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"Composing down" to fit the material?


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Hello everyone,
yesterday in this post, @Mike Greene mentioned that sometimes when you score some material that isn't particularly pretentious, or doesn't need overly complex or experimental music, you the composer have to restrain yourself from making moves that, while sounding good, take the focus away from the material and onto the music only. I wanted to give this topic a thread of its own, mainly because I have had this kind of experience myself (in fact, not overdoing it is my most recurring battle when scoring stuff), and I'm curious about similar experiences other people may have had and the insights that can be garnered.

Do you have any anecdotes that involve a score that's way overblown w.r.t. the material? Are there any compositional moves that you desperately want to make, you know it's going to sound good, but you stop yourself because it'll also sound like too much? Any mental tips and tricks to run into this problem less often?

What I do to try to combat this is, I always make the overdone move, then wait a few hours and listen to it again. Usually, it sounds way out of place, and since it's from a few hours ago I'm no longer attached to that particular diminished chord, or to that random cimbasso burp while the other instruments sing Happy Birthday.

Then again, I am an amateur and I have no deadlines. Other people may not have a few hours to dedicate to this, so what's your go-to strategy?

Discuss, if you'd like. :D
I'm just a rookie still so I've had my share of "can you make that more low key, please?" or "can we make that less romantic?" I tend to flex and pretend I'm [big name composer] every chance I get, so I struggle with this sometimes. I suppose it goes away with experience.

It's easy to forget that [big name composer] does simpler, subtler underscore and less cinematic stuff too when a scene calls for it. It's a skill. After spending so many years trying to emulate that "film score sound" it can be difficult to NOT do that sometimes.

I've made some overblown choices that I am embarrassed about, sure, but sometimes the director liked those choices. So I tend to send my overblown stuff first. I find cutting things back from there is not a big deal (although it can hurt sometimes). Sometimes I've even had to add back some of the overblown stuff after cutting a piece back.

Sometimes it's easy to overdo stuff while both you and the director are in the process of trying to find the "sound" of the movie. Once you've found the general style, it's easier to make the rest of the music fit.

But, you wanted strategies. Hm. If you want my rookie advice, I'd say don't worry about it so much. Sometimes the overblown stuff works. If not, you'll have something to cut down into something that works. And no one else but you or the director will hear the first draft. :)

Another thing I've learned is: You as the composer will quickly get "tired" of the sound and try to make unique choices here and there just to spice things up for your own ears. I'd say don't. Stick to the sound you've established and trust that it will be fine once you hear the whole score together with the film.

Oh, and always have the story and characters and all that in mind. That stuff is like really important.
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I think that a lot of younger composers mistake the role of what film scoring actually is. This is never concert music where the aim is to overpower the scene and get all the attention by showing off how great the composer is. It is more a question of placing yourself in the scene, from the perspective of the characters and support their actions. All of this being orchestrated by the director's vision. You can always help by having a discussion with them but never with the goal of imposing your ideas.

I'll try making an analogy: my step-daughter is a gifted fashion designer. One of her job recently involved creating costumes for a play. One of the characters is a homeless bum and the job was to make him look the part. She dressed him with rags because her role was not to show how skilled she is in crafting intricate clothes with lots of details.

This is a service industry and the composer is a service provider. The story is what's important.
Just to clarify - when I wrote about "composing down," I was referring mostly to daytime TV, where the low budget nature of the sets and stories doesn't lend itself well to grand orchestral music, especially not epic cues.

The most blaring example for me was when I was asked to score a new theme for a court show where they wanted the show to have a more "important" feel. The "judge" was someone who took themselves very seriously, and didn't like that their show looked and sounded like all the other court shows.

So they hired a graphics guy to do a new open, and me to score it. The graphics were great, and I was excited, because the graphics screamed, "Here's your chance to go for it, Mike!" So I scored this orchestrally and made it semi-epic. (To my credit, I knew I couldn't make it too big.) In all modesty, it was great work. We both freaking nailed it, and the client was blown away.

And then. And then they inserted the open into an actual episode. An over-lit set that looks exactly like every other dopey court show, with the bailiff (who could pass for Barney Fife) calling the first case - a woman suing because the beauty shop botched her dye job. Our open was an absurd mismatch, and worse, it heightened the cheesiness of the actual show.

