Film Composers: Compromise or Adapt?

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Musical Composition By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Musical Composition
Last updated: 18/02/2013
Tags: film, film music, music, screen music, stravinsky

I just came off the phone from an interview I had been conducting a 'Hollywood Film Composer' and I had been asking him some questions about his first ever score for my PhD.

One of the topics that came up was the question of whether film composers find themselves compromising their abilities and skills because they are being asked to please the director, the film company and the audience. The question provokes a further thought - what do you mean by compromise? It seems to suggest a misunderstanding about the nature of how composers write a film score. Compromise implies that you had to write something you may not have wholly intended so that you appease others. It suggests you give up something so that it will be more 'palatable'. We live in a society where the economics and the reality of publicly consumed music are misunderstood. The job of the composer is not to indulge oneself in virtuous meanderings of artistic fancy, free of any consumption and thus of criticism. Surely, it is to provide music for an audience – and a paying one at that. Whether someone likes it or not is a different question, and one that enters the realms of critical theory, aesthetics and philosophy of music.

If you are going to write for an audience therefore, it means you have to be somewhat aware of that audience and their expectations. The greatest film music composers know this very well, which is why you get wonderful 'red herring' sequences in films such as Psycho or Jaws or powerful theme orientated melodies such as Indian Jones, which convey a sense of adventure. They understand their audiences. Whether the audiences LIKE their music is another matter. The point is, those composers were engaged because of their ability to deliver to a given brief.

Composers always write music to a brief (even if that brief is as generalised as 'please the audience'). I don't think that many film composers feel that their music is compromised because they are always fulfilling a 'brief' - an idea or a concept that the director has chosen for their film. A composer's job is to adapt herself or himself to the director's vision. But adapting is not the same as compromising. Stravinsky in the Rite was uncompromising in his musical language - a language that at first caused public disorder ("Rite of Spring") but then grew to be loved over the next 100 years or more. Stravinsky hardly intended to cause public outrage with the Rite, rather the adapted language grew out of procedures which had been present in Petrushka as well as in the brief he was given by Najinsky to go for primitivism - in other words the brief demanded precisely the sort of resulting work that Stravinsky produced. (Walsh, 2013) Interestingly Stravinsky's language changed and developed as the century progressed in concert with other changes in art and music. He adapted it to changing moods and times.   

Adapting oneself is what screen composers (and all composers) do. They are chameleons that adapt themselves to the brief in hand. So the question should be - how do composers adapt to the changing circumstances of the 'brief' and the times in which they write?

With this question, we open a door to the chameleon nature of film music. Of course, some composers are known for very specific sounds - but they can afford to be. As emerging artists and composers we cannot. Our job is to adapt, learn, increase our skills and knowledge so that audiences engage with our music and that we have fulfilled the brief we were given. We don't have to compromise our musical language; we merely have to adapt it.

Music for 'fresh air' – by which I mean, music which you have written because you have wanted to, is a naive and unaware concept, which misses precisely the very purpose of composing music.

"Rite of Spring, The." The Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. rev. Ed. Michael Kennedy. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.<>       

Walsh, S. (2013) "Stravinsky, Igor." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.<>

Dominic Sewell Musical Composition Teacher (South West London)

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