The New Editors: When Composers Stop Composing

By • November 20, 2007

It started in television music about ten years ago by my recollection, and has picked up steam every year. The birth of the editor, the death of the composer. When composers stop writing notes and start stringing together loops, atmospheres and hits, I’m not so sure that is still composing. To me, it’s a lot more like editing, and most composers I know who have had to do this to “keep up” with current trends are not very happy about it.

Sure, it’s quick and easy to slap together some rhythm loops, pads, hits and such, but to me doing this kind of “assembly work” isn’t why I studied music for many years. So when did melodies become something to be avoided rather than something to be appreciated? Let’s go back a few decades…

Historians tell us that the 60 second theme “song” that was popularized in the 1970s with hit shows like Mission: Impossible, The Waltons, and Little House on the Prairie were designed to have striking, easily identifiable melodies designed to alert the entire household that the show was on so everyone could wrap up what they were doing and come to the living room and gather around the television.

In the 1980s, we saw three interesting phenomenon: the entrance to the scoring business of songwriters from rock bands, the wide availability of synthesizers and early samplers, and the popularization of minimalism as a music form. For those who believe that composing is writing notes for live players to play, this was the perfect storm. People were being hired to score television shows and films who were much more comfortable writing grooves and pads and thought in terms of “chords” rather than notes, and these people had readily available electronic means of generating sound rather than having to write music playable by live players. Meanwhile, during the 1980s we saw what many consider to be the heyday of television music with live musicians, with weekly dramas from Dynasty to Dallas, from Remington Steele to Moonlighting and so much more, all done with live orchestra. Synthesizers’ early experimental usage in television from the mid 1970s on when they were a novelty (who can forget the infamous “Synare” synthesized pitch-falling drum used ad nauseum during this time) expanded into limited usage to accompany some live orchestras. But for TV in the 1980s, live orchestras ruled the day.

Then came scores for films like Risky Business and others where the musical form of minimalism – bare, minimal repeating figures going on in various ways for a long time – became popular. The availability in the 1980s of early hardware sequencers where sequences of notes that would repeat at an exact tempo could be programmed followed by early computer based MIDI created a composing environment where melodies by live players was almost passé, technology bravely leading the way for new, unexplored frontiers in modern composing.

The 1990s brought much better sounding sampled audio, including drum and rhythm loops and patterns with variations, fills, endings, and much more. The early “Symphonic Adventures” and other CDs of sampled orchestra riffs were a sign of things to come, as composers started to become editors – taking arrangements of recorded musical phrases and editing them and putting them together.

The 1990s saw the rapid decline of orchestras used in television scores, and by the mid 1990s the few shows left with orchestras included the Star Trek various series, The Simpsons, and a couple of others. Most shows were scored using hybrid scores – sampled instruments plus a very small number of live instruments added to create an organic sound.

As the use of orchestras declined and the availability in the late 1990s of better sample loops increased, we saw the emergence of the edited score. 2001 brought us what many believe to be the first major TV theme created by loops and samples with the theme to Alias, composed by the show’s producer JJ Abrams using early sample looping software.

Since then there’s been a very clear trend in television music: a theme is no longer a melody composed of notes. Instead, it s a feeling, a groove, a rhythm, and increasingly, a song. Maybe it’s related to the fact that theme music for television is now 10-30 seconds long, and maybe it’s a result of television producers wanting to appeal to a “younger” demographic who, they think, would rather enjoy a groove than be bothered by a pesky melody, or maybe they just think melodies are old fashioned and dated, only to be played by the orchestras and live players of yesteryear (aka the 1970s and 1980s).

Where television music is headed is anyone’s guess, but let’s not forget about the art of writing notes, writing melodies, and writing music. Editing samples, loops, pads, phrases and hits is quick and “cool”, but it hardly compares to the art of writing notes played by live musicians.

Comments

By Matthew Thies on April 17th, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Well said, Mark. As a young composer experiencing the quagmire of technological choices and the terabytes of sample and loop libraries to assemble I wistfully recall those old theme songs of yore. I am somewhat embarrassed to call myself a composer only because I am too often assembling loops for expense and time’s sake. I think we should all make a point to sneak the melodies in. My writing buddy says he writes with “three chords and the truth”. I’ve made my mantra “three notes and a loop” as a matter of necessity. Melody is as melody does and it’s not going anywhere. We are simply experiencing a technological trend. I use technology and “editing” to assemble music, and somewhere in there I’d like to think I have a melody or two that a live player may someday play or that some audience member may unknowingly whistle from time to time. For now, I’m just a few steps away from being a DJ, and I think your article reminds us all of that stark fact.

By Charles Denler on May 10th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

I would really have to agree, but given history, I think we will again see a resurgence of the melodic driven theme. The “old becomes new” thing… People will get tired of a non-melodic feeling. Especially considering the billions of programs that allow people without any musical leading to create these sounds and soundscapes on their home PCs. The general public will get tired of this quickly, once they realize that “anyone” can write this style of music. I am sticking with thematic/melodic writing. Don’t give up on your orchestra chops yet folks…

By Stephen Ridley on May 14th, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Great article Mark! Charles – Your comment is heartening. I do think that we will *eventually* come to that time. I don’t know how soon, though. For now, I think we have to be clever about it and ‘play the game’ without sacrificing true compositional integrity. What Mark refers to as the ‘hybrid’ approach is probably the best model for now.

By Timothy Crash on May 14th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

In all honesty – this article sounds a bit like (old man voice) ‘back in my day, we had to walk 50 miles just to, etc. etc…..” It also sounds like many composers don’t want to give up on their need to shove unneeded melodies down the viewers throat.

Considering that 4 great TV series’ of the last 10 years (The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Shield) had absolutely no musical score at all (yes, Deadwood had a few scored cues) is a sign that the best use of music is usually none at all. Or, the simpler / subtler the better. Praise the lord that the days of Star Wars type, wall-to-wall melodies, obnoxious orchestrations, ego-tripping composers is over, and that we can finally focus on story being told with picture, rather than music telling us every emotional cue.

Hey, I love the themes / scores from the 50′s, 60′s, 70′s, etc. but those days are long past. The era of subtle but technically ingenious action scores (The Dark Knight, Bourne Trilogy) are here to stay, at least for a while. We’re supposed to be getting more efficient with time, no? Simpler / subtler scores seems like the right evolutionary direction from the grandiose / over bearing scores of yesterday.

If you want big melodies and giant orchestrations – make a solo album and sell it on iTunes…or make trailer music. ;-)

By Timothy Crash on May 14th, 2009 at 2:22 pm

On another note:

Sampling, loops, etc. have been around for 3 decades. It is a new instrument – just like a piano or violin, and requires a unique skill like any other instrument. Rarely do I hear composers actually ‘stringing together loops’. In actuality, there is usually a fair amount of musical skill and taste involved. And as for melody, there are quite a few composers who can use a ton of loops / libraries, yet still create very melodic scores: Harry Gregson Williams, Sean Callery, John Powell, etc. I wouldn’t call any of these composers, nor any other electronic friendly composer an ‘editor’. A title like that completely missed the point that sample based production is entirely musical – it still takes complete musical understanding of melody, rhythm and arrangement. Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Vangelis, etc. figured this out early.) There are those that do it well, and those that do it poorly.

It was only in the early 80′s that people were giving Vangelis, Tangerine Dream, Michael Jarre, etc. a hard time because they were using synths, instead of “traditional” musicians / orchestra. (I’ve heard the argument: “The Bladerunner score was basically made by a guy hitting some buttons on a giant computer box! That’s not music!”) Electronic composers / bands were always considered lesser musicians / artists because they didn’t use the traditional tools. Now we look at many of those same people as musical icons.

I think composers just need to understand, this isn’t the 60′s anymore. There aren’t the budgets / schedules to bring in 20 session musicians. And what’s the different between using a session drummer and a Stylus loop? It’s the exact same thing. A guy comes into to play a drum part, or you use a Stylus loop, which is guy brought in to play a drum part. Actually, loops are more controllable, and allow more creative freedom / variety than a real drummer. Lol.

The idea about TV themes getting shorter / less melodic is partially accurate. Composed themes really sound dated these days – even modern ones. It’s been done for 5 decades. For the most part, TV themes have become a showcase for already established songs by great artists. CSI (The Who), Damages (VLA), The Sopranos (A3), House (Massive Attack), Weeds (Malvina Reynolds), The Wire (Tom Waits), etc. Or in many cases – the opening theme has been dropped completely: eg: Lost (musical sound effect), The Shield (5 second music clip), 24 (sound effect).

Ahh, I could go on forever…sorry for the rambling. ;-)

By Dan on May 15th, 2009 at 8:27 pm

I really think this comparison between writing notes on paper and live musicians with technology working is just rather insipid.

Music critics can criticize the musicology aspects of the film music, and criticize how film music works with the film, but somehow never magically made the connection between the 2. Audience sophistication evolves over the eras. Traditional themes and ways of scoring has begun to not fulfil audiences’ emotional needs when watching a film. Sometimes it’s more profound to have just a texture instead of a theme consisting of notes and traditional instruments. Film language evolves, as so does audience sophistication. If the project involves the kind of spirit for live musicians and big writing work, then go for it; but film music critics should really stop using the “too much synths no skill” attack just on anything they themselves don’t like; for they are not the ones responsible for determining the tone palette of a film and how it should speak to the audience.

By Brian Hall on June 5th, 2009 at 10:43 am

I would love to go back in time and have the opportunity to write for such situations. The fact is that popular aesthetics have changed a bit. I do feel as though the modern DJ/Composer job has it’s own set of challenges and while it certainly is a reduction of what was happening in previous eras, it is a lot more than slapping loops together and brainlessly recycling other people’s music. Surely it happens, but I rarely feel like the loops I use are doing anything but creating a bit of production value and context for the music I am writing. Just thoughts.

By David C. Hëwitt on June 14th, 2009 at 4:49 am

The comments about the score in this review are interesting:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/07/20/DDGHQR324I1.DTL

I think the problem with predominantly synthesised sounds is the fact that synthesiser manufacturers promote, (within their presets), the use of the frequencies that most appeal to our human ears. Those frequencies mostly fall within the comforting range of a human voice.

So, in a dialogue driven film, as most films are, ‘popular’ synthesiser presets constantly fight to occupy the same frequency range as the dialogue. This isn’t an opinion, just a simple fact. Hang on, I hear you say: “synthesisers have a huge frequency range”. Very true, but you only have to listen to a badly handled score to realize that this range is not often exploited.

As for the debate about melody and its use and misuse I think there are points to be made here too. A cloying three note, one bar melody is so much more distracting as an under score, especially when it accompanies dialogue, than a regular four bar phrase.
Now, take that regular four bar phrase and stretch over an irregular time signature and it starts to disappear even more. Now take the same phrase and apply the twelve-tone composition method to constituent parts of it, here it enters that sublime realm of music that the average mover goer never experiences – and therefore never hears.

Music at this level does something that an average synthesiser score can never do; it completely disappears, leaving the audience to focus on the dialogue and story alone – at the same time subtly supporting the film. Only here does the real art of movie scoring begin.

By Erik on June 18th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Welcome to 2009. The era of free loops, endless libraries and cheap but good software. These days one can score a film with free loops on Garageband. The reality is that its going to get easier and cheaper. The same is true with film making, graphic design, web design and many other things.I see alot of composers in LA , negative, desperate, drepressed and jaded. You can either chase “submissions” and “demo” jobs or you can make a name for yourself on your own with a band or solo musical project..Jon Brion, Danny Elfman, Clint Mansell, Philip Glass..and many others did.

By Greg on June 25th, 2009 at 10:25 am

You CAN score a movie with loops from Garage Band. I bet it’s a pretty crappy movie, too.

Whether you’re cutting together loops, producing metal music, or integrating all of the above into a hybrid orchestral / synth score, the true skill in scoring for film is the combination of musical instinct and long term vision. A score must be consistent. It must occur at the right moments. When making musical decisions, you must ask yourself, should the music play with or against the scene. Should this cue be from the perspective of the hero, or the villain? Only in asking these questions can an effective score be written. HOW it is written comes after that.

Now, if your movie is a total piece of garbage or a you tube 3 minute special, then yes, use garage band to your hearts content. You don’t need honed musical instincts to slap an mp3 you downloaded illegally onto a video of you jumping naked on a trampoline covered in jello. I see “traditional” composers becoming endangered not because they are not “with the times” but because the art of film making itself may devolve into something that DOESN’T require musical instincts, long term vision. We may see Hollywood disintegrate in the next 20 years into a society that “doesn’t have time” to sit and watch a two-hour feature, or even an hour-long drama. In short, movies may become as anachronistic as the musical comedy, stage play, or opera. If and when that happens, composers had BETTER become editors because no one will know about or want the particular skills said composer can bring to a dramatic production.

