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Movie Score Techniques

August 27, 2017

When it comes to epic compositions and film scores, most aspects of movie soundtrack composition are standard, boring hard work; however, there are some techniques that are a bit more difficult to discover. To musicians, great compositions are much like gourmet dessert - one is just not enough - and the ingredients are key.

 

After graduating with a voice performance degree and working as a performer, conductor and teacher, I went back to school to get graduate work in television production. After this, I was asked to write motion picture scores and even wrote music dedicated to a certain U.S. Senate Majority leader for a special event and received a very nice and gracious note from him after the fact.  In other words, I write this article not only as a motion picture director, but also as a music major and former classical radio announcer. I have probably heard thousands of amazing compositions, whether they have been in the form of orchestras, oratorios, operas, art songs, concertos, sonatas, capriccios, canzonas, fantasias, or other compositions. 

 

The amazing depth of classical music and its vocabulary is very important to understand for every movie director. Imagine only having the words "The", "man", "woman", "run", "ride", "talk", and "walk" as vocabulary words. How much could you communicate? Or what if you only had two hundred words to use instead of thirty or forty thousand vocabulary words? How good of a writer would you be? This is the difference between 'pop' music and classical music. Please notice that almost every epic and top box office hit (with a few exceptions) includes music that is classically-based. 

 

That being said, there's also some techniques beyond the vocabulary of a musical style with which even some more classically trained musicians are not as familiar. Here are a few ideas that might increase their musical arsenal:

 

  • Polyrhythmic music

  • Contrapuntal polyphonic music

  • Lietmotifs

  • Transition of time signatures 

 

Polyrhythmic music

 

Polyrhythmic music can create a more dimensional sound to music and take its sound from two dimensions to three dimensions. It can also add a certain drive and forward motion to the music that a director may desire. This drive and motion can even be heard in slower musical numbers, and thus this technique can serve as the perfect accompaniment to certain scenes where there's not a lot of fast action but where the scene does require a lot of movement. 

 

Some examples of polyrhythmic music can be heard at this website link (from 3:00 to 3:45) and at this link and at this website link (from 15:00 to 15:45). This 'Superman' symphonic work is another more avante-garde example as heard at this link (from 4:20 to 5:00). This website link gives you a quick lesson on what a polyrhythm is and how to create them. The below video is an example of a movie soundtrack for 'Pirates of the Caribbean' that effectively used polyrhythms to create an effect of excitement starting at 1:15. One rhythm is established followed by a plethora of rhythmic variations, such as those added at 1:30 and 1:45, but then breaking into a variety of them (true polyrhythm) thereafter as the composer looks to polyrhythms to build a dimensional sound to his rhythms and to instill excitement and physicality into the visual elements of the movie. 

 


Leitmotifs

 

In movies, each character can have their own assigned motifs (leitmotifs) or melodies throughout the movie, so that when a combination of characters begin to merge, this technique of simultaneous leitmotifs playing in parallel can be employed.

 

As a youth, I remember watching Wagner's sixteen hour opera 'Der Ring des Nibelunge'. That opera is foundational to the leitmotif concept and Wagner's work is probably the reason leitmotifs are even used today. He assigned a little piece of theme music (motif) to each of his main actors.  

 

Take a look at the video below in which we see the assigned leitmotifs for various characters in the movie 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', and think about how some of these motifs could have been merged into a fugue-like score. 

 

 

Contrapuntal polyphony

 

Speaking of a fugue-like score, contrapuntal polyphonic music is a big fancy name for describing music in which several tunes are all playing at one time. This technique is great when attempting to create a more cerebral atmosphere or when trying to describe aurally what one is seeing visually in the scene, especially when attempting to describe two or more animated characters or objects that are weaving their way across the screen. In other words, if you understand leitmotifs, this would be the idea of taking the tunes assigned to each character or actor in your movie and weaving them together simultaneously during a scene where each of the various actors are present in a scene. 

 

If one person or object starts before the other, a melodic motif can be assigned to the first one, and then when a second person or object begins, a second motif can begin following the movement and direction of the second person or object. Contrapuntal polyphonic music in a motion picture film score is typically instrumental; however, I would like to share this vocal example of contrapuntal polyphonic music at this website link with you, because vocal music makes it easier to pick out the various tunes that are playing at one time. In this example, each choir section, namely the tenors, basses, altos, and sopranos, have their own motifs (or melodies).  If these were leitmotifs, each of these melodies would be assigned to a different actor in a movie. For example, the tenor's part could be assigned to the main character, and would be played every time you saw the main character enter the movie's scenes.  The alto part could be assigned to his enemy and play every time his enemy was seen on the screen, and so forth. 

 

Transition of Time Signatures

 

Finally, a constant transition from one time signature to another can be a very effective tool to create an epic sound, especially when a lot of action is taking place. Consider the strong epic sound that Thomas Bergersen gets in his composition 'Kingdom Skies' when he employs this technique.  Within this composition, I counted the following time signature transitions:

 

9/8 time signature: 0:00 - 0:45 (video timeline)

6/8 time signature: 0:46 - 0:56 (video timeline)

5/4 time signature: 0:57 - 1:09 (video timeline)

6/8 time signature: 1:10 - 1:32 (video timeline)

3/4 time signature: 1:33 - 1:48 (video timeline)

5/4 time signature: 1:48 - 2:29 (video timeline)

 

This epic work 'Kingdom Skies' runs through four different time signatures with about five different transitions within less than two and a half minutes. Bergersen's composition is extraordinary and bigger than life, which is what one expects from a motion picture soundtrack. The transition of time signatures creatively achieves a rhythmic effect that makes the speed of the piece appear to constantly change and shift. This epic sound effect runs counter to many of the more mundane music scores that sit stagnant and lack the luster of top film scores.

 

 

Various techniques such as the ones above can make a musical score far more interesting. As Edward Rothstein, former music critic for the New York Times, once suggested in his book 'Emblems of Mind', music is in many ways symbolic of the rest of the universe, its created order, and the invisible or unseen elements and entities of its domain. In other words, music can represent the physical storyline, action, and events of one's motion picture.

 

Therefore, it is imperative that a motion picture director have knowledge of this amazing tool in his arsenal, and it is even more imperative that he hire a musical director for his movie who is not limited by the extremely primitive language and monotonous repetitions and redundant techniques of pop music that can often be performed by hitting a few style and chordal buttons on a modern synthesizer. Instead, I highly recommend that he hire a musical composer and producer who understands the vast technical capabilities of classical music and its far more creative and dimensional rhythmic space and its massive vocabulary of emotional languages.

 

Lowering the budget for the music score of a motion picture and / or using musicians who are not capable of anything more than primitive music is a sure way to sound shallow, amateur, cliched, unimaginative and trite. 

 

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