A Mini-Course In Music for Films

For Class #10

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

 E-Mail: nhollyn [at] cinema.usc.edu

E-Mail: elizabethmoody [at] gmail.com



By Mark Slater

This section is devoted to both the technical aspects of composing music to film and some of the aesthetic considerations.


Spotting the Film

Working with what should be the Fine Cut of a film (the final edited version), this is the point in the film-making process when the composer really becomes involved in the project. Ideally in a meeting with the Director and Music Editor, decisions are made when and where music should be in the film. The Music Editor should then be in a position to type up the Cue Sheets or Timing Breakdown Notes which detail the main action, with reference to the film's Time Code and the cumulative time of the cue (Cue Time).

For example, for the film What Makes Flying So Easy here is my own breakdown of the first music cue called 1M1 (Reel 1 Music cue 1). Cue Time is in minutes & seconds. ABS (Absolute Time) is the Time Code in Hours, Minutes, Seconds and Frames.

[Some cue sheets are more detailed than this (though this is only a 24 second cue and some are less detailed]

NAME What Makes Flying So Easy (25 fps) Cue # 1M1
START 00:00:04:17
Begins: FADE IN after title screen






MS of man in bed asleep



Starts swimming movement



Stops suddenly



CUT to MCU man turning on side






Lifts head



Head hits pillow



CUT to MS of Park. Music out by this point.


Bars & Beats

Before writing a note, the composer must lay out the bars on manuscript and work out the tempo. If a decision has been made to hit an event in the film say 20 seconds into the cue, it is obviously necessary to work out how many bars (measures) are needed to fill up to that point. It is the metronome mark (beats per minute) and the meter (beats per bar) that determine this. For instance, at metronome mark 120 (120 beats per minute or 2 beats per second) and 4/4 meter (4 beats per bar), 20 seconds is 10 bars with the hit coming on the first beat of the next bar. Clearly if one chose a different tempo or metronome mark, the result would be different and there are an infinite number of variations that can fill up 20 seconds of space.

So how do you choose your tempo and meter? Clearly the composer must have some feel for what they are going to do with the music at this point. Personally, I get musical ideas played by an orchestra in my head, while watching the clip. I then work out what sort of tempo I'm imagining and apply discipline to the concept by transferring it to manuscript.



When writing for a live studio recording, the method by which you get the players to synchronize with your timing calculations varies according to circumstance and preference. For a start, keeping the tempo steady is the best way of avoiding problems. Sudden changes in tempo in the one cue are bound to cause problems and waste studio time and money.

The easiest method for all concerned, is the Click Track. Basically all the musicians and conductor have headphones with a metronome beat clicking away. This keeps the music nice and tight with the picture, but this computer precision is the antithesis of musical expression. In normal circumstances, human musicians never keep exactly in time and the overall result is more natural and musical.

In order to achieve a more musical performance, Free Timing is used. Here the responsibility falls on the conductor to keep time using a large "sweep" clock and usually a screening of the film as reference (though not always). The film will have certain marks superimposed on the film frames (streamers and punches) which guide the conductor where he or she should be in the score. The streamer is a line that moves steadily from left to right across the screen, warning the conductor of a point in the film that must be hit, like a hard cut. When the streamer reaches the far side, there is a bright flash from a punch (originally quite literally a hole punched in the film) indicating the point the conductor should be in the score. Punches may also continue like a metronome, guiding the conductor as to the tempo. It used to be a laborious process to do this, requiring a special print of the film, but with digital technology and computers it is easy enough today.

Most music cues will use a combination of techniques. For instance, the cue may start with a steady click, move into a Free Timing section and back into strict tempo. One thing is certain in such a case - conductors really have to know what they are doing.

There are no hard and fast rules about where the music should start and end. A few conventions persist, like initiating music at the end of a pivotal line of dialogue or on a hard cut to an action sequence. Early films, like Casablanca and Gone with the Wind have music virtually all the way through. In modern films, music is used more sparingly. Jerry Goldsmith points out his preference for the latter approach - "I feel that if there is a constant use of music, or too much music, it will eventually vitiate the needed moments."

Music has a noticeable impact after a period of silence. Watch the scene in Jurassic Park when the car is stuck in the tree. John Williams holds off on the music until almost the last moment. Also look at the scene in Forrest Gump, just before Forrest starts his big running phase. After the girl leaves in the taxi, we have almost total silence until the soft entrance of Alan Silvestri's music, and a magical moment it is too.

However, often the entrance of music can pass unnoticed unless the listener is really looking out for it. This is particularly so with dialogue sequences, when it is the aim of the composer to be unobtrusive. Personally, I believe that while music has a deep psychological effect on anyone who watches a film, the majority of the audience has little conscious awareness of it. It is the great magic of music to work on a subliminal level, manipulating our emotional response.

Though there was no copyright notice on the article, it was is reprinted from Mark Slater's Web Site located at: http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Screen/3463


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All material, except where noted, ©1999-2008 by Norman Hollyn. Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Send me an e-mail at my office
Last Modified - September 30, 2008