Action & Atmosphere: Musical Composition for Visual Storytelling

Jul 6, 2016

blog - Action & Atmosphere - Musical Composition for Visual Storytelling

Recently, we’ve been spending some time discussing various tips and tricks for songwriters. We’re going to continue that theme this week, albeit, with a slight twist. Everything we’ve talked about so far has been focusing on getting your creativity out of you, recorded, and sent out to people who may be able to help you do something with it. This week we’re going to slightly change the focus of your songwriting. The simple fact is, though all songwriters and composers have chosen this artistic medium to express themselves, sometimes the music itself has to have a more direct purpose. And it’s one of those purposes we’ll be focusing on this week; writing music to accompany a story, as in film, television, or theatre.

While writing music for yourself, or even trying to write popular music, and writing for a story carry a lot of similarities, they are distinctly different. As with any musical composition you are trying to illicit an emotional response from your listener/viewer, but you don’t want to compete with the visual action. You want to help create the setting, give subtle clues about characters or events, set the tone, and help the audience understand what emotion they should be feeling in each scene. Writing music that is meant to accompany a story is filled with its own pitfalls and challenges. Your music has to help create the appropriate atmosphere and mood, support the characters and their development through the story, and provoke the right feeling of both time and place. Lucky for you, we’re here to help give you an introduction of what it takes to write for film, television or theatre.

Asking Questions

The very first thing you need to do when writing music for a visual story is to ask questions of both the storytellers, and yourself. First, regardless of whether it is for TV, movies, or a play, you need to understand what the director wants. Depending on the project, you may have a “spotting session” (a formal meeting with a viewing of the show), but regardless, you need to have a meeting with the people in charge to get a feel for their thoughts, expectations, and general vision for characters and the story as a whole. Right away you’ll want at least some basic information, so don’t be afraid to ask:

  • What kind of story is it? It sounds obvious, but it can be tricky and largely dependent on the creativity of the storytellers. Sometimes the obvious route isn’t the best. As an example, take the film A Knight’s Tale (2001). If you are not familiar with the movie, the story follows a peasant who poses as a knight during medieval times. When it came time to score the film, others might have been tempted to use period specific music and instruments. However, the filmmakers behind A Knight’s Tale chose to use contemporary rock and pop music to give the film and its characters a very specific feel that different music would not have achieved.
  • Is there a particular preferred musical style? Or conversely, a genre that should be avoided?
  • Which scenes need music, and which should remain silent?
  • What is the subtext in each scene?

Getting all this information directly from the people who are creating the story will help you find the proper emotion and tone for each piece of music you produce.

But you’re not done asking questions yet. Now that you’ve asked the director or producers what they want, you’ve got a few questions you need to continuously ask yourself while you’re composing:

  • Are you creating a suitable atmosphere for not only this scene, but the film overall?
  • Does your music support character development?
  • Does your music evoke an appropriate feeling of both time and place?

Keeping these three questions in mind throughout the writing process will help you stay true to the story you are trying to accompany.

Creating Atmosphere

Possibly the most important role music plays in visual storytelling is setting the mood and creating the atmosphere. Of course, poor music can also ruin the mood and setting, so don’t underestimate it! Your first consideration is, of course, the actual scene you are working on. What’s the emotional motivation? Is it sad? Romantic? Sexy? Dark? Funny? Be sure you understand what’s going on because few things can take an audience out of their suspension of belief faster than inappropriate music.

You also must match the music to the visual actions going on. Big action scenes may call for the entire orchestra (big moments call for big music), whereas dramatic scenes may call for a somber, solemn instrumentation, or perhaps even a mournful solo. Juxtaposing the visual action with music that might seem like it opposes it may be appropriate. Get creative, but always remember the three questions you’re asking yourself.

Character Development

Throughout any story worth telling, the characters grow and develop. Your music needs to reflect this change. When composing a character theme it’s best to leave something out until the end of the story. Near the beginning of the narrative we are only getting to know the characters, so you wont want to give anything away musically. Snippets of the theme are usually good for now. Generally, you want to leave the entirety of the theme for the climax, the pivotal moment when everything changes for the character.

Not every story nor character needs a lot of theme development, but it’s a good thing to have in the back of your mind.

Eliciting a Feeling of Time & Place

Music can not only help set the mood for a story, but help inform the audience of when and where the story is taking place. Using music from a different era can evoke images of that distant time and place. For example, Big Band or swing can subtly take an audience back to a time of big cars, gangsters, and smoke filled clubs, while electronic and synthesized tones provoke a feeling of some distant future we haven’t arrived at yet.

Music can also make time seem to change pace. Think of any montage scene you’ve ever seen in a movie or TV show. High energy music set to a montage can give the audience the feeling that a lot of time has passed in just a few minutes. Suddenly our hero has gone from an inexperienced novice to a world champion challenger in a matter of moments, all thanks to the power of “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.

In the End

As you progress and gain more experience writing music to accompany visual storytelling, you’ll discover that all these suggestions can be completely flipped around, especially when you’re setting the mood! There is a lot that goes into writing music for film, TV, or theatre, but the best way to get the hang of it is to just give it a shot and keep working at it. Remember to have an open dialogue with the creative team to make sure you maintain the feeling they are looking for, and you can’t go wrong!