By Ed on July 3rd, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Just as other facets of our society dumb down, cheapen and unravel, so the craft of musical composition (including songwriting) is doing the same thing. Over the years, society’s core values have eroded to the point that we no longer value things that for centuries have had significant if not ultimate value, be it the traditional family, integrity (honesty, ethics), and even human life. Cultural gatekeeprs have allowed these things to be replaced by more convenient substitutes. Whatever makes you feel good or makes you money, or makes you happy or is easier is not only OK, it’s better than what went before.

I too, lament the passing of the craft of musical composition. It’s like the difference between a Rembrandt and a paint-by numbers picture. Both are paintings, but there is a distinct difference in the two, and that difference is the craft (or lack of it) by which you arrive at the end result. If you think it doesn’t make a difference – what you do to get there,just look at the two pictures. If you have no higher standard than a paint-by number picture, then it’s going to be a masterpiece. It may still look like a vase of flowers, but it’s cold and lifeless and has no heart. Music “by the numbers” ultimately results in the same thing.

By Erik Rurik Satie on July 8th, 2009 at 9:56 am

I am sure that someone bitched about the first usuable violin long ago while others embraced the new technology and incorporated in their new fresh works. I was criticized in the late 60′s for putting a wah-wah pedal on my Hanmmond B3 until there was a hit with the sound. We are composers and as such I think we are mostly Philosophers interpreting far in advance of our given time spectrum. Those who are not cannot see the future and so their music can only extoll complications caused by a change in the philosphy that is not aparrent to them. I think it is necessary to grasp the latest trends as another usuable technique and add it to the the rich traditions of the past. In that way ,when necessary , every technique,in this case loops, can be utilized to compose great music. Compose only great music and stop bitchin’.

By Pete Powers on July 9th, 2009 at 1:59 am

Nobody here is ‘bitchin”. This is what one calls a discourse.

By C.M.Dess on July 23rd, 2009 at 3:23 pm

Nice article. As a loop maker from time to time, I wondered why the “loopy” sound was being used the way it is. I had always imagined them as a tool of coloration or camouflage but not as a backbone to a groove. And if it were the backbone, to be enriched as to extract more realness from the listening experience, but not to downgrade it. Editors will actually ASK YOU to make it “seem more loopy”. So it’s occurring on multiple fronts. There’s a commercial comfort in the loopy sound.

I think the loopy thing has spawned a life of it’s own. It’s gone viral. It has looped itself.

By Markovic on September 25th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

I agree with C.M. Back in the day I created “loops” using 1/4″ tape to avoid having to use the awful drum machines of the 80s, and immediately recognized its usefulness as a groove enhancer, giving some ambience to the track.

But composers gotta eat, so I’m not surprised they’re using the bait that the fish will eat. Meanwhile, I’m back to maximizing the life out of my instrumental Christmas CD so that it won’t be lost among the other dynamically-bereft CDs out there…

Oh, well….

By m cornwell on September 29th, 2009 at 1:52 pm

I thought this was a great article. There are a few things that cannot be dismissed when it comes to composing rather than assembling loops into a soundtrack. Melody is what sticks with audience, not the drum and bass parts. When is the last time you saw a “non musician” singing the drum part from an x-men movie? Also, you can’t confuse editing preexisting recordings into a soundtrack with composing a soundtrack. If I compose a soundtrack, I can have the group play it or arrange it for another ensemble, you can’t do this with recordings and pads.

On the last note, there is an old saying: “why does digging a ditch pay so little? Because everyone can do it”. The same applies, yes while the ability to manipulate loops might get you into the industry, know that by the time the paycheck comes around, you will have to get another job to support your family.

By Nigel on October 25th, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I at first thought the article would be about the increasing use of source music, and the challenges that brings! Actually, there is a parallel: firstly, source music (pop music, loosely defined) is perceived as being hip and therefore desirable. We can compete with this by absorbing contemporary influences in our own composition. In that respect, using loops etc is simply a reflection of current styles.

Secondly: and this we can’t compete with: the desired “synergistic” effect of making the movie/ episode more “accessible” by using a familiar song as score. In Europe, TV stations are using outdated agreements with PRS/GEMA which enable them to use source music featured as score while avoiding the obligation to pay sync fees. It is however a lot of work to find & use source music effectively (which is why US programmes have paid music supervisors I suppose). As composers we can target a scene and shape it in a way a song cannot.

