On The Track: Part II

Thus continues my multi-part post about On The Track, the book I’m currently reading that covers every possible aspect of film composition. You can find part one here.



A highly technical section, this one provided useful insight into how a composer can go about hitting the proper beats in his or her cues. Granted, a lot of the methods described are rather outdated, as Pro Tools and other commonplace DAWs will do all of this for you. But it’s always nice to know the basics.

I was surprised to learn just how much math goes into the process. Back in the olden days, there was literally a “sound track” on the film (hence the term we use today) that was physically spliced on. As such, you had to be exact about making sure you knew exactly what beat of what measure your climax was on if you were trying to sync it with a point in the picture. You also had to be proficient with a Click Book, which gives you a conversion between Maelzel’s Metronome (beats per minute) values and number of frames (down to 1/8 a frame) between beats/clicks. All I can say is that I am glad DAWs do this for me…not because I can’t do it manually, but because it allows more time to be creative and less time to be technical. Ultimately, it will serve the score better.



Aaaaah, here we get to the meat and potatoes of the book. Similar to the conceptualization chapter, this one was most helpful with the more abstract aspects of the job. I enjoyed the discussions of setting tone in the first cue, whose point of view to write to (character’s or audience’s), how “smart” the score should be (if the scene is about something not readily apparent, should the music highlight that or simply the action occurring?), the environment, the situation, character’s feelings…there are a multitude of ways to approach scoring any scene. There is also the question of whether you overplay or understate the drama. Most composers tend towards the latter, but several scores by accomplished people such as John Williams certainly have extremely dense, emotional scores that are beloved. I suppose it depends on what the film needs, as well as the personal taste of the composer and the director. It’s a delicate balance, because as Tomas Newman states,

…one of the things that concerns me and interest me about music for film is why is the music there in the first place? And if it is there, why is it saying something? And I guess the obvious reason is because sometimes a scene can be emotionally blank and therefore needs filling in. At the same time, there’s such nuance, particularly in modern movies, of an actor’s performance that I just never want to clobber that.

Of course, the power of music is such that it can de-emphasize or tone down elements that were over-done in production as well, though this is a much less common occurrence.

I also loved the bit on recurring silence that helps add to the drama. I’ve definitely noticed this in the score’s I’ve been studying lately, such as the remake of Battlestar Galactica. The cue “Refugees Return” is on the Season 3 soundtrack, and the corresponding scene is in Exodus Part II at 38:11 on the DVD set. Adama tells Colonel Tigh that he brought everyone home, to which the other replies, “not all of them.” It’s a truly bittersweet scene that is scored perfectly, focusing on Tigh’s guilt and providing an amazing contrast with the praise Adama receives from his crew immediately after those lines.


Refugees Return

There was also a nice discussion of film genres, period films and source music (or music the characters can actually hear).

The most useful section (for me at my current point in time, anyway) dealt with the process of composition itself. Here we have discussions about overcoming writer’s block (of particular interest to me), melodies, development of themes and motifs, non-diatonic techniques (clusters, twelve-tone rows, etc), use of ostinatos, tension and release, modes and orchestrations to suggest location and time period…virtually an analysis of the entire field with copious examples to complement it. Again, I marvel at the amount of sketches and even full scores that are available in this book. For those who do have the budget (or library) to support it, there are also time codes for each example correlating to the DVD release of the film. I don’t have even half of the examples listed in the book, but I will endeavor to change that as I will be studying this book well after the initial read.

I found the section on orchistration particularly fascinating. For example, I was surprised to learn that most of the scores produced for movies are concert pitch – no transpositions. This makes sense, I suppose, given he trend towards using sequencers rather than live performers. However, with quick and easy transposition features on the latest software, I don’t see why this even has to be an issue at all (although to be fair, this is more a copyist’s responsibility than anything).

Sibelius 7 has an easy button that allows you to switch between concert pitch score and transposed score.

I was encouraged to see that some of the snobbery regarding formal training vs self-study is disappearing. Surely it is difficult to argue with the success of the non-traditional composers. Hans Zimmer, for example, is the second highest grossing composer in the world and had a grand total of two week’s worth of formal piano lessons.

I also found a gem of a tip on how to get better at the craft of orchestration: take full scores and condense them into two staves for piano. I frequently download and study scores from the greats that are now in public domain, but as Jack Hayes states:

You can look at it and say, ‘oh yeah, that’s it,’ but you’ve really got to [write it out]. That way you really absorb it.

That has been my failing so far. It is an inefficient method indeed to try to learn simply by observation…as it is with most skills.

There was also an excellent section that basically lists all of the major pitfalls for orchestrators trying to translate a MIDI mock-up to an orchestral score. Little things like woodwind doubling (clarinet player also plays English Horn, needs time to switch), balance issues (solo flute against blaring horns works in MIDI, not so much acoustically) and the like.

There was also a cute little chapter at the end of this part, “Technical and Practical Considerations”. Cute because it covers all of the little things you didn’t expect to be covered…namely, keeping healthy when you basically have no time to do anything but compose when you’re on a project. Things like making sure your workstation is ergonomically adequate, that you’re properly hydrated, eating properly…that sort of thing. Also there were some tips that didn’t seem to fall in any of the other sections, such as making sure you orchestrate for a one-shot recording on stage vs layered sequencing (you don’t want to have that solo piano oboe line demolished by screaming brass if it’s all on stage), proofreading, and saving your music often.

As you can probably tell by now, I adore this book…but I’ll save my summary for the final part.

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