of this—that I know of.)

Point is, should you ever feel queasy or self-conscious about trying to describe your musical ideas to a composer just remember: there’s no right or wrong way. Here are some ideas—ones I’ve found to be effective—about how you, the director, can communicate with your composer to get the score your projects needs.



Where to start?

Deadlines. Let the composer know when you need the music delivered. Work backward from your deadline date to decide when the first, second and final drafts of the score need to be in hand, and be sure to build in extra time for additional revisions.

How much music. Both director and composer should consider how many musical cues and how many overall minutes of music the film needs. This is what sets the pacing for the film score and is the starting place for composer and director to understand one other’s vision for the sound of the film.

Tone. The tone of the score can intensify the tone of the film in general, or can create tension by playing against what we see onscreen. If the film’s pace is slow, the music can slow down to emphasize the drama or—conversely—keep the scene moving with music at a faster tempo. For each cue, let the composer know if you want to feel the music work with or against the pace of the film.

Budget. Give it to ‘em straight. The budget will determine how the score will be produced and your composer will be able to explain their recording process to you. Decide before your first conversation what your music budget is. If the funding is still in development, let the composer know the budget may increase.



Waiting for the call… “Do we need any music here?”

We’ve already talked about spotting sessions in a previous post. You and your composer either have a shared language or you have to create one. As director you might have very specific ideas for the music, but you still need to find a common vocabulary for sharing these with your composer. Words like “danceable,” “frenetic,” “peaceful,” “quiet” and “surprising.” Come prepared to talk about how you want to feel while listening to the score. A good composer will help fill in the blanks.

Does A Scene Need Music? Start here. If a scene is working without a score don’t add one. There are, of course, plenty of downright genius scenes in movies full of emotional power that don’t have any music at all. Like this one out from Alien:

Sometimes, drama is more powerful without music—and music is most impactful surrounded by silence.

How to talk about how much music. Asking “How much music?” will include asking “How many musical cues (or entrances)?” How many overall minutes of music do you expect? A film can benefit from very little music or come to life with bombastic entrances and lush textures.

What to Say To A Composer About Tone. Here you use the common vocabulary established from your first conversation about the tone of the score to go through the film, noting where the music will enter and what it’s purpose and tone will be. Check out the masterful use of music to heighten drama in a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey:

The kind of effect that the music will have will be achieved by the composer and in the mixing process. Don’t worry if you don’t know about these areas yet—you can use your common vocabulary to talk about how you want to feel when you hear the music and your composer will help you decide which tone will achieve the right effect.



Keep that finger poised on the fader

In general, composers do not like to hear temp music—the temporary music a director or music editor will use to cut the film to, often borrowed from other film scores. But newly composed music can move within the dynamics of a scene.

By all means, let your composer know when you want them to create something new and when you want them to stick close to the temp track. In fact, the example above from 2001 is an example of temp music that actually stayed in the picture. You can hear the music by Alex North intended (but never used) for the film’s opening here:

Pretty different, right?



Let’s hope your collaboration doesn’t come to blows

Most of what you need to say to a composer, you already know how to say. Some useful phrases to remember:

“A lot or a little.” This is very helpful. Should the music create big feelings or play more of a supportive role? Are there too many musical moments or too few?

“It sounds like this.” Not ideal, but it is very powerful to play some music you might be thinking of—or the other way around. When all else fails, I’ll offer to play YouTube clip of scores or other music that are similar to what I think a director wants.

“I’m not sure what I want.” Don’t hesitate to step back and let the composer create. A composer will usually be delighted to create new music without a temp track.

“I want this to feel/be.” Many common vocabulary words are useful with music. As in: “I want this to be faster” and “I want this to be sadder.” The music is there to support the action on screen and the words you use can either simply describe the action we’re watching or be in contrast to it. As in the 2001 example, you might say: “We’re looking at space, but I want to contrast that with dance-like, joyful music.”

This Isn’t Working For Me. We don’t need any music terminology to express this. Just let the composer know it’s not working. They will then need to ask you: why not? Using the previous example from above, you can you can start with: I want this to feel like… Rinse, repeat.

When talking to composers at a high level, there are some specific words that you’ll need to learn… eventually. If you’re a musician, some musical terminology can also help. But most composers are good at helping to tease out a number of reference points in everyday vocabulary, imagery or by using other musical examples. Just keep talking and have fun and you’ll find a language for the music you need.


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