A Break Down of My Film Scoring Process

Concept And Schedule:
Where the score begins and ends for a project varies greatly from composer to composer. In my approach, I see value to the appropriation of traditional musical language into our modern dramatic experience. Much like how studying classic cinema can inform a film maker’s language, I see my work as the best possible personal reflection of those efforts to then base a skillset and dramatic language from. This typically translates to hiring an ensemble or traditional orchestra to score a project.
Schedules often vary during the film scoring process, where some may have an average of 12 weeks to work, others may get 2-4. Some of this is on the composers for over committing or difficult unforseen schedule concerns from studios. I tend to prefer longer schedule time per project, as I go through many iterations of ideas when composing and want to give the most value and time to maintain integrity.
* Excerpts from my recent string quartet.

Spotting Example: ‘At TC00:01:18:15 lets hit this landscape shot with music that enhances the journey our character may be taking us on narritively’
Spotting is the decision of where the film’s music should be placed, and is one of the first creative stategic and tactical meetings between a film maker and composer. It is also a time where creatives new to working with one another can form important bonds over the role of music in their film.

The spotting process is also the first place in which can drastically affect the emotion of a film or given scene based on the timing and style of music.

It is  important to note that composers generally find the best means of communication to be in narrative and emotionally related terms, not musical terms. We also work to timecodes and prefer them to be embedded in each edit.
    The composition process can begin with a proof of concept(s), and after approval, the composer can begin their process (which is typically done independently). Historically, composers work by use of a ‘sketch,’ which can come in some different formats. These formats allow the composer to work out musically complex ideas by expressing them on paper, at times much like a mathematician on an equation. These are built to be efficient shorthands that allow composers to magnify their focus.

    At present, there is a major onset of technological avenues that can help composers communicate ideas more directly with film makers by use of computer software and sampled instruments. These are called orchestral mock ups. (See examples aside)

    With mock ups definitely come caveats. Simply put, there is no replacing what musicians can do to bring music to life. There are also many instances in where our software does not intuitively reflect what a player or ensemble could actually do, and therefore can limit our choices creatively should we only rely on software. Here is a mock up of a portion of Stravinksy’s Firebird, that I would argue would be not the easiest musical choice solely used with software. In the concept, I will play the piece I mocked up.

Once approved, we move to orchestration.

Mock Up for ‘Doggie Door’ Animation in Logic Pro X:
Recorded Mock up Sample:


String Quartet


String Orchestra/ Orchestral String Section

The orchestration process is typically the appropriation of a musical idea or set of ideas towards a certain ensemble, and in film is the final arrangement that the musicians will record.

  In the examples provided aside, we see how not the notes themselves, but the decision of who should be interpreting these notes can dramatically influence the purpose of how music can fit into a part of a specific story.
The first example (String Quartet) may work with a montage in an indy film. The second example (Choir) could be the aftermath of a giant emotional climax in a space scifi film. The final example (String Orchestra) could be used in a war film, for example like it was in actuality in Platoon.

  It is for reasons like these that I as a composer tend to merge my compositional process with my orchestration process, where as another composer may hire an orchestrator to flesh out an entire idea for them in this domain. Orchestrators can always serve us well in that they are vital to the transfer of concepts from composer to ensemble in the next part of the process, Recording.

Recording / Conducting / Musicians:
    In Hollywood, musicians are often given music to be interpretted by sight reading, meaning that they are to be able to channel the music that arrives on their stand the day of the session after having never seen it before. (Imagine an actor having to do this!) Composers sometimes can hire them for rehersals or give them parts ahead of time to ensure they get to practice something and be prepared. I would always advocate for the latter if the situation calls for it, as the fulfillment of having musicians be challenged and enjoy the music they are playing often merits a better overall musical score.

    A conductor’s job is to best guide the ensemble to channel the music that has been written to the closest possible intention of the composer. In classical settings we see this as a wide topic of preference when navigating works, and in film, a conductor can serve as a major tool to providing options for the film maker in terms of emotional and timing preference. On a recent short film, I conducted a string quartet in multiple different tempo settings to make sure that I had options for when I wanted to sync the music to the picture. The options can be observed aside:

Conductor’s Interpretations:



Recording / Mixing / Mastering
The recording process typically takes place on a scoring stage( a huge well acoustically treated room designed for large ensembles) or in smaller rooms for smaller ensembles. After all of the music is recorded, the composer then works with the mix engineer/score mixer to dial in the best possible production  of the music. Once achieved, the music editor or composer will piece the score back into the film.


In today’s industry for scoring, it is not uncommon for emerging composers to familiarize themselves with this entire process individually, and as we work our way up to higher budgeted projects, these duties are divvied up across these multiple departments. 

Basic Musical Glossary:

Harmony- The relationship between 2 or more tones sounding in simultaneous occurence. The measuring of relationship between tones relative to a single vertical point or line. Key words: polyphony, chord progression, chords, diads, triads, seventh chords, polyphonic.
Rhythm- The interval of measurement of horizontal occurence of sound in succession overtime. (Think of a drum groove) 
Melody- The arrangment of tones in a singular fasion, where each successive note preceeding the last formulates a memorizable relationship.
Timbre- The characteristic in which describes what something sounds ‘like’. Example: The timbre of a violin is different than a clarinet.
Tessitura or Range- The range in which is considered for a sonic arrangement. If I wrote a song for Beyonce’s voice, I would be considering a different tessitura or range than if I wrote a song for Pavarotti’s voice. In film, I may choose a different tessitura for dialogue than for action.
Crescendo- Raise in intensity or loudness in a musical segment.

Decrescendo- Lower in intensity or loudness in a musical segment.

©Copyright Tim Schmalz 2017