Character Considerations – Part II

In Part I we talked about the tropes involved in writing for characters. Since character themes are — well — themes it makes sense that you would want the music to be more melodic in nature. Maybe not necessarily “hummable” but definitely differentiated from just basic underscore. A nice melody to associate with the character in question isn’t always necessary though. In The Dark Knight Hans Zimmer uses a long distorted droning note with building ostinato underneath it to signify the Joker. It’s very effective due to it’s stripped down and almost primal sound. What Zimmer does is essentially create a mood that ties to the character — it may not be a traditional theme but when has Hans Zimmer ever done anything traditional? Tonally the Joker’s music is pretty different from the rest of the movie as well so it helps to separate the character even further. Every time I watch The Dark Knight I get the impression that Joker is an inch away from breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. The music assists this imbalance greatly. So tone, it seems, is just as important as melody. We touched on this a little bit in part I but that was more geared towards using tone to assist the melodic intent. You can just as easily use tonal ideas to establish a character’s motivations. Tone is also used to establish the world but we’ll get into that some other time.

One simple thing to remember is that not every character needs a theme. It might be tempting to give a theme to everyone but that can be a little damaging to the narrative itself. Take a look at Star Wars: Han Solo doesn’t have a theme. He gets a joint theme with Leia eventually but there’s never one for just him. Going back to The Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits as a unit all share the same theme usually called “The Shire.” They don’t need a dedicated theme because the overlying bravery and innocence associated with them is shared among all of them. You can hear Howard Shore branch out from his central idea depending on who the focus is but there’s never a truly dedicated alternate melody for say, Samwise Gamgee. Even on the cue named “Samwise” the melody present is used elsewhere during a scene with Frodo. There are plenty of moments with new sweeping melodies but tonality is where Shore establishes who’s there and what’s happening.

As a composer, it’s important to not be afraid of digging deeper into the character and what you feel is happening. Perhaps they may be thinking of someone else in the film so hinting to a different theme is appropriate. If you’re a film composer theres a good chance you love the art of film. Use this to your advantage! You know films and you get to watch the character’s on screen hundreds of times. Try to consider what’s going on in their head — internal conflicts and emotions. If you’re really stumped, ask the director. We’re collaborators after all. Too many composers are afraid to approach the film makers with the idea that they’ll look unprofessional but I ask you: What looks more unprofessional, asking a question about a sequence you’re unsure about or turning in a “soon-to-be-rejected” score?

You could easily argue that theme writing is the most difficult part of the job and, to an extent, that’s true. Ignoring the orchestration side of things and focusing on the actual composing makes it an absolute truth in my opinion. The audience should be aware that a certain piece of music is being associated with someone but not so awake that they’re distracted. It needs to be well defined where appropriate and its your (our) job to find those moments. It is very easy to just float a theme over every instance of said character but that actually detracts from the overall narrative and severely bloats an otherwise fine score. My advice to other composers would be to watch as many movies as you can and pay attention! Listening to symphonies or other film scores is half the battle, you need to develop that sense of drama so your own work can breathe and evolve with the picture.

Next time: I don’t know what the topic is yet so I guess we’ll find out together.

Character Considerations – Part I

Working with thematic material presents several challenges. Do you make a character theme? What are they thinking? How do you state this theme, if needed, at this moment? Good theme writing starts with an understanding of the common tropes associated with various character types. Even if some are stereotypical and “tired” tropes. You have to try to remind yourself that we’re telling a story through sound. We don’t have the visuals to show the hero or the villain or the written word to describe them. Yes, we accompany the visuals of the film but in order to organically (early 2000’s buzzword) work with the picture our musical language needs to be seamless with the story. Today we’re going to talk about theme building ideas and characterization but let’s get some things out of the way. There are tired old descriptors for various themes that just don’t apply much anymore. Terms like “masculine” and “feminine” are incredibly useful and more often than not accurate to the tone of the melody. They work well and really haven’t been associated with one gender or the other for a very long time. Basically, bold themes are deemed masculine and light themes are classified as feminine. Really though it doesn’t mean the theme is male centric or female centric — it’s describing bold/daring vs. light/emotional themes. The terms are common and originated from descriptors in classical literature analysis.

Should we use them? I think we can use them just fine but I’ll refrain simply to get a fresh take on it.

To start off we need to take a look at what is considered to be heroic and powerful. The first place many composers go involve what intervals you’re using. Interval leaps of a second, fourth, or fifth are the first indicators of strength and power in many famous themes. Obvious examples include, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, there’s also a leap of a fourth three notes into the Fellowship theme from Lord of the Rings so it’s pretty common. If you have a strong character it’s a safe bet on those intervals. They sound militaristic to a listener which stems from centuries of bugle calls based on the harmonic series. If you need an example of that listen to any bugle call on youtube, they’re always in one key and follow the harmonic series since old brass instruments could only play those notes. So given the close association with military and battle it makes sense that these intervals seem powerful and heroic to the listener.

Another indicator of strength in a theme is the chords being used. In Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring he uses bold major chords under a minor melody to establish boldness and bravery. This is a super easy way to create a melody with heroic tones but also gives your melody an air of anticipation. Be cautious when using this trick though, your chords have to follow the melody very closely, often times your melody HAS to be a chord tone or it clashes in a nasty way.

