This article was originally written as a guest post for friend and fellow composer Bradley Jamrozik of Orchestral Story Studio and has been re-posted here with permission.
Filmmakers pay incredible attention to the details, because within the details lie authenticity. The coffee stain on the page, the redness of the sunrise, the almost-imperceptible twitch of the actor’s eye, these things thunder the story of the film with a power that stands in stark contrast to their apparent insignificance.
The composer has a crucial role to play in constructing the world of the film, and there is much to be considered when creating a film’s soundscape; just as the details of an actor’s costume are of vast importance to the effective communication of the story, so the choice to use an oboe instead of a flute has huge ramifications on the sonic world of the film.
(Note- when I talk about “sound” and “soundscape” in this article, I am not referring to sound effects and design. The foley, dialogue, and myriad of other things that make up the sound designer’s domain in the soundscape of the film are powerful communicative tools and are an essential part of the storytelling process, but I am not referring to that here. I am referring to the sound of the music. This includes orchestration choices, sound effects integrated into the music, dynamic ranges, anything and everything that constitutes how the music sounds and which is part of the composer’s score, but does not include, say, the sound of the helicopter flying over the trees or the distant gunshot or the trickling stream.)
Before a composer begins to construct the musical details of the world of the film, he needs to know the film! He needs to have a solid grasp of the story and the director’s vision for the delivery of the story. He needs to ask himself, and to be able to answer, lots of questions:
- Who is this story about? This isn’t just a matter of identifying the characters; it is a matter of getting to know them. What kind of people are they? What do they like and dislike? What makes them tick? What are their quirks, flaws, strengths, weaknesses?
- What is the point of the story? What does the director want to communicate with this film? What is the God-honoring message that needs to infiltrate the mind of the viewer and effect they way they think?
- When does this story take place? Do we want the music to reflect that?
- Where does this story take place? Do we want the music to reflect that?
- Are there lots of computer-generated images in this story? When we’re building the soundscape, we need to consider what the sightscape is like too.
- Is it live-action, or a documentary, or an animation?
- What is the director’s vision for the feel of this world? Does he want it to feel nostalgic, or cutting-edge, or informative?
Before figuring out how to paint the soundscape of a story’s world, the vision for what that world is, how it works, and what it feels like must be established. So pepper the project with questions. Tear it down to its most intricate, intimate parts, and get to know it.
Once you really know the project and are comfortable in the world of the story, you can then begin to ascertain how to communicate that world through music and sound.
Any film’s musical soundscape can be broken down into two parts- the music, and the delivery, or sound, of the music. Both elements have huge impact on the final story-world that the music constructs; here, we will look at them separately, beginning with the music.
A film composer’s job consists primarily of emotional communication through music, but we must not allow this to be understood in a simplistic way- happy music, sad music, romantic music, exciting music. There is so much more communicated in both the music and the sound that must be considered. Just because music is happy and the scene is happy doesn’t at all mean that the music is correct for that scene! Look at the two pictures above; one from “Ender’s Game,” one from “Pride & Prejudice”. Observe the amazing difference in a relatively similar shot- the protagonist, alone, set against a fitting backdrop for their story. The colors of the battle room are sharp, cold, and electronic; the colors of Lizzie’s world are very different, washed in gold, soaked in soft, daydreamy light. Other differences- costume, the time period of the fence behind Elizabeth and the space station behind Ender, the setting of a romantic, idyllic rural countryside and that of a synthetic, futuristic space-station- these are even more obvious.
The same must be true of the way emotions are communicated for these stories. A sad scene from Miss Bennet’s life might warrant plaintive whimpers in the style of a minor movement from a Mozart sonata, but to use that music in a tragic moment in Ender’s saga would be strangely contradictory to the scene- even though it communicates the correct emotion!
Classical music idioms such as the V7-I chord progression in the happy moments of Pride & Prejudice not only communicate the correct feeling; they also add a flavor of 18th and 19th century oldness that makes the antiquated setting of the film that much more believable and authentic. To use the same complexity and chordal customs of classical music in the dystopian world of Ender’s Game would clash strongly with the sharply modern everything-else that makes that world up. (Note- that clashing effect can be a powerful and effective artistic decision; the important thing is that it is done on purpose. For an example of that, consider Nicolas Cage driving through the collapsing world at the end of “Knowing” in which calm classical music is contrasted to the chaos and mayhem outside of Cage’s car; this communicated the peace in his mind amid the impending doom he and his world faced, and made for a striking contrast.)
