Movie music at its best
Movie music has always been important, and you would be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker who doesn’t understand and appreciate the immense power that music can have within the context of a scene.
But over the last 20 years, that appreciation has spread much farther than the filmmaking community. Now, many audience members have grown to love movie music for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it can remind them of their favorite movies with just a few notes.
As movies have diversified, so too has film music become a very wide genre. It seems to have room for just about every other genre of music within it.
Versions of classical music have been used since before the days of Kubrick. Industrial and electronic music found its way into mainstream movies thanks to the likes of Trent Reznor. Minimalist horror scores like the one featured in Under the Skin have expanded the emotional reach of a film genre that had been growing stale for decades.
Some movie fans fall in love so deeply with film scores that they decide to become composers themselves.
If you’ve been wanting to try your hand at film composition, either as a hobby or as a profession, this is the article for you. We will take a look at how to practice film scoring with the help of professional musician and film composer Marvin McMahon.
McMahon has contributed music to more than 50 television shows, including The Voice and Law & Order. He also serves as the frontman of the rockband River Becomes Ocean.
Current Artisan caught up with him last week to discuss how film composition hopefuls can hone their skills and create a musical voice all their own.
Film music bootcamp
So where should you get started with film music composition? Well, if you’re not already familiar with the nuts and bolts of music and instrumentation, then you’ll have to start from square one.
Learning a versatile instrument like the piano or the guitar is never a bad place to get started, but you should also listen to many different composers.
Whether you want to attend a music program at a well-regarded college or university is up to you. The alternative would be to teach yourself as much as you can.
McMahon himself used a combination of both to develop his skills.
Before entering the world of writing music for the screen, McMahon studied music theory and performance in Germany and the UK. But none of his studies were directly related to composing score music.
He started doing some digging online, finding resources that helped to familiarize him with the ins and outs of film music.
“There is so much valuable information everywhere online and offline, from books like ‘The Study Of Orchestration’ by Samuel Adler to the scores of the great composers on YouTube that you can study free of charge. But I think the best way to really develop your skills is just by doing it every day: writing, writing, writing!”
Write as often as you can. Yes, your early work will probably be bad. Don’t let it discourage you. This is how absolutely everyone has to start their career.
A popular phrase in music schools around the country is that each student has a thousand terrible songs in them, and they need to get them out as quickly as possible. Learn from every awful piece of music you write. You’ll become a skilled composer much faster that way.
If you’re an absolute beginner, a great way to practice is to cue up a movie or TV show, preferably one you haven’t seen before. Keep it on mute and try to compose in real-time.
What is the tone of the scene? What does the color scheme tell you about how the scene is supposed to feel?
Do this again and again and again. It won’t be long before you notice improvement. You can even try to take some video yourself, even if it’s just of friends sitting around, talking.
Later, on your own, try to make the footage feel different by applying different music styles.
Intuition vs. technical skill
There’s a tendency among art students of any stripe to say that they don’t need to worry about the fundamentals, that their artistic instincts are far more important.
After all, learning all the intricacies of music theory and the subtleties of different instruments is time-consuming and may seem less important than coming up with interesting musical ideas.
So we decided to put the question to our guest expert: in your experience, what is more important, technical skill or intuition?
“As a professional, I believe intuition is more important. You can always hire one of the many amazing session musicians or program a difficult passage in your software. However, solid technical ability and an understanding of theory and harmony will help immensely when composing, and I think every composer should always strive to learn more and more.”
In other words, it’s often a mix of both. The twist here is that intuition often comes as the result of expert-level technical ability. For example, when you can make a piano or a DAW do absolutely anything you want it to, you can implement any music idea you could ever think of.
The act of composing itself can be a great way to practice, but it’s never a waste of time to learn the foundations of music itself.
No ‘I’ in team
Chances are if you’ve been picturing your future career as a film composer, you imagine yourself alone in a dimly lit room, surrounded by computer monitors and keyboards. At most, maybe you saw yourself conducting a studio orchestra.
Sure, there are times when composers shut themselves away in a room to work on a project in solitude, but every piece of music involves a certain amount of collaboration, intentionally or unintentionally.
You need to be comfortable with the possibility of integrating other people’s ideas and even asking for help when you hit a roadblock.
McMahon cheerfully described how each of his projects involves some degree of collaboration with other talented artists.
“I usually work on 3-5 projects at the same time, and for every single project, I’m collaborating with someone. Collaborating is such a great part of music, you get to write musical pieces that would have never sounded the way they do if you would have composed them on your own. You get to learn from each other and become a better writer in the process.”
This is especially important to keep in mind at the start of your career. You most likely won’t be hired outright to compose the music for a major motion picture. Many young composers start out as assistants to other composers. Odds are you will be a collaborator for years before getting the chance to spearhead a significant project.
Blend in or stand out?
While writing your own music, there will be times when a piece sounds very similar to something you’ve heard before. It’s inevitable.
While outright musical theft is illegal, you should be able to imitate the styles of different composers with ease by the time you enter the field as a professional. McMahon made this clear during our conversation.
“I think finding your own musical style is something that takes a lifetime to develop. You also need to be able to imitate other composers’ styles, as clients will sometimes tell you that they want a track that sounds like composer X or Y.”
Think of finding your own musical voice as a long-term goal, one that will be achieved passively, by practicing your craft and learning more about yourself.
Until that time, you’ll mostly be trying to please the client. Most clients don’t want wholly original music, but instead music that sounds like something they’ve heard before, music that has been successful in the past.
This reality might clash with your artistic goals, but it’s incredibly common. It might help to have your own side projects at all times, where you’ll have an outlet for your more creative musical ideas. But in the beginning, the most important thing is to do work that the client loves.
The best moments
Confronting what real-life film composition actually looks like can be difficult. You’ll need to spend a massive number of hours practicing your craft just to be considered for small jobs.
Ultimately, you’ll need to find the practice method that works best for you. It may be composing to pre-existing movies or you may prefer to start from scratch, working out a simple melody around which to build the rest of the score.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel, even when you find yourself at a loss for ideas.
McMahon explained that there are moments during each project when he is reminded of his love for music and his own abilities as a composer.
“I think my favorite aspects of the composition process are the beginning and the end. Not knowing what is going to happen at the beginning is scary. Then, after some very hard work, you finish the composition and you’re happy with what you’ve written. Following a struggle, suddenly it all works and you feel an indescribable sense of relief and happiness. It’s wonderful.”
With enough practice, you too could reach this euphoric state, having written something you will always be proud of.