Score composition for film remains one of the most attractive careers to musicians and general audiences alike.
Who wouldn’t want to create a beautiful soundtrack for a movie? Who doesn’t already have a very long and ever-growing list of their all-time favorite movie themes?
But becoming a professional score composer is a long road to walk, and to start, you’ll need a strong background in music and music theory.
From there, the name of the game becomes self-promotion and networking, as well as developing a strong artistic voice that will be instantly recognizable to future clients and collaborators.
It’s more complicated than we’re making it sound, of course, but thankfully professional score composer Pei Hua ‘Cynthia’ Lin sat down for an interview with Current Artisan to tell her story and elaborate on how to get into writing music for film.
Lin’s past work includes compositions for the short films ‘Grandpa’s Long March,’ ‘Leave No Trace,’ ‘Paracusis,’ and ‘Place We Won’t Walk.’ ‘Paracusis’ in particular won multiple awards (as Lin discussed in the interview).
Lin is deeply invested in the art of composition and regularly attends conferences on the subject and meets with other talented composers to learn more about her craft.
Take heed of her advice and you’ll have a much better sense of the work and navigation required to achieve your dream career.
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Starting out + networking
What was your very first experience with composing music for a film?
Lin: My first experience with composing music for a film was in 2018. Back then I was still finishing my studies at Berklee College of Music. There was a class called Film Scoring Practicum, an advanced elective. In this class, the composer collaborates with a director and scores an MFA thesis film. I was working on a film, Paracusis. It’s a thriller-drama about a workaholic’s struggles to free himself from a mysterious but familiar haunting voice. The first thing I did was write a theme for the film. The theme is often the most important part of creating film music. It makes the audience recognize the film right away.
Especially since my director and I were located in different cities and time zones, the whole process took place online. Writing music is very different from writing music for film. Through this experience, I learned to follow the director’s angle. My first experience was very smooth and fulfilling, and I really enjoyed working with the director.
Have filmmakers found you through your past work or through friends and professional connections?
Lin: I always get new films from my previous working partners or their colleagues. My first collaboration film got into several film festivals, such as LA Shorts International Film Festival, Beverly Hills Film Festival, NewFilmmakers Los Angeles Film Festival, L.A. Film Fest: Independent Filmmakers Showcase, Sunset Film Festival, Awareness Film Festival and Chinese American Film Festival, and won some awards, including “Best Thriller”, and “Best Drama Short”.
After that, more people heard my music and connected with me through the director I worked with. Besides, I often go to film festivals, events such as screenings, Global Game Jam, composer panels, and more to meet people and exchange experiences.
How to work well with others
Do you ever collaborate with the director to make changes to your compositions?
Lin: Each director has changed my compositions. Writing music and scoring for “Film Music” is very different. When directors film a movie, they have ideas in mind, which movements are more important, which scenes are the transitions, etc. Even one blink or one turn can make a film so different.
Directors know their films better than composers do, and music exists to support the emotion on the screen and emphasize the moments that directors want audiences to notice. One time I scored a scene in which two characters were arguing, so I made the music very active as well.
The director decided to have the music be more calm and even have a little humor to create less tension. Now, when writing for film, I focus more on images and the director’s perspective.
What has been your favorite project so far? Why was it the most enjoyable?
Lin: I’ve enjoyed every project I’ve worked on. The most enjoyable part is the interaction between me and the directors. Directors and composers have different professional languages, so communicating effectively is essential. I always become friends with the directors I work with. They share their process with me, including preparation, editing, ambient sound design, etc., and sometimes invite me to join in the filming process as well.
It’s very hard to imagine how much goes into shooting just one minute of footage. The light, the shadows, anything on the screen is pre-designed. This surprised me and I realized how much directors treasure their films.
I really enjoy participating in the process of filmmaking and it inspires me to write music for them. On the other hand, I also invite directors to share in the music production if they want. I am always touched when a director visits a recording session, and I can feel that the players are more excited to play the music. And the director is excited to see the film coming together after so much hard work.
Ideas and inspiration
How do you find the initial idea for new film music?
Lin: Writing music that tells a story is my goal. When I first began to write music for film, I had so many ideas for music, how to make music interesting, what structure to use, and the direction of the music.
But now, the most important thing in my music is supporting the film. Usually, I watch a lot of footage without any temp music before I start composing. Each time I watch, I notice more details, and it truly gives me a better sense of the project. Besides, I do a lot of research before I start a project.
Sometimes I have to write in a style of music that I am not very familiar with. I listen to a bunch of tracks and I also research the history of the music, its country of origin, and the instruments used. It is very helpful for me to compose when I have knowledge of a particular musical style.
What do you think is your greatest strength as a composer?
Lin: My sensitivity and passion for music is definitely my strongest strength as a composer. I started my music education when I was four years old and I have a strong music background, not only with playing instruments, but also with music theory, music history, and harmony.
I am still doing my hardest to learn and expand my musical knowledge and I listen to different eras and different styles of music. When I am composing, I usually combine a few concepts together, for example, combining classical instrumentation with contemporary elements, or contrasting emotions.
It makes my music go deeper and wider, and contains more variation, no matter the orchestration or emotions.
My composing ability was also influenced by my experience with playing violin over twenty years. Violin always has the most melody line for instrumental music, and after playing so many beautiful melodies in my life, it built the foundations of my own compositions.
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For more information on Lin’s past work, please visit the links listed below: