Music & Entertainment

How to Score a Film

Authored by Hans Zimmer

Film Score Composer

Music is a language that’s purely about expressing emotion. When the writers have run out of words and the cinematographers have run out of pictures, the director’s final tool is music, and that’s why the musical score is such a vital element of every film.

Part 1 of 10

Get the director’s version of the story

Having a conversation with the director is much more effective than reading the script. They’ll tell you what’s in their head, what to emphasize, and where their thoughts are headed. Stick with this story, and never abandon or betray those themes.

Part 2 of 10

Sit on your hands until you have an idea

Don’t immediately touch the keyboard and begin playing—your muscle memory will take over and you’ll retreat to old territory. Wait until you have the slightest bit of inspiration, even if it’s just one note, and go from there.

Part 3 of 10

Play your tune with one finger

Focus on four bars that are short, succinct, and say a lot. If the heart of your tune is intellectually and emotionally tight, it can then expand outward.

Did you know?

The theme from Batman Begins is just two notes, but that’s enough to create many variations, depending on how expressively they’re played or how they’re modified by LFOs and faders.

Part 4 of 10

Be practical and strategic when choosing your key

Pick a key that gives you the most freedom and possibilities. Keep it simple and come back to this home key as often as you can.

Did you know?

Hans Zimmer prefers writing in D, not only because it’s simple but because it’s the final string that a bass can play openly and still achieve vibrato.

Part 5 of 10

Create your own samples from scratch

Premade samples create a sort of gray sound, as the emotion behind each note is identical. Experiment with samples and create a unique set that fits your film. Avoid using presets, as they’ll corrupt the sound you’re imagining in your head.

Did you know?

Of the many synth programs—Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, etc.— the best software is the one you know and like best. Software is an instrument and tool, just like a Fender Stratocaster, and you use it to amplify your individual musicality.

Part 6 of 10

Create unique sound palettes for different story atmospheres

Let the music seep into a more abstract sound of atmosphere and room tones. Consider the different soundscapes in Batman Begins’ Gotham City, which contains the grandeur and wonderful architecture of a city made up of shiny steel and glass versus the grubby night scenes. Like two sides of the same coin, the sound palettes show the hope and beauty of the city before it gets destroyed.

Part 7 of 10

Complement the film’s light and color

The DP tells their version of the story through light and sound. Your score should coexist in that visual world.

Did you know?

The acclaimed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s book Writing with Light is an excellent study on the subjects of light and color, and though it’s not musical in nature, it’s an indispensable read for composers in order to create this cohesion.

Part 8 of 10

Play something the audience doesn’t expect

Surprise them right out of the gate with the very first note. For example, an audience seeing Sherlock Holmes will expect classical violin music. Instead, use a Roma-inspired violin, the kind that might have been played in a Victorian pub near Baker Street. Avoid clichés like giving bass notes for the villains or violins for romantic music.

Part 9 of 10

Keep organized!

A film score can have over 1,000 tracks. Maintain an efficient naming and numbering system or you can lose vital tunes, like Hans Zimmer did with Black Hawk Down.

Part 10 of 10

Budget is not a factor

The creative process takes place entirely in your head, and it isn’t limited by budget. If you think you need a huge symphony orchestra, that isn’t a budget issue, it’s a creative issue—you’re limited by your imagination because you haven’t figured out how to make this sound with four musicians or with an as-yet-uncreated sample.

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MSCHF Drop #27
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