I was recently asked what factor matter the most to me in a film score.
I gave it some thought and ranked six factors as I believe they matter:
What is the IDEA of the score?
Before a single note is even written, the single most important factor is deciding what APPROACH is being taken.
Forget the specifics of the music, the CONCEPT of scoring STAR WARS like an old fashion Golden Age film had to be decided upon first.
It was decided BOND needed jazz, BATMAN needed gothic operatic, UP needed nostalgic simplicity, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL needed bouncy folk, AMERICAN BEAUTY needed cool detachment, ELF needed retro Christmas special.
Before diving into a score, a composer must first decide (often with the filmmakers) what approach should be taken.
All of my favorite scores have very clear, and often bold, concepts behind them.
What are the musical building blocks?
A great tune (or theme or motif) really makes a difference.
With rare exceptions, what distinguishes a score are the unique compositional nuggets that define, identify and stamp that score as something unique and memorable.
Emotions are so closely tied to the specific melodic ideas of a score.
Great themes are rare and really hard to come by.
How the film is scored.
How does a composer take his/her concepts and thematic material and apply them moment by moment, shot by shot, sequence by sequence within the film.
This is the dramaturgical part. What is the composer doing to tell, enhance, counterpoint, drive the film’s narrative.
Some composers are master musical storytellers and too many basically have nothing interesting to say, punctuate, underline, build or contribute to the architecture of a film.
In many cases, this factor can be as important as the thematic aspects.
It is this vital factor that most separates film composers from other types of composers.
What are the colors of the score?
The same composition orchestrated 10 different ways yields 10 different feels.
So much of the texture of a score is derived from how it is orchestrated.
But, rarely are orchestrations the main event.
They are rarely the cake. They are the flavors that enhance it.
Great orchestrations of a score with a poor concept, melody and/or application is just a blob of indistinguishable orchestration.
How is it played?
Much further down my personal list is the performance of the musicians.
There are endless numbers of well-performed, crappy scores and an even larger number of fantastic scores with less-than-stellar performances.
Of course a great performance can bring a score more to life, but it rarely makes or breaks a score.
Almost every score recorded by the top musicians in Los Angeles and London are performed at the highest level. Yet the final product using those same great musicians varies so wildly. First, they need something great to play.
Composer are often the worst judges of this. They sometimes get caught up on performance imperfections that would have relatively little impact on a score to the average listener.
Not advocating bad playing, but there are five other factors I believe matter much more in the success of most scores.
How is the score produced?
Many of my favorite film scores have recordings that sound like shit.
Of course there is a lot to be said for great production values in the recording and mixing of a score, but, as they say, you can’t polish a turd.
Give me 500 awful sounding 1960’s French and Italian film scores over one slick and punchy recording of a contemporary film score with a lame concept, melodies, applications, orchestrations and performances.
Again, I believe too many composers focus on the production of their music over the MUCH more significant aspects.
WHAT MATTERS MOST TO YOU?
Would love to hear your thoughts.