Jai Meghan’s recent Open Forum Friday article on “getting organized” got me thinking about a different way of organizing: How composers organize their ideas within a piece of music. According to Wikipedia the word “composer” comes from the Latin compônere, meaning “one who puts together”. In a sense, composing a piece of music is really about organizing—organizing notes into themes and melodies, melodies into phrases, phrases into coherent sections, and so on.
The Classical forms like Rondo, Sonata, Compound Ternary, etc. all serve as extremely useful road-maps for developing musical material. The Rondo form, for example (ie. ABACA), gives us a blueprint for balancing a main theme with contrasting sections. After the main theme we have a contrasting section, and after every contrasting section we return to the main theme. Thus, the perfect sense of coherence and unity by repetitions of the main theme, balanced by variety and interest from the contrasting sections.
All of this is great to know when you’re sitting down to write a new composition to be performed in a concert hall. But how does this information stay relevant when scoring to picture? What do you do when your entire musical structure depends on the visual?
Picture is king. Even if you are struck with inspiration and would love nothing more than to have your main theme run off into a fugue, you’re not entirely in charge. If it doesn’t support the picture, it doesn’t make the score.
As you have probably already experienced either in your own scores or while watching other films, sometimes it doesn’t take much for the music to be dramatically effective. Even just a slowly thumping bass drum can be enough to support the picture in a compelling way. Where are the balanced sections in that cue? The audience isn’t particularly interested in how you transitioned from the B section back to the main theme, they’re interested in what’s happening on screen.
It would seem that perhaps the classical forms are backwards thinking, while a film cue is forward thinking. The structured forms are about developing the material that you’ve already heard; the contrasting B section isn’t a contrast if you haven’t yet heard A. But film music seems to be more about the present and future moments, building tension and preparing (or in some cases defying) expectations.
If there is still a place for form in film music, perhaps it’s only in those places where the audience is actually paying attention to the music. In the main titles, for example, or a montage that is mostly score driven.
So what do you think? Is musical form relevant when writing to picture? Are the traditional methods of organizing musical material still useful in the world of film scoring?
The comments are open below.