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A Very Promising Theme Written for a Sad Scene in a Movie…What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I’ve written a few movie scores and had a few tracks placed on TV shows. What I’ve come to learn, though, is that due to my musical ego, I’m a less than ideal film composer. I trained myself as a composer to be upfront, to have my music not just enhance the story but be the story. Film/TV music is called underscoring for a reason. It is there to underscore the emotion of the story on screen, but must never overwhelm that story. The film is the story; the music supports the story.

 When I was a kid in the 60s and 70s, music was king. Or at least that’s how I interpreted that time. Maybe I just wanted to see it that way. Sure, musical artists, particularly in pop and rock, used visual and extra-musical dramatic elements to enhance the stories in their music. But it was the opposite of what film music normally does: the imagery and drama enhanced what was already there in the music. The music is ultimately what mattered.

The music told the real story. And the music had to be able to stand on it own. 

Now in the realm of film music: the music CAN stand on its own but more often than not it doesn’t have to. And because it doesn’t have to it usually doesn’t.

Composing vs.  Film Composing

There are some excellent and distinctive film composers out there: Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Ennio Morricone. The question is, how does their music hold up in its own right, without the benefit of the images and stories it is composed for? Because when it has to do that, it’s now entering into a league with much stiffer competition. 

So Zimmer and Williams, for example, write a lot of music for traditional orchestra—they write for other types of ensembles as well, but let’s keep it in that realm because you really can’t compare their electronic music with, say, Beethoven’s or Stravinsky’s. 

So for symphony orchestra: Williams vs. Beethoven? Umm…

How about Zimmer vs. Stravinsky? No comment…

Of course, this is unfair: Beethoven makes most composers sound like amateurs. My point is not to denigrate these film composers, but to keep what they do in the proper perspective. Their music serves a different god. They are great film composers; they are not great composers. Not even close.

But the truth is, many listeners lack the proper perspective; they have either forgotten or never knew what great standalone music is. Listening to foreground music requires focus—a particular type of focus that obviates, even negates, the need for visual stimulation.  (When you read a great novel, do you need to have music in the background? When I’m engrossed in a great novel, I want to shut out the world altogether.)

I’ve never been able to understand why people listen to film scores sans the movies they’re connected with. Most of this music just doesn’t hold up on its own. So perhaps when they are listening to film music without the movie, they are, having seen the movie, essentially providing the film in their heads. In which case the music is still the underscoring for, in this case, the remembered movie.

Either way, just because you can compose, doesn’t mean you can successfully compose for film.

More to the point, just because you can compose for film doesn’t mean you can successfully compose for music.

Episode #14 Transcription

A very promising theme written for a sad scene in a movie. What could possibly go wrong?


What went wrong? Interesting question. I ask myself kind of on a daily basis. This little piece was written for one of these music licensing sites, sync licensing, it’s often called, in which you submit material for various so-called opportunities. Now this particular site, called, is very well designed and there are plenty of opportunities though you’re never sure how or if it’s being listened to it. It’s not totally transparent, let’s put it that way. And you submit $5 per track you submit and you might see a opportunity for a lovely piano theme for a sad movie scene, which is probably what this was. You might see something like upbeat rock for car commercial or driving, but chill hip hop for whiskey commercial.

I’m making stuff up, but these are the kinds of opportunities you get. And then they’ll provide a example or several examples of the kind of thing they’re looking for and you can submit your tracks and if they like it, you get x amount of dollars for the opportunity. Now I’ve submitted to several of these on these sites, this particular site, and never gotten them. I have with other sites, but it’s always a, in this particular site, you don’t get feedback, you don’t get any sense of what they did or didn’t like if they didn’t take it. And this presents the opportunity for me or anybody else who’s submitting to make up your own reasons what went wrong here. As I said, this particular theme was for a scene in a movie. It has a sense of loss. I think this little theme has that after all, this is particularly sad.


Anyway, I submitted it and I wasn’t successful, but I went back and listen to the examples and well I hated them. These are, I’m just being honest here. Typical what I would call overly reverberated piano themes and let me just go back here. They wanted something, piano, solo piano or solo piano with strings. Something. So I was in the ballpark, certainly solo piano. Uh, but you know, you listened to the samples of what they’re looking for and what you hear is this kind of sub horrible piano theme movie themes like this…


That may be too sophisticated and maybe in a post production, I’ll add some strings and extra reverb to that to give you a sense of what they’re looking for. But it’s the kind of thing that if you are listening to it in its own context without the film or TV show going on there, it would probably put you to sleep.

But maybe that’s the point. It’s background music, apparently doesn’t interfere with the scene, whether it’s a dialogue scene or just somebody staring out into the abyss having lost someone. So…


You could feel the fall breeze coming over the, I Iwas going to say Tundra, but there’s no Tundra in the fall, right? So these kinds of themes, movie themes with Solo Piano or piano and string pad or whatever it is, kind of drive me crazy. It’s not supposed to interfere with the scene, but when I listen or watch a movie or television show with that kind of thing, naturally it interferes because it bugs the hell out of me. It’s so trite. It’s supposed to evoke the barrenness, the sadness in the scene, but what it evokes in me is sadness about the quality of the composition, and this gets into a rather sensitive subject for me, which is the place of music in film and Television, it is meant to be subservient in most cases, unless it’s featured in a particular scene like the opening credits of James Bond movies or something, in which case it’s highlighted, but in most cases, film, music, television, music is not highlighted. It’s there to serve the story, serve the scene, and that’s fine. But for me as a composer, subservience is a dicey proposition.