By Yaasin on November 17th, 2009 at 11:46 am

Hi!

In my mind there are two sides to the issues raised in this piece.

I agree that melody is generally lacking in the art of composing today, but being capable of doing both forms of composing, I combine the two forms you’ve described. Bottom line is, a signature melody is everything, and a groove or textural approach isn’t always enough or appropriate. It’s all a question of context and what the picture calls out for, and there’s room for both forms.

Musical tastes and styles have changed, and the producers want to make their content as contemporary as possible. Quite simply, if you want the work then you’d better be prepared to adapt. This being the case, it has forced all of us to face the possibility of embracing the new technology an workflows, and some of us are better at it than others, More than anything else, it forces more “traditional” composers to write musical styles that they’re unfamiliar with. This in turn makes some of them think they can fake it by using generic materials.

To be quite honest, I think it’s really lame when I can spot generic loops and textures in film and TV scores, and I’ve caught many major composers doing it. To me it’s a sign of laziness. If you insist on taking the easy way out, at least try to disguise their use for crying out loud.

Again, it’s all about the picture (context), but there’s nothing worse than a self-indulgent orchestral score. On the other hand as I’ve just said, the lack of creativity displayed by using generic loops and phrases especially when no attempt is made to disguise them, is equally sad.

I must say though, there are parts of this article that sound like the typical snobbery I’d expect from a purist who is either incapable of, or too afraid or lazy to learn new paradigms. They slag off what they don’t understand and cannot do. Quite sad really, as that kind of blinkered mentality inhibits growth, and reduces our craft to nothing more than the use of clichés. I guess that’s why I’ve heard the same orchestral pieces (played by live musicians) used in at least three different movies. ;-)

By PaulCon on December 8th, 2009 at 9:59 am

If I were a much more articulate person, I would have said something along the lines of what Yaasin has said. Well done.

Consider composer Thomas Newman, who has been criticized for his lack of melodies, yet provides scores that beautifully enhance the moods and atmospheres in the films he is a part of. The fact that you don’t need someone else to play your music doesn’t exclude electronic music from composition.
I’m not a man of words, so I’ll leave you with that.

By CD on December 18th, 2009 at 9:55 pm

Thanks Mark, you’ve hit this subject perfectly.

In response to the first post: Matthew, is your writing partner Bob Dylan?

By DE on December 22nd, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Speaking of editors, the text of this article could use one given the numerous errors. In response to the issue, this is pure nostalgia. The use of music in any context has always gone in trends, and in Film/TV it also follows the money. If they can bring in the same advertising dollars using one guy and a bunch of synths, they will do it. If there’s a compelling reason to use live music, it’ll be there. There’s no conspiracy against melodies; it’s nothing more complicated than basic capitalist thinking.

By Ed on January 8th, 2010 at 6:06 am

The article writes: “2001 brought us what many believe to be the first major TV theme created by loops and samples with the theme to Alias”

I’m sorry but this is absolute nonsense.

Most TV themes in the 90′s were loops and samples, not live orchestra. Just think of most things by Mark Snow. X-Files, Millennium or how about Sean Callery who now does 24 (which again was ALL SAMPLES) La Femme Nikita or Dark Skies, Sliders. I mean really do I have to continue?

Alias main titles isnt special AT ALL except for the fact that the producer wrote it (though perhaps not produced it?)

But it gets even sillier than that since you say that staight after implying that in the late 90′s the “use of orchestras decline”, since Alias was a show that used an orchestra how then can Alias possibly be a good example of that? The the same producer and composer went on to do Lost and then Fringe, both use real orchestras (though there more sampled stuff in Fringe obviously)

By Mark Northam on January 8th, 2010 at 6:56 am

Hi Ed -

I would respond to your points by pointing out the difference between a composer using various loops and pads in supporting roles or as a part of a larger, true composition, and a producer or other non-composer using loops and pads like Lego blocks, editing or combining them together into a new combination of elements.

I certainly admit the line can be gray between composing and editing, and I’m not trying to condemn the use of loops, pads and such, but merely trying to point out that in my opinion, there is more to “composing” than editing together pre-recorded sequences of notes or sounds.

