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Things Composer's Hate To Hear And How To Respond

Over the many years of composing music for film, tv, games, commercials, interactive, and more, there are times when your client, director, creative team, or producers say these inevitable and terrible things to hear as the composer. For fun, I thought I would share these so that when you hear them, you won't be surprised and may be in a better position to respond.

While some of these may be comical in a way, they are real-life conversations. The best thing a composer can do when presented with these questions is ask questions and probe the client's comments. Most directors, ad directors, producers, etc. do not speak "music" i.e. I want an ostinato crescendo with the first violins and then some sort of counterpoint with the woodwinds, etc. But they can all speak in abstracts, feeling, tone, color, etc. i.e. I want it simple, dark, sad, happy, tense, percussion, brassy, and they can also point to other music they like which is why when presented with things like in point #6, you can probe and really get to what the client actually wants. Asking questions helps with all of that and will ultimately make your job easier. (Note: some directors, producers, etc. know exactly what they want and will lay a heavy request on you so be prepared).

Just the end, you are being hired to provide a service. Compose music for X. It's your job as the composer to synthesize (no pun intended) all the information you are getting from the visual media AND creative team (Director, Producer, Executives, Agency Executives, Creative Director, etc) then compose based on that information, and deliver....on time, on budget, and on target. Knowing how to ask probing questions is just as important as knowing how to compose music.

(note: Director could be Film Director, Brand Director, Creative Director, TV Director, etc. Simply the chief creative)

1: We love what you did! Amazing...however we have a couple of ideas. - My response. That's great I am so glad you think it's amazing. What did you have in mind? (Note the compliment, then the gotcha!)

2: This is really great! But could you add a little more pizzazz in this section? - My response. Absolutely. What were you thinking and what do you mean by pizzazz? What are you feeling so I can nail it for you? Their response....I don't know just something more, maybe some brass. My response. Awesome I love brass. Were you thinking ensemble, trumpets, solo? Your job is to decipher pizzazz and adjectives like it. If they reference certain instruments, it may mean they are looking for certain sound, tone, vibe or effect versus a particular instrument or orchestration. Find out!

3: We love this. Could you do one more version, maybe just a little different? - My response. You bet! What would you want different? Their response after 4 more versions... let's go with the first one. That one is great! Frustrating yes. But sometimes, they just need to hear a few different versions, mixes, treatments, maybe changing the solo instrument, percussion, etc. Don't assume the Director hears what you hear in your head.

4: We need a full score for our independent film. The director really needs the score to help elevate the film and says it's critical to the success of the film. We also need it in like 2 weeks. Can you do that? - My response. Awesome! I am excited to help you tell this story. What kind of budget do you have for music scoring? Their response... well we were thinking around (some crazy/unrealistic low price). My response...ok, let's explore how to make this work within your budget. Sometimes you have to so no. I can't provide the score you are describing for that budget. OR you may simply want to do the project because you love it, need the experience, want to practice your chops, it's a friend/family deal, etc. so you may do it for the budget or no budget. That's up to you. But I am a firm believer that you should get some compensation for your work. Always ask if there is any room in the budget. Sometime there is a little, sometimes there is none. Being a composer for media is hard work. But as I said, sometimes the circumstance maybe worth doing it for little to no money or budget. Just be sure to hold the line. Sometimes these projects can balloon into big budget scoring product for little to no budget. Be sure to discuss and set expectations and mechanisms should they start to push the boundaries. It will help everyone have a positive experience and not make you feel taken advantage of.

5: We love the music...but can you put some more (fill in the blank) guitar in it? - My response. There is guitar in it. Would you like it louder in the mix or a different type of guitar? Their response...I don't know, just more guitar. My response. Ok. but what specifically are you thinking or hearing? Louder or different? Their response... I don't know just more (after 3 new versions)...yeah, we like this version best... perfect (the original one..sometimes you simply have to provide options. See point 3).

6: So for this piece of music/score, we really want it to sound like Hans Zimmer. - My response. Ok. In what way? What about Han's music do you want to hear in this piece of music? Is it the brass, percussion, slow strings, synthesizers, sound design, tempo, tone, etc? Which one of Han's scores or cues are we talking about? What is it about that score or cue that you are trying to capture? What do you want the audience to feel about the scene with the cue/score you are referencing? Always ask probing questions here when your client is referencing other composer and BE SURE to not rip the other composer off. Its one thing to emulate a stye or sound and another thing to copy melodies, etc.

7: We don't like this piece of music. Can you try something different? - My response. Of course. What didn't you like about the piece? Tempo? Orchestration? Vibe? Their response. Don't, know. Just didn't fit the scene. My response. Ok. fair enough. No problem. I will work up a new cue. But before I do, what did I miss and can you share with me more about what you are feeling here and what you would like to hear? What do you want the scene to convey or what do you want the audience to feel/experience? Sometimes, you need to ask these questions over and over even if you covered them in the spotting session OR pre-production discussions. Why? Because sometimes the creative direction changes. The film had a hard edit change, once your music started getting placed into the film, the Director started getting new music, tone, etc ideas, etc. CAUTION - There is a difference between probing questions when posed with changes to a cue versus always asking questions because you did not understand the music needs from the director/creative. You do not want to come off as someone who didn't pay attention or doesn't understand the Director and kept asking questions because you lack listening, critical thinking or interpretation skills or simply chose to do your own thing. None of which are good OR professional.

