Music News

Writing to Picture: Making the Talkies Sing

Photograph of the blog post author, Mary Woodcock

Mary Woodcock


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Writing for film and television is arguably one of the more prestigious jobs a  musician can have bar being a global pop star.

Composers have an instant glamour about them as you not only have to be able to consistently write good music (pop artists can get away with duff singles) but also be able to organise, produce and synchronise it, in a suitable fashion, with visual media.

This is a subject that could (and has) had hundreds of books written about it that are nearly entirely subjective.

This overview article will shine a light on the thought process behind the music, I’ll be following this with more specific articles that, together, will give greater insight into the inner workings of this area of the industry.

Like all things artistic, writing to picture is relatively personal to the individual composer but there are a variety of useful guidelines to follow which can make the sonic universe of your film production effective and interesting.

Music in films and television is there not for the sake of the music alone but to underline emotion, create tension, smooth over otherwise fairly abrupt scene changes and punctuate the action.

However incredible the score is that a composer puts together, if it doesn’t work with the picture then it isn’t worth writing. Hans Zimmer wrote a great soundtrack to Gladiator but those same massive Hollywood-style spaced strings, huge brass and pounding percussion would sound ridiculous set against a picture such as Finding Nemo.

The grand majority of film or television has some form of the theme tune. It will be memorable and normally contain all the instruments that will be used throughout the rest of the reel.

Also, if there is a quirky instrument like an accordion, harmonium or banjo (which will be there to suggest some form of social/cultural context) it will be brought to the fore in the theme tune giving subtext to the opening credits about what the story will be about and what sort of feel/genre it is.

Often this will influence the underscore (‘background’ music throughout the rest of the film) and will suggest early on in the proceedings a suitable emotional reaction for the viewers to the visual stimulus.

How does a composer decide what sort of music to write? Often a composer is chosen specifically for their individual style of music and then they follow through the temp tracks (already existing pieces of music ham-fistedly inserted into the rough cut of the picture) replacing them with a bespoke score that is consistent throughout the duration of the show.

Music will be defined by things such as the size and location of the suggested world. For example, a wide shot of a desert landscape could be underscored by a large and expansive orchestral accompaniment with a flavour of ethnic instrumentation or harmony suggesting exact location (such as in Lawrence of Arabia) or something sparse and disjointed that underlines the aridity and lack of life found in a desert.

Previous films often define a certain genre’s style of a soundtrack. For example, the chromatic rise of the James Bond theme and the electric guitar/massive orchestral feel has defined much of the spy genre and, for its second mention, the bombastic orchestral might of much of the Gladiator score has influenced and defined a huge number of modern Hollywood action and thriller scores.

From there on in, the pace of the scene should define the pace of the music; a cool cat burglar breaking in to steal the world’s largest diamond is unlikely to be accompanied by a frenetic John Williams-esque score.

Similarly, the music provides an insight that may not be obvious from the acting of a character’s inner emotions or future actions, giving them a more believable, 3D personality.

The size of the suggested room or area will, to a certain extent, define the size of the music, both in harmonic spacing and in size of ensemble. The music should mirror the unfolding of the story and should punctuate different aspects of the picture.

It is always satisfying when particular glockenspiel or piano notes (for example) synchronise perfectly with the change from one camera shot to another on something dynamic.

Well-edited scenes will have a certain rhythm to the shot and angle changes – find what that rhythm is, match it and your music will instantly be more effective than before. On the flip side, sometimes it is just as effective to ignore the changes of the shots and go for an ambient, almost sound-design orientated score.

Of course, writing music to picture is not just about writing music to picture. Aside from all the negotiations, sorting out budgets, booking players, mixing engineers, copyists and all the rest, there are also the spotting sessions where the composer, producer and director watch through the rough cut and decide where the in and out points of the music should be.

These are interesting and artistically very satisfying. Then there are the recording sessions, followed by hours of mixing and tweaking before taking the final recorded score to the dub session to have it attached to the picture properly at levels agreed between the composer/director/producer.

The music written for your film or tv show should be a reflection of the onscreen world and communicate all the meaning that is unsaid in the programme in a metaphysical way.

It is a very different style of writing to popular songs and classical concert pieces but satisfying to know that the composer controls at least 50% of the emotional weight in any given scene. Err on the side of caution with taste and stick to your own individual style of writing then watch the credits roll!

Hope this article sheds some light on the world of composing to picture.. ‘Like’ and share the article! If you’ve got any thoughts or wisdom on the subject then share them with the world…

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