Contests, Pro Tips

How to Score: 3 Tips for Creating Film and Video Music


Last week, we launched a Video Scoring Contest in collaboration with Korg, iZotope, and Create Digital Music. As musicians look to diversify their portfolios and make more money, scoring is a great option — you may know how to write a song for its own sake, but can you write music that’s in service to and support of another art form?

If you’ve never written music for visuals before, but want to dip your toe into the world of video scoring, check out the tips below. Even though there’s no right way to get started, you’ll be shocked by how far you can get with even a little instruction. Remember, the deadline to submit to our video scoring contest is July 20!

Sketch (with Limits)

This part has the potential to be really fun, or really stressful. Now that you know your end goal, begin sketching some ideas. These don’t need to be fully baked or even the entire length of the film. Your goal here is to test different instrument combinations and an overall palette for the piece. Any modern music producer knows there are endless combinations of VSTs and techniques to use.

Before you start, consider some self imposed limitations. For example, start with drums and bass only, or incorporate one technique — such as reverse audio, sidechain compression, or layering — and run with it. Create a handful of sketches that feel like they could be contenders, then start to evolve your favorite one. At this point in the process, you may want to involve your director to get input before going further. These sketches will evolve, but are a good place to begin.

For an idea of how sketches can be fleshed out, listen to Hans Zimmer’s original demo and final version of “Day One” from the soundtrack to Christopher Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar:



Embrace Melody

Think of the music as a character in the film, with its own quirks and traits. One way it will be identified is by the melodic themes you create. Write a melody you feel represents the story you want to tell. Follow the basic rules of melody writing:

  • Start on the I, IV, or V of the chord. (If this is gibberish to you, just start on the root note of the chord you’re playing.)
  • Move in steps. A good melody is one that the everyday person can hum along to, so move in small steps until you’re ready to…
  • Leap! Not all movement can be in steps, otherwise we’d just be singing scales all day. Your melody can have a few jumps or leaps from one note to another. A leap is when the melody skips a stepwise note to land on a new note.

Once you’ve got a melody you feel good about, you can begin playing with it. Try playing the first three notes and adding some delay to leave the viewer/listener wanting more. Or double the entire melody with the velocity turned up to get maximum attention and gravity; I find adding a saturator at this point particularly satisfying. Repeat the melody or parts of the melody throughout the piece, to your taste. It shouldn’t be the only musical thing happening, but when it returns, the viewer will have a sense of completion.

Check out how composer Angelo Badalamenti began with a simple chord progression into “Laura Palmer’s Theme” from David Lynch’s classic series Twin Peaks:

Hold a Spotting Session

Unlike in our contest, the composer on a project usually isn’t the boss — and if you’re a music producer in 2016, that may be a big change for you. A “spotting session” is a meeting early on in the process between some the composer, director, editor, and producer to go over the music cues and tone for a project. This is your chance to get all the info you need to begin.

The music you’re about to create has to work to lift the project as a whole — it’s not meant to stand on it’s own. The musical choices you make have to directly benefit the vision of the director and the film. The more clued in you are to that vision, the better able you’ll be to deliver something in line with it. Ask questions, be involved, and understand the story. At the end of a spotting session, you should have a nuanced understanding of the story arc and know what your next move is going to be.

Check out composer James Horner discussing his work with Ron Howard on 2001’s A Beautiful Mind:

Of course, things aren’t quite as complex when you’re working with a short piece, so entering our Video Scoring Contest is an even quicker way to get started — plus it’s a chance for you to fill out your home studio with some amazing gear. Have questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Top image: Man Working in Music Studio by BlendImages.