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HOW TO WRITE FILM MUSIC

Guy Michelmore is an EMMY nominated award winning


composer who has wri8en music for Marvel, Lionsgate,
Dreamworks, Disney and many more. His work includes eight
animated feature films for Marvel, over 200 episodes of television
including Jungle Book for Disney and Lassie for Dreamworks. He
is also the course director of ThinkSpace EducaHon.

Now in it’s 20th year, ThinkSpace EducaHon was the first online
film scoring school. All ThinkSpace programs are wri8en and
tutored by working professional composers, orchestrators and
sound designers. We teach what we do every day for a living.
With over 5000 graduates and students, ThinkSpace courses
have been helped many composers on their way to success. In 2015 ThinkSpace launched the world’s
online only Master’s program in partnership with the University of Chichester.


theory or visa versa. It doesn’t maHer much which
Introduc)on way round it works, you’ll need both good musical
Welcome! In this short document I will AND technological knowledge.
give you the need-to-know, quick start
In terms of technology, you should feel reasonably at
version of how to write film music.
home inside your DAW using virtual instruments and
The basic technique applies to all audio-visual media crea?ng finished mixes of your music. I’m not talking
- TV, commercials, and video game cut scenes, not award-wining levels of produc?on here, but you
just film. I’m going to explain both the crea?ve and need to know your way around and know how to use
technical aspects of the job in outline. Any one ?p all the main func?ons of your DAW.
here could fill a book and to really master this craD
takes a life?me. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need a high-level
of classical music theory knowledge though, you just
But this is the quick version, so lets get started! need a good understanding of how to write a piece
of music and make a demo in your own style. Many
film composers have a very limited amount of
Assump)ons classical music theory know-how but have a deep

 and in?mate understanding of how to structure a
I am going to assume that you have wriHen a piece piece of music and how to write a chord sequence or
of music before using computer technology, you melody.
have some idea what a chord progression is, and
you’ve had a bash at wri?ng a melody and It’s whatever gets the job done.

understand the basics of rhythm.

Students who come to us are oDen asymmetric in


terms of their skillset; all technology and no music

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Technology

You need a Digital Audio Worksta?on or DAW. This
can be a fully featured professional program like
Cubase, Logic, ProTools or Reaper. You can even get
started with GarageBand.

Overview of the Workflow


Here I will outline the steps and then we can walk it through in more detail.

1. THE PROJECT 1. THE BRIEF 3. SPOTTING



 
 

The first thing you are going to You are then going to work out This is the process of deciding
do is find out about the project, what the producer or director where the music goes and what
the genre it belongs to and the wants. She or he will explain func?on it performs. It is oDen
creators, the producers or what they are hoping for. carried out with the director
director. You might well come to Some?mes this is very detailed while you both watch the film
some early conclusions of your and other ?mes, frankly, they but increasingly is done
own about crea?ve approaches. haven’t got a clue. remotely. You end up with a long
list of cues: individual pieces of
music which taken together
comprise the film score.

4. SCORING THE MOVIE 5. PRESENTING YOUR MUSIC



SeXng up your DAW and impor?ng the movie so
TO THE CLIENT
you’re ready to start scoring. You pick a cue from 

the list of cues and start wri?ng. Some?mes you I’ll tell you how to make a movie so your client can
spend ?me in theme development geXng the see your work and tell you how much he or she
sound right first, but a lot of the ?me with shorter loves you.
projects, you just dive in and start playing with You’re Done!
sounds and ideas while playing to the picture.


A Word Of Cau)on… Well, 108 Words Actually!
To put this in context, live commercial projects can go on for months or years and involve
dozens of intermediate steps. Beneath each paragraph here lie lots of hidden piMalls, over
contains a million typhoons, ready to blow the naïve poorly prepared composer off
course.
It’s my job to make this seem logical and simple so you can get going.

