A running line as an accompaniment is a traditional device in orchestral writing that is very well suited for today’s film score writing.
As an example we will look at one of my favourite examples of running-line accompaniment from Smetana’s beautifully expressive “The Moldau”. Here it is, presented here in a simplified two-part version.
First off, what is the reason for using this kind of writing? As a composer, arranger and orchestrator, you should always use the tools at your disposal with a specific end in mind, so this is an important question to consider.
It creates a feeling of activity that may not be present in the melody. For this piece it represents the running waters of the river Moldau in what is now the Czech Republic.
Here the dynamic is quite soft and played in the strings, so the sound is perfect to represent the water. But this is a flexible technique and not limited to this usage. You can play it loud for supporting action or heroic passages and any other place that you need a sense of movement. It does not need to be under the melody but can also be above to create a shimmering effect. Don’t limit yourself to the present musical context.
How to approach writing something like this quickly.
After all, when writing for film you must write quickly, that’s a given. So here my main tips for this.
Important thing to note is that the running line should be written after the melody so it supports it contrapuntally, rather than the other way around.
Know what harmony your running line should delineate. You running line will work 100% of the time if it clearly articulates your harmony on the strong beats.
Second, set up an outline for your running counterpoint just at the important rhythmic and metric points. Here’s what that would look like (you can jot it down as you see here, or have these notes as markers in your mind as you work.)
The dotted eighths in the bass “guide tones” for the running line. With a basic knowledge of counterpoint this can be done very quickly.
All the notes in between the guide tones can then be decorated with our running line. The dissonances that happen on metrically weaker positions are not that important, especially at faster tempi, but you should still be aware of your counterpoint, so keep an eye on it.
Here is the filled out line based on the guide tones above.
Once you have your running line pattern, don’t go crazy and change it for every measure afterwards. Keep it going, just changing it to follow the harmony. Developing and repeating the material you already have is better composition and will take less time as well, so you win on both counts. Go back to the first example to see how the running line follows the harmony.
Once you have your two main elements laid out: your melody and the running line, you can add some extra materials to the arrangement/orchestration.
- Doublings in octaves, 3rds, 6hts and chords.
- Held chords, a.k.a. “pads”
- Bass notes
- And of course assigning your instruments and breaking it up to get the final result.
This is also a simplified version by the way, for the sake of clarity and brevity!
And there you have it, a few simple steps to your own running lines. Apply this up in the high registers above your melody or down below, fast or slow, hard or soft, its uses are limited only by your creativity.
We would love to hear how you develop this concept, post your results here in the comment section below.
(Special thanks to Stellita Loukas for taking the time to do the mock-ups of the examples.)
[Photo by Esparta Palma]