Do YOU Know What Film Composers Know?

by Gary Guttman · 4 comments

For a composer, is learning how to create diverse musical moods and emotions a basic requirement of the art? I say the answer is “yes”. I felt it important enough that I devoted a large portion of my Secret Composer software to the exploration and analysis of creating musical moods and emotions.

Some might ask if that should only be of concern and interest to film composers. Well, let’s talk briefly about film composers. Want me to name a few? How about Aaron Copland, Sergei Prokofiev, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Leonard Bernstein, and Aram Khachaturian. All these renowned composers wrote film scores, as well as concert music, because they recognized that great music is great music, no matter what forum it is intended for.

From the moment we closed the door on the silent film era, there has been a blurring of the line between concert and film music. The common denominator between memorable concert music and film music is that they both have the ability to affect our emotions for periods of time; and audiences find that desirable.

So do film directors. It’s hard to imagine the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey without the presence of scores by Richard Strauss and Gyorgy Ligeti. While an uncountable number of films use classical music as part of their soundtrack, great composers have created new works for film that have become part of the standard concert repertoire. Copland’s The Red Pony, Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Bernstein’s On The Waterfront are prime examples of this. Included in this list should be John William’s score to the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His brilliant combination of Debussy/Ravel impressionism with the more modern tonalities of Takemitsu and others creates a unique and unforgettable listening experience.

How exactly do composers create moods and emotions through music? By careful manipulation of melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration. Is manipulation too cynical a term? Not at all. Musical notes and colors can combine in ways that touch us on a deeply personal level. Master composers have been exploiting these properties for hundreds of years. In modern times, film composers do the same. If the motivating force behind creating music is to communicate our feelings to one another, what could be more important to a composer than learning how to do that?

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Jean May 15, 2009 at 5:06 pm

Dear Garry, I wonder how do you work when it comes to compose music in a very short time, what is your work flow? Unfortunately for me I do not know orchestration much, I work with computers mimicking sound of the symphonic orchestra, but with your software I am learning now. I am looking forward to read your new posts, from your previous ones I’ve learned already so much. Thank you for your generosity and for the opportunity to interact. My best wishes.

Gary Guttman May 17, 2009 at 1:05 am

Hi Jean,

I’m very happy you are learning from the software and the blog posts. You pose an interesting question and it prompts me to bring up several points. My first comment is that most composers will allow themselves just as much time to compose as the deadline allows. If 10 minutes of music is needed to be finished in 5 days, you make sure you stay on schedule and compose at least 2 minutes of music every day for those 5 days. If your deadline allows you a full month to compose that same 10 minutes of music, you have the opportunity to write at a slower pace and even skip some days if needed.

But I sense that your real question is how do you learn to compose good music quickly. My attitude is that as a composer, you need only focus on 4 elements; melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Since rhythm is already inherent in melody, you’re really just focusing on melody, harmony and instrumental color. Of course if you’re looking to create momentum and energy, as you would need to do in a piece of action music, you might start by creating a rhythmic or percussive groove first, and then fill in the melody and harmony next.

But as I’ve stated in the above blog post, certain combinations of notes and colors create predetermined outcomes. And these outcomes translate as emotions. An augmented chord creates quite a different sensation than a major chord. And yet there is only one note difference between these two chords. And the emotional response we feel in our body from a minor 11th chord, can only be achieved from that minor 11th chord. In that regard, music is very much like medicine. They both contain a combination of carefully chosen elements, that will have an affect on our body.

That is the fun part of composing – knowing you can affect someone with just the right combination of notes. In the Composition Moods section of Secret Composer, you see that we chose a number of different moods and emotions, and then we demonstrated how you can express them in music. Same thing with the Quick Tricks. I’d like to say that I discovered all of these musical formulas myself. But I didn’t. They have been used for hundreds of years – over and over. Why? Because they really work.

I greatly encourage you to really become familiar with as many chords and harmonic combinations as possible. You will create melodies a lot faster, once you have a strong harmonic background. If you compare music to a novel or a movie, you can think of it this way: musical harmony is the equivalent of the location, setting, time period and mood of your novel or movie. The melody then fills in all the details of your story. So you first need to know the location, setting, time period and mood of your novel or movie, before you fill in the details of the story.

This doesn’t mean that you have to have all of your harmony in place before you start working on the melody. You can create melody and harmony simultaneously. All I’m trying to say is that harmony creates the emotional climate of your music. Use it to help you craft your melodies. You will get to the emotional core of your music faster that way.

Another way of expressing emotions with music is through the use of certain scales and modes. The Lydian mode, for example, has such an expressive quality, that you don’t really need much supporting harmony, if any, to create a memorable melody.

As you become more familiar with the various colors of the orchestra, you will be able to choose your instrumentation more quickly. You will instinctively know which instruments are best suited to play the various elements of your music.

And that brings up my final point. Don’t worry now about how slow or fast you compose. Like everything else in life, the more you do it, the faster and better you become at it. You mention that you don’t know much about orchestration and that you are mimicking symphonic sounds with your computer. That’s great. That is what I would recommend you do. I also compose using a keyboard and a computer full of orchestral sounds. It’s a fast way to compose, and an excellent way to learn about orchestration.

Keep studying Secret Composer and testing out your music on your computer. After a short while, you will start to really understand the composition lessons from the software, and orchestration will be easier for you. You will see that the violin section can really make a melody soar. A solo cello playing a sad melody can make you weep. The English horn can color a melody with exotic mystery. A harp glissando is magical. And the French horn section can make any chord sound either majestic, threatening or lush – depending on how the horns are used.

Once you become more familiar with composition and orchestration formulas, they will become second nature to you, and you will be composing and orchestrating much quicker than you are now. It’s a lot to look forward to.

I hope my answer has helped you. Thanks for your question and best of luck with your composing!

– Gary

Manu June 3, 2009 at 3:44 am

Hi Gary,

This course is superb! In a few words you get to the point. This is the best composition manual I’ve ever read. Thank you very much! When will Secret Composer 2 come up? It’s bound to be a hit.

Gary Guttman June 3, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Hi Manu,

Thanks so much for the kind words. We’re really thrilled that you’re enjoying the course.

We’ve gotten several letters asking when Secret Composer Volume 2 will be out. The truth is, we are still in the early stages of getting the word out about Secret Composer Volume 1 and distributing the program as far and wide as possible. Once we’ve set that process in full motion and we feel that we’ve truly reached our potential audience, we can focus on Volume 2. Hopefully that release will occur within a year or two.

In the meantime, you’re welcome to post a question if you have a specific compositional issue and I’ll be happy to answer as many questions as I can, as time permits.

Thanks again for your support!

– Gary

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