Behind The Scenes Part 2: The Score

Bach wrote for the church, Mozart wrote for nobility and many composers over the centuries have written commissioned works for a specific subject matter. Writing great, original music while adhering to a “common practice” or a narrative framework is a skill possessed by history’s greatest composers and a trait necessary for modern film composers. While music often goes unnoticed during the course of a movie, without it our favorite flicks would collapse into a lifeless barrage of awkward scenes. Simply observe the impact of the shower scene in Psycho with its screeching violins depicting knife stabs, the anxiety inducing two notes that led Jaws to become the first summer blockbuster or the majestic opening titles of Star Wars to see prime examples of how powerful music can be in a film. Remove the music and you’re left with a rather bland, much more expressively impotent art form that arduously drags from moment to moment. Even Stephen Spielberg has said that a film is “dry and lifeless” without music.

Before there were soundtracks and “talkies,” silent films were accompanied by a live musician (or multiple musicians) to bring life to the picture. This has been necessary to help express emotion since the inception of movie making and is integral to the storytelling process. Music on its own can move people through a vast palette of feelings, but when combined with the visuals and story of a well-crafted film, it can be life changing. Prior to the 20th century, the highest form of artistic expression was opera. Melding the parts of music, story & acting, this precursor to film (which at times can be more ridiculous than any Quentin Tarantino movie) helped refine the relationship of these three art forms. It enriched the soil in which the seeds of film would ultimately grow, as a natural extension of theater.


Once technology improved allowing a soundtrack to be included, more “legitimate” concert composers became interested in this new medium. Prokofiev, Copland, Shostakovich, Gershwin & Schoenberg all wrote music for film, just to name a few. Film became an exciting and fertile new landscape for composers. As the years went by and film evolved, the scoring process became more of a specialized niche. With ungodly deadlines, tyrannical producers and a burden of evoking strong emotions from even the most passive audiences, the job of “Film Composer” became an elite class in the realm of music composition.

Endowing oneself with the unique skills necessary to succeed in this industry is a long, grueling journey and one that is rewarded with a job that comes with a lot of baggage. Thriving under immense pressure, constant changes and a shrinking timeline while still maintaining the ability summon creative inspiration, requires a mental dexterity on par with the nimbleness of a Vaganova Academy member. Composers usually have anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to produce 80-120 minutes of music due to the fact that they’re normally brought in toward the end of the film making process. Having early exposure is a luxury rarely afforded to the composer, typically because of scheduling unpredictability. To put this into perspective, Beethoven spent 4 years writing his 5th symphony, which runs a little over 35 minutes and Brahms admitted to taking 21 years to complete his first symphony! The sheer amount of work that goes into producing the quantity and quality of music within such a short amount of time is beyond the comprehension of most laymen. And, this is compounded by the need to have a strong grasp of all styles of music to be ready for whatever feel the project may require.


When the composer is first brought onto a project, the film will usually have already undergone extensive editing and a rough cut will be ready. Here, a spotting session is among the first things that will take place. This where the director and composer (and possibly producer, music supervisor, assistants etc.) will first watch the film together. The film is broken down scene by scene and they will decide where and what kind of music will be used. These are crucial decisions that can make or break a scene. How the music enters a scene, the decision to play with or against what’s happening on screen or the decision to NOT use music in a particular moment will greatly affect the experience of the viewer. The scoring process for a film is very much a collaborative endeavor, so it’s imperative that the composer is open minded and a good team player. The great Alan Silvestri describes his relationship with the director:
“You’ve got to remember what you’re doing here. You’re working for somebody, and you, the composer, are not going to be the one called on the carpet when the movie was supposed to make $40 million this weekend and it only made $150,000….You’re probably off on your next movie, but there’s somebody out there who’s sitting in a chair right now with a bunch of people in suits standing around him, and he’s having a real bad day. That person’s called the director! So if you think for a minute that the director is not going to have a whole lot to say about what kind of music goes into their film and how it sounds, you’re kidding yourself.”

The director will layout his intentions scene by scene and copious notes are kept for reference during the composition process. The last thing you want to do is spend a week writing music that doesn’t adhere to the director’s vision. In rare cases you might have a situation similar to what John Williams enjoyed on The Force Awakens. Here are some of his comments on spotting that film: “We’ve had a few preliminary meetings, and I’ve played him [J.J. Abrams] some music at the piano, which he seemed to like very much. His latest instruction to me was, “Just do your thing.” Which is giving me a good sense of freedom, a good free swing at the ball.”

The Temp Score

During the spotting session, the composer may encounter the infamous “temp score.” When the editor is cutting the film, they’ll often use music from other films or classical music to put under the scenes. This way the director can get a better sense of how the scene is working since a movie without music is, well…not very good! Although this can be a good tool for the editor and director while they’re putting the film together, the director may become very attached to the temp music. This can be very problematic for the composer, especially if the director has been listening to the temp music for a long period of time and has gotten used to hearing it with the film.