That's the important lesson - It's not just that our open didn't make the show seem more important, it actually made the show seem less important.

It's a scoring trick in comedy, in fact. In comedy, you don't write "funny" music. You write serious music, which heightens the absurdity of what the doofus character thinks is his reality. (Notice how many times you hear the Psycho strings riff in situations where the aim is to make the character seem ridiculous.)

Similarly, Hallmark movies are usually scored with piano or acoustic guitar, instead of grand sweeping orchestral scores. Hallmark stories are generally pretty cheesy, so if the music is too big, it will seem like you're making fun of it.
It's a scoring trick in comedy, in fact. In comedy, you don't write "funny" music. You write serious music,
I’ve been pounding the table on this it seems for a while now. Further to your great point, the idea here is that if you have to explain the joke, you failed. Same with the score. There’s nothing worse ( imho ) then the composer trying to hit comedic beats. It’s awkward at best.

Alot of it is about attitude and POV. If you really understand where your Director is coming from, then you will get to the right headspace. This is key.

I think it’s really hard to generalize because there are so many different kind of shows out there - so many styles off storytelling. It’s not possible to distill the creative down to a defined set of principles. And if you did, someone would come around and break the mould anyway.

I think it was one of the Danna brothers who said sometimes you paint with a thick brush, and sometimes you use fine strokes and tread lightly. Being intuitive and understanding the impact of music on a scene is an entirely different skillset then knowing how to write great music. You have to know how to write great appropriate music. Bonus points if you make it look easy ( hint - even when you make it look easy, it never really is )

If you find yourself overwriting, it might be partly because you have not comsidered the significance of the scene. Is it an important scene? Is it a reflective scene or an active scene? Where are we plot wise? Does the scene work without music? Some guiding principals - if there is motion, there is license to score. If people are standing, or sitting in a conversation after a scene with alot of motion, maybe it doesn’t need anything. Follow the plot points. Consider the tempo of the story arc. Consider if the actors are projecting, or are subdued. Carefully plot when the music starts when coming from silence, the in point is significant since you go from nothing to something. Many Directors are super sensitive to when you start a cue. Be ready to justify the start point. Often they might ask you to delay longer, or start earlier. They will have a ‘beat’ in their heads like when they were cutting with the video editors, and might have had something in mind prior to your input.

Also, it’s a unique skill to write sparse music where diverse instrumentation all fit together to tell a much larger story then each element would imply on its own. Music can be one of the support players in a bigger narrative and still have enormous impact.
I have a little tale to relate...

The first feature I scored was a documentary that centered around a particular individual. There's a poignant scene where the subject learns on camera that his mother, whom he only recently reconnected with after decades of estrangement, just passed away. In the scene, he speaks very frankly to the camera. It's raw but somewhat restrained - we feel his sense of loss and disappointment, but can see his deepest emotions are being held just under the surface.

The director wasn't sure how to approach this scene musically, and was leaning towards no music. But I thought I knew better and told her I'd send something. Fortunately, I at least had enough sense not to step all over this fragile moment, so I just had some violins quietly hold a single high note throughout, while a music box chime played a few very sparsely placed notes. Nothing fancy, just simple and understated.

When the director watched the scene with the music, she cried, and I thought to myself, "Mission accomplished!" But my triumph was shortlived. The cue was ultimately removed from the final edit for a couple of important and critical reasons.

First, the director didn't want the audience to feel pity or sadness for the subject, she just wanted them to experience the honesty of the moment. My sentimental cue inappropriately manipulated the scene into a tearjerker moment, which was not the director's intent.

Second, and this was a big learning point for me, having no music, can be just as powerful as the most triumphant, bombastic, and exhilirating action cue. This scene already contained everything it needed. It was so intimate and genuine, that anything added would only distract from the honesty of the moment. In this case, there was no need for music to inform the audience how to feel.

So a pretty extreme example of "composing down" - the music started simple and small and went down to nothing :grin: It was a really powerful learning moment for me, and taught me to very deliberately identify the exact purpose and function of every cue I write, beginning with the question, "Does there even need to be music here?"
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