It used to be, before the dawn of film than television and then digital platforms… It used to be the storytelling, the biggest storytellers in a public sphere really werethe great composers, the Beethovens, the Wagners, the Brahms. In the case of opera , there were actual stories that you could follow. Verdi, Puccini, and this was in a sense the mass entertainment at the time. People came to these live events because that’s the only way theycould hear it. So composers were kind of these hero figures, big stars and writing complex purely musical statements, say like Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, particularly the last three, particularly the last one, number six, the Pathetique.

That’s a autobiographical, but it’s all music. There’s no lyrics, there’s no text. Now in Tchaikovsky’s case, he probably had some programmatic material to help tell his story, but the entire story, the entire story was told through notes alone, notes and timbres of the orchestra. And so the complete story is in the music. In film the main story is not in the music. The music is there to highlight it. Thus you get the situation where you have innocuous music that may or may not push certain emotional levers in the context of the story. Now, if it’s done very well, it obviously does do that. I was watching the other night and episode of the Americans, the TV show and there was a scene where an important character was going to die in a shootout and they used a Roberta Flack cover of a fairly famous song from the 70s I believe.

And of course it’s Roberta flack, my favorite singer of all time, to be quite honest. And the emotion in her voice is just overwhelming. And you combine that with this character dying in a shootout and it’s very powerful. But that in that case there’s no dialog. It’s just the shootout and Roberta flack, Roberta flack without the shootout would have also been incredibly powerful. You could of had a blank screen and it would have been powerful, but the, you know, the, the symbiosis, the combination of those two things makes for a very emotional scene. And I understand that film needs music. I’ve written some film scores and you watch the scenes without any music whatsoever and you feel this emptiness. But my point is in all this is that music, particularly instrumental music used to be able to tell the entire narrative and we’re not so much used to this anymore.

So getting back to my little theme here, which starts out fine, simple enough, this is still okay. All good. Now what happens here, I introduced a second voice, I’m about to do this and this is when it becomes a story in its own right and this is probably why it was rejected in my opinion since there was no feedback. Okay, so that inner voice tells another story. There’s the interaction between the main theme and then this, it’s counterpoint. It’s probably from the standpoint of that music supervisor too complicated. It gets in the way of the scene. So I understand that but hard for me is to or would have been to have just written that theme with no other development and then repeated octaves and so, well for me as a composer at that point, I’m bored out of my freaking mind because it’s just the same thing.

But for the non composer, a music supervisor, they’re thinking, or the producer or the director or whoever is making this decision, this is too complicated for that scene. It’s not letting the scene speak on its own, but I would have to argue that of course I don’t know what the scene was, but maybe you’re assuming people are stupid and maybe they’re not. Maybe they can handle the complexity of multiple musical themes interacting with the images or maybe not. And then in the second part of the tune we think it’s going to go back to the theme again. Here’s the end of the, after we’ve introduced the second day, now you think right there that it’s just going to be a repeat. But what does it do? It introduces a whole new section. Watch while keeping the main theme. Okay, so now not only have I kept that main theme and added another theme to it, but I’ve changed the harmony.

So it’s becoming a much richer story Musical story. There’s a narrative in the music itself, and this is what I’m talking about, music being able to speak for itself without the imagery, without the effects, without anything but the story inherent in those notes. So what are you going to do?

I remember taking a film scoring class many years ago at UCLA extension and each week there was an assignment, you’d get a videotape back in those days of video cassette and you were to set a particular scene from some movie or TV show and you were to use these parameters who was for this specific instrumental ensemble and you were to write a minute and a half or whatever it was for that ensemble, bring in your score and parts. And that ensemble would be in the room and they would record it, play it to picture the video playing on a TV. And one week there was a scene from some movie with Napoleon and who was his lover, wife, whatever.

It’s a love scene and it’s, there’s great emotion in the scene. And the assignment was to write for string quartet. That’s two violins, viola and cello for this, whatever it was a minute and a half, two minutes scene, and you know, what you do is you study the scene and try to find a musical emotion in the scene. So what I did was I wrote a four part fugue, which is taking a theme and passing it, uh, among the instruments. It’s a complex form. Go Checkout Bach. Anyway, come in next week. Get to mine, there’s maybe 10 people in the class. Mine comes up, quartets there, start picture, they play to the picture. My teacher, who was a fine composer and an excellent film composer, was in tears from what I wrote. I’m not just saying this to glorify Peter Saltzman, which is, I do. But he was very moved by it and it was, it’s, maybe I’ll play it at the end of this, just have a, a MIDI version of it. It’s a moving piece of music. Very Sad. And I thought it was appropriate. What he said, he loved it, but he thought maybe it was too much, too complex for this.

All of which is to say that maybe I’m a lousy film composer, but I’m a hell of a composer.

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