Music & Entertainment

What Is a Film Composer and What Does a Film Composer Do? 3 Film Scoring Tips From Hans Zimmer

Written by MasterClass

Apr 15, 2019 • 6 min read

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Hans Zimmer Teaches Film Scoring

Film music has been around longer than film dialogue. In the early days of cinema, the technology did not permit an audio track to accompany visual images when movies were shown in theaters. But the films did have music, in the form of live instrumentalists performing inside the theater itself.

When engineers managed to add an audio track to film reels, the audiences could hear the dialogue for the first time—but the music didn’t go away. It simply transferred, gradually at first, from a live performance in the theater to a recorded performance incorporated into the visual imagery. Suddenly, music was no longer the purview of the live instrumentalists in the theater. It was controlled by a person on the film production team: the film composer.

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What Is a Film Composer?

A film composer creates the musical score that accompanies a film, which is called the film score. This music falls into three categories:

  • Diegetic music. Music that can be heard by the characters in the depicted scene. For example, imagine a film character is attending a parade with marching bands. The music produced by those bands is diegetic.
  • Non-diegetic music. This is the most common form of film music, typically referred to as the underscore. This is music that a film’s characters cannot hear. Think of the tense vibrato strings when the foolish protagonist of a horror film enters the haunted basement. Or the swelling harp arpeggios when two lovers kiss in an old-fashioned romance.
  • Songs. Some films are scored with songs, which can be of both the diegetic and non-diegetic variety. Movie musicals feature diegetic songs (think Singin’ In The Rain), while from the 1970s onward, it became popular to replace traditional underscore with a soundtrack of non-diegetic music (think Goodfellas).

Over the past several decades, big-budget Hollywood studio films have often combined traditional underscore with a featured song to be released as a single for radio or streaming. Prominent examples of this include the 1997 film Titanic, with a score by James Horner plus the song “My Heart Will Go On” by Horner and Will Jennings, performed by Celine Dion. There was also 1998’s Armageddon, with a score by Trevor Rabin but best remembered for the song “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” by Diane Warren, performed by Aerosmith.

What Does a Film Composer Do?

Increasingly, a film composer is responsible for every aspect of original music in a film. This includes:

  • Maintaining a budget for all aspects of a film’s original music.
  • Hiring musicians and staff.
  • Meeting with the movie’s director to “spot” a film in order to identify all places where music should be present.
  • Writing and recording demos to audition various themes for the director’s consideration.
  • Composing the film’s music, often using a variety of tempos and time signatures to sync with various action sequences within a scene. (Some genres, like action films and cartoons, require more sound/picture syncing than others.)
  • Manage the recording of the music, either with live performers, or using software instruments controlled by a MIDI keyboard. Lower-budget films may not have funds to hire live performers, in which case the composer may be personally responsible for performing all the music using software instruments.
  • Fielding and responding to notes from other members of the production team. Most film composers will insist that their notes come exclusively from the film’s director, but in some cases, other team members (particularly producers) may have the privilege of giving direct notes to the composer.
  • Executing a final version of the score that addresses all notes and edit requests, and then providing a final mastered version of the soundtrack.
  • In some cases, a film composer will write a separate score to accompany the film’s trailer, and it’s possible none of the themes from the actual film will be heard during the trailer. However, there are production companies that exclusively make film trailers and they may provide their own in-house composers or libraries of licensed music.

Who Does a Film Composer Work With?

A film composer primarily works with the director of the movie. Theoretically, the director is responsible for the final artistic product on screen, although this hierarchy can sometimes be subverted by a particularly powerful film producer.

  • The director/composer relationship. This typically begins with a spotting session where the two will sit down and identify all areas of the film that may benefit from music. The director will also frequently provide a “temp score” where the film is completely scored using previously-recorded music that conveys a sense of the director’s taste. The temp score is typically intended to be just a suggestion of ideas for the film’s composer, but some directors are known to exhibit “temp love” wherein they become emotionally attached to the temp music and want the composer to produce a near carbon copy. The composer regularly checks in with the director during the writing and recording process, providing him or her with samples for feedback.
  • The music editor/composer relationship. A film composer also works closely with a music editor who helps facilitate all aspects of the film’s soundtrack. The music editor is typically the person who, under the director’s supervision, assembles the temp score. He or she helps the composer keep individual cues organized, and the two work closely during recording sessions and in sessions with the director. Depending on the film’s budget, a composer may also employ one or more assistants to help with all aspects of production.

What Do You Need to Become a Film Composer?

In the early days, most film composers needed to be able to swiftly read and write music (often right in the middle of a recording session) and conduct a small orchestra. Today’s digital technology has changed a lot of that, and some composers create entire scores using computer software. Some of today’s composers can barely read music. Others can barely play it and create soundtracks using preprogrammed loops.

But the giants of film scoring are accomplished musicians in their own right. Oscar-winner John Williams, one of the greatest living film composers, who composed the music for the original Star Wars films, among many others, composes his film scores at the piano using pencil and paper. He’s also a performer, who spent his early career as a live pianist and who achieved acclaim as the longtime composer of the Boston Pops.

Other composers are performers but are also quite adept with software. Danny Elfman rose to fame as the singer of Oingo Boingo, but he’s a prolific film composer who creates scores using the program Digital Performer, a popular choice within the industry. Other frequently used programs include:

  • Logic
  • Pro Tools
  • Cubase
Hans Zimmer explaining tips for film scoring in his MasterClass

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3 Film Scoring Tips From Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer, the Academy Award-winning composer for films including the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Interstellar, Gladiator, Inception, Dunkirk, and The Dark Knight, has accumulated a lifetime of insight about music and the film industry. Here are some tips from Zimmer on composing a film score.

  • Start simple, and serve the film. Your process begins with a simple tune. As a composer, your job is to create an original, yet familiar theme that pushes the story forward. The theme should tell the parallel story that the director set out to tell, not just exist on its own as a concept. Use this as your only restriction, but be completely free when setting out to create the theme.
  • Let the film’s characters inspire your musical themes. It’s all about understanding their past, their hopes and dreams, and any crucial moments that made them the way they are. Understanding their journey, and how they react to the obstacles on their journey, will help inform their musical themes. Relate to your characters and find common ground so that you can construct their theme from your own imagination and emotional truth.
  • Remember it is ultimately the director’s film. Films aren’t made by committee. Your duty is to follow the director’s lead and create a shared musical vision. If you jump into discussing music specifically or even technically, you may miss important subtext that informs the director’s intention. Hans makes a habit of starting conversations with directors as early as possible and allowing that conversation to inform how the music will shape the story.

Learn more about film scoring from Hans Zimmer here.