It is also my job to warn you that, in a way, it isn’t really like that and it is fraught with difficulty that only a much
more detailed course like Music for the Media or our Master’s programs can fully prepare you for. So let’s get
going…


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1. The Project

It’s worth saying at the outset that I am approaching
this from the point of view of a commercial project
where the composer is employed and therefore the
composer does what he or she is told. If you are
working on an art film or an unpaid project you might
well be more of an equal partner and therefore have
much more say over the direc?on of the music.

Either way, you need to work out a lot of basic things


about the film.

Development: Working out the basic idea, raising
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE FILM? finance and geXng key cast and crewmembers

 involved.
By which I mean is it a commercial film designed to
get released and make a profit, an art house indie Pre-producIon: Detailed script work, loca?on
film, a no-budget or student project - All these things scou?ng, hiring the rest of the crew and facili?es.
make a difference. Working out the detail of the shoo?ng schedule.

HOW LONG IS IT? ProducIon: When the film is actually shot.



A short film can be anything from a minute to half an Post-ProducIon: Edi?ng the film, music and sound.
hour but 5-15 minutes is common.
DistribuIon: GeXng the film out to it’s millions of
WHAT IS THE BROAD GENRE? fans…


Drama, thriller, horror, ac?on, fan film, comedy, Edi)ng Terminology…
romance?

The first draD of the film is called an ‘assembly’ and
WHAT IS THE CREATIVE APPROACH? is normally 50% over length.

Cool and contemporary, classic Hollywood on a The next is a ‘rough cut’, which is closer to the
budget, art-house indie film vibe, slightly cheesy, finished length but things might s?ll change
drama?cally.
This is where it comes to working out where the
director is coming from. Look him or her up on IMDB Finally there is the ‘locked cut’ or ‘final cut’. At this
or find their website or Facebook page and suss point (theore?cally) the picture doesn’t change any
them out. See if they’ve worked with other more so that sound and music can work with the
composers before. finished picture.

Once sound and music are done the film is mixed or


Technical (but important) dubbed, where music, dialogue and sound effects are
Details all brought together.
You need to know the schedule and so a
Schedule: So you need to know when the film is
quick overview of the process is in order.
going to be “locked” and when they need you to

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Talk to the director if possible and get to know them
and their musical taste. Try to avoid vague
descrip?ve words and pin them down to concrete
examples.

Rather than “yeah make it cool and epic” try “You


mean a bit like Incep?on?”.

Use examples of music you both know to


communicate. This avoids ambiguity but realise that
what they say they want at the start might evolve
and change over ?me. This is natural and a good

 thing even though it might not seem like it when
deliver, at the very least a few days before the mix or they throw out a load of your score.
the dub. That is your window to score the film.

You need to know if they have a budget and if they 3. SpoSng


expect or want any live musicians. 

This is where you go through the film and decide
You need to know who is signing off on the music both where the music should start and finish and
and what the approval process will be. what it’s purpose is. Each piece of music is called a
cue.

2. The Brief Films are s?ll no?onally divided into reels roughly 20
The director of the film needs to give you minutes long. Tradi?onally cues are numbered:
a brief, an outline of the broad direc^on
the music should be heading. 1M1 = this means the first cue in reel 1

This can be anything from 1M2 = the second cue in reel


extremely lose adjec?ves 1
like “cool, contemporary
and upliDing” to very
1M3 = the third cue in
specific references to (yawn…) you get the idea…
exis?ng styles of music.
Some directors have no
Most films come with what is
idea what they want or
known as burnt-in or visual
have an idea but want to
?mecode, like the example
hear your ideas first. So
below.
you can expect everything
from no help at all right
through to a detailed Timecode is a unique
blueprint of what they’re reference to each and every
expec?ng to hear. frame of the film and is
always formaHed as:
Frequently editors use temporary music to cut to,
known as a temp track. These are normally Hours: Minutes: Seconds: Frames
commercial tracks which they have no inten?on of
using in the final film and are unlikely to be able to So if you want to describe the point the cue should
use anyway, but it oDen gives you a good idea what start, you could say “just aDer the man walks out of 

kind of thing they are thinking about. 

the room” or much more accurately 10:05:06:12,
Composers HATE temp tracks.

