By Alexina Beckley
Music has always played a vital role in the creation of a good movie. Ever since the days of silent films, when live musicians would play along with the action happing onscreen, scoring has been an integral tool utilized by filmmakers to further their story. Even with the addition of dialogue to movies, music still remains a powerful medium used for more than just accompaniment.
These days, it is nearly impossible to name a film that doesn’t utilize music in some way, and we can easily hum along to household tunes such as the Star Wars theme by John Williams or Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from The Breakfast Club, which represent some classic film moments where a piece of a score has stayed with us throughout the years. However, for every hit song that emerges from a movie soundtrack, there exist hundreds of other films where directors and composers have beautifully and effectively applied music to their films to enhance the storyline.
One advantage of having a strong score in your film is that oftentimes music can tell a story in ways that dialogue or visual cues cannot. Music has the ability to shape the mood of a scene, and can take a film from the average to the extraordinary. However, the best way to learn about film scores is to hear from a composer himself – musician and composer Dan Myers graciously shared some of his thoughts with me, and his insights will hopefully leave you excited to jump into the composing process for your next film.
Dan is a Chicago-based musician and songwriter who also composes for film, television, and the stage. His original songs can be heard in major motion pictures, digital animation features, and network television series. He has recently recorded and toured nationally with his Indie-folk band Stolen Silver, and is also a member of Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan Band. He has had the privilege of dueling on the fiddle with Charlie Daniels at the Kennedy Center, and performing for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Kuwait. To learn more about Dan and his work, check out the contact information at the end of this article.
GIFF: When did you first know that you loved music? What drew you to composing for the screen?
DM: I was very fortunate to grow up with music educator parents and an extended family chock-full of performers, dancers and professional musicians. My grandfather used to play hooky from school in Chicago to sneak into the dance hall and watch the big bands of Benny Goodman and Count Basie rehearse. My father led bands and taught choral music, as did my mother. Music was always present in our life, and family gatherings were filled with vocal harmony and musical storytelling. I played violin in several school orchestras and was constantly fascinated by the countless textures and sonic combinations that can exist. My career as a singer-songwriter led me to my first gigs writing songs for films, which led me eventually to scoring. For me, writing music for the screen has been an inspiring way to collaborate with talented people in the process of telling a story. Music becomes a crucial part of something much bigger.
GIFF: Why do you think music is key to telling a good story?
DM: There certainly have been effective films in recent history that have not relied or even utilized music as a necessity to the narrative, but as a composer I’m always drawn to films that use music as an unseen character to evoke intrinsic emotion or build tension where needed. Sometimes a visual can say one thing and the music eludes to another, leading the viewer intentionally yet subtly to an intended outcome. Music can be felt subconsciously, and in regards to film this can achieve very powerful results.
GIFF: What is one of your favorite films that gets the composing right? What is it about this film and its score that makes it so appealing?
DM: Because it’s so hard to narrow down to just one, allow me to highlight three of my “top-ten.”
American Beauty (2001) Score by Thomas Newman
This score may have lost the Academy Award to The Red Violin, but it won in terms of originality, effectiveness and lasting influence. When I heard the complex rhythms, middle eastern percussion, mandolin, and treated piano, I knew this score (and its juxtaposition to the film itself) was breaking new ground. Newman is one of my favorite composers in the genre, and his music continually inspires me to try to push boundaries and take chances.
Psycho (1960) Score by Bernard Herrmann.
What can I say that hasn’t been said about this iconic score? I heard it first in high school and was immediately drawn to the tension, intricate orchestration, and terrifying alternative string writing. The shower scene has now become iconic, not only for its groundbreaking filming techniques but the indelible shrieking strings. Rumor has is that Herrmann had to convince Hitchcock to include the music in the scene because he preferred it without. Thank goodness it made the cut. Watch the driving scene with Janet Leigh in the beginning of the film again, and notice that your feelings of nervous apprehension stem from the scoring and not the visual. Perfectly executed.
Edward Scissorhands (1990) Score by Danny Elfman
I heard this score in the theater and loved it so intensely that I went out and immediately bought the soundtrack. There’s a reason many of the pieces are so often licensed for trailers and commercials. It’s truly timeless and evocative film music. All of the themes are instantly memorable, and the use of choir boys and Tchaikovsky-esque Christmas-like orchestrations are beautifully effective. Also included is a ton of low brass and Elfman’s signature circus-clown-polka textures to boot. I love this score!
GIFF: Can you describe the process that you go through when starting a new composing project for film?
DM: Generally, I meet with the director and we talk about the film, his/her goals musically and work to get our visions for the score in place. A spotting session usually follows where we watch the film (in its present state) and share ideas on how to hit certain accent points, address tempo, discuss mood shifts and basically get in line on how the scoring will begin to take shape. I’ll have suggestions and ideas, as will the director/producer, and we’ll come together on a direction forward. I’ll follow with mocking up scenes and getting feedback. If live players are used, I’ll book sessions and studio time, and it all begins to come together.
GIFF: For independent filmmakers on a limited budget – how can one afford a good composer, and what should they be looking for in a composer?
DM: There’s no doubt that a fully orchestrated score with live players is going to be the most expensive route. These days, with the vast array of amazing software and sample based technology we can achieve success together on the most limited of budgets. It’s all about what you as a filmmaker desire, and what your film essentially needs. Sometimes an effective score can be done with very little, and sometimes there needs to be funding acquired for generating the larger and more involved score a film needs. Either way, opting to create an original score for your film (regardless of scope) will only increase a film’s effectiveness and originality. Because of my involvement with veterans and active duty military, I’m totally open to field any music related questions that your readers may have.
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