by Nahuel Bronzini

Film scoring 101:
how to start composing for movies

film scoring 101

Film scoring refers to composing music for a movie, but it can also extend to other visual mediums. It is typically instrumental, but it can also include songs and even sound effects that are so characteristic and personal that they end up becoming part of the movie’s staple sound.

In this guide, learn about the essential elements of film scoring, the process for composing for films and other visual media like video games, and how to become a film composer.

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What is film scoring?

Film scoring is the process of composing music specifically for films or other visual media. It involves creating original musical pieces to enhance the emotional impact, atmosphere, and narrative of a film. The composer works closely with the director to synchronize music with the scenes, capturing the intended mood and emphasizing key moments.

Writing music for film is not all that different from writing a traditional composition, however, the main difference in film scoring is that the music and sounds should serve the larger purpose of the storytelling, and you can use the elements that are already present in the visuals to inspire and guide you through the process.

Let’s hear how film scoring can impact visual media. Do the following experiment: go on YouTube and find some of your favorite scenes from a few different movies. Then, mute the volume completely but leave the subtitles on. While you watch the scene, read the subtitles either out loud or try remembering how they sound in your head, but don’t have any other audio playing while you watch. How did that feel? How much of the story’s emotion remained? How much of it was missing, and how different did that feel from how you remembered the scene as you knew it?

I am sure the answer is that the scene felt pretty different from what you remembered.

Now, go and find a few other scenes where there is no dialogue. Before you hit play this time, besides muting the original audio, I would like for you to find the list of your most recently played songs on your favorite streaming service, pick one from the most recent ones, and play it over the scene, as if it was part of the movie. How was this experience different from the no-sound version? Did the meaning of the story change depending on the song you chose? How about choosing a different song (perhaps one you are not familiar with picked randomly from a playlist) and playing the scene again? How did that influence the experience?

As we discovered with these simple experiments, it’s amazing how much impact sound effects and music can have in the context of a story or scene in a movie. Fim scoring adds that extra layer of emotion and meaning that we get from our hearing sense. We don’t even need to watch a movie scene to feel how sounds impact our perception. We can just put on some sound-canceling headphones and go on a walk. Although the visual component of things seems to have such a foreground place in our world, sounds can make us feel in magical and mysterious ways.

The film score has the ability to enhance the storytelling and propel the director’s vision, making the movie touch our souls in new ways. Music and sounds also have a way of giving time a sense of flow and a certain pace. Things in movies usually happen on a different type of timeline than they do in real life. As time expands and contracts, music can help achieve these time-bending moments by holding our experience by the flow of sounds or musical events.

Elements of film scoring

Let’s explore the essential elements of film scoring that can help you discover how to become a film scorer.

Music and accompanying a visual medium

As we just discussed, film scoring requires a visual medium for the music to accompany. This can be anything from a scene in a movie or a video game cutscene, all the way to abstract art.

The music helps convey the plot and emotion of the scene and can change dramatically based on what is happening within the visual medium.

Music for films can be made out of anything, really. There are all sorts of styles and approaches one could take to start composing for film, and not all of them involve writing music in a traditional sense. Some scores are more orchestral, and others are based on more atmospheric soundscapes. There are scores played with folk instruments and others that can resemble more of a collection of songs rather than a through-composed piece.

Sound effects and electronic elements

Film scoring can also include sound effects to create realism, heighten suspense, or convey specific emotions within a scene. They are carefully synchronized with the music and visuals to emphasize key moments, reinforce the narrative, and immerse the audience deeper into the film’s world.

Sound design elements like Foley effects or ambient noises are often integrated into the score to complement the visuals and enhance storytelling.

Using specific moments and timing

Film scores can change moment-by-moment to propel the story forward. This scene from Jurassic Park (1993) includes moments of silence, followed by sudden shrills and swells to help bring the velociraptor attack to life. These compositions are meticulously composed, arranged, and edited to ensure the right sounds are played at the precise moment they need to be.

Using musical themes to anchor the storyline and characters

One thing that we can find in most film scores is anchoring themes. These musical themes (usually melodic, but could be just a few chord changes or a specific texture) are memorable, easy-to-grasp musical cells that help guide the story’s narrative by connecting different characters, places, or situations to a specific musical motif.

