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Music

What Is Temp Music in Film?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

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Danny Elfman Teaches Music for Film

Temp music is ubiquitous throughout the world of filmmaking, a useful tool to help composers and directors get on the same page. But what exactly is temp music?—and why do some composers feel like it stifles their own distinctive voice?

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What Is Temp Music in Film?

Temporary scores, or temp scores, are compilations of placeholder music—typically from other film scores—that are edited to punctuate an early cut of a movie. For the composer, a temp score may serve as a guide to what the filmmakers hope to achieve in terms of tone, tempo, and intensity for the final score.

Probably the most famous example of this is director Stanley Kubrick, who hired well-known composer Alex North to score 2001: A Space Odyssey. But during filming, as he began to assemble sequences, Kubrick used pieces of classical music like Richard Strauss’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube,” and the Adagio from the Gayane Ballet Suite by Aram Khachaturyan for particular scenes. Kubrick was eventually convinced that the classical pieces worked better than North’s original pieces ever could. North didn’t realize that his music was cut in favor of the classical recordings until the composer saw the movie at its premiere. These days, temp music is generally used as a guideline for composers.

The Downside of Working With Temp Tracks

Temporary music is meant to be just that: temporary. It’s almost never intended to remain in the completed film, particularly as licensing rights and costs for specific piece of music must be purchased (which can tack on exorbitant costs). The danger is that, after viewing the movie countless times with the temp score in place, filmmakers can develop a case of “temp love”—and they’re loath to kill their darling. In other words, a director wants something so similar to the temp score that any genuinely new music written for the movie pales in comparison, and the composer is strongly encouraged to more or less reproduce the music heard in the temp score.

That means the composer is consequently stuck in a double bind—reproducing the temp score exactly is out of the question because of legal and copyright issues, but failing to capture the aspects of the temp music that please the filmmakers can put them out of a job. Maintaining strong communication lines with a director and providing them with options for particularly challenging moments increases the odds that a composer’s score will make it into the film intact.

But even well-known, established Hollywood composers can struggle to overcome a filmmakers’ affection for a temp track. For 1979’s Alien, Jerry Goldsmith wrote a highly effective, avant-garde score—but the final cut of the movie retained some temp music from Goldsmith’s 1962 score to Freud, and Goldsmith’s end title music was replaced with music from Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 (“Romantic”), another piece of temp music preferred by the filmmakers to Goldsmith’s original compositions.

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How to Develop Your Musical Voice as a Composer

A composer’s options in dealing with temp music are either to slavishly reproduce the temp track, creating music that is very similar but different enough to avoid copyright issues, or create music that is so fresh and compelling the director recognizes it as the perfect music for their movie. Certainly, the director could refuse the composer’s suggestions—but the job is to keep suggesting novel ideas, offering up options with passion and politeness.

When the director likes the way a piece of a new film music works, the composer can use that as leverage to convince them that a similar approach will work during other moments, or that a variation will work in an equally effective way for another scene in the film.

How to Avoid Plagiarism when Replicating a Temp Track

Inevitably, there will be times when the director insists the score sound similar to the temp track. In that case, it’s important to avoid slipping into plagiarism. Homage and inspiration are inextricable elements of the composing process. But writing music that’s too similar to another composer’s work is problematic. Film composers are uniquely vulnerable to inadvertent plagiarism accusations for a number of reasons.

  1. Be mindful of copyrights. When a composer looks to iconic scores for inspiration, they can find themselves in a copyright minefield. Even if the underlying inspiration has been altered enough to win a potential lawsuit, that’s not the point: The intent is the point, not the exact notes. Take, for example. John Williams’ simple, two-note shark motif from Jaws. In the time since Jaws premiered, various composers have successfully used simple attack ostinatos in their own movie scores without facing legal repercussions, but only because they weren’t using that approach for another movie about a shark—or even in a scene where the characters are both in water and in danger.
  2. Add a twist. It’s difficult to make a score completely original. But taking old approaches and adding a new twist is one way to add a unique stamp to something. Danny Elfman’s score to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, for example, made a huge impact by combining the heavy, obsessive sound of Bernard Herrmann with a bit of the circus-like feel of Italian composer Nino Rota’s music, all filtered through Danny’s unique, playful sensibility. People had heard Herrmann and Rota before, but they’d never heard their sounds applied to a comedy. By dropping familiar sounds into a new context, and updating them with a distinctive stylistic twist, a composer can avoid plagiarism and develop their own unique sound.

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Want to Learn More About Musical Composition?

Whether you're an aspiring film composer or simply want to learn more about musical composition, navigating the complex world of music and film can be daunting. No one knows this better than versatile and accomplished film composer Danny Elfman. Danny has scored over 100 films ranging from The Nightmare Before Christmas to Good Will Hunting. In Danny Elfman's MasterClass on music for film, the four-time Oscar nominee shares his approach to writing feature scores, working with directors, and identifying themes and melodies.

Want to become a better composer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master composers, including, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, Itzhak Perlman, Herbie Hancock, and more.

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