How to Score a Film: Melody vs Mood
Have you ever watched the movie “Jaws” on mute? There’s something almost comical, at once animatronic, about the clunky robot approaching from below. Yet, introduce John William’s iconic, two-note ostinato, and the suspense is hypnotic, the fear paralyzing. In fact, Spielberg now credits this lasting score to “half of the success” of the film. This illustrates perfectly the purpose of composing music for a film.
When looking for a modern example of how to score a film, see the era-defining, oft-imitated brilliance of Hans Zimmer. Unlike Williams, Zimmer turns away from hummable, melodic motifs, instead setting the mood with slowly rising tension, building brass, pulsing bass and an atmosphere that seems to surround the viewer in the world of the film. Although elements of his style connect his body of work, (subtle roots, growing to epic crescendos), he masterfully blends genres to create the world we inhabit. (Remember Black Hawk Down, when the world-music of Somalia met with American rock n roll to juxtapose the foreign presence?)
The thread connecting these two composers, and any memorable score of a film, can be reduced to their “hookiness”. We may not be able to easily hum the Shepherd Tone employed by Zimmer in the fabulous Dunkirk score, unlike the William’s composed Star Wars theme, but there is no denying its singularity. It was so effective, there has been a slew of articles explaining the phenomenon he employed, as well as this great video. For more film scoring techniques check out this great channel.
Check out our cinematic playlist for more examples you can license.
Continue reading as we dive into Collaboration Vs Curation
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How To Score A Film:
Original Music – Collaboration Vs. Curation
Enough can’t be said of artists attacking the task of how to score a film together, heightening their productions in the process. One of our favorites, the Paul Thomas Anderson / Jonny Greenwood pairing, even has Zimmer in awe.
“Ok, I’ll just admit it, I was a bit starstruck. He is my favorite film composer”,
Zimmer recounts on their meeting to work on the Blue Planet 2 soundtrack.
In “There Will Be Blood”, we see an example of how to score a film for character. Sparse dialogue allows Plainview’s malevolence to come through Greenwood’s buzzing, jarring string arrangements. Our increasingly agitated protagonist is soundtracked by this relentless composition. As his appetite becomes all consuming, and his mind fragmented and chaotic, we are treated with frenetic pizzicatos and falling glissandos, eventually becoming the chaotic, dissonant, total embodiment of our protagonist.
Since hiring a well-known composer may be out of your film’s budget, consider looking for young producers. Every year aspiring musicians ask themselves how to get into writing music for film, and this new crop of talent holds hidden gems.
How to Score a Film: Curation
Music supervision is the role if how to score a film requires finding the perfect song. If the budget allows, licensing a well-known song can instantly create a memorable scene, and transform the listening experience of the song forever. For better or worse, (BETTER in this writer’s opinion), can we really listen to Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” without a grinning, sashaying, high fiving, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his newly swollen heart etched in our minds? (Note: If this malady eludes you, you may not have seen 500 Days of Summer).
How to Score a Film: Stock Music
Stock music is the easiest way to get something fast and cheap. Not ideal, but in a pinch, it can work. So, what does one look for in stock music? (For a quick refresher on what exactly stock music is, check out this previous Ritual Blog post.
How to Score a Film: Hookiness
As we have discovered, this memorable quality is singularly critical when answering how to score a film. The hook may be a melody, it may be a vibe, or it may be a juxtaposition. There are both precocious and seasoned producers creating long-lasting hooks in this arena, and if you discover an artist you love this way, it could be the beginning of a budding and personal collaborative relationship.
Whether your budget and time allow for original music, be it curated or composed as a partnership, or, you find a great substitute from a library, look for something that feels incredible when asking how to score a film. This is a chance to take a moving work and elevate it to the next emotional level. When done right, it can be the difference between a film being good, or legendary.
Ritual co-founder Matthew Lyall recently sat down with filmmaker and podcaster Noam Kroll to discuss film scoring on a budget on Noam’s podcast “Show Don’t Tell”. Have a listen here and check out Noam’s blog for tons of incredibly useful filmmaking tips at noamkroll.com .
For more inspiration check out our list of 8 Filmmakers You Should Follow.
Let us know your favorite film scores in the comments below, and follow us on Twitter for tips, tricks, and specials.