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Interpretation/Creation of Moods in Film Music


New Member
I'm currently working on my first feature film and I've noticed the director and I have somewhat differing interpretations of what mood any given piece of music communicates. So this obviously presents a problem when composing a cue. When he wants tragedy, I feel the piece I just wrote is tragic but he doesn't perceive it so tragic. It doesn't happen in every single cue, but it has happened several times.

For example, he's using Time from Inception in the temp where he wants tension and gradually rising tension. I can hear some tension in Time but to me it's always been more about tragedy and grandness than tension.

I've realized there are probably 2 issues going on here: 1) Different interpretations based on different experiences. 2) My lack of theory knowledge, or harmonic tools to accurately and quickly compose the specific mood he needs, instead of nailing it after 3-4 tries.

So my questions for you film composers is:
  1. How do you tackle working with a director and trying to understand and interpret what he wants with music?
  2. Can you share any theory/harmonic tools or tricks you use to quickly and effectively create moods (especially moods like sadness, tragedy, tension, and ominous. These are terms he's thrown out a lot during for film).
  3. Are there any modes, scales, intervals that you reach for to get specific moods?
Thanks in advance!

Atarion Music

Sinematic Reclipse
Hello, you should ask them to work with you a bit more. Try a couple mock-ups in different scales and find out which one the director prefer. The truth is, You say he likes H-Zimmer's "TIME" Well, it's written in G maj. It's a rising theme with a huge climax. If you listen close, it's chords getting louder as more instruments join in. I figure you know this already but it's small details that will give you a better approach and come up with something the director accepts.

If your looking for sadness, a piano is normally how to achieve that sad feeling. but the possibilities are almost endless. Anyway, here's some main scales I pulled online. They relate to me but just remember the meanings relate to MOST people.

C major: Completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children's talk

C minor: Declaration of love and at the same time the lament of unhappy love. All languishing, longing, sighing of the love-sick soul lies in this key

Db major: A leering key, degenerating into grief and rapture. It cannot laugh, but it can smile; it cannot howl, but it can at least grimace its crying.--Consequently only unusual characters and feelings can be brought out in this key

D major: The key of triumph, of Hallelujahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key

D minor: Melancholy womanliness, the spleen and humors brood

D# minor: Feelings of the anxiety of the soul's deepest distress, of brooding despair, of blackest depression, of the most gloomy condition of the soul. Every fear, every hesitation of the shuddering heart, breathes out of horrible D# minor. If ghosts could speak, their speech would approximate this key

Eb major: The key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God

E major: Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major

F major: Complaisance and calm

F minor: Deep depression, funereal lament, groans of misery and longing for the grave

F# major: Triumph over difficulty, free sigh of relief uttered when hurdles are surmounted; echo of a soul which has fiercely struggled and finally conquered lies in all uses of this key

F# minor: A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language

G major: Everything rustic, idyllic and lyrical, every calm and satisfied passion, every tender gratitude for true friendship and faithful love,--in a word every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart is correctly expressed by this key

G minor: Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike

Ab major: Key of the grave. Death, grave, putrefaction, judgment, eternity lie in its radius

Ab minor: Grumbler, heart squeezed until it suffocates; wailing lament, difficult struggle; in a word, the color of this key is everything struggling with difficulty

A major: This key includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one's state of affairs; hope of seeing one's beloved again when parting; youthful cheerfulness and trust in God

A minor: Pious womanliness and tenderness of character

Bb major: Cheerful love, clear conscience, hope aspiration for a better world
A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key

Bb minor: A quaint creature, often dressed in the garment of night. It is somewhat surly and very seldom takes on a pleasant countenance. Mocking God and the world; discontented with itself and with everything; preparation for suicide sounds in this key.

B major: Strongly colored, announcing wild passions, composed from the most glaring colors. Anger, rage, jealousy, fury, despair and every burden of the heart lies in its sphere

B minor: This is as it were the key of patience, of calm awaiting one's fate and of submission to divine dispensation
From Christian Schubart's Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806) translated

Kevin Lessmann 2004

Jeremy Spencer

Senior Member
Honesty, your best approach is to give the director exactly what he wants....not what you think works best. If you aren't sure, just ask the director for some musical examples of what they'd like (as he has already), and go from there. Believe me, I've worked some directors who are right "out there"...just figure out what his vision is and you'll be fine.


Senior Member
From my view:

I agree with what Wolfie2112 said. It's ultimately the directors vision you have to bring to life. I've said that before, but I view my job as media composer like I view a chef in a restaurant:

- You need creativity to create something out of nothing
- You need to have some unique base recipes for you to speed up your work. You can re-invent your spice-melange every time you cook a sandworm ;)
- Ultimately the guest decides if it was good or not, not you

More closely, a private chef for a family:
- They tell you what they like
- They tell you what degree of freedom you have

Lets say you get the movie and the director gives you the rough "I want it tragic" guideline. With full freedom, you can go for whatever you perceive as "tragic". But (!) you, as good Craftsman and service-oriented Composer, should have your guideline from communication - so you can confidently say "I know what the director perceives as "tragic". If he provided a temp-track, talk to him why he chose that temp-track - try to dig as deep as you can without getting annoying (if you become annoying it can quickly be "what a bad composer, he doesn't know moods"). What sometimes also works, to save some work, is when you show him either different version made by yourself, or "your temp-track" meaning pieces and cues from which you think would fit and talk with the director over it. Kind of a "mood board" to get to the essence and overall thing that he wants.

So, TL;DR:
- Communication is key - talk to him a lot and as deep as possible without getting annoying
- Find a common language, and best, speak in his language
- if temp tracks are provided, find out why it was chosen. In his language, and translate back. It might not just be a emotionally played solo violin, as we composers think, it might be something completely different - from chord progression, to a specific instrument or structure of the temp

Everyone perceives emotions differently, there is a lot of common ground - and mostly it's just wrong (or rather incomplete) communication. I once had a client that wanted something "raw and energetic, tribal in nature" and by digging deeper he really just wanted a standard 12/8 Ostinato with Duduk and some Taiko. Completely different of what I imagined it to be.

ed buller

Senior Member
watch Hans's MASTERCLASS.....then try NOT to be too specific about the music...if he thinks TIME gives him tension then your off to a good start as to what HIS musical Palette is ( it's fucking tense for me too !!! ) . His reference points. D maj is not MORE happy Than F Maj !....it just doesn't work that way .

as to tricks and moods everyone is different. John Williams tragic might be aching strings....maybe an OBOE solo......Hans might be a lonely piano ( Gwen's death in Spiderman !). There are no rules. Don't get too hung up on not getting it right...now you know what he doesn't want !!. Remember if he knew....he's just put it in himself . Always always always look to story telling first. Can you reference an early scene with some borrowed tension from that.....be inventive......constantly !!!.......have ideas and enthusiasm ....Convince him you know his picture and the story he is trying to tell and your going to make it work.

good luck

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