A worst-case-scenario example of this famously happened on Stanly Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We all know the incredibly powerful classical music that accompanies the film. But, this was just the original temp score that Kubrick had intended to replace with a score by composer Alex North, whom he had worked with previously on Spartacus. In fact, North had written and recorded upwards of 40 minutes of music for 2001 before Kubrick told him the rest of the picture would only contain sound effects and didn’t need any further scoring. Imagine his surprise when attending the premier of the film, that Alex North heard none of his own music, but only the temp music!

While most directors haven’t gone to those extremes, many do request the composer to write in a similar style to the temp music. One of the major complaints of A-list Hollywood composers is that their creativity is stifled because directors become so married to the temp score that they want the new one to sound as close to it as possible. This becomes a major hurdle to overcome, having to write original effective music for the film, adhere to the director’s vision and potentially remain similar to the temp music. Even of the late James Horner, it’s said that the worst thing to happen to James Horner was James Horner. Because after his early success, he found new projects being temped with music from his previous films that the directors wanted him to emulate. Nevertheless, temp scores are often a necessary evil to expedite the director’s vision of the musical direction for the composer.

Just like with any musical influence however, it’s important not to copy it too closely. I remember speaking with Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini, who talked about the concept of regurgitation vs digestion. He talked about how when you regurgitate something, it comes out in the same form as it went in. There’s no real change to it. But, when you digest something, it comes out in a completely new form, yet it’s comprised of the fundamental properties of the original. This is a great analogy to use when asked to write something similar to another piece.

Composing the Music

After a thorough spotting session, it’s time to begin creating the actual music. This will usually involve an initial period of reflection, experimentation and procrastination followed by a growing feeling of dread as the realization that time is slipping away and there’s a deadline to meet! I had a friend that would anxiously distract himself before any project by cleaning his room from top to bottom. The specific act of cleaning and organizing would help prepare his mind to tackle the work ahead. In fact, most top film composers have mentioned this initial feeling of self-doubt followed by panic as they struggle come up with material in the beginning. Even if you’ve had great success in the past, each new project is a blank slate and you are under the gun to come up with something unique and effective. For most composers, they will need to produce an average of around 2 minutes of music per day to stay on track. John Williams is known for having a very organized daily routine to help him remain disciplined when working on a film. Here he comments on summoning the muses: “The romantic notions of how inspiration comes are just that – notions. Composing music is hard work. Any working composer or painter or sculptor will tell you that inspiration comes at the eighth hour of labour, rather than as a bolt out of the blue. We have to get our vanities and our preconceptions out of the way and do the work in the time allotted.” This is sage advice when time is your enemy and you have rely on your technique to connect the islands of inspiration.

Unlike writing music for music’s sake, the purpose of music in a film is to support the scene and the overall narrative. Finding the right feel or “sound” of the picture is essential to the effectiveness the score. The acclaimed Elliot Goldenthal discusses his approach to a score:
“Before I approach anything, I have a very strong concept of what I want to pull off, whether it works or not. That might include limiting the choice of pitches or a very clear choice of orchestration. So I don’t go into something and just start improvising, I find that if I do that, I just sort of waste my time. I stay away from the piano, away from the computer, away from the pencil. I think about the scene and I say: How can I achieve the dramatic effect that is necessary for the scene and have it still sound fresh? How can I make it sound like you haven’t heard that before, you haven’t lived that before? Sometimes the answer can be surprisingly simple. In Alien 3, for example, I used a solo piano to underline the scene with the little girl because I thought that having a piano way out in space would remind you of the most domestic of all instruments – it would remind you of home. Just things like that. That’s a concept.”
This excellently describes how determining the sound palette and the overall “voice” at the start will greatly improve ease of writing later on. Having the conceptual pieces in place before hand will make for a more cohesive structure and allow for greater dramatic support.

Once this foundation is laid, the thematic material can be developed. In a trend started by Hans Zimmer and adopted by several other composers, a short suite is written that includes 10-15 minutes of music that the rest of the film will be based on. Sometimes this is done before the shooting even begins. This way the director can sit with the thematic materials and make sure they are properly in-line with the film’s vision. Otherwise, you’ll want to tackle some of the more important sequences to establish the tone and build from there.
The music in a film is broken up into “cues” that can last anywhere from a few seconds to 10-minutes or more. An average feature film will have around 40 or 50 different cues with most lasting a few minutes or less. This makes the writing and editing process much more digestible by allowing changes to be made to a short cue rather than a 7 minute one that might have to be completely rewritten.


Every director has a unique personality and therefore a totally different working style. So the first thing a composer must do is loose his ego, because if the director doesn’t like the music it doesn’t stay in the film. The art of trying to figure out how to make the music work within the director’s vision can require quite a bit of psychology and resilience. I’ve worked for some directors that loved everything I did the first time and I’ve worked for some that required 15 rewrites of the same 30 second cue! The point is you have to listen, be reative and be prepared to work outside of your wheelhouse. Having honest and deep conversations prior to writing will definitely alleviate the need for many rewrites, but there will always be changes necessary and the composer can’t take it personally.


