To continue the discussion from last week, here are a couple of popular videos from the vast world of YouTube on the topic of film music, temp tracks, and originality, with comments from yours truly. Please note that in this article I generalize heavily because it is necessary to do so to make a point. There are exceptions to what I say below. Also be advised that while both videos are generally clean, there is at least one instance of language and there are clips from many films, so viewer discretion is advised.
Comments: I think the problem of homogenized film music runs deeper than just the temp tracks; I think it indeed runs deeper then the score entirely. It is not just modern film music that is, at least in some genres, becoming bland and repetitive- the films themselves are becoming similarly predictable. Perhaps the problem is even more systemic than cookie-cutter filmmaking- perhaps it is audiences who are OK with it.
Furthermore, as the below video will address, temp tracks and indeed even rather obvious copycatting still do not necessarily result in a forgettable score. Hans Zimmer’s main theme for Gladiator and Klaus Badelt’s epic motif for Pirates of the Caribbean are very, very similar, but both scores are strikingly memorable and very powerful because- as similar as they may be to other works- they are musically powerful and emotionally gripping. They transcended wallpaper music and made powerful statements about the story of the film.
So are temp tracks a part of the problem? Possibly. But change the temp tracks out with more interesting ones and you may get a memorable score that is still not unique or creative. I think the deeper issue is a systemic failure to pioneer, and especially musically. We will pioneer aurally- fancier synths, more outlandish vocals, custom-recorded car percussion as in the case of Looper- but musically, our harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic vocabulary is dwindling vastly. And what is it that makes music memorable? The *music*. Not the sound. The sound will make an impression, of course; a chord progression that is orchestrated and synthesized will make you feel a certain way. But it will not stand out- it will not ring in your ears as you go to sleep that night and call up all the emotions from the film. You need a melody to do that, and in stark contradiction to previous generations of film music, melody is very sparse these days (though certainly not absent, particularly in animated films, which seem in some ways to be transforming into the last bastion of orchestral and melodious film music).
As an example of the music-less soundscape of modern film:
I wonder if this partially ties into the postmodern mindset of today- the existentialist “what is just is” mindset that characterizes so many of today’s blockbusters. It would be no surprise that an atheistic worldview would result in nihilistic music, consisting only of shapes and shadows and textures and emotions, but not of themes and statements and musical beauty. The Christian worldview inspires creativity and innovation, because as Christians we serve a God Who is infinitely creative, and we are called to be like Him. Our music should reflect that.
“Great are the works of the LORD; they are studied by all who delight in them.” – Ps. 111:2
Film scores that rely upon sound but do not make full use of music in the end, I believe, cheapen the story by failing to give it the depth of emotion that it could otherwise have portrayed. And while stereotypes and industry techniques are not only helpful but actually essential to musical communication (in the same way that film structure has become somewhat standardized as filmmakers have discovered what types of story structure make for the most satisfying films- it’s all about discovering the way God designed art to communicate), a failure to transcend those stereotypes and craft a unique musical signature for each film results eventually in a homogenized and bland world of film music.
My favorite point made in the above video is how they turned the Thor scene on its head. It gave me chills. The emotional richness was so much more poignant, and so much less on-the-nose. I want to see *that* movie. Enough with the wallpaper music- let’s paint a picture.
Comments: This brings out some really interesting points, especially about the evolution of sample quality. I myself started out relying heavily on the short patches, in part because of the exact reasoning in the above video. You can hear that in some of my older compositions:
While the use of those patches is part of my composition style, and while they still are the easiest to work with, as sample instruments have evolved, I (and I’m sure many other composers) have been able to convincingly write with richer orchestration (French Horn solos, lyrical flute lines, etc.):
Of course, that is not simply a matter of evolving samples; I’ve matured a lot as a composer in the time between those two groups! But that brings us to something else worth noting about this second video- the idea presented that film music isn’t really about originality; that it’s more about creatively repackaging old ideas. As much as I appreciated this video, I very strongly disagree on this point. That may be the general reality in Hollywood, but I think it is a sad one, and one with which we should not be content.
There is certainly truth, as we have discussed, to the idea that film music relies on and develops given techniques. This is true for at least two reasons; first, God designed music to communicate in a certain way. A scene that needs action music needs action music, period- we must be creative within the bounds of effective action music, but it usually won’t work to write a love theme in an effort to be original.
Second, as the industry progresses, filmmakers want their films to feel modern (usually, unless it’s a throwback like La La Land). So there is a certain degree of sonic quality and stylistic technique which is rightly expected of the composer. If the synthesizers make the audience think they’re watching a late-80s Goonies sequel, that is usually not going to be a good mental association for a modern film unless it is a stylistic throwback. The below piece is such a throwback; the Goonies score was actually the reference work for this score:
So what is a composer to do if he is working within the stylistic guidelines of another film or genre? Two things- first, use those tropes to season the score, but not to serve as the main course; work with the flavors of the genre you are looking for while also finding unique colors and techniques to flesh out the unique voice of your film. Second- write *music*. You can have a very similar soundscape to another film, but if your score has original music, genuinely creative and rich and melodious, it will not sound like any other movie- while still communicating the proper genre “feel”. Think of all the great orchestral/acoustic film scores throughout the 1900s- Indiana Jones and Star Wars and E.T. and Legends of the Fall and The Rocketeer and Braveheart and all of Bernard Herrmann’s works and Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian and good ol’ Rocky and the list goes on and on. These films were all working with a basically similar soundscape- that of the orchestra and supplementary acoustic instruments. The melodies, the harmonies, the rhythms- those are what set these films apart from each other in incredibly memorable ways.
Now that the sonic possibilities of synthesizers and samples are readily available to us, that is a reason to add variety to our soundscapes- not to reduce them to a predictable mass of synthetic textures and percussion grooves. We have more sonic possibilities at our fingertips than any generation of composers before us- are we making use of that? Or are we following the pattern of our generation and forgetting our heritage, content simply with what is cool here and now?
And even when our sonic parameters are set within a certain dimension, we have the bigger tool- the language of music- which allows us, if we will try, to create truly and clearly unique scores even with similar soundscapes, just like composers did throughout the 20th century. After all, men made synthesizers. God made the language of music. Which one do you think gives more opportunity for infinite creativity?
I am convinced that even within the necessary limitations of film music there is a world of opportunity for us as composers to create and explore and invent. A score can sound modern and biting AND musically rich. An action sequence can have all the rhythmic drive of The Bourne Ultimatum WHILE sculpting a musically and aurally unique symphonic universe.
That film music is an art form bound to cliche is a premise that I refuse to accept. God’s storytelling is infinitely creative. Ours should strive to be likewise.
For myself, I strive to make every composition and every score melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, and aurally unique. I’m in this for the Glory of God, and He deserves more than just rip-offs and creative rearrangements.