When To Think about Music?


David A. Roth, Film Composer

David A. Roth is a film composer who works with independent filmmakers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. He can be contacted via Internet e-mail at This article has been published in Markee, a filmmaker magazine, in 1994 and reprinted in FS, the newsletter of the Berklee College of Music Film Scoring Department in 1996.

In an old Star Trek episode, Lt. Uhura is singing on the bridge. An alien asks what she is doing. Puzzled by her answer of "music", the alien projects a beam at her and commands her to "Think about music."

I have often wished I could send this floating robot on a mission to seek out new filmmakers and make the same command: "Think about music!" I would add, "And do it earlier, not later!"

Film music is usually seen as taking place during post-production. From the filmmaker's point of view, this is when the film composer is actively involved in the project. Besides, the selection and direction of the music can be a scary part of the process. And so the filmmaker puts it off until it demands attention.

Yet the composer needs time to do his or her best work in helping to bring about the director's vision of the film: time to understand the essence of the film's characters. Time to digest the overall viewpoint of the film. And time to try out different approaches.

Involving the composer early in the process not only results in a better film, it can save money and help the filmmaker complete the film on time.

Even before embarking on a film project, the filmmaker should develop the habit of collecting recorded music. He or she should go beyond the usual movie soundtracks that are available on CD. Hear something striking on the radio? Find out what it is. If something on a concert program is of interest, make a note of it. Often the materials used in music appreciation and humanities college courses can provide a good source of recorded reference material.

All of this helps the filmmaker build musical role models and references that will enable him or her to communicate with the film composer. Having a technical knowledge of music isn't necessary. Rather, by describing the emotional impact the film is to convey and using the musical role models as examples, the filmmaker is off to a good start in providing the input the film composer needs.

At what point during the filmmaking process should the composer get involved? Once the script is finalized, but before the first shoot-date, the filmmaker should begin talking to the film composer. At this point, filmmakers can untangle their feelings about what the score should be like, and use their private collections of recordings and notes to communicate with the film composer about the creation of the score.

This will also give the filmmaker a chance to listen to the composer's latest demo and perhaps ask the composer to do a short music cue on spec. What's important is to work with the composer to establish a plan for the music soundtrack, incorporating the composer's insight and experience into the process.

By thinking about the music early and working out a plan prior to shooting, the filmmaker should have few unwelcome surprises from the soundtrack during post-production. This translates into lower costs and fewer slow- downs.

Sure, everyone will miss out on some great war stories about the unreal deadline pressures they worked under and how the budget was blown. But when the lights go down and the screen starts to glow, no one is going to care about all that.

Getting the best score for your film Cover

© 1994-2012 David A. Roth. All rights reserved.

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