The Art of Film Music

James McCarthy
Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Advances in technology and an increasing openness to new ideas has radically changed the craft of composing film scores, finds James McCarthy

Star Wars

John Williams, with director George Lucas (by podium), records the sixth Star Wars instalment, Revenge of the Sith, with the LSO at Abbey Road in 2005 (photo: Michael Humphrey)


John Williams’s craft, his technical approach to film scoring, is one shared by almost all film composers from the dawn of cinema to at least the 1980s. Director Steven Spielberg summarised it neatly in 2016: ‘Everybody, except John, makes the movie. Thousands of people from all over the world working together for months, sometimes for years, and then finally we show our work to him … John watches the movie and he goes back to his house and he sits alone with a yellow pad and a pencil at his 100-year-old Steinway piano and he begins to write …’

From pencil and paper to computers

In the 40-odd years since Williams scored the likes of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (from 1977) and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), technological developments have revolutionised the way that films are produced – including how the music is composed. British composer Benjamin Wallfisch – whose career has taken him from writing classical concert music, to assisting and co-writing soundtracks with Hans Zimmer (Hidden Figures, 2016; Blade Runner 2049, 2017), to being the lead composer on major Hollywood scores for films such as It (2017) and Shazam! (2019) – has a deep understanding of both Williams’s traditional techniques and how film music is written today. ‘About 12 years ago I was invited to spend an afternoon looking through Williams’s original pencil sketches, and ever since then I’ve tried to be a student of his process, even though I write everything on a computer-based system,’ he says. ‘Seeing cues like “Adventures on Earth” or the “Imperial March” in short score gives a fascinating insight into his process, where there is such incredible fluency and momentum to the writing but with absolutely no compromise when it comes to every single detail of orchestration and colour being clearly notated. There’s certainly a lot to be learnt from studying those sketches, the biggest takeaway perhaps being how quickly the ideas can flow when all you have is pencil and manuscript paper.’

Benjamin Wallfisch

Although Wallfisch has his musicians wearing headphones with a click track during a recording session, occasionally he experiments by turning the click track off (photo: Benjamin Ealovega)


Flow. That’s the key facet of the film composer’s craft. Because film composers have to work so fast, they must be masters of the tools they have to hand, whether that tool is a grand piano or a computer. Williams was classically trained and has always written his music on manuscript paper, so for him that was the most natural, most fluent way of composing. But a film composer’s job today is very different.

One practice that film composers have had to adopt is that of producing ‘mock-ups’ of their cues so that directors and producers can approve the music before the time comes to record it with real musicians. Wallfisch explains: ‘Computer-based sequencers give us the opportunity to present our music to our film-makers in a really detailed and accurate way. It has become the exception to write using pencil and paper, and this I think is also in part owing to the bigger picture of how film-making techniques have moved on over the last 20 years or so with the advent of non-linear editing. Editors used to have to physically splice film linearly using a razor blade, and find alternative takes from huge bins full of celluloid; now everything is done inside a system such as Avid or Final Cut, where every editorial option can be quickly auditioned. The same is true for music: we now have digital tools where a film-maker can reach out and touch every detail of the music before its finalised, and I think that’s a very important part of the process now.’

So today’s film composers are no longer ‘just’ composers. To make their mock-ups sound as convincing as possible they also have to be recording mixers, engineers, orchestrators and producers. It’s a steep learning curve if all you’ve ever done before is sit at a piano with pencil in hand.

A new sound world

But the use of electronics goes way beyond these practical needs, and is now much more central to the craft of film composition itself. Composers today will try as much as possible to make some time for experimentation, for recording and making new sounds that are bespoke to the project in question. American Thomas Newman often gathers a small group of trusted musicians into his studio early on to create beds of sound (drones, pads, textures), on top of which he will then write and develop his themes, rather like a painter adding a wash of colour to a white canvas before filling in the detail. Dutch composer Tom Holkenborg, on the other hand, draws on his background in electronic dance music to create synthesised soundscapes, and also to transform and distort the sounds of traditional classical instruments after they have been recorded. Zimmer, meanwhile – who has proven to be a huge influence over the way that all media composers work today, thanks to his pioneering experiments in electronics and sampling – dedicated many months to noise and sound manipulation (producing more than 9000 bars of material) to arrive at the one perfect, ever-evolving tone that conveys the malevolent character of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008).

Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer’s use of electronics and sampling has greatly influenced the industry (photo: Ann Johansson/Corbis/Getty Images)


A natural upshot of today’s film composers being adept in both classical orchestration and electronic, computer-based music, is the concept that all sound, regardless of its source, can now be treated equally. Although the use of non-Western instruments in Hollywood film scores has been common for decades, we are now truly in a place where some of the most genre-bending, experimental and open-minded music to be found anywhere in the world is being composed to accompany films. The ‘appropriateness’ of a particular instrument’s sound within the context of the film is defined not by whether that instrument originally comes from the place being depicted in the film (although that can be a consideration), but rather by whether the colour of the instrument serves to tell the story. One particularly interesting example of this is the duduk, a double-reed instrument from Armenia possessing a mournful tone that has found a starring role in scores as diverse as Zimmer’s Gladiator (2000), Williams’s Munich (2005), John Debney’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) and James Horner’s Avatar (2009). And for a deep dive into modern, borderless film scoring, try Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson’s 2019 Oscar-winning soundtrack for Black Panther (2018; set in a fictional African kingdom of Wakanda), for which Göransson spent time exploring West African music and joining Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and his band on tour. The integration of traditional West African instruments with a 92-piece symphony orchestra and large choir, plus Maal’s extraordinary voice, is entirely coherent and convincing.

