Have you ever plugged your ears during a scary movie? Have you ever cried just before the break up scene? More times than not, it was the music that lead you there. If you have ever been lucky (or unlucky) enough to watch a movie, television, or cartoon scene without music, then you’ve noticed just how important a musical score is. No eye squints before the class jerk jumps out from behind a door. No idea that a shark is about to attack three men on a boat. No clue a green-faced witch is about to attack with her flying monkeys.
Musical scores set the emotional tone, and overall mood of a scene. As Robert Duncan commented, it allows you to “feel the story.” Some can even bring back the memory of a movie. Does anyone not recognize the themes to Halloween and Jaws? I was lucky enough to sit down with several leading composers of today’s movies and television, Christopher Young (Spider-Man 3, Ghost Rider), Danny Jacob (Phineas and Ferb), Helene Muddiman (Happy Feet 2), James Levine (Glee, The Closer, Damages), Robert Duncan (Castle, The Entitled), Edward Rogers (Warehouse 13), and Nathan Barr (True Blood).
I discovered the most common instruments the composers started on were guitar and keyboards, but Nathan Barr also played cello. Edward Rogers is most comfortable with “keys,” but finds if he stays on just keys, he keeps writing similar things. He said he has many instruments that he doesn’t play well, but will bang enough on them, from time to time, to figure out who he might hire to play the composition.
The stories of how they all started in the business ranged from attending school, booking gigs as a guitar player, spending as much time possible with other composers, and internships (working for free) just to gain experience. But no matter how you start, your passion, willing to learn, and giving up your ego are your best assets.
Danny Jacob recalled when he first heard from Disney. “Once I got even a little nibble from Disney, I made it my mission in life to just want them to never call anyone else.” He did whatever he had to do, going without sleep, anything to make the boss happy. “You gotta make your boss happy.” Robert Duncan continued, “I think composing survival 101, is putting your own vision aside to begin with.” He then quoted a mentor of his, Richard Bellis, as saying, “The last thing a director wants is a composer expressing himself all over his movie.”
I asked Nathan Barr if the music that carries through the seasons on True Blood was planned that way, or if it was an afterthought. He replied, “When True Blood was developed, the musical was developed in the first episode, the pilot, because that’s what Alan [Ball] wanted. So [seasons] 1, 2, and 3 are very similar. And now, season four is like very different because Alan wanted to do this big opening. Ever since we went to orchestra, that kinda sent the score heading in a different direction this season, a little bit. But its still got its unique sound.”
A colleague asked, “What is the hardest instrument to write for?” James Levine replied, “The human voice.” He continued, “You write for the music, then find the best guy to play it.” Hélène Muddiman hears the sound in her head, then figures out how to make an instrument make that sound. “What my job is, is to figure out how to make that sound into the strings. I don’t write a piece of music necessarily around what a harp is capable of. Which is what you’re always trying to push…trying to push the boundaries all the time.”
Pushing the boundaries is what gives us a multitude of soundtracks. Listen to three movies of the same genre and you will hear three very different compositions. They may all even be from the same composer. That’s what these people strive for in every project, a composition different from their last that doesn’t stand out from the movie or TV show, but enhances it.
When asked, “What puts you in your creative space?” Hélène quickly stated, “Fear…of a deadline. Knowing that I have to get it done by Friday and I’ll be procrastinating right up until the last minute…until the shit hits the fan. If you don’t give me a deadline, nothing will happen.”
At the beginning of this article, I asked if you’ve ever listened to a movie or show without the music playing, just the actors’ voices and a few sound effects. Now I want you to listen to that movie without watching it. I’m sure you will be just like me. Even though you don’t see the creature lurking under the bed, you will know exactly when it reaches out and grabs its victim. I bet you even jumped too. At that moment, thank the composer.