Film School: Score & Soundtrack

'The Rejected Version of 2001: A Space Odyssey' | Entertain The Elk 'The Rejected Version of 2001: A Space Odyssey' | Entertain The Elk

Ways of thinking about – and creating – the music in your film.

A film’s soundtrack is crucial to its storytelling. As a film-maker, before you can approach commissioning, sourcing, or even creating your soundtrack, there are things to consider: the kind of music you want for your film – and why?

Here are four broad categories of scores and soundtracks – and the ways trends and technology are changing the way they are created.

1. The Original Score

Now You See It examines How Film Scores Play with Our Brains:

Arguably the most famous film composer, and certainly the composer of some of the best-known movie music in history, is John Williams – whose work, Musica Universalis argues, is defined by the melodic motifs at its centre:

John Williams is hardly alone in referencing and interpolating melodies which came before his – Professor Alex Ludwig at the Berklee College of Music keeps a list of movies which feature a classical melody which is particularly ubiquitous in cinema (via Vox):

2. The Temp Score

The film score is often the last part of a film to be completed, as the picture needs to be “locked” before music which syncs perfectly with the action on screen can be written, arranged, performed, and recorded. Often, during film production and post-production, already-existing, or pre-recorded, music is used as placeholder, temporary, or “temp” music. Sometimes, film-makers grow attached to the temp score, and find it difficult to later replace it with a newly-completed original score. Famously, Stanley Kubrick grew so attached to the temp score he used while cutting 2001: A Space Odyssey, that he opted to keep it, and not use the original score he’d commissioned from composer Alex North – who only discovered this when he saw the film, with an audience, at its 1968 premiere:

In the video above, Entertain The Elk notes that the significance of Kubrick’s selection, ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, is not only thematic but also intertextual – inspired as it was by Nietsche’s fable of the evolution of ape, to man, to superman, ideas which propel Kubrick’s film:

'The Rejected Version of 2001: A Space Odyssey' | Entertain The Elk
‘The Rejected Version of 2001: A Space Odyssey | Entertain The Elk

This highlights a reportedly common practice: composers being commissioned to echo or replicate temp score music, rather than contribute their own ideas. Every Frame a Painting demonstrates how, over the 2000s and 2010s, the snake began to eat its own tail – and how, in commercial blockbuster cinema land at least, modern movies have come to sound more and more like eachother, and less and less memorable or unique:

3. The Needle Drop

A “needle drop” is when a pre-existing song – usually a well-known pop song – is used in a film’s soundtrack. Some directors, such as Scorsese and Tarantino, use them amazingly; others… do not. Patrick Willems asks (as all film-makers should), “Why risk using an existing song that risks distracting the audience and taking them out of the moment, instead of the more traditional film score that’s way less obtrusive?” In just one hour, he seeks to define and reference a taxonomy of the uses of pop music in movies: What is the use of that song supposed to say? Who is it speaking for? Who can hear it? How thoughtful – or thoughtless – is a film’s needle drop, and where does it set the bar for how we should engage with the film? Patrick’s exploration necessarily and inevitably becomes a critique of ways popular culture creates and capitalises on what both film-makers and audiences can expect to say and mean when pop songs are included in films they were not created for:

4. Computer Music

This doesn’t refer to a genre, sound, or aesthetic, but rather to a process – one made possible, and increasingly influenced, by more current technology. Dan Golding observes that computer-based composers such as Hans Zimmer, who can write and perform without the need for an orchestra, represent a new era in score and soundtrack conception: composers can now respond, rewrite and rearrange in dialogue with the director during, rather than at the end of, post-production. Dan argues that “the end result is music that is created for a computer to play“, whose limitations favour rhythm over melody, and which has shaped the past two decades of mainstream cinema soundtracks:

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross describe their workflow when scoring films including The Social Network and Soul, and The Watchmen series:

Try It Yourself

In less than 20 minutes, Mattias Holmgren introduces Film Scoring For Beginners E01 – Spotting, Tempo & Arranging:

Or watch Guy Michelmore – who, sidenote, also promises to teach you Music Theory in 16 Minutes – write a score, Step By Step: