How To Use Story To Write Music Like a Film Composer

Using story when composing

How To Use Story To Write Music Like a Film Composer

Have you ever wondered how film composers write their scores? Where do they start? How do they develop their ideas? How does the music pair so perfectly with what you are seeing on screen? 

Well, the answer in one word is… STORY

But how do we use story when composing? How do we translate it to actual musical ideas? 

Every film composer has a similar process for getting started. And the most important part happens before ever writing a single dot of music.

These 4 simple steps will get you started writing like a film composer would, from the word go! But before we dive in, let me just give a brief introduction on the film scoring process.

It All Starts With The Story

Anyone working on a film at ANY stage of its development operates under one guiding principle, that Story Is King.

Library

The phrase STORY IS KING was drilled into me from my very first day at film school.

When I first heard it I thought Yeah ok, of course, a film has a script and a screenplay, the actors read their lines and the film comes to life. I didn’t yet realise just how much story could influence every small part of the creative compositional process.

Having a really clear idea of the story is fundamental. Without it, you will be flying blind. Or worse, your work will have no connection to the story, and therefore your music will have no meaning or purpose. 

It’s not enough to simply write music you want to write. 

The Story Arc

Generally, most stories have a single central character, who experiences some kind of CONFLICT or problem, goes on a JOURNEY of some kind that results in a TRANSFORMATION. 

The story arc

There may be other major characters, but their role in the story is predominantly to support the central character’s journey.

The Purpose Of The Music In Film

The music in any film project must serve a specific purpose. And that’s to enhance the story in line with the director’s vision, with every single note!

The director will give you a brief on their interpretation of the story, their vision. This will describe the motivations, journey and transformation of the central characters, the stylistic preferences, and the over-arching message. 

The job of the composer is then to translate that vision with music. 

The genre, the instrumentation, the texture, the harmony, all aspects of the musical score needs to serve the story in every way.

So working out how to interpret the story is understandably a very important skill. 

How the composer interprets the vision is where the art and style of individual composers come in. Where you hear the composer’s unique voice.

Let’s break down this interpretative process into some simple steps.

#1. Sit With The Story

book opened up on table

Let the story ruminate for a while.

Dedicate some time thinking about the central character.

  • Get into their shoes
  • Understand their situation, their back story, their motivations for taking action
  • Where are they at the start of the story
  • Where do they end up
  • How do they transform

For film projects I work on I usually spend a week in this step. My go-to process is to go for long walks along the beach. I can spend hours walking and thinking before I ever touch the keyboard or try to compose anything.

#2. Assess The Visual Style

All films have two essential parts. How the film looks and how the film sounds. And they need to work together, complement each other, and be working from the same vision. 

All visual departments (cinematographers, costume or set design, make up etc.) take their inspiration from the story. So if the visual and sound departments are both working from the story there’s a greater chance of a cohesive, unified result.

Don’t have a film to work with?

Any composition project, whether it’s for film or not, can follow the steps above. If you don’t have a film to work on, it could be as simple as using a photograph or a painting as inspiration. 

Distant tree over water at sunset

How does the visual style convey meaning to you?

When I’m composing on non-film projects I often visualise an image in my head. For example, sometimes films I’ve seen in the past can provide inspiration, and sometimes books that I’ve read can conjure images in my mind.

How Does Visual Style Inspire Ideas?

Think about how the image looks stylistically? For example, are scenes edited with rapid-fire cuts or is handheld camera cinematography in use? Are there long slow drawn out scenes or obscure/abstract angles? Are colour filters in use, such as B&W/muted colour tones or bright/vibrant colours?

Now think about:

  1. How do these stylistic choice affect how YOU are feeling? 
  2. How does it reflect what the central character is feeling?

Having an image really helps you to connect on a deeper level to the character’s journey. It allows you to really imagine yourself in their shoes. 

To really know them.

#3. Brainstorm

Now that you’ve had time to get into the mind of the central character you can brainstorm descriptive words to describe the character. Particularly those that evoke a feeling or a memory or that connect with you personally on an emotional level. 

Words such as warm, colourful, vibrant, strange, dark, wise, fractured, vulnerable, lonely, fragile, fierce, naive, persistent, brave, harsh, serene.

Do not underestimate this part of the process.

Music is inherently abstract. Therefore, its meaning is inseparably linked to our personal experiences and memories. 

The act of physically writing down on paper, actual concrete words to describe the feelings and images you get from the story creates a solid, tangible foundation from which you can build your music. 

Being able to describe, in words, what your music is saying will really help you to clarify the intention behind your music.

#4. Design The Palette

I love to think of the music in a film as having a musical palette. Much like paintings have a colour palette. Or more specifically, a selection of colours used to create the style and effect of the painting.

Our musical palette is made up of the sounds, instruments, and textures, that will colour our composition.

Now that you have brainstormed a whole bunch of words to describe the character you’ll need to connect those words to sounds that convey the same meaning to you. 

Such as:

  • Warm = low cello and french horn
  • Serene = soft high strings and slow harp pizzicato
  • Brave = rhythmic brass with percussion

If you have access to Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), virtual instruments and synths, the choice is utterly endless.

If you’ve only got a piano there’s still heaps to work with. Think about tonal range, dynamics, rhythm and textural spacing of voices.

If you need inspiration, look for other works of music that resonate with you around the feelings, words, emotions that you have brainstormed? What sounds/textures/rhythms/harmonic progressions/tempos/tonal registers have they used? 

Analyse these influences and pick out one idea to start you off.

Next steps

Now that you’ve interpreted the story and created your musical palette you’re ready to get to work writing the music and developing your main themes. Because when you truly know your central character and their journey, it can feel like you are the vessel for their story. 

Let the music flow through you. It’s magic!

I would love to hear from anyone who has tried this process. Did it work for you? What are some other ways you might approach Story in your music?

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