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that is ten hours, five minutes, six seconds and if you are scoring a cue half way through a 20-minute
twelve frames. reel.

For technical reasons, more oDen than not, the For the sake of this quick and simple explana?on, we
beginning of the film is not 00:00:00:00 but starts on will assume that the movie starts on the downbeat of
1 or 10 hours.
 bar 1 and the music starts on the down-beat of bar
3.

Star^ng To Score The Movie


When most film composers start watching a movie,
they hear the music in their head. They audi?on
different approaches in their imagina?on. A lot of the
composi?on is actually done by thinking through the
best approach before you start scoring.

Good ideas oDen come from accidents when you



 play or do something wrong.
Try to avoid very short cues of less than say 15
seconds. For cues that go over say 3 minutes,
On a large project you might have spent days, weeks
consider breaking it up into more manageable
or even months coming up with a sound, a musical
chunks.
language and thema?c material that will work with
the project.
Finding places where music starts is oDen obvious.
Where it should stop is frequently more difficult.

Work out in advance with the director how much


music they want and where in the film they want just
dialogue or just sound. This is a maHer of taste and
varies a lot.

4. Scoring the Movie


Se`ng Up Your DAW
Now is the ?me to set up your DAW. Make sure first 

of all that your DAW can import movie files. All the You have done your homework. You know the range
major DAWs can do that including Cubase, Logic, of music that this genre tends to use. You have
Digital Performer, Pro Tools, Reaper and Ableton spoken to the director and received a brief so all that
Live. should have narrowed down the possibili?es
significantly. You should have sorted out a lot of the
more strategic issues like, how much is there, do you
Garageband can import movies but with limited
underscore dialogue, what is the general direc?on of
func?onality.
the sound.

Reaper is free to try and can also import movies.


Your blank sheet of paper shouldn’t feel quite as
blank as it was.
You need to make sure the ?mecode in the DAW
project lines up with the ?mecode in the film. This is
So the main ques?on is what is the music going to
fairly straighlorward if you are star?ng to score from
add to this scene? What are you trying to achieve? Is
the beginning of the movie file but more complicated
there an overall structure to the scene? Can you
break the cue itself down into sec?ons?


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Always keep in mind one final macro ques5on – “how does this cue fit into the overall structure of the score as a
whole?”

Here’s a short scene:

A girl, Naomi, is doing the washing up in her kitchen when all of a sudden there’s a knock on the door.

She opens it and Tom, her boyfriend, enters the room. He gives her a peck on the cheek and slowly sits
down at the table.

Looking guilty he says

“I’ve got something I need to tell you”

She turns looking concerned and suspicious and moves to sit opposite him.

“Go on then” she says.

He looks down at the table and then straight back into her eyes.

“I’m just not the man you think I am... I’m… I’m… actually an alien shape shi<ing hamster and my real
name is Murgatroid!”

With which, with a brilliant blue flash, he morphs into a 6-foot alien hamster. Immediately he starts
chasing her around the kitchen.

She screams and throws kitchen utensils and vegetables at him.

They stop, staring at each other pan5ng breathlessly.

She says “I have a surprise for you as well, my ‘love’…”

She starts morphing into an even more enormous lizard.

She unleashes a mighty lizard scream and dives across the room, grabbing hamster Tom in her gigan5c
lizard claws. With one enormous scream the lizard eats him whole.

Licking her lips, the lizard leaves the room.

(Note to self: Avoid the mushrooms in future)


Breaking Down The Scene

Where is the music going to start? It could be when he knocks at the door or it could be when he says I have
something to tell you.

The first sec?on probably runs from the start up un?l he reveals his true iden?ty and morphs into a hamster.