Thus, Steve Jablonsky’s “Ender’s Game” is, musically, very modern, very minimalistic, made up of fragmented melodies and motifs drowned in atmospheric chord progressions, while Dario Marianelli’s “Pride & Prejudice” has all the depth and delicious complexity of a late 18th-century piano concerto.
Even if these scores were turned into a piano reduction, so that the sound was identical, and even if tracks were pulled out from each score which communicated similar emotions, they would be clearly different, because each composer constructed a musical soundscape that fit the world of their film.
Once a composer has answered the questions he asked of the film at the beginning of the process, he then can prayerfully consider how to use the music to communicate whatever the answers were.
Now we turn to practical applications.
- Chordal and harmonic complexity in a more straightforward, classical style generally communicates intelligence, calmness, high culture, and oftentimes a sense of oldness. (“Pride and Prejudice”)
- Musical minimalism generally sounds more modern and sentimental. (“Ender’s Game,” “Man of Steel,” “The Dark Knight Rises”)
- Simple, motivic melodies communicate a more visceral (often action-driven) story, while grand and prominent melodies speak more of character, drama, and a more “old Hollywood” sound. (See “The Bourne Ultimatum” vs. “How To Train Your Dragon”- same composer; totally different musical language.)
- A focus on rhythm communicates action; a focus on melody and harmony communicates emotion; the degree to which you blend these is an important consideration. It has been said that melody communicates to the mind, harmony to the emotions, and rhythm to the body, and there is a lot of truth to this trinity. Experimenting with that triangle is a powerful way to settle on the musical language of a project. (See “Schindler’s List” and “Forrest Gump” for a melodic/harmonic focus, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Prince of Persia” for a three-way blend, “Inception” and “Man of Steel” for a harmonic/rhythmic focus.)
- That said, I believe that melody is the most important part of music and must always be the primary consideration; this is one of the things that I think much of modern film music (like “Ender’s Game” and many newer Hans Zimmer scores) is lacking. Spending time to develop a good melody- a melody worth telling, worth exploring, worth developing- is very important. Find a melody that communicates the right things for your film; the same rules which apply generally to the score apply specifically to the melody. If melody communicates to the mind, then music devoid of melody is mindless music; it might be worth listening to once or twice, but soon becomes exhausting. With every score I write, I hope to leave the audience with a melody stuck in their head long after the film is over- and to write a melody good enough that they will be happy about that!
Now let us consider the orchestration aspects of the soundscape. The notes used in a score communicate powerfully, but the way those notes are delivered also has a lot to say. Let’s look at some other scores to illustrate this point.
Michael Giacchino’s music for “Up” is a quintessential example of perfect soundscaping. The musical information in the score has the perfect amount of oldness (our hero is, after all, well into his sunset years) blended with the classic sounds of adventure that we would expect from a score like this. A waltzy sound and liberal use of accidentals and jazzy chord progressions combined with soaring melodies and heartbreakingly simple renditions of the main theme all combine to make the notes perfect for the film. But the excellence of this score doesn’t stop there; those notes are delivered in a way that sounds like “Up.” This is the goal of the soundscape-building process- to create a score that sounds like [insert film title here].
So what does “Up” sound like? A bit jazzy, with a heavy flavor of solo instruments, yet certainly not afraid to float into full orchestra when the story demands it. It sounds like something wafting out of a well-worn record player that Carl and Ellie would dance to. We hear lots of solo violin, muted trumpets, piano, lighthearted orchestral percussion, woodwinds, and other less familiar instruments which I hesitate to identify lest I reveal my own ignorance. We do NOT hear intimidating synthetic soundscapes; the trombone players get to contribute to the action music, but could probably fit in a few good naps during the session. Most of the percussion in this score is either the fun stuff (small ethnic percussion, triangle, shaker, etc.) or tonal percussion; glockenspiel, celeste, marimba- but not snare ensembles, anvils, Mahler hammers, or drum kit grooves. No bagpipes or Lord-of-the-Rings choir here.
Giacchino and his orchestrators knew what they wanted “Up” to sound like, and everything from the music to the instrumentation contributed to the consistency of that soundscape.
