Composition Tip #25: Film Music!

John Williams

John Williams

English: Jerry Goldsmith conducting London Sym...

Jerry Goldsmith

David Raksin

David Raksin

Miklós Rózsa

Miklós Rózsa


Bernard Herrmann

Bernard Herrmann

Listen to film music. A lot of film music!

A lot of film music is among the most interesting and imaginative of the 20th century – they’re just aren’t any scores (listen and transcribe your own!).

Flexibility is or should be the ultimate goal of every musician and composer, and there is no one more musically flexible than a film composer, who has to be ready to compose a jazz theme one moment, a symphonic score the next, a chase scene the next, a haunting shakuhachi theme after that, and make the timing fit to the tenth of a second. Nobody has to have bigger ears and more composing chops than a film composer.

Read books on the history of film music, learn about Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin, Jerry Goldsmith, Miklos Rozsa, John Williams, and many more.

Resolve to learn film scoring at some point: click tracks, timing sheets, condensed scores and orchestrating, and of course all manner of computer and electronic music sequencing and sound manipulation.

Most of all, listen to a lot of film music. Take notes. Transcribe whatever catches your ear as worthy of emulating, copying, imitating, absorbing. Listen for timbres (colors),  orchestrations (combinations of sounds), voicings, chords, chord progressions, rhythms, ways to convey visual impressions in music (how do the greats score: tragedy? Joy? A sunset? Imminent danger? High energy? A peaceful, bucolic scene? Love? Playfulness? A majestic landscape? A historical era? A foreign location (Paris. London. Rome. Beijing. Rio. North pole. Moscow. Tahiti. Cuba. Nairobi. Cairo. Scotland. Madrid)?

If you’re between commissions, you could well spend the down time sitting down with a soundtrack and seeing how much you can learn from it.

Build that composer’s compost pile with film music!


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David Newcomb’s Gems

vibDave Newcomb is a composer who writes for percussion (and performs a mean vibraphone) and electronic music. I really enjoy his YouTube Channel– the many examples of short compositions. Very inspiring! Thanks, Dave!

Composition Tip #24: Program Notes!


(Photo credit: jjpacres)

If you have published a work in any form, make sure that the publisher (even if the publisher is you) gets copies of your new work off to as many music reviewers as possible (for instance, just about every instrument has an instrumental society that has a journal that has a section devoted to reviewing newly published works). It’s always been a mystery to me why the vast majority of published compositions seem to have no information on the composer or any words from the composer on the work. Make sure that your publisher includes both.


Composition Tip #23: Systems

regolith graphic score

(Photo credit: g.rohs)

Sometimes ‘systems’ or techniques or styles or rules can make it easier to compose – but be ready to abandon the system for the good of the piece at any moment.

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Composition Exercise #1: Motion!

Motion involves change in position, such as in...

Pick an instrument, any instrument. You might start with an instrument that either 1) you play or 2) somebody you know plays – so that you can get feedback on what you come up in this exercise as well as new ideas to solve the problem.

It’s not a problem, really. Just an effect: creating the feeling of motion. Motion, in general, means fast notes. Every instrument has things that it can do easily, i.e. move between notes quickly. Your task, should you decide to accept it is to create some brief motion passages for your instrument of choice. This may mean a bit of research (try it out yourself, have a friend try it, check orchestration books, look through scores). When you find one (shouldn’t be too hard), don’t stop looking. Look for more. If you discover, for example, that you can get a feeling of motion simply by having a violin play 16th notes on one string, that’s a good start. Keep going. What if, then, the player puts down a finger and thus a new pitch for every group of 4? 2 fingers in alternation? Ditto, moving up and down the fingerboard? What about moving the bow between sul ponticello and sul taste? (color effects) Different registers? Add glisses? Add another player on another string? Add lower strings? Ditto, on mostly open strings? Ditto, playing triplets against the duple 16th note feel?

You see how quickly you can, with a little imagination, generate all kinds of ways to create the sense of motion.

Go and go on your chosen instrument. Go for quantity! Come back tomorrow and come up with even more! Ask players, let them inspire you to more, more.

OK. That’s one instrument. Start again with another one.

Continue until you have notes on all instruments that you know about and/or have any access to.

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Composition Tip #22: If You Meet the Buddha in the Road, Kill Him

Gautama Buddha @ Home

(Photo credit: Merlijn Hoek)

“If you meet Buddha in the road, kill him” goes the old Zen koan. I take this to mean: beware of excessive adulation of the Big Experts. Listen and learn from all the experts, all the books and articles and blogs (oh, my!). But don’t let them stop you from making up your own rules, finding your own way. You path to success in composition (and many other things in life) will not be the same as your teacher’s, your colleague’s, Beethoven’s, or mine. Learn what you can from every source, but follow your own instincts as to where your talent is most at home. You will not succeed by trying to be a carbon copy of anyone else (although it’s fine to imitate for a while to learn).

As the saying goes – be yourself; everyone else is taken.

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Game On!

Video Game Timeline
Video Game Timeline (Photo credit: Emilie Ogez)

The American Composers Forum is announcing a workshop in writing for Video Games:

Game On! An Insider’s Guide to Video Game Scoring

It will be held April 13 & 14 at the McNally Smith College of Music in St Paul, MN. Sessions will be led by award-winning video game composers Lennie Moore and Jason Graves.

“Over the course of the weekend, participants in GAME ON! will get a unique glimpse into video game composition, from conception through realization. The sessions will be designed to provide the technical—as well as practical—information needed to launch and sustain a career in this industry. In addition to the workshops, special events will include a “role play” session featuring Sean McMahon and game developers from Graveck Interactive, and a concert featuring a string quartet performing transcriptions of video game scores composed by Lennie Moore and Jason Graves.”

Lennie Moore
Lennie Moore
More information is available here.
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Composition SetUp #2: Aliens Landing!



English: Picture of Maytag Dairy Farms, Newton...This composition set-up is in puzzle form. There are lots of right answers. The point is to make you come up with creative solutions.

Here it is:

The film is beginning (before credits – this is the first thing the audience sees/hears). The scene is summer in rural Iowa, around dusk. Then: aliens landing!


1. Compose music for the quiet, bucolic setting; for our puzzle here, just list some possible ways (what to use, how to use it) to do this. About 10-15 seconds ought to do it.


Composition Tip #21: Workshop Your Music

Workshop Weekend, Mar-2012

(Photo credit: maltman23)

Your composition is not really finished until you have had some sessions working with a performer (or group) where you bring the piece to life, work on the details in the real world. Pieces always benefit from tweaking – making small improvements – that are only possible in live rehearsals. Ideas that seemed brilliant in your mind or on paper or were so slick when Finale played all the parts sometimes don’t cut it when actual people are playing the parts, and hearing the piece live may give you all kinds of new ideas. Encourage players to suggest ways to make their parts more playable (watch out for their tendency to want to macho through everything without changes, however). Sometimes parts have to be difficult, but you can save a lot of needless suffering by making little changes that make the performer’s job easier or balance chords or timbres, and so on.

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Composition Tip #20: Just Show Up

Note as

Write every day. Something. Anything. 4 bars of whole notes! Anything! No excuse! Momentum and consistent effort is the most important thing. You get 12 gold stars for writing anything (just show up!); only 1 silver star for any the amount. The minimum you need for a piece is a tempo, a meter, and an instrumentation. Short is good. A lot of short exercises are, in fact, not only a good way to get going, but also a good way to experiment with new stuff: styles, techniques, instruments. Practice writing what you don’t know yet.

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