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This is then followed by an ac?on sequence. Clearly there is a big moment half way through when she turns into
a lizard, which reaches a climax when the lizard eats the hamster.

So that’s at least three sec?ons – the tension when he is talking and the then ac?on when he is chasing her
around the kitchen and climax as the lizard turns the tables and eats him.

How does it end?

It probably goes down to something low and brooding aDer he is eaten and fades out as she leaves the room.

Hit Points
How many places in this cue does the
music need to be perfectly in sync with
the music so that it hits a par^cular piece
of ac^on to the split second?
These hard hit points aren’t as common as you might
imagine. Many of the transi?ons between sec?ons !
can be placed anything up to a second either way.
Hard hit points though need to be within 12th
The faster tempo the further the marker moves to
second or two frames.
the right.

How do you make your music fit the picture that


accurately?

You build a tempo map. If you look at the first


sec?on from the start of the cue up to the
transforma?on into a hamster.

You place a marker in your project at the exact point


where the hamster morph takes place.

You make sure that the marker is locked to the


?mecode and not the bar and beat. This means if you The slower the tempo, the more it moves to the leD.
change the tempo of the cue the marker will stay at
the same ?mecode reference even if the bar and
beat number has changed.

The aim is to change the tempo so that the marker


falls on a beat. Any beat will do, it doesn’t have to be
a downbeat. As you change the tempo you will
no?ce that the marker moves.

Eventually you will have the marker bang on the


beat.

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Actually wri?ng this kind of music is a life?me of
study.

Composer Blueprint Training is a great place to start


as it shows you how to approach some common
styles including ac?on. But you can start to see how
this is an addic?vely fascina?ng way to write music.
It’s also very complicated and there is an element of
three dimensional chess about the way you weave
your cue into one coherent piece of music that
touches so many different ideas at the same ?me.
If this hit is also a major change of mood as it is, you
may want to adjust the ?me signature so that the
Once you are happy with your work, mix it down and
beat on which the hit point falls is now the down
bounce it out to a stereo audio file.
beat of the next bar. This is because you may well
want to increase the tempo drama?cally when the
ac?on kicks off. 5. Presen)ng Your Music to the
Client
So the early part of the cue could be at 90bpm. The
ac?on will need to be at something like 140bpm. 

So the music is wriHen. You are convinced it’s great
and now you need to send it to the client. That
You repeat this process so that any other hard hit
means making a movie with your music and the
points are on a beat by changing tempo accordingly
original dialogue mixed together.
as you go through the cue.

Make sure the audio from the movie has been


You end up with a tempo map of tempo and ?me
imported onto an audio track in your sequence.
signature changes that act as a skeleton for your
Almost all DAWs have an “extract audio from movie”
music. The tempo and ?me signatures fit the picture
command of some kind.
perfectly now you write the music.

Now you want to solo two tracks:


SecIon 1: The Build-up: Quiet moun?ng tension as
Tom enters and under the dialogue with his
girlfriend. 1. The Dialogue and Sound

SecIon 2: The TransformaIon: A big drama?c hit on 2. Your Music



this moment and then into hard fast ac?on as he
chases her around the kitchen.

SecIon 3: The Stand-off: You keep the pace up but


pull a lot of the drama?c material out as the two size
each other up. The ac?on hasn’t ended just paused.

SecIon 4: Tables Turned: Big hit and reveal as she


turns into a lizard with even more frene?c ac?on
leading up to a huge hit as she eats him.


SecIon 5: The AYermath: Low brooding music Now go through the movie using automa?on to mix
fading out as she slithers out of the room… the music and dialogue together so you can clearly
heart the dialogue with the music underneath.

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Now export or bounce out those two tracks so you format they can view, MP4 -H264 is a reasonably
have one audio file with the music and dialogue safe bet.
mixed together.
Once that’s done send it to the client via WeTransfer
Some DAWs like Cubase will allow you to replace the or Hightail or one of those file transfer services.
audio on an exis?ng movie so the next step is to do Include brief notes about what you’ve done and why
that so that the audio file with your music mixed with if there is anything controversial or anything you
the dialogue replaces the original audio. were unclear about.