Some other excellent examples of scores that knew what their movie should sound like would be Dave Grusin’s “The Goonies,” James Newton Howard’s “The Village,” John Powell’s “How To Train Your Dragon” (especially if you compare and contrast 1 and 2!) and “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Geoff Zanelli’s “The Odd Life of Timothy Green.”
Here are some practical considerations for the orchestration part of soundscape creation:
- The instruments of the standard orchestra are, mostly, “safe” instruments; they more or less transcend genres. This is most true with orchestral strings, and almost as true with brass and percussion. The non-reed woodwinds- the flutes and piccolo- have an open, vocal, human sound that is fitting in most contexts and can be used liberally (but don’t get too piercing with that piccolo, please!). The rest of the woodwinds, because of the variety and uniqueness of the colors they offer, shouldn’t be applied with the same orchestrational broad-brush.
- In considering the rest of the woodwinds, great care must be exercised in staying consistent with the sound of the score. Reedy-sounding woodwinds generally have a more classical and orchestral sound, and so they are excellent for adding that sound and color to a score in the tradition of John Williams and “grand old Hollywood.” However, they generally do not belong in a bitingly modern film’s soundscape for that same reason.
- Also consider- how is this instrument traditionally used, and how could I tweak those conventions to make this instrument fit this soundscape and lend unique colors to the score? Bradley Jamrozik pointed out to me that the poignant, haunting theme that introduces the hero in “The Bourne Identity” is played on a bassoon, an instrument which he plays, and which he said is usually used in the bass registers but which has a beautiful, sonorous, lyrical high voice. That voice John Powell used to great effect, taking an instrument which, if used conventionally, might have sounded odd in an action-thriller score, and transforming it into a unique sonic signature that was the cherry on top of the soundscape of Bourne. So take some time to experiment with the non-traditional possibilities hidden within traditional orchestration.
- Drumkits have a much more pop, and, dare I say it, cheaper sound than orchestral percussion.
- The piano can be used in about a million different ways and in a million different contexts. I am biased, but I think it belongs in most film scores- if not as a prominent part of the soundscape, simply as another section of the orchestra.
- Vocals are powerful; they can also be distracting. A solo vocalist can add a lot of heart, depth, and humanity to a score (see Hans Zimmer’s “Gladiator”), while a choir generally adds an almost metaphysical grandeur to music, as well as the penultimate “epic music” sound and a general impression of bigness- big scope, big vision, big world, big budget (see John Powell’s “How To Train Your Dragon 2″, John Williams’ “Duel of the Fates”, and Howard Shore’s choral quintessence, “Lord of the Rings”). Prominent vocals singing in English are usually only the realm of songs inserted into the film for montage and/or credits purposes because they would be too distracting and thereby detracting in any other context.
- Synthesizers and electronic instruments have such a broad range of sounds that it is hard to pigeon-hole them into any particular style, but they are generally not found in “big Hollywood” scores unless they’re for a very specific purpose (like the electric guitar in John Williams’ “Zam the Assassin and the Chase through Coruscant,” from “Star Wars: Episode II”). Generally, synthesizers and electronic instruments add a clear flavor of modernity to music… for obvious reasons. Side note: few things communicate rebellion like a distorted electric guitar.
- Solo instruments or unique instrument palettes are very effective in creating a unique signature for your score. Just be sure that the instrument you chose fits the topic. Solo harmonica may be a great motif in a movie about a hobo or the wild west, but give it some thought before you use it for a story set in Victorian England (some great examples of solo instrument use are the duduk and Spanish guitar in Hans Zimmer’s “Gladiator” and the solo violin in John Williams’ “Schindler’s List”).
- Ethnic instruments, especially well-known ones, often deserve a place in films set in exotic locations… and sometimes taste so strongly of their homeland that they can’t transcend that stereotype very well, as in the case of bagpipes or accordions. A lot of times, the instrument doesn’t have to be exactly accurate, so long as the story it tells is; James Horner used an uilleann pipe- traditionally an Irish instrument- as the mainstay of the soundscape narrating the story of Scottish freedom-fighter William Wallace. Not technically accurate, but musically accurate.
There’s so much more that could be said on this topic, but hopefully this will get you started thinking about the power of soundscape and the ways we can use soundscape to tell God-honoring stories with excellence. Thanks goes to Bradley Jamrozik for suggesting this post, for honoring me with the opportunity to guest-post on his blog, and for all the things he’s taught me over the course of the last few months. Please comment with your questions!