You don’t need to go to college to become a film, TV or games composer but here are 10 rules our professionals feel you’d be foolish to ignore!

1. Make the most of what you have

This rule can be applied in all kinds of different ways. Sometimes it’s hard to hear whether you have a great composition in the making, or a dud, and the only way to find out is to follow it through to its natural conclusion. That may be finessing the arrangement, adding colours and other parts for interest, sorting out your production with some nice ‘effect’ style reverbs or delays, and/or working on your mix to ensure you have clarity and sonic depth. You may even find that following these little rabbit holes to their conclusion will actually lead you to totally removing the part that you started with, and ending up with a stronger piece as a result.

I suppose part of the rule is: don’t give up too easily. Creating a good track takes time and work - you can’t bang something together in two seconds flat and expect it to be as satisfying to listen to as something that has been worked on over hours and days. This brings up an interesting conundrum though - the mix is one area where it is possible to work on something and make it worse rather than better. Pro mixers will have their bag of tricks that enables them to take shortcuts to a great sound, whether that be certain settings with the Pultec on the bass, using super short delays to mimic early reflections, and so on. Chris Lord-Alge has said that if he hasn’t got pretty much there on a mix in 4 hours then there’s something wrong. There is a value in instinct, across all areas of creativity - I find that often when I watch a piece of film my first instinct for the music is the correct one. So the trick is somehow to harness your instinctive reaction to everything: your melody, chord sequence, groove, mix; and try to keep that engaged while you work up your idea and refine it. Having a template set-up for each overall job is a great way to do this as it means you can work faster and stop switching between left and right brain.

2. Setting Your Volume

The screen is blank, your head is empty, it’s the start of a new project and you’re certain that somehow after writing a fantastic score on your last project, that you have completely forgotten how to do your job for this one. There is one very professional thing you can do to break ground, shove a flag in the sand and pin all your future hopes on: set your nominal working volume! When working to picture I wholeheartedly recommend you work to a fixed volume so you get a sense of relativity in your work… For me I locate the loudest dialogue moment and fix that volume within tools so that my volume knob is in my preferred position and the dialogue is mildly uncomfortable at that level (maybe a scream or someone shouting in a sudden outburst). So the dial channel may have to be boosted by say +6db in ‘Tools, say. I then write the music around the dialogue and try not to switch the dialogue off too much. There is no point, no one will ever hear it without. I also have a loaded revolver in a glass box next to the volume knob; this I use to shoot anyone in the back of the neck if they consider moving it. This includes moving it and then returning it to the ‘same’ position later. I have cameras; I know. If you can’t stand the volume get out of my LAB!

3. The "Rule of 3"

Three Part Orchestration. Three Themes.

In music, three is a magic number. Really great arrangements tend to have three main elements – while there are obviously usually many more sections than this, each section will be in support of one of the three elements. You could simplify this massively to something like: bass line, accompanying chordal elements, melody. The brain seems quite happy managing and focusing on three elements. Imagine yourself listening to some Bach. With a trio such as one of the Organ Trio Sonatas:

It is relatively straightforward to focus on all three parts. Contrast with the final movement of Bach’s Musical Offering:

You’ll see how much more tricky it is to focus on all of the parts at once when it gets busy. I certainly tend to abandon focus and just wallow in the beauty!

Now this three seems to hold in another area: most great film scores won’t have more than three thematic ideas. I know that this rule can be broken occasionally, but it seems that this is the golden point - beyond this and you risk losing the emotional connection with your audience, as they struggle to work out what’s going on musically (subconsciously of course!). Familiarity with a theme is an emotionally rewarding experience for the viewer – it helps to keep them engaged and draws them through the arc of the story. This has similarities to the grade or colour balance of a film. Different colour palettes can be used to denote time/place, or differing strands of the story (Traffic, Terminator 2) but inconsistency in grading, introducing a new colour palette too many times, would just lead to total confusion and disorientation.  

