If you’re into film music, you’re probably familiar with composers like John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Hans Zimmer, Henry Mancini and Trent Reznor. You’re probably also familiar with the position of a music supervisor in film and TV. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy and This Is Us have helped catapult artists into the mainstream and in the process, created a whole new genre of sync music. Artists like The X Ambassadors, Imagine Dragons, Feist, and Christina Perri, to name a few have all seen big boosts to their careers with very visible and lucrative film and TV placements. And while we’d all love to have our songs in the closing scene of This Is Us or in the credits of the new Viola Davis film, there is a space between source music and the scored music that is much more open and accessible to the up and coming songwriter or composer. I have written lots of music for these exact scenarios, including 5 songs in a current Netflix movie, lots of songs for content pieces for brands like Lucky Jeans and music for short films currently making the festival rounds. What does it take to effectively write songs to picture? There are a few key elements to nailing what I like to call “source-score”. Below I’ll break down the top five things to know if you want to get into writing music for these particular situations.
Understand the essence, feeling, emotion and vision behind the scene
If you are writing to a specific scene, do as much homework as you can on what the story is, what the emotion of the scene is and how the music can support it. In many cases, there will be temp music already in a particular scene, listen carefully to it but don’t get stuck to it. This is where understanding the motive or feeling that the director is going for can be really helpful. Sometimes its the sound of strings that the director or music supervisor wants but other times its the feeling they get from strings that is what they’re really looking for. It's often your job as the songwriter or composer to determine what they’re looking for. Become fluent in as many genres of music as you can so that you can help translate what your collaborators are saying into actual sounds. Just because the temp music in the scene has an old-school soul sound to it, doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have live horns or old-sounding drums on your song. Its all about intention. Ask good questions of your director, music supervisor or the person you are working for. If they don’t have good answers, do some experimenting. Don’t spend too much time on an initial idea though, especially if you’re not sure what they’re looking for yet. Work quickly to get them something so you can get a quick yes or no. This will help create momentum for you and as with all things creative, momentum is your friend.
Play to your strengths
When I first get a brief for a piece of music I always dial in my go-to sounds first. These are samples, instruments, genres, and tempos that I know I can create something great with. I always start with sounds that I am familiar with so that I can start making music right away. I don’t want to lose time searching for sounds or styles, I can change the sounds that I’m using later (which is why I always start with soft synths and samples first) and I will be able to make changes more quickly at the beginning of the process. I will often end up recording a lot of real instruments for a song but most often, I start by programming everything. It's extremely rare that a piece of music for a film spot doesn’t go through many changes before its complete. Everything from the tempo, key, and the arrangement to the melody and principles instruments can change at almost any point of the creative process. If you are very comfortable playing piano and keyboards, start there. Build a track up with great keyboard sounds and melodies and supplement it with drum programming or other instruments I am great at coming up with grooves, basslines, drum parts, and rhythmic things so I typically start there and then add keys and other instruments. Again, its all about momentum. You can always make something a little more pop or a little more rock etc but it’s important to start strong with something that sounds like something. Go for a specific genre and stick to it. It's very difficult to make sense of a song or piece of music, especially in a film context that doesn’t sound like a specific genre. Remember, the music is playing a role in the film but there is a lot more going on that the viewer has to make sense of.
Be Flexible- things change, people change
This is a big one. There have been many times where I have written a piece of music for a scene and the director or supervisor loved it, only to have it change somewhat drastically right at the end of the process. This is another reason why I do my best not to labor over something too long in the initial phase of writing. If you’re not inspired by a particular musical idea, move on quickly and try something else. My goal is to find something that feels fresh, authentic and appropriate for the scene and quickly as possible. This leaves me not only time but also the energy and perspective to make effective changes as the process continues. If you work too long on an initial idea, often you lose the ability to listen objectively and make the changes that are being asked to make. As a creative, I can also get attached to my ideas and the more attached I get, the harder it is to change things. If you work quickly, with focus and clarity, there will be less chance of you getting emotionally attached to an idea.
Be organized- keep great notes, keep things simple
Beyond having great ideas as a writer, keeping things organized will separate you from the rest of your field. As an example, I will often go through 15-20 revisions of a particular piece of music for a scene. This includes not only different versions that evolve but also different options that could be used depending on the edit of the scene or something proceeding or following that scene. It's extremely important to label your files clearly and keep things organized in folders and hard drives. It's also very important to save each the multitrack session for each version of a piece of music. I’ve had times where I was on version 10 of something and a director wanted to go back and use version 6. If I didn’t have a “save as” for version 6 I would have been screwed! Sometimes a collaborator just needs to hear something changed to know that the old version was better. This happens often, so keep great notes and keep things simple. Too often I’ve made the mistake of telling myself “I’ll go back and re-label those tracks later”. Well, guess what? Later was the deadline to turn in all the tracks, versions stems of the mixes and writing and publishing info, all at the same time! Let’s just say you’ll save yourself having to stay up all night to meet a deadline if you label and organize things as you go.
Feedback is everything- learn how to receive it and how to adjust
This last concept sounds simple but it should not be overlooked. Taking criticism well is crucial to being employable as a composer and songwriter. I’ll be the first to admit, when it comes to my music, I naturally tend to take feedback personally. It can be difficult to separate myself from my work, especially when I am really proud of or attached to an idea. The tools that I have discussed previously all feed into this last point. Having clarity from the beginning of the process on what is expected of you, playing to your strengths, being flexible and being organized will all help you to keep perspective on your work and hopefully, will allow you to take feedback well. No matter how good you feel about your work, or how excited the people on the team might be, ask for feedback. How can I make this better? Good is good but great should always be the goal. Keep raising the bar for yourself and ask for feedback at every step of the process. This is the only way to grow consistently and effectively.
I hope these tips and tricks have illuminated the sometimes murky waters of writing music for film and TV. Good luck and happy writing!