But all “nostalgia” aside, as DE wrote on December 22, are we as composers ready to say that editing together pre-recorded sequences of notes and sounds is in itself “composing”? A previous poster correctly pointed out that not all score cues have melodies – in fact, many do not, and certain musical styles such as minimalism certainly aren’t “pads” but they also don’t have melodies.

Not all composing must be done with orchestra. And not all composing must contain a melody. But when composers stop writing (or playing if they don’t read/write music) notes and instead create music by editing together existing sequences of notes, I’m just not sure I’m ready to still call that score composing, at least in the context that word has come to mean to me. In fact, that sort of editing, to me, in many cases has more in common with sound design than it does with score composing.

By Ed on January 8th, 2010 at 7:30 am

Hi Mark,

I agree with your main point I just thought it is silly to say that Alias’ main titles is the first time it was done with just loops and samples, that just isnt true. If you meant Garage Band style loops maybe you should have been specific, but Alias as a show itself doesn’t help prove anything about the main topic really since J.J. Abrams isnt a composer he is a producer and Alias did use a lot of live players in Giacchino’s score. J.J. Abrams was of course very lazy in his main titles and probably even lazier with the Lost intro. Fringe has a proper little tune in it… but the point being that the reason he can get away with what writing mediocore stuff is because he is the executive producer of those shows!

By Mark Northam on January 8th, 2010 at 7:35 am

Ed, you’re exactly right and I should have been more specific – “loops” is far too general an imprecise a word to use in this case – as you surmised, I did mean Garage Band style loops – pre-recorded sequences of notes, etc.

While I’m not crazy about some of the title music, the Abrams/Giacchino combination resulted in some really good score music for the various shows – Michael is a very talented composer.

By Terry Cano on January 27th, 2010 at 10:57 pm

I agree. Soon we will see in dictionarys Composer: one who assembles snippets of the works of other into a new original work.
Loops are attractive to many because they are a whole lot less work and require very little knowledge. You don’t have to know how to create that drum track or how to mic it or how to mix it down to a stem and they don’t need the equip to do it with and now they can sell the music for less because there is not the overhead….the same can be said of the Gtr loops, Bass loops. Jeez, what is there not to like ;) I’m I surprised? No. Do I like it? No. Is it our future? Probably, at least untill there is a power failure and we return to real instruments.
Musically
Terry

By Julius J. Davis, Jr. on February 12th, 2010 at 8:11 am

GREAT article, Mark—and such insightful comments from my composer colleagues—however, I just want to add my two cents as an educator, composer, songwriter, and studio musician.

I have not yet composed a score for a movie, nor composed a TV them show—-but I truly believe that the source of all this turmoil about pure “composing” versus the utilization of technology stems from the fact that the public who consumes our music is, for the most part, less interested in the process and the hard, tedious, tireless work of composition, even less interested in the product which results from this process; further, the decision makers who want and need the services of such brilliant and talented composers merely want something that will be easily accessible to a consuming public raised, reared, nourished, and nurtured by MTV, cell phones, personal computers, and the like—and I won’t even get into the continuous decrease in excellence in education, the arts, and in our society in general—YES, I believe that this also plays an important part in how we view, accept, and appreciate the work of musicians, songwriters, and composers.

Things are just too easy these days—we live in a “right-now” society where our standards of excellence have decreased and our appetite for mediocrity has increased. We are in the third or fourth generation of “give-it-to-me-now” adults who have no idea of learning how to play an instrument or compose a simple two-bar melody—if it doesn’t have a computer and/or a keyboard with letters, it doesn’t make sense to this audience, yet–these are the ones who are “consuming” our music.

So we, as composers, writers, musicians, and songwriters have to decide how to exist and survive in a world in which has continued to show a lack of appreciation for our work—of course, we will continue to do what we do—and we certainly cannot compensate for the level of lack of appreciation of our work, nor for the continuing trend of the “McDonald’s-like-mentality” of our public, our vendors, and others that encourages quick, “right-now” music for movies and TV shows. But I believe that we can produce QUALITY material, quickly using the current technology—we have done it, and will continue to do so in order to survive and exist. We will survive . . .and we will create great music.

