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Arts & Entertainment

Writing Tips: Part 1

Hans Zimmer

Lesson time 16:27 min

Hans gives you the tips and tricks he's learned over the years on how to approach writing music.

Hans Zimmer
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John Powell and I were talking about that, sort of the crisis, at the beginning of a movie when we don't know what to do, and just a couple of weeks of sitting in front of a blank screen and going, oh my god, I have no idea how to do this. I'm not a composer. I'm not worthy. It's all over, because part of the problem with music is, you don't really know where it comes from. So what if they turn off the tap? You know, so there are no guarantees that you're going to go and write the next score. And he very simply said, well, you know, sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get a movie under your fingers. This is what happens to me. When I have to start on a new movie and I haven't worked in a while, which is rare because I never take holidays out of the following reason, it's like, I have no idea where to start. I cannot write. Nothing comes. It's just a terrifying blank sheet with a terrifying desert in my brain. And you know, the screen looks like a blizzard with just white on it. But if you write every day, and it doesn't matter what it is you write, just write something. It's like, I suppose, runners. Not that I'm a runner, not that I even know what a runner is, but pretend I would know what it means to work out or do spots or something like this-- I think you just develop a muscle. And I think if you write every day, you just get into the flow of writing. The way a movie is supposed to work-- and it used to work like this-- in the old days when we had film and when people were cutting on cams and Steenbecks and flat beds, and they were cutting films, there used to be a system in place where you'd come in, the film would be sort of cut, and you'd sit there with the director and the editor and your music editor, and you'd spot the movie. Everything has changed because of technology and the [? avot ?] because there used to be a certain other part to the system, which was at a certain point, they would lock the picture. In other words, they would make no picture changes. And they would now give the composer 12 weeks with a lot picture to write the score. Well, that went out of the window as soon as digital editing came in. So now anything can change at any moment in time, with one other thing that changed everything, which is visual effects. It used to be the composer who was late on things and was holding everything up. Well, the reason I love computer graphics is because those are the guys who are holding up everything. So they are actually buying me time, if I just turn the process around. So now the way I work is, forget the spotting session. Let's just start. If I have the space and the time available, I start when they start shooting. And I stop off that conversation. I start collecting sounds. And I start making sounds. I start coming up with ideas. And I start coming up with tunes. Once we're finish sh...

Tell a story with music

Hans Zimmer didn’t see a film until he was 12 years old. Since then, he’s scored over 150 films, including Inception, The Lion King, and The Dark Knight. In his MasterClass, the self-taught Academy Award-winner teaches how he creates sounds from nothing, composes compelling character themes, and scores a movie before ever seeing it. By the end, you’ll have everything you need to start film scoring.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Things I knew instinctively I now have words for. Being able to express in a solid way, helps organize thoughts, and give more clear direction. And so much I had not thought of or understood. As a life long composer, this was the single best, most helpful and musically inspiring experience I've ever had. Now if you would excuse me, I have a lot of new writing to do...

Hans Zimmer is a master and he sure did not let me down!

Thank you, the class has been a very good friend to me. It affirmed my ideas and encouraged me.

I have learned more than I can possibly type. Really great class.


Antonia T.

"I think you're supposed to give an audience an experience. And I think that the experience isn't to answer the question".

Abdul-khaliq A.

I believe that as an artist our biggest fear is to lose our ability to create, so practice every day.

Dr. Monnie Chan

Our maestro teacher Hans Zimmer live concert in Hong Kong is coming on 26th September 2019. Just 12 days to go. I am going and wonder if there are any classmates I can meet?


This was awesome re: the big unanswered questions in music and how often answering a question, like the discovery of the Higgs-Boson or “God particle” at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, may throw off even more questions. On rule breaking but elegantly: Congratulations on those beautiful parallel Fifths! Wow.

A fellow student

Every artist seems to have this feeling that they don’t know where “it” comes from but I thought it was well known that it comes from the subconscious where 90% of our brain operates....the theory suggests that our subconscious mind works behind the scenes as we pursue ideas, then these moments of insight percolate and rise to the surface.


To think outside the box is one of my rules I give to myself. President Kennedy said it well too" I see things that are and ask why?. I see things that aren't and ask why not?" The sky is the limit.

Marcus M.

I've always found it interesting when musicians break out of the typical 4 bar/8 bar phrase arrangement. Or go beyond 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 and go outside the box. Jazz is not only musical place where musical rules may be broken!