Even easier than either of these is your instrumentation. We’ve already established that brass is practically de facto heroic fare so simply writing your hero’s melody in the brass gets the job done more-often-than-not. Bold strings playing octaves can achieve the effect as well but it’s definitely a lighter touch than brass. You can alternatively place the melody in octaves in the brass by section (often trombones, then horns+trumpets 8va) and accompany with chords in the strings. Loads of options but instrumentation is almost always tantamount to the desired tone, hence why professional orchestrators are always in demand. Great example of playing with tone for different weights in a theme: anything from Star Wars. John Williams weaves his themes in and out and it’s pretty common to not hear the same theme treated the same way twice throughout a film.

If seconds, fourths, and fifths are indicative of powerful themes it stands to reason that lighter/more emotive themes are the other intervals. This is usually the case although seconds make an appearance in there as well. Relying on these ‘richer’ intervals often evoke more emotion. Thirds are another obvious choice as they are the major/minor indicator. Richer still are sixths all the way up to tenths but be cautious of venturing too far away, the larger the leap gets the harder it becomes to balance your melody (although maybe that’s what you’re going for). A great example of these richer intervals being used to pull emotion from music – combined with delicate orchestration – is ‘Married Life’ from the film Up by Michael Giacchino (Juh-Keen-Oh!). The delivery of the emotion is two-fold. For starters he takes the melody through soft leaps of a third up before descending downward. This creates an insecure nature almost like the light playfulness is fleeting at best. Finally the melody makes an unsure leap a seventh up before jumping up to that note yet again from a more confident fifth. To take things further, the orchestration is done in a classic style evocative of old musicals like Singing In the Rain or Holiday Inn. The melody and the nostalgic orchestration effectively creates a whirlwind of emotion when combined with the picture.

Larger interval leaps tend to show romance. It’s kind of a trope of sorts but it’s a very effective one. Major sixths are a major player when trying to create romance. John Williams once talked about how in the old days of music sex had to be implied musically because they weren’t allowed to show much more than a kiss (then the curtains blew across the camera and fade to black). Because of that history these surging leaping tones are closely tied to romantic feelings within the narrative. They don’t always have to represent that — it really depends on the way the music is put together. In the modern era this sound is getting a little less associated with romance because…well…people are doin’ it and filmmakers are allowed to be pretty explicit (PG13 is so different from when I was a kid). You can just as easily use this kind of sound to evoke a character who may be open hearted or naturally loving.

When writing for a character you should take these tropes into account because writers are getting braver and characters are becoming more complex. There will always be hero characters and villains but there’s also a wealth of deep fleshed out ones too. We’ll delve deeper into applying these ideas to characters in Part II of this series in (hopefully) a few days.



Ah. Ah…yes. So let me preface this by saying I routinely say I’m going to start blogging more and then I don’t and then I feel bad about it and forget my login info. But — hey I’m a busy guy so there.

IF you are the least bit curious, I’m a film composer. If you want you can follow my ramblings as I try to figure this whole thing out. Let’s get started, the topic for today: instrumentation.

There are plenty of different schools of thought on this and really, they’re all correct. Some composers really enjoy just picking what is going on in their heads at the time and making a soundtrack. Sometimes this is called “eclectic” but to me these often come out feeling very disjointed. It lacks the coherence you get from a score that’s had its instrumentation plotted out. That’s the method I prefer, a cohesive symbiotic score with a singular tone to it. This doesn’t mean I don’t throw in an occasional “guest” into the mix but overall there is an ideology present throughout the film. Here’s some examples:


Composer A plots out his score for a small orchestra; small string section, woodwinds, and light brass. What happens is that the composer limits themselves to the possibilities. When they go in with the idea that there will be X amount of musicians in the room they become arguably more creative. When a composer operates within these confines they start to develop a musical language throughout the film. The audience quickly absorbs this language as part of the movie itself and the score does it’s job: supporting not distracting.

Let’s view Composer B: They have a computer packed full of sample libraries and just pull out whatever they think they need. If the brass is too weak here, that’s fine just layer on another horn patch. If the strings aren’t cutting through, same thing. More, more, more! What happens though is they do the opposite of creating a language. The tonality of the music becomes disjointed and distracting. The audience isn’t lulled into suspended disbelief by the score and is now fully aware and pulled out of the film. This is a bad thing. Most top notch guys don’t do this in a movie because they know better.

I subscribe to the former because I believe in making music that could be recorded. You also find that the moments you do need something extra like using, as I recently did, a pan drum. It provided a nice break tonally for a montage without changing anything too much. It’s a situation where if we were going to the scoring stage the orchestra contractor could easily bring someone in for that bit. Not so much with layering sections, if the brass is weak it’s probably poorly written — the same goes for strings, woodwinds, etc.. You can easily get away with throwing in extra percussion you weren’t previously using but thats partly the nature of the percussion section, there’s a lot of moving parts back there.

There are situations where Composer B’s approach is the better option. Layering is very, very common in trailer music where the whole production is larger than life. The sound design, the editing, and the music all work together to create excitement and hype. In that way, a massive impossible orchestra is the best option. It can also be effective in film too but it’s trickier to establish the music’s sense of ‘belonging’ to the picture that way so it must be done cleverly.

So what do you do? Think of your ensemble size ahead of time. Watch the movie a lot and try to visualize what the movie sounds like. This alone will tell you much of what you need to know when considering the size of the orchestra. Take that and write it down, plot out how many players will be in the brass section (good libraries have information on that ready for you). In my brass library it’s done in a standard symphony format: 4 horns – 3 trumpets – two trombones – bass trombone, tuba. That’s my preferred grouping because you can still write powerful brass but it’s balanced. I know 6 horns has become very popular but I prefer the definition in the smaller section. But know your section sizes! If you want your music to be as realistic as possible you have to write realistically.

And what if you bring it in and they want to book the real deal? Do you want to be that embarrassed? Exactly.