By David Varga on March 13th, 2010 at 12:55 pm

The line here is very grey. It is possible to use loops and still compose a real melody. There is nothing wrong with using music technology and electronic instruments. Many jobs don’t have the budget for orchestras. I love to write for orchestra, however, that sound is not always appropriate for every show. I agree with Yaasin: Parts of this article do sound like the typical snobbery expected from a purist who is either incapable of, or too afraid or lazy to learn new paradigms. They slag off what they don’t understand and cannot do.
I don’t like fake composers that just slap together drum loops and repeat phrases over and over again because they have no knowledge of developing an idea.
Today, everything is so readily available: computers, cameras, editing systems (AVID, Final Cut Pro), music software. This has put a lot of really bad “talent” out there that make bad TV. The standards have dropped and the masses have become numb to it. I see it all the time. I am a composer and a video editor. I work for a production company that is part of one of the main TV networks. They give producers a few camera classes and send them out to make TV. Don’t get me started on the number of Final Cut Pro editors whose work I have had to clean up over the years. Rather than hire a composer, it is more economical and faster to use library music-sometimes even for the theme music. This is what I am experiencing every day. It really makes me sick.
I also think licensing pop and rock songs for theme music is a really lame practice. I hate twisting the meaning of a song to fit in with a show concept. This excludes everyone, good composers and non-composers, from making music. Go shout at some clueless producers that think theme music should be what they have on their ipods.

By toxic avenger on April 9th, 2010 at 5:52 pm

The “music” is all so dreadful. The more sophisticated the digital tool, the less the talent using it needs to be. It’s not music any longedr, it’s not even noise. It’s noise pollution.

Hell, a 3 month old infant can create a film score today. They can call themselves Lady Goo Goo Ga Ga.

The fact that any of it generates money is criminal.

By Till on May 4th, 2010 at 8:15 am

But isn’t the market asking for cheap “pre-composed” music causing the even bigger problem? Creating “something” and then matching it with “something”. Cheap. There is a move towards returning to composing vs. library music: http://www.Film-Scoring.com — but we’ll see if that works out …

By Joe Renzetti on June 5th, 2010 at 11:00 am

Remember the old “Paint By Numbers?” Today it’s “Music Score by the numbers.”

JR

By Ace Gadia on June 12th, 2010 at 9:45 am

MINDOPENER!!! (if there’s such a word) GREAT ARTICLE!

I agree with him on the article, and same things can also be observed in mainstream music BUT technology is already in the ‘phase’ in which GREAT ORCHESTRA SOUND is already sampled. I think the ‘melody’ stems out of what’s being imagined or seen. It could be anything from melodical to obscure sounding.

For example:

A 4-bar melody with flowing themes, backed-up by a very very nice chord progression OR a 12-tone melody in 7/8, then 5/4, with LOOPS in 5/4, then so on, What’s the difference? A LOT! BUT, they’re still ‘THEMES’ (same thing)

For me, LOOPS and SYNTHESIZERS have EXPANDED THE TOOLS NECESSARY FOR COMPOSING. e.g. The East-West Library

Instruments not readily available in your community or country can be intergrated in your composition. Like GB’s World Music Instruments Jam Pack. Who would ever think that you could add a Chinese Erhu Violin in a house track??? OR sitar in a rock song (the late 60s???)

BUT, YET AGAIN, CLASSICS NEVER DIE!!!
John Williams, The Beatles

“It’s not in the years, it’s in the sound”

By Phil Arnold on June 24th, 2010 at 9:41 am

Thanks for your insightful article Mark, we are thoroughly enjoying the ongoing debate here at Southwest Music Productions LLC. All of us on the SWMP team are musicians, and we have indeed been running into more than a few filmmakers who want original material that sounds similar to the beloved loop tracks and samples people are familiar with on Final Cut Pro and royalty-free libraries. My engineer and I had a conversation just yesterday on this very subject after a long meeting with a prospective filmmaker client.

Having survived as a musician in a world that’s changed dramatically with the synthesizer in the 70′s, CD technology in the 80′s, and the subsequent explosion of digital technology available today. I can only say that the best drum samples are still made by drummers, and really the best music is still made by musicians, whether their instrument is acoustic or mouse-sized and connected to a computer. Musicians who work with filmmakers have to dance between making the soundtrack musically and artistically viable while giving the filmmaker exactly what they want, all of this combined with the goal of making the film successful. It’s a dance that requires flexibility and a wide palette of styles and textures. We can produce hollywood-style soundtracks and record them with full orchestra if that’s what the film needs, some directors still like that and lots of films are still being done that way, so we are always really happy to accommodate that request…

Musicians have the responsibility not to let their ego get in the way. Film music needs to support the film and add tension, drama, emotion etc. without anyone necessarily being aware that there is even music at all, because the audience has successfully been drawn into the story itself. Filmmakers are frustrated with musicians who can’t understand this, and so to some extent it is the musicians themselves as well as new technologies (and of course economics) that has created this situation where the musician is sometimes being bypassed completely in the film scoring process.