8: This cue is amazing! We love all the hit points! It's amazing how you hit 53.6 hit points in a 5-minute cue! Wow! However, we decided to edit the scene by 33.7 seconds. Can you rework this cue to fit? - My response. Verbally - absolutely. Send me over the new edit and I will get to work. Internally. #^$&I(%$(!!*&^#&%$$&*)%$@_)(&#Mother ^&#$(*%&^ F#$K!

9: This is perfect! The client loves it! (In a Sponge Bob series voice...1 day later). The client has decided to reshoot the commercial and they now want to change direction and go more kid-centric. Can you rework this music in a kid vibe? - My response. Sure. What were you thinking musically in regards to "kid-centric"? Happy? Toy pianos and slide whistles? Upbeat? Simple melodically? Do they have budget for this? Again, important to ask questions. If necessary, ask for musical references. Minimize the variables so you can deliver on target.

and #10 the Mac Daddy Whopper of them all and the bane of all film and tv composers...

10: I love what you did. Great job, but we would really like it more like the temp track (even though they told you the temp was for tempo and pacing, etc. If you believed that, well....). - My response verbally - I see. No problem. What specifically do you like about the temp track that you would like to hear in this cue? My response internally, well you know. Again, see the points above. It's your job to figure out what about the temp track they wedded to. Tone, tempo, orchestration, melodic space, structure, etc.

Now here is the thing about temp track references. You will either have a great Director who literally knows what they want and uses the temp track appropriately - tone, tempo, builds, pace, etc. and can guide you through that cue or you get a Director who doesn't know what they want and has become wedded to the temp. Caution...the director, editor, etc. may say "we are not married to the temp track" but....they are! especially if you hear that phrase..."we are not married to the temp". Doomed!

Why? Because the Director and editor have been living with the temp FOREVER! It's welded into their brain and very difficult to erase and replace as the composer. So what to do....well, use the temp track as your friend and guide. Flip the script so to speak. Use the temp track to fill in the information you get from the Director. Clearly, there is a reason why the Director and editor are using that piece of music. So your job is to figure out what the hell it is. Do they like the orchestration? Do they like the tempo or pacing? Is it the bassoons? The synthesizers? The solo oboe? Melodic structure? Chord structure? Ethnic flute? As the composer, it is your job to figure these things out and ask the right questions. So instead of trying to mimic John Williams because the Director and editor used the music from Star Wars, find out what about the Star Wars score did they liked in general and for that scene. A good Director will usually tell you in the spotting session.

There are a million and one questions to ask but here are just a few probing questions you should be asking during the spotting session, pre-production, or before you start composing which can apply to films, tv, games, commercials, etc.

  1. What is the tone or emotion you are looking for here and why?

  2. What are you trying to say here musically with the scene, character, location, brand, etc?

  3. What type of pacing do you want to accomplish? ( Sometimes the scene can be fast-paced, but the music can be slow to create an emotion...think Inception)

  4. What is it about your musical references that you want to convent here or in the spot? Probe for tone, vibe, style, instrumentation, melody, demographic, etc.

  5. Ok so in this temp piece, what is it you like or don't like? Why did you choose it?

  6. What do you want the audience to feel?

  7. Does it make sense to play this logically or should we do something counterintuitive to create "the vibe"?

  8. Perhaps there should be less or no music here? (I know gasp right?! Think French Connection chase scene). Sometimes no music is the right choice. Sometimes it's delayed music or just a simple string hanging in space. Think the dock explosion scene in Ritchie's/Han's Sherlock Holmes. No music until halfway through the scene, then the sol violin. Great effect for the scene.

  9. Ask the Director...does the character have a motif? Should they? Is there a unique instrument or sound you want to associate? (think Jaws)

  10. What are we trying to convey musically/sonically and what melodic/orchestration/instrumentation should we use to accomplish that goal? (Don't say, well that's the composer's job. Wrong. It's the Director's (and maybe the executive's) AND the composer's job. The Director will/should guide you on their vision. Remember you are hired to provide a service and help tell their story. You are NOT an artist. You are a composer. Beware, you may have to employ diplomacy if you are working with a Director, Executive, Creative, Marketing, Brand, etc. When cross domain constituents have a say in the creative direction it can be a challenge to say the least.

In closing, this whole topic of communication for composers could be a whole master class, but just remember that most people have some level of musical sensibility and they can point you to what they like and why. Pay attention to this and don't demean it just because they are not a composer. You are probably not a film director or editor, animator, music editor, or DP, etc. Asking the right questions early on and being able to listen, critically think, take abstract ideas and conceptualize/synthesize all the information will help you avoid problems and reduce your stress while composing for a project. Further, it will help you be successful for the project and your client. A win for all!

- DF

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