What Music Can Do For You

The obvious stuff you know already – memorable themes, emotive or action packed music to heighten emotion and excitement, cool sounds. But beyond that…what is music actually for?

When composers take on a film, games or TV project, they should be doing a lot more than just providing a great sounding piece of music. They have to fit into the overall ethos of the project. They need to buy into what the director or producer is saying, what they’re trying to achieve. Unlike concert composers or recording artists, media composers work inside your creative bubble. They add their authentic and distinctive twist on the soundtrack but it is ultimately a soundtrack that fits perfectly inside your creative vision.

Music to picture works on three board levels. The balance between these functions varies a lot from project to project.

The Top layer: Superficial music. This is scoring what we see on screen. The character is sad – the music is sad. Something funny happens. The music is funny. This is the most literal level. What you see is what you hear. If there is an chase or a fight, you probably want action music that enhances what is going on. There is no hidden depth to this and in a lot of the work I do in animation, this makes up the majority of the score.

Very literal music, even in animation, is not what fewer and fewer producers want. Many now ask for the sound effects to hit the comic moments and the music to lead the viewer up to that point.

The Middle Layer: Music can score character and situations as well. It can reflect and draw out elements of the narrative that maybe not so obvious. It can reflect time and place. The whole nature of the sound can complement the aesthetic of the film or game.

Music of this kind is often about what it is not doing. Think of the recent trend for Nordic noir. The music is not underscoring action, emotion or telling stories in a more literal way. Scores like the original version of the Bridge did a brilliant job of suggesting a sense of bleakness, underlying menace and dysfunctional relationships. It was cool, restrained and very effective.

The Foundation Layer: where the music speaks to the fundamental message of the production, what the whole project is about. It goes beyond just reflecting the aesthetic and reinforces what the project is trying to achieve.

Not all scores need to address all three and some clearly favour one level over the others. In my work on superhero animation, it’s fair to say I am mostly scoring what I see on screen. Without any disrespect to the amazing projects I’ve worked on, the audience is not looking for deep hidden meaning or eternal truths, they are looking for gripping entertainment. So the principal emphasis is scoring what I see on screen with a fair amount of scoring character and situation.

Psychological thrillers however are the other way around. Films like Juliet McKoen’s Frozen which scored (no connection with the recent Disney epic) are all about scoring what the film is about, then character and situation and a relatively small amount of the more obvious superficial level.

Music is there often to tell stories and to help the audience connect in the right way to what the director or producer is trying to say. When it works it is the most satisfying way to contribute to a great project.