Excellent filmmaking is so very similar to the process of excellent musical composition they are almost indistinguishable, as themes build and tensions rise and fall. The structure and evolution to climax and resolution are simply executed in a different media. To do this well in any media requires artistry.

As we concluded yesterday’s meeting with an excellent filmmaker who – yes – very definitely wants us to create an ambience one might associate with music loop tracks, my engineer and I resolved to go ahead and of course give him what he wants, with the caveat that we will include that extra something that will not only make the director happy and the film successful but it will be musically justifiable, and not just good or excellent but ART – and we knuckle-punched on that, boo-yah!

Regards,

Phil Arnold
Southwest Music Productions, LLC

By William V. Malpede on June 25th, 2010 at 7:58 am

Thanks Mr. Northam: I have enjoyed reading your column and all of these comments – then I saw that this thread goes back several years! – Thoughtful comments – everyone.

Devolution, I still fear.

I revisited “The Days of Wine and Roses” – score by Henry Mancini as most of you know. It can be argued that some of the orchestration is firmly rooted in the 1960s trends – and perhaps dated. But please listen to that melody; and watch the last 10 minutes of the film. Heart, drama, humanity, craft, film, story, artistry.

With respect,
William V. Malpede

By Chris Jones on August 11th, 2010 at 10:58 pm

If it sounds good, it *is* good.

By Teo on October 1st, 2010 at 11:07 am

I think there has to be a different view instead of just the left/right paradigm of Synth User VS Pencil Scribbler. This is exactly the same kind of perceptive TRAPPING that exists in politics – everybody is in a spectator gladiatorial event of the “LEFT VS. RIGHT” paradigm and not even looking for one second on who’s really behind the curtain pulling the strings of BOTH parties.

In my humble opinion – there is the world of what music critics like to call “The real composers – those who actually use a pencil”. Since many here have made such excellent points in regards to era and audience sophistication, I will go in a slightly different route.

I have seen many composers who advocate the pencil and paper asthetic (nothing wrong with that), but then, there are those INSIDE this realm who do not seem to trust what they write. They don’t trust the motifs they come up with, and that usually results in them going ALL OVER THE PLACE with orchestral fluff, precisely because they don’t trust their melodies. In other words – they tend to “hide” behind the illusion of “complex orchestration” to show that they’re the “real” deal, but really it’s just that they don’t really trust the strength of their material.

So even in the realm of pencil and paper – it really boils down to the character of the composer.

In the synth realm – LIKEWISE. I know many critics LOVE to blast composers who use technology. Why? All because it’s the easiest to degrade.

But like the pencil realm, it really depends on the composer. We can talk about the easy things to attack like “using only loops and textures, any idiot can do so” – and of course that is extremely true and should be “enforced” in a way. However, I have seen synth composers who have written much more magnificent stuff than those who use pencil and paper.

The moral of the story?

IT’S ABOUT WHO YOU ARE AND WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY, AND NOT THE TOOLS THAT DETERMINE YOU. DO NOT GET CAUGHT UP IN MEANINGLESS SPECTATORIAL DEBATES THAT TAKE YOUR ARTISTRY NOWHERE.

By Concert Music Composer on October 2nd, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Develop your craft, guys. The fellas who scored films like “Casablanca” studied piano with Brahms, orchestration with Strauss. Electronic toys just make you sound like dorks.

By Mike on February 14th, 2011 at 7:46 pm

I use loops on occasion, but only to add percussive support my music, melody, harmony, etc…
Its like anything else, a tool. And sometimes I enjoy hearing other combinations composers use for the same loops. It’s not really that different that composers writing variations on famous themes back in the classical era.
But original melody and actual ‘composition’ is the soul of the movie. The only reason I love that I do and what always hooks me into my favorite movies everytime.

By Jeff on June 30th, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I can’t get work doing anything at all. I would give anything just to work in music in any capacity. I don’t care what it is.

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