4. "Wobbly Sausages" (Harmony by Sight)

When creating harmonic shapes it is great to imagine each line of harmony (say 1st violins vs 2nd) as a voice. If it’s easy or good to sing then it’s a good harmony. But there is an overall shape to your harmony that most western orchestral music tries to aim for…Wobbly Sausages. Imagine a wave on the top line, then a wave going in the other direction on the bottom with two much straighter lines in the middle. Here’s a very crude graphical example of the rough shape you should be aiming for. If you’re using basses just stick them an octave beneath the celli! Oh and never let the harmony lines cross over…Like they said in American Werewolf in London, “stick to the paths”.

5. Patterns in Music

From looking at Van Halen solos through to learning Debussy’s Reflets dans l’Eau, and from Hans Zimmer’s Inception to John Williams’ Close Encounters, it’s clear that patterns are all over the place in music. We can only surmise why we find patterns satisfying - maybe it helps us inhabit a piece of music more quickly, but it’s something worth bearing in mind when you are writing. John Barry talked about his study with Bill Russo (the legendary arranger with Stan Kenton’s band, among other highlights) and his time spent just playing and learning by ear the sounds of different chord changes. It is incredibly useful to know before you go to write what the chord change options are - busking at the keyboard is an equally valid way to write, but if you learn the changes you have a greater subconscious palette. These are some examples of patterns. Then when scoring out melodic lines, you can also pay attention to patterns. Both in helping to create a satisfying (and good to perform) line, but also in creating additional material for other cues, think about Bach again, and all the ways you can treat your main theme - even if you don’t learn how to write a fugue, read about it to get ideas on how developing your themes.

6. Eat the Frog

A chap called Brian Tracey, I believe he’s a life coach, came up with this phrase, or something like it. For us, I would apply it to the greatest threat known to composers. Not being fired, not the director or producer’s wrath, not the fear that our imposter syndrome may in fact be the truth and you’re just about to be rumbled and there is a posse forming to chase you out of town! No, the greatest threat to our livelihood is PROCRASTINATION. Brian’s theory is that if you have got to attend a meal which will have all your favourites, marmite on toast, then a freshly baked pizza, followed by a cherry trifle and pungent cheese board, but also, regrettably, a live fresh frog. You’ll put off attending the meal. His suggestion is you should sit down, put a napkin under your chin and tuck straight into the frog, safe in the knowledge that you have a lovely rest of evening to follow. This totally applies to scoring. If you’ve just completed a spotting session and you’ve got your cue minutes tallied and you’ve divided this by the number of days you have to do it - BUT - the days are ticking by without you ticking down the minutes. It is often likely this is because in and amongst all those 1 minute, 2 minute and 4 minute cues, is a motherfucker 14 minute cue in reel 6 which is paralysing you with so much fear that you can’t even attempt that little 12 second sting when the head pops out of the porthole. If this is the case it’s time to roll up your sleeves and stick your fork into the squealing amphibian and chow down! The art of the ‘charcoal sketch’ discussed below may also help you here.

(A quick tip on procrastination. If you don’t have the taste for the frog today, or indeed tomorrow, and you have no intention of working to that new cut they gave you last week for at least another fortnight, at which point you will pull a “redeye” at the absolute last minute, make sure you check the file that they have given you does in fact have the correct cut on it, that the audio tracks are split correctly and it is something you can work with. There is nothing more embarrassing than a director sitting down and saying “can’t wait to see what you did with the new ending” and you having to admit that you have done piss all for the last month which is why you failed to notice that the Quicktime was missing the final reel and you only found out after your 20th cup of coffee at 3 o’clock that morning! Check now, then procrastinate in peace knowing that in two weeks your director will sit down and go “fuck me you look like shit, how’s the new end” and you will tearfully exhale, “fine, just fine”.)

