Songs For Movies: Part 1

A layout fo the different kinds of music that can be written/composed for movies.

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For Musicians and Songwriters there are many alternatives to rock stardom I talked about studio work in the previous article and now I'd like to put the spotlight on another way to make a living as a songwriter and a musician, Writings Songs and doing scores for movies. Since the beginning of motion pictures music and cinema have gone hand and hand, music in films even predates dialogue. In the early days of silent film there would be a piano player or (in some cases) even an orchestra would play as a silent film was projected onto the silver screen. As films progressed the use of pop songs were incorporated into movies and now a days even helps market them. So how do we as songwriters and musicians capitalize on this? Well it helps to know exactly what we're getting into when we are asked to do something like this and in my opinion that means understanding the two main categories of film music (Score and Soundtrack) and the many subcategories that fall under it.

Category 1: Film Score

A film score is essentially the instrumental music that runs throughout an entire movie. The music helps with creating a certain vibe for a scene, location, or character. A lot of times this is done with an orchestra like in Star Wars, Rocky, or Casablanca but it can also be done with Rock Bands like in The Graduate or Techno like Batman Beyond it really depends on what the director is looking for in his movie. Some notable film composers are John Williams (Star Wars, Superman: The Movie, Indiana Jones, Schindlers List) and Danny Elfman (Men In Black, Spiderman, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory) When you do a score generally you will get a print (copy) of the movie and will watch it either by yourself with the director and he will tell you exactly the feel he wants. It is then your job to decipher whatever he's babbling about and then get to work. Deciphering the rhythm and tone of the piece first is vital, if the director is good everything will be there and your work will be easy but generally when you first start out doing something like this it's with some film student with big ideas and no clue about music. So make sure you stay in constant communication with the director and if it's possible have him there when you lay the foundations of your score. If you want to be a film composer my best advice is to get with a director early (like when he's a film student and needs a composer for free/cheap) in his career and always score his movies if he asks. Spielberg and Lucas always seem to go back to John Williams and Tim Burton always seems to lean toward Elfman so developing a relationship with a director is essential, because filmmakers tend to go to the same composer every time they do a movie. Generally you will be working very closely with a director because your score will be essential to him in telling his story.

Category 2: Soundtrack

Technically the soundtrack is all the sound that's in a movie but what I mean when I say soundtrack is the songs in the pop format that you hear in a movie at any given time. In my mind there are basically three types of songs in a movie and it's necessary to understand them.
  • Theme The first type of song is what I call a Theme. This is a song that's is used in the opening credits, the end credits or in an establishing scene. A theme is basically used to either describe the story, location or a character. Some notable themes from recent movies are My Heart Will Go On the theme to Titanic (that really irritating song sang by Celine Dion), Hero by Chad Kroger of Nickelback which was the theme to Spiderman, and Vanilla Sky by Paul McCartney which was the theme song to Cameron Crowe's movie Vanilla Sky, there are many more mostly every movie out there as some sort of theme song. Character theme songs tend to play more often in musicals, most non-musical movies the characters theme is a part of the instrumental score. If a filmmaker hires you to write a theme song to their movie he's hired you because there is something you do particularly well that he wants to include in his piece, very rarely is a director or producer going to hire you to write a country song if you do nothing but metal. The best way to do it in my mind is to get a copy of the script or a print of the movie or scene that he wants you to write to and go to work. Pay attention to the rhythm and score of the piece often you have a better chance of your song getting into the movie itself if it can be weaved in seamlessly with the score. If you're lucky enough to get a print of the film watch it as many times as you need to get a real feel for the story, the rhythm, the tone and the score. You can do a literal interpretation of the plot, where the song basically mirrors the events that happen in the movie, which is usually your safest bet or you can try to do something that captures the overall spirit of the movie or main character, this is a bit harder simply because what you feel is the theme or spirit of the movie may be completely different from the director's. As far as writing a theme your hook (which is generally a chorus) is probably the most important thing. It has to bring the song back to the spirit of the story or characters every time you hear it because in some cases you are repeating the plot or describing a character that an audience has already spent time watching in the verses, so you have to make sure that hook is as strong as you can make it. I would start with the hook first and then just build the rest of the song around it. Hero by Chad Kroger is a perfect example, that song is pretty much the chorus it didn't matter what they said in the verses to most people they said Hero over and over again and that's what Spiderman is.
  • Inspired By/Background There are other songs that are in a movie that might not necessarily be a theme but could be played in the background of a scene to help set the tone of a certain scene, like whenever someone does a romantic scene they throw on some old R&B music (Barry White, Marvin Gaye etc.) or when a fight scene happens they may throw on something fast paced. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the overall movie but it functions to help the movie along. Here the pressure's lessened significantly, you're not responsible for summing up the entire movie in three minutes. You basically just write (or submit something you already have laid down) anything you want as long as it goes with the pace of the scene. You can take something as simple as a line of dialogue and turn it into an entire song.

