10 Top Tips – Writing Film Music

So you’ve got a great commission, composing music for feature film.


But now what? Here are a few ideas that I’ve learned (often from some pretty tough lessons) make the process go a little more smoothly…

  1. Get involved as early on as possible
  2. Communicate with your director
  3. Communicate with the editor
  4. Be really clear about tone/mood/emotion
  5. Be really clear about purpose
  6. Check there’s no instruments, sounds or styles that the director really hates
  7. Know your kit
  8. Check your copyright
  9. The customer is always right.
  10. Write the best music you’ve ever done


  1. Get involved as early on as possible
  2. The sooner the composer is involved with the production, the sooner that the soundscape of the film becomes one of the priorities for the rest of the team. Often the director and/or the producer (or even the writer right back at the idea’s conception) will have a notion of the music or sound right from the start, sometimes a very clear vision of it. 

    However, production is geared up to serve the picture, there’s no two ways about it, and human beings, as brilliant and ingenious as they can be, can really only concentrate on one thing at once (if they want to do it well), so sound is quite often relegated to a lower priority.

    Keeping in touch puts the film’s sound front-centre in their conscious minds from early on. I’m not talking about daily updates, and even if you don’t actually write any music at all until final cut it also keeps it in your mind too. It can allow your subconscious to mull over the themes, to bring up any questions about tone and purpose. 

    In turn, this will have the added bonus of making you more creative – allowing your subconscious time to bubble up with new ideas – and more efficient as you will have had ideas way before the deadline. 

    Rather than consciously racking your brains for ideas or resorting to stock phrases, it’s simply a process of getting it all these lovely, new, original ideas up and running in whatever sequencer you use (or on paper if you absolutely insist… but, to quote Toby in The West Wing, “paper’s for wimps” 😉 <tries to find sequence on YouTube to share with the world!  Promise will find it eventually> )

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  3. Communicate with your director
  4. On film – features and shorts – the director is king. Lots of bowing and “Yes, your Majesty, no, your Highness”.  Mostly caviar and truffles. Mostly.

    Ok, maybe not, but the film is absolutely his vision, his baby, his heart and soul out there for all the world to see. If it isn’t these things then it might not be worth the world seeing. It is the composer’s job, your job, along with everyone else on the crew and in the cast, to realise that vision. 

    No two directors work in the same way so developing a rapport and a sense for how your director communicates and works is pretty essential if, at the very least, you want to enjoy your job.

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  5. Communicate with the editor
  6. Having a back-and-forth dialogue with the editor is essential. When schedules are getting tighter and tighter and the deadline is looming, it’s often the case where I’ll work on sequences before the locked off cut. And what I do with the sound may then inform what the editor, under the supervision of the director, does with the scene – the pacing, the ordering, maybe even cutting a line of dialogue, and then that’ll inform my next draft and so on.

    Lots of the editors I’ve worked with like to use a temp(orary) track to cut to, that will give a rough idea of tone and pace, and that might also inform the style and speed of music that I end up writing for the final cut.

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  7. Be really clear about tone/mood/emotion
  8. This is the core of the musical score. Pin this down in your dialogues with the director and editor, and the music will write itself. If it needs to be sad, write something that makes you feel sad as you listen to it with the picture (if if the picture’s not ready yet, the pictures as you see them in your head resulting from your early – see tip 1 – conversations with the director – see tip 2). 

    This sometimes actually isn’t the same as writing sad (or whatever the emotion is) music, though. If you’re underlining what’s already in the scene, why write anything at all? You might not even need to if the scene’s that good 😉 .

    If the director isn’t clear about the prevalent tone/emotion in the scene, work out what’s the emotional journey through the scene, the highs and lows, the exact points at which it changes.  But I’ve found it really has to be one emotion at a time.  If you’re trying to create more than one, each becomes diluted by the other: it’s as if their emotional frequencies (sounds a bit new age…) cancel each other out and you end up with something a bit wishy-washy and generally unsatisfactory.  

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  9. Be really clear about purpose
  10. Is the music diegetic (of the world of the film, that the characters can hear, eg. on the radio) or non-diegetic? Is it there to heighten the emotion of a scene that just isn’t emotional enough on its own? Is it there to counterpoint the onscreen performances (eg. the character acts happy but the music is sad to illustrate what she really feels), to add another layer of meaning? Is it simply there to disguise a clunky edit?