Ludwig Goransson

Ludwig Göransson worked with singer Baaba Maal for his Black Panther soundtrack (photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)


From composing to recording

But how much time do these composers have to conjure these alluring new sound worlds? As Wallfisch says, it can vary hugely: ‘On average we have probably around six to 12 weeks to compose the score, followed by another month or so to orchestrate, record and mix it. But you can have less time than that, and so you have to keep a strict quota of minutes to be written each day in order to hit the deadline.’

If that kind of hard-and-short deadline turns your brain to panic-induced mush then you are probably not destined to have a long and successful career as a film composer. But if you’ve already landed a project, just where do you begin? Wallfisch confides: ‘Whether I have a year to think about the score, or I have to jump in straight away with four weeks to write everything, I try to spend at least a few days at the start writing music away from picture, developing theme suites and character ideas. It can prove to be totally invaluable having that arsenal of material ready to draw on when the pressure is on – and it’s normally always on.’

If you’ve ever watched footage of Williams conducting one of his scores in a recording studio, you may have noticed one key contrast with the way that soundtracks are typically recorded now: with Williams, none of the musicians would wear headphones – they would simply follow the conductor. Today, however, all of the musicians have at least one ear dedicated to following a click track. The click track is essentially the sound of a ticking electronic metronome that tells the musicians the precise tempo at any given moment. Wallfisch is a highly experienced conductor and I wonder how he feels about the use of click tracks in performance – can it make the music feel a bit less human? ‘Everything is normally written to the frame of picture, so even when I conduct my own scores, it’s more about facilitating the process of communicating the phrasing, dynamics and overall “performance” of the music to the orchestra, rather than changing the tempo,’ he says.

Tom Holkenborg

Tom Holkenborg taps into electronic music to create synthesised soundscapes


Having said that, Wallfisch is open to experimentation. ‘On occasion I’ll turn off the click track, and use the system of “streamers and punches” to sync to picture, a technique developed more than 80 years ago in film score recordings where conductors were guided on tempo and pace visually, by a system of lines and flashes on the screen giving them warnings and “hit points” for down-beats. A few years ago I started experimenting with rubato click tracks, where the subtle tendencies of rubato are programmed directly into the tempo map. Using this technique it’s possible to create a very free-sounding, rubato performance that might normally be heard without a click track, but with all the advantages you get when using a click track – for example, being able to overdub a choir or a massive battery of percussion on top of the orchestra at a later date.’

The ‘temp love’ trap

If you’ve ever sat in a cinema and thought, ‘That music sounds quite a lot like …’, the reason is frequently not, as one might assume, the composer’s lack of originality, but instead the result of a phenomenon known as ‘temp’ music. This is pre-existing music (usually from other films) that is used through the post-production process to establish the mood and pace of the scene, after which the composer is then effectively expected to replace the ‘temp’ music with an original score. This practice is perfectly understandable in theory, but the trouble is that, by the time the composer comes on board, the director and the producers have often grown rather fond of the ‘temp’ tracks (or have fallen into the ‘temp love’ trap, as it’s known in the industry) and it can be very difficult for a composer to dislodge it from their hearts. This results in the common scenario in which the composer feels obliged to write music that alludes closely to the spirit and even the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of ‘temp’ tracks.

Incidentally, the use of ‘temp’ music is not a new phenomenon. In one particularly painful example, American Alex North was commissioned to compose the score for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) only to have his music thrown out in the final stages of the production, with Kubrick opting to use the pre-existing works by Strauss and others which he had been using as a ‘temp’ score. As Kubrick explained: ‘When you are editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene … Well, with a little more care and thought, these temporary tracks can become the final score.’ North only discovered that his music had not been used in the movie when he attended the New York premiere of the film.

Staying positive and inspired

For this and many other reasons, film composers need to be skilful politicians, able to persuade, to collaborate, to push their ego to the side, to stick to telling the story, and to help the director deliver his or her vision. And they have to live with the possibility that even the best composers may, at one stage or another, get fired.

With all of these deadlines and pressures, how do film composers stay inspired? ‘Every score starts with a blank page,’ says Wallfisch, ‘but I feel like each three- to four-month period working on a particular film score gives me that much more to say on the next one. It’s the constant collaboration with other artists and always putting the story first that I think forces you constantly to up your game as a composer.’

Wallfisch’s approach to film music should reassure us all that the craft of film composition, practised by composers for many decades (by Steiner, Korngold, Herrmann, Morricone, Williams and more), is, in spite of dizzying technological advances and the speed of modern film-making, still very much alive. As Wallfisch says, ‘It starts with hours of struggle in a darkened room to come up with stuff, and ends with collaborating with the most important people in the process: the musicians who bring it all to life.’

Recommended Recordings

Ludwig Göransson: Black Panther – ‘Wakanda’ 

The fusion of Baaba Maal’s glorious voice with African talking drums and a full symphony orchestra epitomises borderless film scoring where everything is possible. The score won an Academy Award this year, and rightly so.

Benjamin Wallfisch: Shazam! – ‘SHAZAM!’

This is John Williams’s Superman score on steroids – an astonishingly visceral piece of orchestration, and deliciously over-the-top. The recording is conducted by the composer himself.

Hans Zimmer: The Dark Knight – ‘Why so serious?’

Many weeks of noise and sound manipulation led Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer to the apparently simple solution of fleshing out the Joker’s character with a single tone. But what a tone.

Thomas Newman: Wall-E – ‘2815 AD’

Thomas Newman uses real musicians throughout his compositional process, inviting players into his studio to build up layers of different live recordings in order to create an almost three-dimensional effect.

Tom Holkenberg: Mortal Engines – ‘London Suite in C’

Hybrid scoring par excellence. Listen to how the sounds of the real orchestral instruments are transformed and blended with sound design by Holkenberg after the recording sessions. This is the composer as producer. 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!

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