    Type 3: Practical/Fodder

    A practical is something that is part of the scenery that is actually being used in the production of the movie, like a lamp that has an actual set light in it or a microphone being used as a prop (someone playing a newsman, or a singer etc.). Sometimes music is used this way. These are songs that are played in a movie that pretty much have nothing to do with the movie. It may be something a character is listening to on the radio or just something that's being used in the background in between scenes. You see this most often in Pop Movies like American Pie or on Can't Hardly Wait, where the music is just kind of there. Here there's no pressure at all, all you have to have is a catchy song, or (if you're lucky enough) a hit song and the song would get in the movie. Generally this only happens in major motion pictures, most Indy or student producers can't afford to have hit songs in their movies. Well these are the basic types of film music that are out there Part 2 will be coming soon.
  • 64 comments sorted by best / new / date

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      YourMusicSucks
      Star wars, jurassic park, and lord of the rings are the only movies with music I give a *** about. Good article, five stars because I always wondered if the score was done seperate from the movie just with the idea given by the director and then "fit" later. But the system you described is much more practical.
      Xerothunder
      ChrisB: Ehhh, it was okay. Could have done with a more in-depth study of film music composition, but I guess it was pretty good for the layman. Although I was quite disappointed that brilliant directors Michael Kamen and Jerry Goldsmith were left out. Jerry Goldsmith did the original planet of the apes score, and did it brilliantly. It's mostly serial music, and was a pretty revolutionary score at the time (it still is). Deliberate extended periods of silence, tape loops, prepared piano... it was really creative considering when it was composed. Yes, I spent a year studying film music (and two years studying film, come to think of it). I've done more about leitmotifs and extra-diegetic music than I care to mention. Maybe I could write an article linked to this, if I get the chance.
      ...he did say it was only part one.
      Phill-Rock
      dont judge but i didnt even bother reading this. wow im drunk and and im only 3. aww, i dont wanna go to school today jesus!
      bigtimmy
      has anyone else heard pantera songs being used in the old doom games? i know for a fact that 'mouth for war' and 'this love' are used in the game. i also think that there might be a few slayer songs in there too. game trivia for y'all
      ytse Jammer
      What about computer games? some of the sountracks for them are also excellent eg Halo 2 and Street fighter
      gpderek09
      who cares if its not 100% guitar orriented. its "musician" oriented. (i know i misspelt that) but it was a good artical non-the-less. except for that one redundant sentance... 4 1/2 stars...
      guitar_hero05
      Well for wasting half an hour on research with minimal butt scratching breaks I give you 4 stars...dammit.
      ChrisB
      Ehhh, it was okay. Could have done with a more in-depth study of film music composition, but I guess it was pretty good for the layman. Although I was quite disappointed that brilliant directors Michael Kamen and Jerry Goldsmith were left out. Jerry Goldsmith did the original planet of the apes score, and did it brilliantly. It's mostly serial music, and was a pretty revolutionary score at the time (it still is). Deliberate extended periods of silence, tape loops, prepared piano... it was really creative considering when it was composed. Yes, I spent a year studying film music (and two years studying film, come to think of it). I've done more about leitmotifs and extra-diegetic music than I care to mention. Maybe I could write an article linked to this, if I get the chance.
      guitar_hero05
      Crap forgot Elfman does 99% of Tim Burton Films(Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, blah blah)
      Andrewbiles
      Practical/Fodder music as you call it is actually placed under the term 'diagetic' in the film world. It's basically sounds/music that you would hear were you to be there, whereas non-diagetic would be the unnatural sounds and music such as the Star Wars theme tune.
      poor_white_boy9
      YOURE missing Quentin Tarantino the guy couldnt have chosen better songs for any one of his movies . want proof GO SEE THEM.
