Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to really push myself as a composer scoring a new Soap Opera called Hilton Head Island. What has been both refreshing and eye opening is the amount of music I have to create. In this article, I am going to talk about an “Aha!” moment I recently had on a day off.
P.S. Be sure to watch the daily vlog about this subject as well.
Writing A Lot of Music is Refreshing
Let me start off by saying that I am having a blast scoring this soap opera. It’s got all the elements of a good soap – powerful family, vying for power, secrets – plenty of stimulus for a composer.
Having a deadline and forcing myself to work consistently until I am finished has allowed me to work through many new ideas. The process of starting a new cue, finding a unique identity for it, and then finishing to start another is like going out for fresh air – compositionally speaking.
When you are working on a piece of music, and it takes too long, it becomes stuffy. And just like having a stuffy house, the antidote is to go outside for fresh air and sun.
Finishing a piece is like going out for fresh air.
When you finish a piece, both your conscious and subconscious minds can finally stop working on it as a problem. This is critical for coming up with new ideas.
I can personally say that when I am working a piece, I tend to hear it in my mind a lot. It pops in and out like any other piece of music I’ve heard before. I am not saying I have some special Mozart-esque ability to audiate and create entire pieces in my mind. It’s more like when you hear a cool new tune, and your brain tries to replay it.
Often, it feels incomplete, or it repeats certain sections over and over without moving on.
I believe this replaying is your mind working on the music as a creative problem to solve. Never mind that you won’t change other people’s music. The point is I think they are related.
Writing A Lot of Music is Eye Opening
On the other hand, writing a lot of music will reveal your true strengths and abilities as a composer. When you force yourself to work out new ideas every single day, what becomes obvious are the things that are difficult.
The revelations can cut both ways though. A part of you will anticipate what is going to be enjoyable in the upcoming cue. The other part will anticipate what won’t be enjoyable.
Here is what that’s good. In the stuff that isn’t enjoyable are the secrets to your growth as a composer.
Finding Creative Problems in the Difficult Stuff
As I finish each successive episode I realize how critical the overall plan of the music is to crafting a story.
Think of it like this. You have a 2 hour movie. Let’s say the movie makers don’t have a budget for a composer, so they’ve elected to use library music.
There is a lot of really good library music out there, but the problem is that each piece from a library is going to be a one off. Sometimes you get collections of cues that all use similar orchestration, but ultimately they are set. The library music can’t adjust to the story. Themes can’t be modified to fit how a character is changing, and the music will never know anything about the film.
It will just be placed – not crafted.
But scoring, you have the ability to follow and change along with the story.
The main creative questions I am thinking about right now come from this fact. I am not just writing music. I am writing music that has to work to enhance the effect of the film, as well as stand on it’s own as music. A lot of film scoring can easily support the film, but the real art is making it support the film and still tap into the things that make us love music for it’s own sake.
I recently read an article which states the location in the brain where musical memories are stored is different than other kinds of memories. On a basic level, this means the music does something different in our brains and bodies than visual elements.
This is why music is an equal partner to the visual in the medium of film.
Some Creative Problems That I’ve Identified That I Have Yet to Fully Answer
How much repetition is acceptable within a single cue all the way up to a season?
This question can actually be unpacked even further.
- When is it a good idea to bring back themes from previous episodes?
- When writing a cue, how long can you use a single texture without having to change to a new one? This single texture allows for ornamental changes. I am talking about a major change in texture – like new rhythms, orchestration, change of key, etc.
What is the limit of new instrumental choices I need in order to keep the score feeling interesting, but also unified?
If you think about a traditional orchestral score, the major unifying factors are the orchestra itself, and the melodic and harmonic content. The orchestration tends to change very frequently.
Adding synths and other acoustic and virtual instruments changes that. I can pull up a synth and have an almost infinite variety of sound. Creating a unique texture becomes easy now – but at the expense of unity.
And as far as a film score goes, I think unity is critical. Unity is what gives meaning to change. If a theme has been in the clarinet for a whole episode, and then changes to cellos using sul ponticello, it’s going to have a drastically different feel. And it will mean something.
Something I’ve been thinking about doing is creating a somewhat stationary synth orchestra. Not in the sense of trying to copy acoustic instruments, but instead trying to create a standard group of sounds to pull from. Just like I know the sounds of the violin – detache, spiccato, legato, pizzicato, sul tasto, sul ponticello, etc. – I can know the sounds of my synthesizers.
How to Define Your Own Creative Problems
Defining creative problems starts with the things you know are going to mentally tax you. Here are some questions to ask when thinking about them:
- What easy way out did I take on the last piece I wrote? For me, it was copying and pasting a section, and then directly transposing it. It works, but it’s the best I can do.
- What compositional/creative task have I really struggled following through on? It could be saying you are going to write with strict counterpoint, or maybe it’s using the woodwinds more often. Usually I’ll struggle to find a way to fit in woodwinds other than as melody instruments.
- What types of textures, melodies, or instruments did I use most often? This alerts you to the types of things that are easy for you, and where you can spot ways to stretch. For instance, I find it very easy to grab by Spitfire Spiccato Strings patch, and create a driving type of texture with them. It usually works well setting the pace of scene. What else could I do instead?
What Do You Do Once You Define the Creative Problem?
The power of identifying your creative problems like this is that you clear up for your subconscious mind what it should actually be trying to solve.
If you think your problem with repetition is using the same melodies too many times, your mind is going to be hunting for new melodic ideas.
If you think it is actually a problem with using the same orchestral texture, then you’ll focus on new textural ideas.
Solving these problems comes down to being a mix of dedicated conscious problem solving and resting on the ideas to germinate new ideas.
For instance, you may consciously tell yourself, “I am going to try a texture that uses woodwind arpeggios to create the drive in the score and melody will be in solo brass instruments.”
At the same time, you’re subconscious may work out a way for you to create the drive using a synth sound you were playing around with, and the melody could be a percussion melody. Who knows?
The power is in asking the right questions.