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Scoring music to picture is a passion of Paul's. He's also a photographer and understands how different moods can be created using composition, lighting, and scenery. In media, film and tv composing, telling a story is one thing; enhancing it properly with music is another. So, how do you do it? 


You need to keep an open mind, follow the brief, and then allow your creativity to flow when writing music to picture. Understand the genre. Setting up a scene with the right kind of sound is so important. You wouldn't use a romantic soft harp, for example, on a terrifying scene (unless the director wishes to juxtapose the music with what's going on); and similarly, you wouldn't use discordant psycho strings on a couple kissing (unless it's a comedy!). Maybe a bit basic and not the best examples, but hopefully you get my point.


Get to know as many different types of instruments as possible. I learned to play piano and was a soprano singer in the SNO choir when I was much younger. I can also play a range of percussion, winds, harmonica, and guitars (all in my own style). I learned how to program synthesizers and work with computers. I use Cubase for recording music. Today's computer music allows you to try out and work with entire orchestras. My advice to you would be to get to know how these sounds work together. Listen to other pieces of music, and try out your own. Don't be afraid to experiment with all different types of sounds, including your electronic sounds. Think outside the box.


Invest in your studio equipment. A basic setup doesn't cost that much to get you started. You never know, someone out there might like your demo and hire you, and all of a sudden you might be lucky enough to get a budget to invest in more equipment. 


There's music and there's great music. Never settle for something if you really know it's not right. if it doesn't feel right, leave it out. Try something else. Make quick mixes of your work as you progress if you need to. Try them out individually, and go with the best one that fits with the picture. Then when you are happy, work on them more. Sometimes you will get it right first time, other times not. Don't be afraid to work on another piece and come back to it, otherwise, you can end up in what I call a "loop-hole" (as opposed to loophole). That's when you are looping continually around the same 8/16/32 bars, and you just can't decide. You haven't got time for that in film/media composing. And it's amazing what a short break and fresh ears can do. And this counts both when composing, and when you are mixing your music. So go for a walk, take a break and come back to it.


Listen to what else is out there. It's amazing how sound is constantly changing in music. Take inspiration from others but don't let it stifle your own creativity.

If you are at the stage where you get a gig on a film you will probably be sent cue sheets from the director, which will have time-codes and notes on the types of music required. If you don't and it's not suggested, ask to set up a meeting with the director to "spot" the music. This is where you sit with the locked-off picture and you both discuss the music and the places in the scenes where things should come in and out, and change. You might think this would take up more of your time, but believe me, if you don't and the director sees what you've done before spotting it, you might have to go back and change a lot of your music cues. Also, if you get (and you probably will) a version of the film with temp music, don't copy it! Unless the director specifically likes the temp music, you will probably find they didn't like the temp anyway. Temp music helps the editor cut the picture, and, usually, that's its only use. Although, sometimes it can be handy for general in-and-out points, don't rely on it or listen to it too much. Your fine cut version (the final version you will work with) will be free of any music. Be aware, if you compose music to a rough-cut version, you might be writing music for scenes that might get dropped completely, lengthened or shortened, or the edit has been reordered to suit the directors' requirements. If that happens you will have to keep changing your music to fit the picture every time you are sent a new rough cut. Avoid having to do this unless you are happy to keep changing your score every time the editor/director makes a fix. In my experience, most directors just send the fine cut before asking to compose to picture. Sometimes they send a rough cut just to get a feel for their film, which can help when composing themes, for example.


Get into your directors head if you can. I don't mean invade his or her mind, nor be unnecessarily intrusive. What I mean is try to understand where your director is coming from. Imagine it. Get on the same page. These guys are doing their job because they have great imaginations (most of the time), and you should too. If your director is talking a different language, politely ask them what they mean. Don't be afraid to ask or to talk things through with them. Most importantly, don't forget you are the composer, so you should be letting them know of your ideas for the music. Putting words into your music that no-one's actually heard (including you) before it's composed can be difficult, though, because it's usually best to listen to the music first. So I usually keep in mind the director's wishes and then I compose the score I feel translates the story or message they wish to convey. I usually do that when I'm alone in my studio, but I have been known to compose with directors sitting right next to me. I wouldn't generally recommend it though as it will put an additional stress on you to get it right. Be constructive, and your director should be too. You will know pretty quickly if you are both suited to each other. A great composer/ director relationship is like a great marriage, where you both get to that point where you know each other's thoughts and you can musically anticipate them, and if you get it right you will deliver every time. That's heaven.  But don't forget they still have the last word... you might have to go back and fix your score...again!


Great cinematics requires great themes in my opinion. Start by composing a great theme. You don't need to, but it usually starts from there and other ideas will flow from there. You can also use motifs from your theme for different situations and characters. Without starting with a great theme, your music might sound a bit disjointed, and even sound like different composers have been used. Getting your sound palette right is important too. Use the same colours but in different ways. I love melody so I try out different instruments playing the themes to see how these will sound.


What's telling the story in a scene? Most of the time the music required will be to underscore the picture. That's where the music supports what you are either seeing on the screen or where the director wishes you to emphasize what's happening at particular points. You will be required to support the story as it unfolds, don't overtake it, unless of course, that is a particular requirement, or you've composed such an amazing piece that it can be used somewhere else in the film.


Who's story are you telling in a scene? Let's use as an example a story of a boy meets girl. In the scene, one of them wants to kiss the other, but the other person is having doubts, or worse, they want to kill the other person. So who's story does your music support? Does the audience know? The answer will lie with your director. The director might wish your music to change mood as we look at each person, or they might simply require that you either create some tension, or you go with the romance until something happens and that's when your score changes in mood for more impact.


Does the music anticipate the story? In most cases, not. But it really depends on whether or not your building to a climax or the director wants to give a clue as to what you are about to see next. It's all about working with the storyline, the visuals, and most importantly, your director's wishes. 


Less is more. This is the advice I learned when I was younger, yet I still fight with myself over it at times, because I believe there's a defining part of my own sound that's pretty massive, when I'm allowed to go there :) I love very dynamic and melodic music. Music that really gets your emotions going, your hair standing on end, and your heart pumping. But that's all well and good until your director comes into your studio and says he/she just wants a cut-down version of something else they've already heard and liked, played on a solo instrument. So be prepared to compromise. It's still going to be your work. So make it sound wonderful!


Lastly, be gracious and accommodating at all times. Nobody likes a smart-ass. Just be yourself. Turn up to meetings looking presentable, and not looking like you've been up all night (even though chances are you were  - working all night on their film). As time goes on, and if you get more of a name for yourself, that's when people will look to you for your advice on what music to put in. At the end of the day, you have to please your director. That's the most important thing, so don't forget it!


I hope what I've said makes sense and is helpful to you in some way, and I wish you well on your musical journey. Best of luck!


- Paul


Composing music to picture


paul st

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