7. Communication with Directors

So something that really stuck in my memory was Hans Zimmer saying (paraphrased wildly) ‘If a director doesn’t like something, you can’t persuade them to like it.’ Always remember that you are part of a creative storytelling team. Have your own point of view, but remember that you aren’t writing your next symphony. Finding a way to serve the story, please the director and create a great piece of music all at the same time – that’s where preparation meets opportunity. Learn! Practice! Try to write something every day. You’ll keep getting better, you won’t get worse. Talk to directors in any language other than music. Talk about emotion, paintings, architecture, style.. It doesn’t matter that the director doesn’t understand what an oboe is or thinks a bassoon is a clarinet. Who cares! Do you know when to use 5:1 compression or 3:1 compression in 5k digital shoots? Or whether to use 45 degree shutter work on a particular shot? Maybe you do. But it doesn’t make you write better music. Knowing what an oboe is doesn’t make the director a better filmmaker. Always remember you are part of the post production team. Read as many books and articles as you can find where composers discuss working with directors.

8. Writer's Block (How to Unblock Your Creative Colon)

Composing and computers are an uneasy marriage. Step away from your mac or PC and go for a walk. Motion and creativity are better bedfellows, if you’re sitting at your workstation you’re in the wrong bed! Don’t think of work as work if you don’t do any composition there… If the park is where your ideas come to you, that’s your work! Analysts feel that true creativity is when you’re in the moment. This will be when the desk of your mind is clear. Usually when there isn’t anything you need to think about other than what you’re doing. No one is about to turn up, the bills haven’t just hit your doormat, and there’s not someone bugging you on Facebook. Many people say early mornings are the most creative time as you’ll be free of disturbance or distraction. However I would argue, this is the most productive time. For many, creativity happens just at the moment that they’ve decided to leave the door. This is the moment when you’ve decided you’re finished… This is when you’re in the moment. Try to sit at your piano at this point and if anything comes, note it down somehow. For me a very rough charcoal sketch of a tune or cue will enable you to wake up and ponder it in the bath in the morning. Then by applying those magic productive early hours to a preconceived concept you will reap the biggest turnover of material.

9. Narcissism (Keep Your Nightmares To Yourself)

If you’re going to work in show business you’re going to encounter this. If someone had simply given me a name for it I think my career would have been a more pleasant one. 1 out of 10 people suffer from personality disorders. But in show business I would say the figures are skewed because the entertainment industry is the perfect playground, train set and petri dish for high-functioning narcissists. If ever you walk into a meeting feeling good about yourself, and walk out hating yourself a little, the chances are you’ve been subject to a narcissistic attack. There is very little you can do to get away from an industry teeming with them. But once you know they’re out there, once you have a name for it, you will not blame yourself for how other people have made you feel. See Wikipedia’s entry on Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD. Hone your ‘Nar-dar’ and own your own feelings. Without our self esteem, our true sense of self, and the confidence that this brings upon us, we’re up shit creek without our creative paddles. Protect your mental health like an athlete would protect their physical. As you amass your CV, keep souvenirs and surround yourself with them. Whether it be posters, invites to premieres, a clipping from a newspaper, your bound scores, or a spoon you nicked from that awards ceremony that you would have otherwise come back from empty handed. These small objects will act as a daily, even an hourly affirmation of your achievements. And always remember it is far better to walk away to fight another day, than to end up being carried out on a stretcher, with a drip in your arm. Another tip from me, is when describing what you’re going to do with a narcissistic director’s score, don’t tell him what you won’t do .i.e “I tell you what we’re not going to create; we’re not going to create XXX and it’s going to sound nothing like YYY”. Because at some point, he or she, is going to take XXX, twist YYY round its shaft to make a hand grip, then they’re going to bludgeon you into an abyss of self doubt with weaponry you had so conveniently handed them. If someone sinister wants you to stay up all night considering their gargantuan turd of an ego-project, and you don’t want to, don’t tell them what gives you nightmares.

(This also applies to war stories of working with other raging NPDs. Believe me, they will try to out-bastard one another.)

10. Tear Up The Rules... Once you've read them

So everyone who has studied harmony and counterpoint knows that parallel fifths are illegal right? Apart from when Debussy and Vaughan Williams use them of course (which is why they’ve been redacted from this article). Learn the rules – and then happily ignore them. You learn them so that when something isn’t working in a certain context, you have a basis of knowledge to try and help you figure out what’s gone wrong and how you can fix it. Otherwise you are just stumbling around in the dark looking for a solution.