One of my favorite scores is by the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, from the movie Cinema Paradiso from 1988. In the movie, the protagonist takes us down memory lane, revisiting his childhood hometown in Italy after years abroad in the U.S., where he achieved acclaim as a movie director. Ennio composed a different theme for each stage of the character’s life, from early childhood to adolescence and coming into adulthood, and finally, his present day with the famous melancholy main theme of the movie. The music is not only phenomenal in its own right, but it also gives you literal chills in the way it depicts each life stage of the character. The score features instruments such as piano, xylophone, and guitar with a mostly string orchestra accompaniment, and it also includes moments where woodwinds and the occasional brass come into play for richer moments.

Ennio is one of the most important figures in film scoring, and I highly encourage you to take a deeper dive into his whole catalog of scored movies. There is a wonderful documentary that recently came out that takes you through his entire career and shows his musical development and how he revolutionized film scoring.

The process for composing for film

Now that you have a better understanding of the purpose behind composing for films, let’s explore the process of film composition and some tips to help you get started.

1. Understand the story and vision for the movie

Understanding the underlying story and vision for the film or other visual medium is essential when composing. The vision influences the genre, style, instrumentation, and effects you will be using to help tell the story.

This usually occurs during an initial meeting with the director to discuss the overall vision, themes, and emotional tone of the film. During this meeting, you may watch rough cuts or scenes from the film to get an initial understanding of its pacing, mood, and style, as well as understand the visual elements such as cinematography, editing, and visual effects that your music can compliment.

If a script is available, you should request to read it to fully grasp the story, characters, and narrative arcs. This can help you identify moments and character dynamics that can be reflected in your music.

2. Compose, record, and arrange the score

Once you have a solid idea of the film’s story and vision, you can begin to experiment with different musical motifs, themes, and instrumentation to find the right sound palette that aligns with the film.

These examples can be turned into demos to present to the film team for feedback and further iteration. Don’t be discouraged if a director doesn’t gravitate towards your initial ideas. Film scoring is a very iterative and collaborative process, with many rounds of feedback and rewrites to get the music to fit the film just right.

Once these motifs, themes, and instrumentation choices come together, you can begin to write your music to film.

A spotting session between you and the director is usually used to determine where music

should be placed within the film. This can identify key moments, emotional beats, and transitions where music will have the greatest impact.

Once these moments and transitions are established, you can begin composing and arranging the score for each scene. Consider the tempo, dynamics, and orchestration to convey the desired emotions and support the story.

You will also create composer cues. These refer to the individual segments or pieces of music for a specific scene or moment in a film. Each cue typically corresponds to a particular scene, sequence, or emotional beat within the film and is tailored to enhance the storytelling.

Watch composer Alan Silvestri discuss the process of scoring for film below.

3. Orchestration and instrumentation

Orchestration and instrumentation are important parts of composing. Depending on the scope and budget of the film, you may have the option to collaborate with orchestrators to arrange the music for various instruments or ensembles. These orchestrators select instruments and sounds that complement the mood and atmosphere of each scene, whether it’s a full orchestra, smaller ensemble, electronic instrumentation, or a combination of these elements.

If you’re doing all of the orchestration and instrumentation by yourself, it may feel overwhelming. Let’s take a look at some orchestral choices that can help inform your music.

There are classic film scores, such as John Williams’ original Star Wars score, that have a very symphonic quality to them, with full string section, pitched percussion, woodwinds, and brass. These incredible musical universes are rich, layered, and technically very complex.

But not every movie or visual media scenario requires a full orchestral sound. Sometimes, less is more, and a more minimal approach can be really impactful and effective as well. We need to take inspiration from the story and the imagery that we will be supporting with our music. It’s not surprising that John would be inspired to write such bombastic and epic-sounding music when trying to give intergalactic fighting a musical backdrop.

There are also films that are scored with musical austerity. That can provide a very intimate and haunting atmosphere for the story.

To start choosing instruments for your score, check out this list of orchestral vst libraries with some great resources to get you started with a wide palette of orchestral VST to experiment with. These will cover a good range of realistic-sounding strings, woodwinds, brass, and orchestral percussion. There is also a nice selection of piano VSTs, which have been processed in various ways.

What is interesting about processed and synthesized pianos, or the “prepared pianos,” from the avant-garde music world, is that they expand the sonic possibilities of one of the most familiar sounds in Western music. Whenever we recognize the sound of a piano, we get a sense of familiarity. The timber is so characteristic that it’s possible to push the envelope sonically quite far but still have a feeling of something familiar in the back of our minds.

6. Editing and mixing

Once your score has been created, the mixing and editing process will begin with music editors, sound designers, engineers, and more.