If your DAW won’t do that then you are going to
need a video-edi?ng programme like iMovie or
Adobe Premiere.

You import the original movie and your mix music


and dialogue file. 


You get rid or fade right down the original movie Now just sit back and wait for the director’s praise
audio and line up your music and dialogue file so it and the inevitable Oscar nomina?ons to flow in!
fits exactly.
… If only it were that simple!

Now you bounce out a new movie.

Make sure the movie file isn’t ridiculously big. If it is


then you might need to use a compression program
like AimersoD to make it more manageable.



Try limi?ng the bit rate to around 4000 kb/s.

Next step would be to reduce the picture size to


720p as well if that helps.

Don’t alter the frame rate though. Keep that as the


original.

Now before you send it to your client – watch it


through and check it! Preferably check it on a
different computer to make sure it plays back
properly. Make sure you send it to the client in a

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The free trial lasts one month, one month to enjoy
What next? the complete ThinkSpace experience. But make the
Well you’ve got to try it of course! By now most of it. Once the trial is over, it’s gone. Our
community is only those who are really serious about
you should be dying to have a go and see
a career in media music or sound design so this is a
if it’s as easy/hard fun/frustra^ng as you one-?me offer.
think.
We have only just scratched the surface. hHp://thinkspaceeduca?on.com/mDm1

We could drill down so much deeper into every Master’s Degrees


sentence in this brief introduc?on. Mastering the
technical aspects is hard enough but really 

conquering the crea?ve and musical challenges Our postgraduate program is a world first and the
scoring to picture throws up, is on a whole new level. ul?mate educa?onal experience for anyone serious
But that’s why it’s so rewarding. about a career in scoring media. If you want personal
aHen?on, one-to-one from our top tutors and a
really detailed and thorough training in the skills that
Fortunately the ThinkSpace team have been working
make ordinary composers great, this is the program
as professional composers in film, TV and games for
for you. Choose from a range of master’s degrees
over 20 years and we have fine-tuned the art of
covering everything from classic Hollywood
training up and coming composers, to help you get
orchestral scoring for feature films to sound design
the maximum value in the minimum amount of ?me.
for video games.

When we’re not focussed on wri?ng music for major


If you are interested in our postgrad program, then
film and TV projects, we’re focussed on maximising
you have to join our free Master’s Pre-ApplicaIon
your poten?al.
Group. It’s for composers and sound designers who
are really determined to get to the next level. We’ll
Premium Courses let you know about upcoming online open days,
webinars, taster weeks and more. I know, there’s

never enough ?me or money to invest in yourself
Music for The Media is our flagship premium course and your future, but joining the group will cost you
that will give you an excellent founda?on in scoring
nothing and it could just be the first step in a journey
for film and TV.
that takes you somewhere you never though
possible.
Volume 1 concentrates on wri?ng to a brief,
understanding your clients’ needs and crea?ng the hHp://thinkspaceeduca?on.com/mastersgroup
music that they always dreamt of.

Thank you for your ?me. I hope you’ve enjoyed this


Volume 2 is all about wri?ng to picture including
glimpse into my working world. Many years ago I
feature films, documentary, anima?on and more.
took what seemed like a huge risk in walking away
from a top job presen?ng television programs for the
As you should realise by now, you will need both to BBC in order to write music. Never do I regret that
do the job. decision for one single moment. Had I not taken that
step I may well have looked back and wondered
Best of all, you can try the first unit of any of our what might have been, the career I might have had
premium courses absolutely free. Whether it’s and the music I might have wriHen.
Composer Blueprint Training, Harmony or Sound
Design, or indeed our original flagship course Music
for the Media you can step through the door
completely free of charge as our guest. Just click the
link below to get started.

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