The Grit and the Gravy

By • December 30, 2010

In listening to many recordings these days, I notice something that doesn’t get a lot of toner in the commercial composition books. In the past, we’ve discussed the real value of introducing variety into your orchestrations. On certain levels, varying the dynamic, color, timbre, and tempo helps stimulate both the ear and the active attention of the listener.

But what I’m discussing here is something that affects the listener on a deeper, more psychological level. So much of today’s commercial film and TV music has lots of percussion, sumptuous sustained timbres, energetic and shifting loops and, unfortunately (as we’ve discussed,) repetition. All of these sources of stimulus notwithstanding, what often works against the music is a dull sameness in composition, in this case a certain lack of the varied give-and-take between the “grit” and the “gravy. “ In classical circles, it’s the old principle of tension and release, the deliberate building of stress for the listener and then releasing it when desired. When dining, most people vary the order and amount of the flavors they consume off their plate, instinctively doing with their palate what they unconsciously respond to in good composition (and there’s a reason dessert is served up last…)

In studying the music of Charles Ives, America’s great iconoclastic classical composer of the early twentieth century, I observed that his compositions were chock-full of moments of great beauty and simplicity bookended by stretches of discord, clash and, frankly, grit. It took a while, but I grew to understand and then appreciate that there was method to his madness. For instance, he had a deep reverence for the four chord in a given major tonality, and did not waste its power through overuse. Quite the contrary, Ives would often hint at it, dance around it, and make us endure lengthy detours through dissonance before finally letting us get to it, at which point its beauty and emotional impact mushroomed.

This example utilizing anticipation and delay is but one illustration of tension and release, and there are many others. One of the absolute masters of this principle is John Williams, whose long-form scene development of chases, battles, etc. always begs close inspection. Beyond the sophisticated harmonic/melodic elements and flawlessly crafted orchestration is a subtile use of varying levels of harmonic and timbrel complexity to make the longest of scenes remain vital throughout and absolutely heroic when needed. Often, to punctuate a particular moment in a cue, or perhaps just as a matter of serendipity, he will “noodle” around, building a different kind of tension by seeming to kill time with energetic activity and unstable tonality, until a moment arrives when he will hit you with a primordial body-blow of some simple, basic chordal figure, usually in the brass or massed strings, and moving more broadly, loudly, and unflinchingly than what went before. The effect is like a sudden parting of the cold, rainy clouds with a blast of warm sunshine on your face. Wall-to-wall musical vanilla pudding could not come close to supporting the impact of such a moment, because of the tension engendered by the extended noodling.

What hampers some composers these days is that they are either all tension or all release, and this lack of awareness or ability to make these two forces work together leads to that not-as-satisfying sameness I mentioned earlier. If this concept is a bit new to you, simply add it to the laundry list of things for which to be constantly vigilant as you conceive and hone your compositions. There are many ways to build tension; see what works for you and your composition.

I know that video game composers are by definition exempt from this discussion, for the simple reason that they don’t control the pace, repetition, and progression of the music they create; the producer and/or end user does. But in every other arena, from the 30-second jingle to the 6-minute chase scene, too often there is an understandable pull to focus on the production technology, the energy of the scene, the sound effects, the spotting notes, the dialog, the tightness of the deadline, or any of a hundred other things. Find a way to introduce some form of tension and release within the confines (and demands) of your cue and really develop


By Phil Kelly on January 25th, 2011 at 11:27 am

One source of the problems you cite ( and I agree are too often there ) might be the technology has made it “too easy” to “score” a picture . I wonder how many of the younger composers actually review the scene and actually WRITE the basis of the cue as opposed to finding an appropriate loop ( or other sequence ) to put in some “flooring” quickly. I often get the feeling that a lot of todays “scores” are created by piling on the loops ( and taiko drums ) and then creating the cue by subtracting materials via Pro Tools.

While this approach works well in situations like chase and battle scenes, it tends to ignore the traditional methods that us “old geezers”used which suggested these tension / release and thick / thin relationships due to the older writing methods.

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