The Second Music Production Step In Film: Writing It

After spotting a film,the next step in the music production of film is the writing. How do you make sure this process goes smoothly and in a timely manner?


As discussed in part 1 of this series, the first step in the music production of writing a film score is to have a spotting session. This is the time when the director, composer, and the music editor view the completed  raw film and discuss where music will and will not be placed in the film.

COMPOSING THE SCORE – Things to Consider

While the making of a film requires the cooperation of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, the composer begins their work in relative seclusion. They also have a relatively short amount of time, anywhere from three to 12 weeks, to write and record the music to film. Referring to the music editor’s notes, discussions with the director, and a copy of the film, the composer begins scoring one cue at a time. A cue is a section of music that is written to go along with a certain scene. As write, the composer must also consider many things in the music production: playing the drama, composing, using melody, using harmony, using rhythm, using orchestration and some technical and practical aspects (Karlin/Wright, pp. 127-338). Some very important non-musical aspects to consider are: determining who the audience for the film is, being careful not to tip the story too soon, point of view, staying out of the way of the dialogue, capturing what the scene is really about, and getting inside the character’s feelings (Karlin/Wright, pp. 127-139).

It’s very important that the music in a film does not get in the way and distract from what’s taking place in the story. The composer must really understand the film and be able to supply an aural interpretation of what’s going on in the film that the dialogue, scenery, action, and mood may not be able to convey. After gaining this understanding, they must now choose the best musical considerations. They must create melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and use of orchestration that fits the film while staying out of the way.

Two Minutes Per Day

The average amount of music a film composer writes per day is around 2 to 3 minutes. That may not seem like a lot, however, when a film composer normally has 8 to 12 weeks to compose the music and have it ready for the musicians at the scoring session, it’s actually a large amount. The amount of music needed varies from film to film. “John Barry wrote 35 minutes of music for Out of Africa, a 120 minute film. James Horner wrote 68 minutes of music for Star Trek 2, a 114 minute film.  Maurice Jarre wrote 25 minutes of music for Mosquito Coast, a 117 minute film” (Karlin/Wright, p. 65). A film like Star Trek 2, with lots of action sequences, generally requires more music than would a quieter film with less action. Ultimately, it’s up to the director to determine how music will end up in the film.


It would be one thing if the composer only had to compose a film score that used a piano or some other single instrument. The music production of film scores generally require a mid to large sized orchestra. There can be as many as 90 to 100 musicians in these orchestras. James Horner wrote 68 minutes of music for the score to Star Trek 2. He had four and a half weeks to write the score (Mitchell). If he wrote two minutes of music per day, it would have taken him 34 days to compose it. The composer would then need to orchestrate the music for whatever instrumentation is being employed for the film. Once that was complete, he would then have to create each part for each musician. While this whole process is quickened via the use of music notation software programs, it’s still a huge task that can take one person a large amount of time to complete. A clever system was developed where these tasks are divided up among a team assembled by the composer. This allows for a smooth and speedy process where all the aforementioned tasks are delegated so the composer can focus on composing. Step one of this process is the composer writes a cue. He uses a type of shorthand known as a short-score. A short-score is a reduction of a full score, using only a few lines of music.                                                              

Once the composer finishes a cue they give it to an orchestrator and begins to write the second cue. While the composer writes the second cue the orchestrator fleshes out the first sketch in full instrumentation, implementing the cue-related instructions from the composer. This cycle continues until all cues are written and orchestrated. Lastly, a copyist will prepare the individual parts for the musicians. This music production process is a tremendous time saver. The following video clip shows this process beautifully with John Williams (composer), Ken Wannberg (music editor), and Herbert Spencer (orchestrator) working on the score to The Empire Strikes Back.

This is a highly creative step in the music production film scoring process. Suffice it to say, composing is most likely a highly enjoyable part of the whole endeavor. The composer gets to be a storyteller of sorts. However, the composer must wear more than his composer hat. There are many administrative aspects to consider as well. In part 3 of this series, these duties will be explored.

Karlin, Fred; Wright, Rayburn. On The Track. Schirmer Books, 1990

Mitchell, Maurice. 14 Surprising Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan Music Facts., June 23, 2015. Accessed on 12/27/2017

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