How To Brief A Composer

Your production is coming to that magic moment where you start looking at music. But there is mixed in with all the excitement a secret dread, how exactly do I get this composer to do something I’ll love?! It’s tough.

Many directors and producers are more worried about commissioning music than anything else. A script – you can look at words on the page and argue over sentences and phrases. A shot you can look through the viewfinder, a graphic there’s something on paper to point at but music is so much harder. Most producers and directors lack the language to comment technically on the music and often feel at the mercy of the composer.

So here are a few points to consider as seen from the other side of the fence!

  1. It’s OK Not To Know What You Want. You’re not ordering a carpet or a new car. This is something creative that has to evolve with your production. If you don’t know feel free to be honest and with a good sympathetic and creative composer you will find the answer together.
  1. Use Examples Rather Than Words. Phrases like “cool and contemporary”, “uplifting”, and exhortations to “think outside the box” really don’t help to be honest. If ten directors said that, then they would be hearing ten different things in their head. Find an example which you think has something of the quality you want. But be specific. Make clear what is right about the example and what is not.
  1. The Written Brief. The more the composer knows about the project the better. Give them some context. If they can fully grasp the ethos of the film/program/game they can imagine it in music. Tell them what you are trying to say. Not just the superficial stuff on the screen but the fundamentals, the big picture. The music should reflect that probably even more than what you seed on screen
  1. A Picture: You may well not have a finished movie but you might have some examples of finished artwork. That’s really useful. Composers are surprisingly visual people.
  1. Logistics: Half the job is delivering exactly what you want on budget and on time. Let them know the full scope of the project, the time scale and schedule as early as possible. For example if you are considering live orchestra, studios sometimes have to be booked many months in advance, sometimes before the composer has been appointed.
  1. Music Supervisors: These wonderful people can be very helpful for translating what you are after into terms the composer will understand. If you are even thinking of using any commercial or pre-recorded music they are absolutely vital.
  1. The Composer’s Work: If there are aspects of the composer work you love (or don’t love) then let them know. It’s always good to know why you chose somebody and if there are any points you are not sure about, let them know that as well.
  1. Musical Language: even if you are musical person, avoid musical terms. Stick to what you want the music to achieve not how to achieve it.
  1. Do You Really Need A Brief? If your project is not going to a formal competitive pitch then you may not need a detailed written brief. A long conversation with the composer or a joint viewing of the rough cut will do great. Let them see whatever you’ve got, script, storyboard, log lines, whatever it might be.
  1. Let’s See What They’ve Got: Some producers choose not to brief the composer in any detail to let the composer come up with their own solution. That’s fine but if you have any real red lines, you need to make that clear. If there are particular instruments, approaches or styles that will send you running for the hills, it’s good to be clear about that up front. Don’t take someone who doesn’t eat fish to a fish restaurant.

Hope this list is helpful and if you need any advice on the musical approach to your project, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!