Film Scores Are Different

Film scoring feels a lot like swimming with shoes on. I like shoes. I need shoes. They make it easier for me to walk and run and do all sorts of fun things. Shoes are great. Swimming with shoes is not so great.

The shoes in this instance are the habits I've developed over roughly 15 years of songwriting. When writing a song, the hardest part is almost always the beginning. Once I know the chord progression and overall structure, the writing process becomes a fairly simple mathematical exercise. Writing that way helped me compose over 100 songs just during my busy days in high school. 

But film scores are different. Every time I jump into a scoring session I intuitively assume that if I can figure out the chord structure of the first few beats, then I'll be able to extrapolate the rest of the cue and still be home in time for dinner. You just can't do that with a score. For one thing, where songs are typically organized into sections like ABA and ABAB, scores don't -- and indeed can't -- have any rigidly defined structure. That's because narratives, the indulgent and rhapsodic beatniks that scores are meant to accompany, aren't structured into neatly timed units of bars, measures, and beats. Instead, a beat in a narrative is given the freedom of lasting anywhere from a second on to the end of eternity. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, the score must be subservient to the timing and rhythm of the narrative. 

The principle holds the same for radio-plays which is why I'm writing this now. 

So here I am, sitting in front of a MIDI keyboard, scoring my radio drama, feeling helpless. This instinct I built over years of traditional composition to write in regular 4-8 measure phrases is now a hinderance, not an advantage. What am I supposed to do?

Abandon my instincts. Let the scene guide the music.

Like all accompaniments, the resulting score is barely listenable without the intended soloist -- the narrative. I finished my last session with a cue that consisted of literally the same two chords repeated over and over again -- except for one brief section where I introduced a single major chord that immediately modulated back into minor. There is no real melody to speak of, just a couple flourishes on the harp to add tension and interest. It hurt my soul to write it, but you know what? It works! 

That's the funny thing about it all. Music, perhaps more than any other art form, is about what works in the moment. That is both its blessing and its curse. You can fight it or you can use it. In the end, I'd rather use it.