    These are all questions to consider, you don’t necessarily have to have answers to all of them straight away, but it’s good to put them out there and, if there’s time to play around with the sounds, experiment.  Ok… maybe this is ideal-world scenario.  Usually there’s little-to-no-time at all for experimenting so get answers to these by the time you’re embarking on your final draft of the score.

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  11. Check there’s no instruments, sounds or styles that the director really hates!
  12. Some people really hate the sound of a harp. I don’t know why. I think it’s pretty. Or that Proteus oboe – hey Snuffy*, you know what I’m talking about…

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  13. Know your kit
  14. When the deadline is looming and you’ve got a good chunk of tune floating round in your head and you’ve just got to get that genius idea down quick as possible cos the director’s round to listen to it in an hour… well, you get my point. Plus it really stunts your flow if you’re constantly checking the help file, and looks really rubbish if the client’s in the studio at the same time. You gotta work fast! Time is, after all, money, and all that…

    If you’re at the stage where you’re composing for a feature (and it’s paid, not a freebie for the ol’ CV) then you’re probably pretty au fait with terms such as sample rate, bit depth, digital audio file format types, omfi files, SMPTE timecode, that sort of thing, and the procedures you need to go through on your specific kit to deliver your music files to the dubbing facility. If not, there’s links to click, there’s no excuse ;-).

    This is all about setting the director and/or producer and/or execs minds’ at ease: you know your kit inside out, and you can deliver on time in a format that is most convenient and efficient for them. And so they can relax… where the music’s concerned anyways… who knows whether that distribution deal’s gonna come off…

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  15. Check your copyright
  16. Just to be on the safe side, check what you’re actually selling them. Intellectual Property (IP) and Copyright law is a bit tricky, and if you’re in any doubt at all about a particular deal or contract it really is worth getting someone in-the-know to look over it. If you’re in a musician’s union, such as the MU or the British Academy of Composers, they have a legal service for this sort of thing if you feel you need it. 

    I get my publisher to have a look at it, not only because they’re incredibly experienced in this area, but it’s also in their better interest to get me a good deal on the copyright side of things as that’s how they get paid from me, through broadcast royalties. And you can’t get royalties if you sell away your copyright.

    So, as general advice which I’ve learned from experience, keep your copyright and sell licenses to use the music in association with the film and its advertising. 

    These can be exclusive or non-exclusive (this latter one is the best kind as then you can sell further licenses to use the music to other productions), are generally world-wide (or, as really extreme back-covering, state “throughout the universe” – talk about thorough) and for the lifetime of the copyright (or “in perpetuity”).  

    You can even have your own draft contract ready if you’re super-organised and well-prepared.  Just in case.

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  17. The customer is always right
  18. Within reason, do as many revisions as time and money will allow.  So long as you’ve had all the conversations in advance, everyone should be on the same page and it’ll just be instrumentation tweaks and timing edits.  And the director can change his or her mind about the direction you’ve taken, and that’s ok.  

    Get really clear on the new direction and go with it.  Even if you’re not entirely convinced: if the director wants more cowbell, put in loads more cowbell, really go to town on it, make it the best cowbell ever!  If he loves it, it’ll end up in the final cut and then you’ll be glad you didn’t do just a half-arsed version 🙂 .

    The music you’ll cut can always be used in it’s current state or cannibilised for another cue or even another production; recycling is good for the planet (and your bank balance). Keep the director happy and he or she will come back for more, not just because your music is exactly what he or she wanted but because he or she enjoys working with such a professional, receptive, responsive and reliable composer ;-).

    And finally…

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  19. Whatever the project, write the best music you’ve ever done.  You never know who might be listening.

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If you’ve any more suggestions, both from the composer’s or from another crewperson’s/cast viewpoint please do post and let me know!

Addendum 02.10.08 – Mark Oates gives some lovely advice to Tarantino (and other film directors) about how to best approach work with a film composer. Very nicely put, sir.

* That is to say, W. G. ‘Snuffy’ Walden, composer for The West Wing and tons of other stuff. He often used an oboe instrument patch from a Proteus sound module you can spot a mile off. I loved it back in 2001 but it sounds quite dated now and I think it’s put a lot of people off that quacky instrument.

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