The advice I give to up-and-coming film composers is to check their ego at the door. First things first, the picture is the master. If your music isn’t serving the picture than you’re in the wrong industry. Film composers are a masochistic bunch (or maybe just a shy bunch). In our industry, we are doing our job correctly when our music does not get noticed. If your music serves the film correctly, 90% of the film-going audience will not notice it. You will get your props from the other 10% (that are film scoring buffs), on how cool it was that you used a moment of silence on that one really tense spot, or how you recast the main theme for solo piano during the wistful rainy-day montage. The rest of the crowd will walk away saying “that was a good movie”, for many intangible reasons, one of them potentially being that the music really supported the characters, the drama and the story.

So, let’s talk about how you serve the film with your music by first talking about how you do not serve the film with your music.

Do not mix the score louder than the dialogue or production track.
Possibly you won’t be doing the final mix anyway, but us composers usually really want to hear our music in the scene. That is a bad frame of mind going in to mix the music with the audio. If you are guilty of this (we all are or have been), then get an opinion from someone before you show the draft of the work you’ve done to the director.

Do not use every composing technique you know, all the time.
Basically don’t get too cute. Simple music can be very good music, and again, it’s not about you showing off, it’s about you serving the picture with your music.

Do not use all the instruments of the orchestra all the time.
Good music is music that has evolving dynamics. Loud is more impactful when preceded by soft and vice-versa. Films have plots that evolve, so should your music. Even if you aren’t writing orchestral music, the same thing applies.

Do not have music behind every second of the film.
Now, there may be short films, or films with no dialogue, that wall-to-wall makes sense for, but for every second that there is music in the film, there should be a reason for it. Sometimes the reason is lame, like “score this scene to fix the bad acting”, but that is still a reason (and one you will definitely hear from a director at some point).

So how do write music that serves the film?

Before you write a note, analyze.
Study the film. What are the themes (plot themes, not musical themes), what is the setting, who are the characters, what is their motivation, what moments of the film need to be emphasized? Etc. Really get to know the film.

Work non-linearly.
You do not have the score the film starting on the first scene continuing all the way through to the last scene. Maybe the music just flows out of you this way on a particular project and that’s fine, but moving around to different parts of the film can really help when you get composer’s block.

Work backwards.
Score the most pivotal, crisis-revealing, plot-resolving scene first. This will likely be near the end of the film, and may be the busiest musically. This is a great way to get the big one out of the way, and have themes and motifs to draw on for the rest of the score. Now, different composers work different ways, and this method may not work for you, but it has worked for some. Including John Williams.

Know your craft.
Listen to film music, go to movies, pay attention to how music functions in film, use your ears! Ask for feedback from people on your music, and really listen to them. Get really good at using the music software you use, and join film composer communities. There are tons online. Take an online film scoring class from Seawolf Studios :)

We have some great resources coming up! Register for our free webinar on how to score a scene, and starting on October 2 is our 6 week course on the art of film scoring.