An orchestrator takes the composers shorthand and expands it to produce parts for everyone in the orchestra. The preparation and notation of a full orchestral score is quite time consuming and laborious. This is often a very misunderstood role, as the orchestrator can be required to perform a variety of tasks. In most cases their job is to transfer the composer’s intentions from the sketch score to the full score. They do not add any new melodic material to the music, but make sure that everything is balanced and laid out well for performance. For symphonic writing, the orchestration is a very important and personal aspect of the composition. Even classical composers have been more or less talented in this area. You can compare Schumann’s relatively simple “blocky” orchestrations to Ravel or Mahler who demonstrated great dexterity and creativity in this department. In the film world, due to the relatively short amount of time given to produce a large quantity of music, orchestrators are often used to help speed along the process. Now this doesn’t necessarily mean the composer is not designating the orchestration in shorthand. For example, John Williams is known for his detailed sketches with clearly notated instrumentation where the orchestrator is essentially just copying his instructions onto the full score. Early on in Danny Elfman’s career, he employed the use of his guitar player from Oingo Boingo (Steve Bartek) as an orchestrator, since Elfman had minimal experience and Bartek had taken an orchestration class in college.

Once the orchestrations are complete, the score will be sent to a “music preparation” company. They will make all the individual parts for the orchestra, copies of the score, engraving and corrections if necessary. This seems like a relatively simple task, but having the correct parts organized properly

Ghost Writers

One of the “dirty little secrets” of Hollywood is its use of ghost writers. This is where parts of the score are farmed out to other people in order to expedite its completion. Usually the composer will write the main themes and some of the major cues, then have a team of other composers complete the remaining cues by doing arrangements based off that material. They might get a credit in “Music Department” way at the end of the credit sheet or possibly not at all, hence “ghost” writer. Not all composers employ this method, but some such as Hans Zimmer have built their career on it. With his company Remote Control Productions, he has access to a large staff of composers to assist on projects, allowing him to take on much more work than if he did everything himself. For example, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest composed by Hans Zimmer, has 11 other people listed as additional composers. I think most composers view it as a source of pride to write EVERY note in a score, but Hans seems to enjoy the role of music producer as well, leaving much of the “grunt work” to his team. And although it’s easy to criticize, you can’t deny the impact this has had on the movie industry. Many of his collaborators have become successful composers in their own right thanks to his tutelage and it seems more films than ever have the “sound” made popular by Hans and his team.

The Recording Session


After countless hours spent writing, rewriting, orchestrating and preparing the music it’s finally time to have the orchestra record it. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work and is one of the most exciting moments for a composer. Hearing your music played by an orchestra for the first time is an exhilarating experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s not laced with anxiety. This is also the first time the director and producer will be hearing the final music as well. Luckily, the musicians hired for performance on a film score are among the top musicians in the world. There is too much time and money at steak to be trifling with anything less than the best. There are minimal rehearsals and the musicians are expected to sightread their parts perfectly. Every minute counts when they are paid by the hour and working under union rules.

Test Screenings

Before a film gets a wide release, the studios will frequently show the film in test screenings. If a film is not testing well, re-shoots and cuts are often made. Sometimes composers will even get replaced at the last minute if the film is not testing well and the producers deem it to be a music problem. This isn’t a frequent event, but it does happen more often than people realize. One of the most well-known cases involved the movie Troy. Academy Award winning composer Gabriel Yared worked for over a year with the director producing an epic score involving a 100 piece orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists. The director was very happy with the score throughout the process and was very involved every step of the way. After the initial recording sessions, the film was screen tested using Yared’s unmixed score for an audience who thought the music was “overwhelming” and “old-fashioned.” The studio immediately moved to have the score replaced. With only a month-and-a-half to write and record the score, the veteran (and also Academy Award winning) James Horner was brought in to execute this incredibly difficult assignment. What resulted was a regurgitated display of many overly used stylistic traits, even by Horner’s standards, with portions that sounded like they were lifted directly from other scores of his like Willow and Star Trek II. But then again, what can you expect in such a short amount of time?

Film post-production is all about the race against the clock. Once the music writing is finished and recorded, it has to go to the music editor so that it can be positioned properly with each scene and edited if necessary. Once that is complete, everything heads to the mixing stage where the all of the music, sound effects and dialogue are combined in the film for the first time. This is the final step in the post-production process (save for any last minute visual FX shots & color correction) before the film is permanently released into the sea of posterity.


Read the rest of the series:

Behind the Scenes Part 1: Sound Design

Behind the Scenes Part 3: Mixing


Jaws Without Music & With Music
THR Composer Roundtable 2015 (Beltrami, Elfman, Powell, Reznor, Zimmer)
THR Composer Roundtable 2013 (Beck, Jackman, Newman, Price, Silvestri, Zimmer)
THR Composer Roundtable 2012 (Beltrami, Danna, Desplat, Doyle, Elfman, Velasquez)


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