The dialogue and sound effects tracks are edited and finalized before mixing. This ensures that the music can be mixed around the dialogue and sound effects without masking important audio elements.

A music editor works with your cues to prepare the music tracks for mixing. This may involve editing individual music cues to fit specific scenes, adjusting timings, and making any necessary cuts or transitions to ensure they align perfectly with the visual cues in the film.

7. Final review and revisions

The composer, director, and other key collaborators review the scored film to ensure that the music effectively enhances the storytelling and aligns with the creative vision of the film. Any necessary revisions are made based on feedback from the director, which may involve adjusting the composition, orchestration, or mix of the music.

Some things to keep in mind when writing for orchestral instruments

In the beginning, I wouldn’t worry too much about the technical considerations of instruments and their ranges or playing constraints. Let loose and follow your gut, allow the virtual instruments to inspire you, and take your music where it feels that it needs to go in the moment. Most likely, working with indie films, film students, and smaller projects in general, there won’t be a budget that allows for hiring session musicians to perform the score. So your best bet will be to use the best possible virtual sounds you can get a hold of and use your imagination and creativity to place sounds in spaces and layerings that make them sound good “in the box.”

Later on, when the opportunity comes to work with live musicians, it is essential to consider the playing capabilities of the instruments you are scoring for. Range, speed, types of intervals that are playable and which are not, and even what notes are easier or harder to tune on which instruments are all considerations that will make the final result make or break. Not only will the final result of the recording be impacted by these constraints, but the process will also be much smoother if all these things are considered.

From my personal experience working with orchestral and chamber music arrangements, I would encourage you to plan your first live scoring project with a small ensemble and, ideally, get in touch with the instrumentalists that you can count on for the recording early on in the process, so you can consult and experiment in person with various techniques and even try out specific sections of the score you might have questions about ahead of time of the recording.

Preparing your scores properly with dedicated notation software is also crucial. Depending on your process, sometimes midi tracks that sound cohesive and musical on the DAW will look odd or even completely unreadable when exported to a notation format. Syncopation, irregular rhythms, and parts that sounded musical and humanly phrased might translate into scores that look like avant-garde ultra-complex notation. You won’t get anything good from a group of session musicians who are not happy with the handed scores. Ultimately, what we want is to be able to accomplish our musical vision and have it come to life in magical ways at the studio.

VSTs are incredible since we get to try out an infinite amount of sounds at a click’s distance, and instruments sound perfectly in tune and are able to perform the most demanding lines with little to no effort. We can’t count on that with a live ensemble, not at least in most cases. There is an undeniable magic that comes with live instruments played by people, but we need to have somewhat of a sense of how things will translate from our VST-powered scores or demos into a live recording. The only way to gain experience and anticipate how things will sound is by doing it. Start small, experiment, try, fix, and repeat. You will be better prepared for each new project you tackle. There are no shortcuts to it, but at the same time, hearing our music played live has the magic to give us chills.

Scoring for video games

The main difference in scoring video games vs. movies (or other time-fixed visual media) is that they have both narrative and non-narrative musical requirements. Depending on the type of video game, the degree of narrative components may vary, but it is common to have some scenes that narrate the story preceding the gameplay. These pre-rendered scenes have a score, which will play the same way each time. We can think of these scenes as mini-films and treat them as such when composing them.

The remaining music in a game plays a different role, which is to accompany and provide a musical container to the game-playing experience. Given the player’s freedom to navigate the game environment as desired, and each game stage will develop slightly differently each time, the music needs to respond to these changes and be of a reactive and dynamic nature.

The music is usually “stemmed out” into subparts, which are then triggered by a game engine such as Unreal or Unity. Depending on the player’s choices and actions, the engine will play various layers from the music, creating loops and adding incidental sounds and parts to make an ever-evolving musical experience, which enhances the overall immersion and engagement with the game.

Due to the non-linear quality of the compositions for video games, music is often crafted with a puzzle-like mindset. Sections might loop or be interchangeable with other music sections to accommodate changes in the game. The various musical layers (or stems) might also vary depending on the game action, increasing or decreasing in density by adding or subtracting musical elements from the mix. Some layers will be more foundational or supporting, containing harmonic backgrounds like pads, chordal accompaniment, or ambient sounds, and others will be more melodic. All these layers must be able to work with one another and sometimes in isolation.

