What is a Film Score and How to Compose for One?

What is a Film Score? How do you Compose Music for a Film? Let's tackle these two questions with my best tips & strategies.

WHAT IS A FILM SCORE?

According to Wikipedia, a Film Score (also sometimes called background score, background music, film soundtrack, film music, or incidental music) is:

“…original music written specifically to accompany a film for the actors. The score forms part of the film's soundtrack, which also usually includes pre-existing music, dialogue and sound effects, and comprises a number of orchestral, instrumental, or choral pieces called cues, which are timed to begin and end at specific points during the film in order to enhance the dramatic narrative and the emotional impact of the scene in question.”

So in other words, a film score can be…any custom music or soundscape played at various times throughout a film. This isn’t hard to notice when you compare films like John Williams’ score to Star Wars, filled to the brim with iconic melodies and fanfares, with Steven Price’s ambient electronic score to Gravity. One thing is certain though in modern 2019 film scores – almost every film calls for a hybrid of live orchestral instruments mixed with electronic synth elements.


AVERAGE FILM SCORE LENGTHS

A film score is divided into separate chunks, called cues. Cues can be any amount of length, ranging wildly from 10 sec. – 20 min. long, completely dependent upon the context. The average cue length is around 3-5 min. Average amounts of music:

  • Short Films (~ 20 min. picture length): 10-15 min. of music

  • Feature Films (~90-120 min picture length.): 45+ min.

  • Movie Trailers (~1-5 min.): utilize “wall-to-wall” music, where music plays 100% of the picture length

Films are historically notorious for giving music composers an insanely short timeframe to write the score:

  • The average Feature Film gives composers only 6-8 weeks

  • The average Short Film gives composers only 2-3 weeks

  • The average Movie Trailer gives composers 1-2 days


HOW TO COMPOSE FOR A FILM SCORE?

  1. In order to compose music for a film, you need music software, called a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), such as Cubase, Digital Performer, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, or Pro Tools. You specifically need a DAW that has the ability to import video and sync music to picture (adjustable frame rate and audio sample rate to match appropriately).

  2. The second step is to meet with the film team in a Spotting Session to discuss music cues – when music should enter and exit scenes and what kinds of music are most appropriate for each.

  3. Divide the video given from the film team into separate scene. If you’re using Digital Performer, you can skip this step by using the Chunks feature, which allows you to import one full-length film into one session and divide it by scene with shared instruments & effects.

  4. Import video(s) into DAW.

  5. Insert orchestral & electronic instruments (or use a film scoring template).

  6. Set markers & tempos to fit picture.

  7. Write music

  8. Export each cue as a 48Khz WAV at 24-bit sample rate that matches the video frame rate

  9. Send cues to film team for approval

  10. If film team rejects, you will revise until approved