Thursday, 1 December 2011

How To Brief A Composer: Final Part

Talking to composers about emotion.

I believe that the primary function of music in any film, for the movies, television, for adults or children, is to tell your audience what they should be feeling.  We’ve talked about musical genres and styles, but when we are briefing composers we should be talking about emotion.
All music, at least, all music that is any good, carries an emotional charge.  Music can put us in a good or bad mood, make us agitated or relaxed, move us to tears, or put us to sleep.  When we talk to composers about musical styles, we are reflecting what a particular style might evoke for us.  We know what has worked before.  We can point to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, the moment in John Williams’ score when ET sails past the moon on the bicycle, or the whistling motif in Morricone’s Fistful Of Dollars, and it is clear what we are looking for: music that is scary, that is heart-meltingly tender, or that speaks to us of haunting loneliness.

The build up to the murder is done with uncanny silence.  Hitchcock builds the tension with some quick cutting and unusual angles.  The sound effects emphasise the mundanity of the scene, so that when the music comes in, it is a shocking intrusion, like the knife.

Using existing music as a guide is fine, but is not always useful.  In the world I live in, it is difficult to get a composer of the calibre of Herrmann, Williams or Morricone, the budget won’t allow for an orchestra, the emotional spectrum is more narrow, and scenes are so short there isn’t time to develop a musical theme for more than a few seconds.

Deciding which moments need emotional emphasis is a matter of taste. It’s easy to recognise the moments of high melodrama in your show, and ask the composer to reinforce them with music.  But what about subtler moments of exasperation, confusion, or worry?  Should they be reinforced by music?  And, if so, how?  And is it possible to express these things in a few seconds with a couple of chords?
Of course, you could, and probably should, leave a lot of this to the composer.  Like a good dubbing editor, a good composer will see emotional possibilities in your show that you have missed, and point up moments you had not given much importance to.  There are few things more satisfying than hearing the score for the first time and being surprised by the emotional richness of your show.
Some composers will demand that you are specific about the emotions you want to bring out.  When the child in your show arrives at his new school, do you want the music to express his fear and trepidation, or the insensitive hustle and bustle of the world he or she is entering?  Of course, there is no right answer to this sort of question, but your choice will have an impact on how the viewer will respond to the scene.  You might have a scene with multiple characters, who all have different emotions. You need to decide where the sympathies of the viewer should lie, and brief the composer accordingly.
You also need to decide when not to have music, where the emotional content does not need underscoring, or where a musical underpinning might seem either intrusive or confusing.  Not every emotional moment will need music, but the moments of real fear, sadness, or triumphant joy offer the best opportunities for music.  The less music you have elsewhere in your show, the more impact these moments will have.
Music can also be used for comedy.  Often comedic moments in a film or show will be accompanied by the worst sort of music hall music, with punchlines emphasised with a flourish of a drum or cymbal, or the Wah Wah Wah of a muted trombone or trumpet.  For me this is akin to canned laughter. It may be a sign that the viewer should laugh at this point, but does little to make the scene funnier.
More interesting and effective is when the music itself adds humour. In our series, Hilltop Hospital, our dog doctor was the target of unwanted romantic advances from a cat nurse.  These moments were invariably underlined with a rhapsodic melody, whose exaggeration created moments of real irony.  Music that totally exaggerates, or plays against what is on screen can create real laughs.  In this situation, the more serious the music, the funnier the impact.
I always think the music is one of the most important elements of any film or programme, and I am probably irritatingly fussy about it.  It is important to know what you want to achieve in your show, but also to give the composer enough space to deliver a score with real power.
I love this!
There is something very haunting about the whistling, which evokes a feeling of loneliness, but places us right in the wide open spaces of the Wild West (probably somewhere in Spain!)

Next:  What makes writing for animation different from writing for live action.

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