The collaboration between composers and game audio programmers is key to implementing these different layerings. A lot of experimentation needs to take place to prove the possible sonic and playing scenarios. Modifications and back and forth are not unusual and, in some ways, we could compare it to the way directors and film composers collaborate at the final stages of a film when scenes are added or changed and the length of various sections of the score need to be modified to match the picture.

How to get started with film scoring

1. Build a portfolio

Same as with most other creative fields, the portfolio is everything. There is no better investment than taking the time and care to build a body of work that shows what you are capable of and gives the outside world a taste of your style and sound.

It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. We want to get our first film scoring job to start gaining experience, but we don’t have any work to show our possible clients/collaborators. When you are just getting started, it is ok to take existing films and do a re-scoring of specific scenes. You can even take a short film you love and do an entirely new score with your own style and show that to people as an example of your musical and sonic vision.

In the game-scoring world, it is common to be given an intro scene to score to show what your “music pitch” would be for it before you get hired to compose for the project. So don’t be afraid of composing for pre-existing scenes that inspire you, and start building your first portfolio pieces this way.

2. Network with industry professionals

The next step is networking. Personal connections and being part of a creative community are really powerful ways to expand your reach. Do let people know what you are up to; you never know who is just a few degrees of separation away from your inner circle.

Attending film festivals and connecting with local colleges that offer film degrees could be great ways to immerse yourself in the local scenes and start getting your name out there. Film students are usually required to work on short films during their studies, and these projects will require composers. Their budgets are usually quite limited, but that gives a person starting out in film scoring a great chance to get in the scene and have some first close-to-real-world experience.

3. Do other audio projects in the film industry first

It is not uncommon for the composer to be asked to do foley or sound design for the film in student projects. In the beginning, it should all be exciting and taken as a learning experience. Sound design is quite fascinating, and it has the power to give the action and location of the different scenes a real-world and almost breathable quality. You might discover that you love doing that, and it could become a great way to be in the film scene and connect with more people who are working in the space as you keep building your scoring portfolio.

Although the first projects you get to write for won’t be of substantial pay, they will give you a chance to start developing a distinct musical identity. Since the pressure won’t be so high, that is your chance to create music that has your own stamp on it. This is the time to take risks and go full-on with the musical ideas that truly speak to you. Always remember that your portfolio is in some ways as influential as your resume, so the musical seeds you plant during this phase are likely to blossom into more projects, aligning with the styles and sensibilities showcased in your portfolio.

4. Find a mentor

Don’t underestimate the value of mentorship. A mentor, or a series of mentors, can be an incredible resource to point you in the right direction and connect you with potential opportunities when the time is right. Mentors are not only a great source of inspiration and provide artistic guidance as we search for our own voice, but they also give you perspective from their experiences within the industry. There are a lot of unwritten codes and ways of approaching people to seek future collaborations that can only be advised by seasoned people who have already walked the path.

Film festivals can be a great place to introduce yourself to well-seasoned film composers and possibly find that guiding person who can shine some light on this path. Feel free to say hi, let people know you are interested in the field, and ask politely for a coffee in the future. Some people are more approachable than others, but when approached nicely, good folks usually want to help.

And if you’re looking for even more advice, check out our interviews with composers in horror films as well as broader film and television.

5. Study music theory and composition

This might sound rather obvious, but in this day and age, it’s important to remark that things take time, and that’s ok. Music and composing are not things that can be learned in a day or a week. Of course, learning an art such as this is a lifetime journey, but having some foundational concepts and tools to take your first steps is a vital stepping stone.

Of course, not everybody has the chance or means to attend a music school, but taking the time to study music theory concepts, music notation, and solfege are things that can be done in various different ways and at different paces.

If you are fortunate enough to attend a music school, the experience is invaluable. Being immersed in an environment where everybody around you is excited to learn about the same topics can be a fantastic propeller for learning and exploring. Also, attending a music school opens doors to collaborations with instrumentalists eager to contribute to new projects, whether you have a budget to hire them or not. This is a great way to start a portfolio with some real organic sounds.

Start composing for film

Whether you are a seasoned composer who wants to start exploring film scoring as a new expressive and professional avenue, or you are getting started with music and are fascinated by the world of film and video games and how you can part take from a music angle, starting to look at music as a supporting layer to the overall storytelling is the first step, and the right mindset to get in the film scoring headspace.

Make use of the palette of sounds and tools available nowadays to unleash your creative fire. Watch more films, play video games, and try to get inside the world of the characters and dream of all the possible sonic landscapes you can create to elevate the stories.

The sky’s the limit, and if you can hear it in your mind, you can make it come out of the speakers!

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