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
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
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
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
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-
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.