5 secret words to speak the language of composers

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Five words

Sometimes film makers struggle to express a particular concept they’d like to try with the score. Knowing how to use the right musical term in context can save you time and struggle… So here is a list of 5 words that composers commonly use which will help you give more focused direction.

Cue

Even though you can already find a definition of cue on our website I’ll concentrate on the aspects of a cue that can be specifically important to a film maker.

Any piece of music within a movie, from its start to its end, is calle a cue. In fact, even a piece of music spanning over multiple scenes would still be called a (single) cue.

There is a rather common occasion where things can be a bit more confusing: segues. When there is a group of 2 or more subsequent cues shortly overlapping each other we say that the next cue “segues” (from the italian verb seguire, to follow) the preceding one.

Segues are particularly useful in long musical sequences. Separating the music in smaller chunks can help subsequent phases like recording.

(Thematic) development

If you are after a score that is thematic (featuring a prominent and recognisable melody that is) you might want to explore the realms of thematic development.

The concept has been inherited from the long tradition of classical works featuring development of motifs or themes. Think of how the 4 notes group in Beethoven’s 5th symphony comes back in various places over the works’ movements but always changed, transformed.

We talk of thematic development when a particular theme is transformed as the film progresses. Aside from keeping the music interesting and fresh, while retaining a feeling of familiarity, this can offer to your film many perks. Developing a theme can help the audience empathise with a character’s transformation and better understand some of the less evident angles of her/his personality. A thematic development can also help tie together groups of characters or the various sections or scenes of your film. Through thematic development one can convey the sense of time movement (both going forward or backward) or space movement.

John William’s score for E.T. is a great example of how to develop a theme throughout a film. With only bits of it being presented at the beginning and expanded upon little by little until the emotional explosion on the flying bikes scene.

So keep in mind you can ask your composer to develop a specific theme in a specific section for a specific purpose.

Pad

This term belongs to the world of synths. A pad is in fact a specific kind of synthesised sound/instrument.

Pads are usually meant to be used when the music features long notes, often a few played in harmony. They are often evocative in nature and feature some kind of slow sonic movement within, which saves them from sounding repetitive. In fact, I’d dare to say the best pads are those that have the most natural evolutions within. They feel interesting and fresh even when triggered by the longest notes.

Depending on the kind of application you are after you could ask your composer for either a dark pad or a bright pad. Given the large quantity of presets being generally available even the less synth-savvy composers should be able to please this request.

Bonus tip: whenever you’d like the music to feature a (single) low synth note to keep playing for a long time (even when there is some musical activity on the higher registers) you could call the sound a drone. To be exact a drone could also be produced by acoustic instruments, such as double basses. So, many colours available to your palette!

Rubato

I consider this one to be one of my secret weapons, so… you are welcome! Performing a piece of music with a rubato feel means playing around the metronome, not strictly following it. In other words giving it a more natural/human touch.

One can apply rubato to different degrees, the extreme being not recording with a metronome at all. The opposite extreme is a piece that feels quantised. Quantisation is a computer adjustment to the played notes so that they are mapped to exact time placements.

Whenever you feel the music sounds a bit too “robotic” asking for more rubato might fix it!

Modulation

The concept of modulation can be a bit complicated to understand if you are not familiare with harmony and tonality. Modulating means changing the key of a piece. This usually results in making even the most repetitive material feel fresh and interesting again.

In long cues where you want to keep hearing the theme but feel the music is rather monotonous you could ask for a modulation. Sometimes that would be sufficient re-invigorate the cue.

Keep in mind that the exact moment of modulation has much potential for dramatic effects. The viewers will “feel” that particular moment. It is best to make it happen when it has a strong meaning together with pictures.

Bonus tip: a modal change occurs when we keep the general distance between notes but according to a different scale. The most common occurrence of modal change is going from major to minor or vice-versa. To give you a better idea of major to minor modal change hear the ominous effect obtained by Mahler in its 3rd symphony when playing with the Frère Jaques (Brother John) notorious melody but in a minor key:

This technique can be particularly useful as a kind of thematic development. Alternatively it could be used mid-cue, like a modulation. This would keep the music interesting while highlighting a specific event and subsequent change in the mood.

One more tip

There you have it, I hope reading about these words will make it easier to guide your composers. Here is a final tip for you: try relying less on the temp score and more on describing what effects you want the music to achieve. Using the right vocabulary could help you obtain that while will helping your composer bring her/his best to the table!

Giovanni Rotondo

Editor in Chief of Film Scoring Tips. Giovanni Rotondo is an experienced film and television composer based in London. He has scored many award winning feature films, TV movies, documentaries and video games. More info here: giovannirotondo.com

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