On The Track: Part I


This book is so enormous that I will have to split this discussion into multiple posts. Do not, however, let that get in the way of your impulse to pick it up should you decide that film scoring is your dream job. This is probably the single greatest book on the subject I’ve come across due to its comprehensiveness, which is why it’s so large. It is a most solid foundation, and precisely what I was looking for.

It starts with a brilliant forward by John Williams, one of the greatest film composers who ever lived. He goes into how technology is changing the industry a bit (namely how easy it is for younger composers to neglect a broader base of experiences), includes a glowing recommendation of this book due to it’s inclusion of “so much painfully acquired knowledge,” and also adds a hopeful glace toward the future of the industry. He states,

In the past we’ve noticed that many of our best musical minds were not interested in film scoring. This was probably the result of the fact that these composers found too many restrictions and technical problems in the film medium, and for some, the practice was simply too “low brow.” I do, however, think that in the future we will see more and more “serious” young composers willing to devote some of their energies to film music. If this happens, and I think it will, the resultant music may have an effect, hopefully beneficial, on the development of the art and of music itself. Media music is here to stay. It is part of our musical future.

This is more true with each passing year. More young folks than ever are pursuing degrees not just in composition, but specifically film composition…so much so that the market is getting flooded with candidates. There is a definite distinction between scoring for picture and writing absolute music. But for some (including me), the melding of a good score and a good movie, episode or cut scene/level in a video game creates something unique and special that stimulates all of the senses. As he puts it:

I wish all students and readers of this book great joy and much success as they enter what is a universe of sight and sound that we are all just beginning to explore.

Now that I’m done salivating over the words of one of my childhood heroes, let’s dive into the meat of the book.



This section dealt mostly with familiarizing the reader with the various aspects of film production, as well as a general view of the industry. I found, to my delight, an example of a condensed score for a movie’s main title (resources that are quite difficult to come by for those not in the industry) who’s score I know and love: The Great Escape by Elmer Bernstein. This was only in the second chapter!

In fact the book is chalk full of actual written cues that I plan on studying more intensely later on.

There was also plenty of discussion on temp tracks, and how various composers deal with them. Some don’t want to hear them at all because it will alter the creative process for themselves, but most think of it as a useful tool to improve communication between the composer and the filmmakers. I know I would love to hear a temp track, because it does part of my work for me: it establishes what the music needs to do in that particular instance…or at least, provides a starting place for that discussion.

Another great thing I found early on was an example of a group of documents: spotting notes and cue summary sheets. Some of these get very detailed and as such make the composer’s job much easier. I was under the assumption that composers took notes themselves for spotting sessions (and I’m sure that is the case for low-budget films), but apparently that’s the music editors job.

This section also covers the power of not using music, and how the music is only there to service and elevate the film. I’m sure we’ve all noticed instances where the inclusion of any music, no matter how minimalist or restrained, would ruin the scene entirely. Some examples that spring to mind readily are several scenes from No Country for Old Men (which has almost no score at all):

Any music would have taken away from the ridiculous amount of tension in that scene. The music simply wasn’t required, because the silence was adding to that tension. The author describes it perfectly:

Curiously, certain dramatic situations, especially those with a strong sense of realism or emotion, can be weakened by the addition of music: ┬áit can turn earnest drama into maudlin melodrama; it can take the searing edge off gritty, threatening realism and make the scene safely “theatrical” so we no longer see it as reality.

Another pleasant surprise I found early on was a list of film terminology. This can come in handy not just for reading spotting notes, but also for reading scripts.

Finally, there is the budget section. This book goes into great detail about musicians unions and how to plan and budget for those players and non-union players alike. It even has a step-by-step guide to calculating your orchestra cost before you ever write any music, based on “salary units” and the like. This union information and other fine details is what I was missing from the previous book, so that was quite handy.



I found this particular section even more valuable than the last. This is probably the most important part of the composition process. The more work that can be done conceptualizing the score, the better you will be able to avoid writer’s block because you already have a good idea of what kind of sound you want, what instrumentation, what modes/scales, styles and of course thematic elements (if applicable). This is actually the part of composition that I sometimes don’t spend enough time on myself, and let me tell you…it slows down the writing process quite a bit. Just as an outline is an essential step to writing a paper or a book, so too is conceptualizing an important and necessary step to building a cohesive, quality score.

There was a quote in here that I loved…

One of the unique features of film music is the blending of several stylistic musical styles or elements to create a composite, sometimes even fresh recipe of musical ingredients. The possible variations are limitless. A little hint of country music can flavor a score…there may not be a single commonly used musical label that accurately describes the composite musical idiom you have created.

So true! This is one of the things that fascinates me about film and television scores…they are so eclectic! I’ve seen as many as five or six radically different styles blended into the same score. That kind of synthesis is something that is rarely, if ever, heard in absolute or even program music.

There was a great discussion about how the thematic material and even the style usually emanates from the central character of the film, whatever or whoever that may be. Also that there is generally an “overview” musical theme, which captures the main emotional thrust of the film. This thrust can be simple or complex, and the score must seek to match that accordingly, be that with the appropriate style, inclusion of ethnic elements, texture, color, etc. And since this is usually quite a difficult task, it is not uncommon for composers to borrow certain elements from other composers – even film composers. And nobody should blame them in the slightest…not just because such a thing is not a crime, but also because film composers are constantly under ludicrous schedules.

Finally, there was a very nice section on mock-ups. It went into detail for several professionals and the myriad ways that a score goes from initial concept to fully orchestrated. Some start with the sequencer and go straight into building mock-ups, thus taking care of orchestration at the same time…others produce sketches and play them out at the piano (though that is becoming less and less common these days), others still create more sparse mock-ups and let others polish it up as part of the “orchestration” process.

The thing I found most helpful was the section on making your mock-ups convincingly real. There was unanimous advice to play your parts into the sequencer one at a time, rather than playing a chord for the whole section (I’d imagine this helps you be more accurate and efficient), as well as not being afraid to do things that a normal orchestra can’t do. Even though you’ll have to adjust for that later on during the orchestration phase – if you’re using a live orchestra). Because obviously, a lot of finessing has to be done to make a synthesizer sound real, and sometimes that means trying some strange stuff. Good tips for someone like me who is just starting out with a Sequencer.

This section also went into some detail about an interesting debate on how good you should make your mock-ups. Should they simply be a way to demonstrate a basic idea before you record, or should they be more like a finished product? I personally would choose either depending upon the project and the budget, and probably partially the sound sets I’m using and how certain elements of the mock-up turn out. If I can get a good sound out of a total mock-up, why not use that? On the other hand, if the trumpet part sounds terrible, I can get those recorded and added. On a third hand, if I’m scoring something that requires full orchestra, I’m likely not going to go all-out on the mock-up to try and make it 100% polished, because my ultimate goal is to record the ensemble.

And to top it off, more excellent sketches from Lord of the Rings, Glory, Road to Perdition, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other phenomenal scores. I can’t wait to see what else is in this beast!

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