The Best Music You’ll Never Hear

How and Why to use Temp Score ☛

Much is written about music for films, but how do you make your decisions about what sort of music you want? One very useful tool is temp music. Selecting this and laying it in is a job I’ve done many times – and one that attracts little glory – the results are never heard by the general public. I feel like the clapper loader who jokingly complained that despite being in every shot of the film but always got cut out. Temp music? Okay this is pre-existing music placed in the cut before the edit is complete, in order to give a sense of the mood for which the director is looking. When the composer is brought on board they replace all these tracks with their own work.

I’ve know directors to resist this process, some because the music can only be tailored to fit with your film to a certain extent and the results are often rough and ready; others fear that if a track from American Beauty fits perfectly on their film, they will fall in love with it, and their composer will only be able to provide a pale imitation of Thomas Newman’s Oscar nominated score. I understand these concerns, but by avoiding having temp music I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Here’s why.

John Barry sweeps across Arf-ri-kaaah

Temp music is an important tool for making intelligent judgments in the cutting room about how the music will relate to the pace of your cut. Imagine, if you can, the landscape shots of Out of Africa without John Barry’s sweeping score. Would you really want to hold those shots so long? Determining the pacing of a chase sequence can also be difficult without some guide music. Montages are almost impossible to judge without a piece of music, as it is almost always the music that glues them together and given them meaning (I’m not a massive fan of montages, but that’s another story). Most of the decision about how and where to use to use music are made using temp music.

A temp score is also vital when you’re screening a film for a test audience (see Testing Testing). Not many people are use to seeing a film without music; take the score away and the film will feel flat, or at the very least minimalist. Fine, if that’s the feeling you’re going for, but it you do intend to have music on the final film you need something on the version you show people for feedback. Music can be such an powerful cue, hinting to an audience how they should understand what their seeing – is it meant to be funny, dramatic, heart-warming, chilling? How much you use music to do this, and how subtle you want it to be with it, is up to you. But don’t expect the response of an audience seeing the film bare to be anything like their response to seeing it with music.

Bernard Hermann's musical knife

But what sort of music do you use? Pieces from feature film soundtrack tends to be best, because that was music specially designed to compliment moving images. Pop or classical doesn’t tend to work as well as underscore (music that’s just there to give a mood or a flavour, rather than to drive a scene) and music with lyrics often clashes with dialogue. Even if you are using tracks from existing feature films be careful not to use anything too readily identifiable. Use Bernard Hermann’s manic strings from Psycho and everyone will assume you’re being tongue-in-cheek. Even if the piece isn’t quite that familiar, the audience could easily be distracted by the question “What film was that in…?” that’s not what you want them to be thinking about. I often find myself using the soundtracks from Road to Perdition and Mona Lisa Smile and there’s a lovely queasy cue in Mulholland Drive that sits well behind any scene you want to lend a unsettling edge.

A trick I sometimes try, especially for features, is to keep the temp track all from one composer’s body of work. This gives the score a sense of coherence, a unified approach. Taking from too many disparate sources or styles of music can result in a messy temp score, and that can make the film itself feel less of a piece.

The other big question is do you let the composer hear the temp music? There are two schools of thought. Some see the temp score is a useful tool for directors, especially those who don’t know enough musical terminology to communicate effectively with composers. This requires you to tell the composer specifically what it is you like about the temp music you’ve used: is it the pace, the use of that horn, the jazzy feel?

Others, including not a few composers, prefer not to be influenced by hearing some other composers work on the film. They’re more comfortable starting with a blank canvas. Also many film composers are expert copyists and if you give them a temp score, all you’ll get back is a loose reworking of the reference you’ve given them. With some films if you listen carefully you can tell exactly what temp track the composer was given to work to.

Hans Zimmer - Mr Bombastic

One compromise between these two approaches I’ve used in the past, is to show the composer a temp score made from their own back-catalogue. Of course this does mean that they’re in effect copying themselves and it relies on them previously having composed music of roughly the tone for which you’re looking. If they do have appropriate music available this can prevent the composer from feeling bullied by Hans Zimmer.

As a general rule however I’d bow to the composer’s preferred way of working. Even if you decide not to show the composer your temp score, it doesn’t mean that the work you’ve done on it is wasted – far from it, you have a good idea of where you want music, what sort of music you might want and what work you want it to do, briefing the composer becomes a cinch.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

4 thoughts on “The Best Music You’ll Never Hear

  1. Lucid as ever. Presume you meant the pun on the last word… “synch” instead of “cinch”?

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