By Kristen Baum
Music is Key to Telling a Good Story
Music is key to telling a good story because it can serve a variety of purposes: it can give information, it can help us feel—good, bad, safe, alarmed. It can be bright and varied or muted and tonal. It can connect us right back to a moment in time in our own lives in the same way a scent can, or that particular way the sun shines or a cloud passes overhead. Our sense of story is enhanced when a soundtrack is well-considered.
A soundtrack can be iconic. Music can be extremely present in the foreground or it can blend into the background and be barely noticeable, depending on the storyteller’s intent. It can elicit a grin, grimace, even a laugh. Music can achieve a variety of results. It holds an extraordinary range of possibilities and great ability to increase or decrease tension levels without the audience being consciously aware that it is doing so. It can also help us as an audience feel empathy for characters we might not otherwise attach to and can be part of the emotional release we often turn to story for.
When we look at the history of filmmaking, even since the beginning of cinema, music has always been there. It is one of the key components in conveying a story well. Even before talkies, we had music for movies. There were theater organists or small bands playing along. Music can lend narrative meaning sometimes even more than words.
Starting a New Composing Project for Film
When I start a new film project, I start by thinking thoroughly about it. I love to screen a film—preferably no music, just story—and get a feeling for how the story breaths, its rhythm and pace, and where music might fit. Once I’ve spent time with the project myself, I have a conversation with the director to learn what’s wanted, to talk about their ideas for the score. What do they envision? I get to know the director. Do they love a certain instrument? Do they loathe a certain instrument? Are they up for experimental techniques or do they prefer traditional ideas?
Then, I chase that with research. Pile it on. Anything the director has mentioned and anything that’s sparked for me, I’ll research. I research the genre, the story type, the time period if it’s integral. I compile a list of comps to listen to and watch—other movies of the same genre—to study what’s been done in previous films. I’m curious by nature. So I follow my curiosity. I ask myself questions. What do my eyes and ears tune to? What might I want to avoid or, conversely, what might I want to include? Throughout this process, I take notes—whatever pops into my mind. During this phase, I take walks. I wander and I let my mind wander. I carry my notebook with me everywhere I go.
Several years ago, I was a fellow at the Sundance Composers Lab. There were six composing fellows at the lab and we would come together to share and discuss cues we wrote all using the same scenes. That experience demonstrated to me that no two composers approach the same project in the same way. No two composers come up with the same musical solution to a story puzzle. As composers, we all have unique sensibilities. When I’m hired for a job, hopefully, I’m hired because of my specific sensibilities so I can bring what I love and it’s a value to everyone.
Fantasy Film Scores
There’s something magical to me in the opening notes of the first cue in a fantasy film. Something magical about a solo voice humming a theme that recurs through a score. There’s something I adore about singing along with the boy soprano in Alice in Wonderland.
The glockenspiel. The cascades of twinkling bells. The voice. A fantasy cue evokes place but in such an other-worldly, enchanting way that in three short notes I can be transported to a field with Hobbits. Or I can be standing beside a girl whose world has just turned upside-down and will never be the same again. Fantasy music is like the beckoning of a carnival call. I cannot help but be drawn in. It’s like an out-of-nothingness conjuring of something—we don’t quite know what yet—that is simply irresistible. And always those opening notes say… put away your worries and come away. It’s storytime.
As humans, we’re always looking to story to give us information that will help us navigate life better. On my own personal journey, I have long since turned to fantasy not just for entertainment but to crack my personal codes. (Not that I think I can hatch dragons or wave a magic wand and say some enchanted words and things change but, I have found magic of my own.)
My own creative journey has been magical to say the least. There was a time in my life when film scoring was only a distant dream. From the moment I packed my car and moved to LA, I have been living my own fantasy story. All I did was say yes to it. It seems magical that a series of decisions in any given direction can shift things, subtly and barely noticeably at first, but over time, wow! What a profound shift. So, for me, fantasy scores whisper to me and they whisper the stories of my own life’s fabric.
Film Scoring for Different Genres
As a composer, know your own preferences. Start to be a student of yourself and how any given score makes you feel within that genre. Listen to how other people approach a particular genre and tune in to how their approach makes you feel. How it affects your response and reaction to the circumstances in any sort of story within that genre.
Know what you like and dislike within a certain genre and what identifies that genre musically and story-wise. Done well, those two things, story, and music, lock together for me.
Stay connected and stay close to the genre you love most. The genre you feel most comfortable writing in. Not that you won’t get called to do a genre that’s not one of your favorites. You might. And if you do, it’s all about that research.