Back when I finally won my first job writing music for a TV show, I wasn’t aware that my education was just about to begin. Sure, I’d won the pitch against a bunch of other composers, which meant that my writing and production skills were up to par for the job, and that felt good. But I’d never actually written bespoke music for a TV show before and, with a mixture of excitement and nerves, I was keen to see how it went.
I learnt a good few lessons in those early days and want to share a couple of them with you. If you’re currently pitching to score TV shows (or looking to get into this) and it’s early days with that side of your career, this article is for you.
Learning On The Job
Learning on the job is a double edged sword. First of all, it’s invaluable in so many ways. For example, feedback is coming to you straight from the director who may know very little about the technical side of music, but a lot about what she’s going for: what feels good to picture and what doesn’t. That advice comes from a place that fellow composers or musicians may miss when they feedback to you in an internet forum or such like, where everyone can be too focused on the music as the most important element. Also, over time, feedback can reveal to you the corners where you’re approaching the art in a way that doesn’t work. If you’re having to alter your tracks by changing the same things, time and again, take note!
So why is it a double edged sword? Well, your main purpose on a job is not your education of course, it’s to deliver a great score. As such, you can sometimes feel a real pressure should you miss the target more than once when scoring a scene. You may experience the tone of the email feedback change from positive and very gentle with your ego, to more and more direct wording! On top of this, the other cues on the to-do list continue to pile up.
My Big Early Mistake
Like many composers, it was my love of epic, expansive film scores that first got me into wanting to write soundtracks. As I passionately took apart the elements of those scores and absorbed them into my own writing, I developed a sound that was quite big. When I found myself writing for my first TV gig, (a documentary about horses, as opposed to that massive, franchised superhero movie), I took those big film scoring techniques across. They were going to love that big epic sound I was going to give their production!
Well, turns out they didn’t.
Luckily for me, the director was tied up going off on shoots that overran, so it was the editor that called me up before some of my music even got to the director’s ears. I think this editor sensed my inexperience in how I’d approached those early scenes. “You write great music, Mike” he said, kindly preparing my ego. “But you’re not scoring a hollywood blockbuster here. You need to find a way to tone it down, but keep the excitement.”
That was great advice that is relevant to many composers starting out today. In our want to impress, we can over-score scenes and, especially when there is voiceover or dialogue involved, end up distracting the viewer away from the story or setting the wrong tone for the scene.
Also, what I didn’t realise until later, was that in assuming a big cinematic approach was what would work, I was being lazy. I wasn’t taking time to think about what the film was saying to me and letting it influence my musical direction. By not being allowed to go down my default cinematic road, I subsequently settled, (with the input of this great editor), on a palette of industrial, distorted sounds influencing the score, echoing the workhorse elements of the animals that the show was about. The production company found that approach fresh and we all agreed that it worked well to picture. As a result I went on to score several more shows for them.
I’m not saying that there aren’t moments in TV where big doesn’t work. I’ve had the privilege of scoring several BBC Natural History Unit documentaries and we’ve had panoramic aerial shots of ancient Mexican temples where I’ve been able to unleash the full force of a 75 piece orchestra including a sonic WALL of brass! (I’d be lying if I said that this didn’t feel glorious!)
You’ll also note that things change per territory. U.S. TV sometimes goes down a larger scale route in general: I’ve been surprised to hear epic library music tension cues used on shows like Masterchef in the States, when all that’s happening on screen is some guy sautéing some broccoli.
In general, just be aware that cinema is a bigger experience than watching TV and oftentimes the preferred musical approach for TV reflects that.
How To Build Without Getting Bigger
In film or TV soundtracks, music is often used to drive the images and will need to build over a sequence. So how do you do this if you run into the danger of over-scoring, as mentioned above? When you’re new to composing for TV there is a huge temptation to throw more and more instruments at a track in an attempt to make it grow. In fact, this just creates less space for dialogue and sound effects.
One useful approach is that you don’t have to start scoring a scene at the beginning. You may decide, after you’ve mapped out the tempo of the scene, to jump into the middle or the climactical point of highest tension and start there. Then go back from that point.
Another, invaluable approach came up when I spoke to Emmy winning composer of the BBC Sherlock series, Michael Price. Along with other Emmy winning composers Walter Murphy (Family Guy) and Mac Quayle (Mr. Robot), Michael was a contributor to my book “An Introduction To Writing Music For TV”. In the book, he shares his take on an invaluable technique that every TV composer should master: Contrast.
The Power Of Contrast
Contrast can be a useful tool across several aspects of composition. When things change from what’s come before, we take note. We feel a difference. Note that this doesn’t always mean change to something bigger. Or to something thicker. Or to something in a different key. You can have instrumental change, melodic change, a change of chord sequence, a change in what element is driving the music, etc. The options are considerable, perhaps endless, yet many composers go for the obvious: add more layers.
The context of contrast in my conversation with Michael Price was when we got onto the subject of movement and build when scoring for TV. At one point in the book, Michael describes the power of contrast within movement beautifully :
“For certain kinds of scores, the film makers are looking for the music to help with pace and energy. So how do you generate that? There’s a law of diminishing returns involved, in that the more you put ostinatos on, and the more that you put anything that loops in the background, that sets itself up as the baseline. That means that if you then want to change up a gear, you’re already there: you’ve got nowhere else to go. So, contrast is the technique. Contrast is the aspect that gives you the perception of whatever it is that you need.
Black is at its blackest after you’ve seen a snowdrift. Quiet is as its quietest after Metallica have finished! So, I think for movement, most composers will know how to make something that moves in an instinctive way, but often the reason that I find a scene isn’t working that needs movement, is because I haven’t stopped at any point.”
Conclusion: Keep the show in mind
Let’s be clear on this, I’m certainly not telling you to write small or “dumb down” your music because it’s TV. Just make sure you keep the show in mind, (that is, the emotional objective of the footage in front of you), and avoid trying to prove anything with your music.
Keep in mind that in those early TV gigs, you may be inclined to score too big, especially if your influences are those epic, bombastic film scores that so many of us love.
Finally, practice and experiment with utilising the power of contrast to change gears without having to add layers that may rob your score of a feeling of space.