      eon_blue56
      the best use of a existing song in a film score was '28 days later' using Godspeed You! Black Emperor's song East Hastings right when Jim wakes up from his coma.
      lee_tyrrell
      eon_blue56 is 100% correct. It was such a great choice and hearing GYBE was amazing (because they're one of my fav. bands). Quentin Tarantino pick AWESOME songs on his films, he's ***ing great. Radiohead's "Talk Show Host" was used for the entity of the latest Romeo and Juliet, and no-one mentioned that? Or Exit Music which they originally wrote for the film but it was declined. It's good example of how bands can write songs for films but they don't always get in.
      Zamboni
      dan_the_pie wrote: YOU ALL EAT COCK AND DRINK SEMEN
      Yeah, but they're not warned like you.
      diego224
      $$$i know this question is not related to the topic or whatever: to write a song, what do we have to do first, make up the song melody,rythem, riffs, ect. or write down lyrics???$$$its pissing me off, i dont know how to start, and someone should write somthing about this, if they havent done so
      badmemory#4
      who cares if its not 100% guitar orriented. its "musician" oriented. (i know i misspelt that) but it was a good artical non-the-less. except for that one redundant sentance... 4 1/2 stars...
      I agree with this dude who the *** cares if it is 100% guitar it was a good article. Also i tired of the bitches who go through and comment on grammatical errors nobody gives a *** so just shut up
      Guitar_Dude777
      The best soundtrack ever is the 2 soundtracks for Dazed and Confused. Although the song Sweet Emotion - Aerosmith isnt on the cds or Bob Dylan's Hurricane its still kick A$s
      jamstation
      congratulations! you found a new topic! but probably because it hasnt much to do with guitar.. wtever..and since you're doing this, wht abt mark snow..
      Maet
      Apostrophe indicates possession, not pluralizartion in the statement you're referring to. So it does make a difference. :p I enjoyed it. Well written and a nice breath of fresh air in the article section. 4 stars.
      White_sabbath
      To the post above.. Its not like the apostrophe is going to make any major difference anyway... So I ask, why care?
      Phonical88
      Nice one dude, interesting outlook. 4 stars because it was interesting and because i dont think anyone has done anything quite the same... Dont quote me on that...
      Something Big
      a good article, and a movie nowadays is nothing without music, in fact, if you saw a movie with no music, you might not notice that it was missing, but something would feel off.
      texican
      Phonical88: "Nice one dude, interesting outlook. 4 stars because it was interesting and because i dont think anyone has done anything quite the same... Dont quote me on that..." I won't... Nice Job, liked it!
      Chestaufissen
      I ain't a fan of Celine Dion but that song wasn't "really irritating", but yeah I agree it was pointless, and I agree with Tyler the great about the Classical music
      beaker
      i cant believe throughout that whole article Ennio Morricone was not mentioned once!!! his contribution to film scores(mainly westerns)is classic
      justinhawkins
      1st, beeotches. kind of a pointless article... who really cares? But it was written in a coherent way so it gets 3 stars.
      Tyler the Great
      I hate hearing rock and pop in movies, unlesss it is a low budget movie. A symphonic score is so much better to listen to because it can express emotions better. I can accept rock and pop in theme songs and practical/fodder, thats it. Its where composers get a lot of their money nowadays, because practically no one buys classic music.
      turnstiles27
      didn't danny elfman also do "the simpsons" theme?
      Yes he did. Excellent article! Nice to see someone shining some light on a different aspect of music!
      Clarkinator
      Nothing to do with guitar or anything, but I enjoyed it. Something new and refreshing, and it was well written so it kept my interest. Well Done
      AnnaPlaysGuitar
      I'm giving this 5 stars, because the content in this was great. But next time, get someone to edit the grammatical errors out of the article. It was annoying to read way too many run on sentences, you used commas instead of periods, it was a bit confusing, it bothered me. Aside from critical self-consciously ironic comments, good article. I've always thought that's where most of the real musicians were working today: the film industry.