Judith M.

What if they turned off the tap? Well that's not something I'd wish on anyone since I've been there, and it really isn't a nice place to be. Everything starts to fall apart. That blank page has nothing on a full scale creative breakdown. Though I get the feeling that Hans has seen similar issues in the past. Whilst I used to look at it from story, the idea of using the characters to give you unusual ideas seems to be similar. I like to imagine them in different scenarios and ask what they'd do or hear, and listen as though I'm a reporter or indeed Watson taking a few notes. Sometimes they'll surprise you with their answers and prove why you should never judge a character by the standard story or screenplay, and definitely not by your story skeleton. I've had them flatly refuse to do things similar to Hans insight on throwing things when not on theme. I've also had characters that have insisted they are in fact the protagonist when it was planned another way, so the banjos playing in the movie didn't surprise me at all, in fact I liked the way the music instead of being from the days of silent movies just reflecting the action, took us inside their minds. A different perspective. Another crossover that I'd never considered being applicable to music was the diary idea. Which was very surprising in one sense because it shows how I think that musicians flow easier in creativity than writers, and in fact it looks like the two intertwine significantly, with those little snatches of tune or a turn of phrase that you'd better have that tiny notebook for. When we see Hans working it is more obvious because he is working on multiple levels which of course means that the likelihood of it all 'coming' at once other than for a special tune is more of a challenge. Am I the only person now thinking that he should release a CD of the forgotten tunes? Adler and the Black Hawk Down track?

Mia S.

"You want to just throw a pebble in and the circles get bigger until the question becomes a real question. We humans seem to like the idea of symmetrical phrases - yes, your two bars, four bars, eight bars, you know, works for Mozart, works for disco, funk, folk songs. Then you every once in awhile you get the occasional one that steps out of it. 'Yesterday,' the McCartney song, I think that's a seventh bar phrase. It just works like that, it feels symmetrical and complete. That's when you go, 'Hm, genius' - when the rules are broken without your noticing the rules, that's when somebody adds a new piece to the vocabulary in a way. Thin Red Line, 'Journey to the Line' piece, it breaks every rule. You're not supposed to do this parallel movement. I'm just moving everything; it's an 11 bar phrase, therefore it's asymmetrical. For the longest time, it does quite know which key it's in, and it keeps just repeating over and over. Eventually the 11 bar phrase shortens down to a 10 bar phrase, and it just suddenly gives you this sort of jolt. An academic mind would have told you there's everything wrong about it. The trick is - it's not a trick; the mission is to find out. Maybe this is how I grew up, where if somebody tells you that there's a rule, you have to figure out how to break it because that's the only thing that moves things forward. Do I have certain rules I go to? Yes, because I want to go and figure out how to break them in the most elegant way, how to do it in a way that sometimes you don't even know. That's very important to me - that you don't see the hand of the artist at work all the time, you just feel there's something new or fresh occurring, without seeing the horrible surgery."

Mia S.

"For me literally, personally, an unsuccessful score is something where I'm just repeating myself, which doesn't mean that I don't repeat myself. There are certain questions - I think we all have that - which we've had all our lives which we're trying to find an answer to .The opportunity of working in a film is ultimately, you're just self-writing from your point of view, and you're writing about yourself, and you keep asking the same questions. I mean, why are there so many love songs? People are trying to figure it out. If I come up with the same answer, then I've failed. But if I figure out how to just shift the answer a bit further forward - if I can ask a new question... I'm always more interested in that every score should actually throw up questions, as opposed to answer them. I think the question is always more compelling than the answer. 'Oh it turns out the earth isn't flat, so it's round.' Now that I know that, what am I going to do with it? If you just start with the character - say you're just going to go and see a Sherlock Holmes film, you're coming with a certain amount of baggage; you think you already know the answers. And the first thing I'm doing is, I'm throwing you off-kilter. I'm going, 'It's got banjos in it, I didn't expect that.' So do that, but do it in an appropriate way: it's not random, it's not anarchy. It's figuring out how to make the character compelling by you questioning everything about him all the time. 'Oh, he did that? I didn't expect him to do that.' That part of how to ask the question is, you're supposed to do something slightly unexpected. That in itself is a question. I think you're supposed to give an audience an experience. That's our job. The experience isn't to answer the question; the experience is to go away, and the next day go, 'You know that bit where it all explodes, there was that crazy violin? Why did he do that? And why am I still remembering this?'"