A common topic of discussion at Current Artisan is how technology has led to the advancement of artistic accessibility in just about every medium.
Honing your craft and becoming a professional artist still takes a great deal of time and practice, but computers, smartphones, and the internet have made it far easier to explore art forms and their many subtleties.
Is it any wonder that music composition for film, television, and video games has become such a popular subject for musicians and civilians alike?
For some, this desire is a serious career aspiration, not just a flight of fancy. If you’re one of these people, you’re in the right place.
We’re going to talk about how to practice film scoring and what you can expect to come up against when you secure your very first composition job.
Our expert on the subject is Yueh-Yun “Sandy” Chen, a professional composer from Taiwan who is now based in Los Angeles. She has contributed to a number of prestigious projects, including ‘Elite’ on Netflix and the Amazon Prime original ‘Una Vida Una Cena’.
Chen took on the challenge of examining her composing techniques and habits so that others, regardless of skill level, can challenge themselves and make even better music.
Searching for melodies
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that sitting down with a guitar and trying to write a song can make for a difficult hour or so before I give up entirely.
Most often, I end up subconsciously working out a melody I’ve heard somewhere before, most likely on Spotify, or even worse, I’ll settle on a melody so simple and bland that I immediately abandon the attempt.
Now, I’m not a professional songwriter or composer, but, as Chen described during our talk, even the pros can have real trouble trying to write when they set their mind to it.
Forcing yourself to be creative in the spur of the moment can sometimes yield interesting results, just look at improv comedy. But in most cases, it’s just frustrating and can hamper your motivation.
While Chen certainly likes sitting down to work once she already has an idea, she has found that looking for brand new melodies is a much more passive experience. She waits for them to come to her.
“Sometimes good ideas come out when I’m not at the keyboard at all, maybe while taking a shower, walking on the street, or cooking. When I have a project in mind, I keep thinking about it and sing whatever comes to mind. All of a sudden I know it’s a good idea. Then I try to memorize that idea and record it on my phone.”
Composition students sometimes have trouble accepting this approach as viable. They’re eager to create and impress, but that pressure and unrelenting focus can easily get in the way of the free flow of ideas.
Yes, it’s important to practice and work hard to be a composer, but, as with all creative art forms, your subconscious is capable of doing some of the work for you.
This method really isn’t that far off from keeping a dream journal next to your bed. Ideas can come at random. If you’re prepared to capture them, you’ll have a list of options to draw from later on, and that way, you’ll never be starting from scratch.
Software: does it help or hinder creativity?
When music and composition software was still brand new, there was a good deal of discussion on the subject, as well of plenty of debate as to whether they would become accepted as the norm by professionals.
Things have changed drastically since then. The benefits of recording and composition software are well-documented, and if you plan to work as a professional composer, you will be using them, no matter what.
The question is less about preference and more about inspiration and workflow. Many people find it difficult to be creative within a DAW when there are just so many possibilities at their fingertips. The scope of tools and ideas can be intimidating.
So at what stage of the process does software become crucial, and is it possible to be both creative and focused when working with that software?
Well, from Chen’s perspective, getting comfortable with software is a big step, and one that takes time.
Once you’ve found a workflow that fits your style and schedule, you start to realize the sheer power that programs like these offer to creatives.
“I think it’s essential for me to write music with composition software or a DAW. It’s not that I can’t write music on paper, but with these programs, I can listen to playback immediately and do revisions accordingly. I can also try different arrangements quickly. With immediate playback, I can try more ideas and different possibilities. Composition software definitely expands my creativity.”
Composers, in particular, have been extremely limited during the arranging stage. It was possible to imagine various instrument parts, of course, and early synthesizer patches could mimic many different instruments with some degree of success, but composition software brings your project closer to the real thing, using accurate sounds and dynamics to breathe life into the piece long before you bring sheets to a group of session musicians.
This may be tough to hear, but it’s true: if you want to be a professional composer, you need to learn the appropriate software and learn it well. You should be familiar with its features and know exactly how to translate an idea into the program.
Once you get to that point, doors will open. You will be able to do much more in relatively little time.
Exercises for composers
Now to the meat of the matter: how can you practice your composition skills at home, even when you have limited resources?
In truth, there are many options, but we’d like to focus on two specific exercises that Chen recommended based on her own experiences and writing routines.
All you really need is some time and access to streaming music. The rest of the work is entirely up to you.
Let’s get into the details of the first exercise.
A musical safari
The focus of the first exercise is to listen to as much music as possible, in as many different styles as possible.
Don’t limit your listening based on genre, year of release, or your personal musical preferences.
Not every song has to belong to a vastly different category, but over time you should try to shift gears and fill in the gaps.
Place special emphasis on exploring genres and styles that you’ve either ignored in the past or were completely unaware of.
The suggestion algorithms behind streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music are only growing more sophisticated, which is great news for listeners. After just a few hours you’ll be running into obscure genres and artists that you might otherwise never have come across.
Chen explained how this kind of adventurous listening can contribute directly to your work as a composer:
“Through listening, I discover some music that I can learn from. Somehow I feel those musical elements will be gradually absorbed in my mind, and maybe the next time I need to write music with a similar style, those elements might come out and I can integrate them into my music.”
Versatility is a key skill for all composers, even for the biggest names in the business. Hans Zimmer can’t always stick to traditional orchestration. His soundtrack for Blade Runner 2049 is an excellent example.
Opening yourself up to more genres helps you to understand them much better, and when you understand genres, you can inhabit them with ease.
Nonstop writing session
The second exercise that you can use to up your compositional game is simple enough to understand: write music and don’t stop writing for as long as you can stand.
Former member of Monty Python John Cleese has discussed the highly relevant concept of open-mode and closed-mode creativity.
Basically, open-mode creativity is when you accept every new idea as it comes, without judging or evaluating it. Closed-mode creativity comes later, when you’re editing and you need to weed out the bad ideas and choices from the project.
The goal here is to stay in open-mode for as long as you possibly can, and as we discussed earlier, that doesn’t have to mean sitting down at a keyboard and hoping something comes to mind.
You can be doing other things or you can simply be humming to yourself while you relax on the couch. But priority #1 is to record or capture every idea in some form.
You can record yourself humming on your phone or just keep a microphone running in the background for hours on end.
If you’re feeling especially bold, you can develop these ideas and create rough demos for each one.
Log these threadbare song ideas in a consistent file on your phone or computer. Even if you don’t dip back into them for years, they’ll be waiting for you, ready to be transformed.
“Sometimes people might think their initial ideas for a song are just plain bad, but actually I think every musical idea could be a good idea in the right place at the right time. I like to sing randomly when I don’t need to focus on anything. You’ll be surprised how many ideas will just come to you.”
Chen has exactly the right idea here. There’s a time to be critical of your own work and throw out the bad ideas in favor of finding better ones, but the ideation stage is not the time for that kind of rigidity.
If you tend to be very hard on yourself and disdainful of new ideas, do your best to shut down that part of your personality for a bit and be more accepting.
One way to think of it is to imagine that you’re back in kindergarten with a big piece of paper in front of you and plenty of crayons. At that age, you weren’t concerned about whether your drawing was good or bad, you just followed your instincts.
Doing the same as an adult can help to construct a large well of ideas. Trust us, you’ll thank yourself later.