Score writing for dummies:

  1. Research music theory, especially that of the 18th century. This includes counterpoint and any subject in intermediate theory, like modulation, altered dominants, borrowed chords, and harmony.
  2. Listen to a lot of soundtrack music. I especially recommend John Williams (Star Wars, E.T.) and Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Peacemaker).
  3. Study the sound characteristics of various orchestral instruments, especially the horns, strings, and percussion. Note how some instruments will juggle melodies between each other (call and response, or imitation) and look at ways that instruments commonly interact.
  4. Study up on sound synthesis, as in synthesizers that allow waveform manipulation. These are commonly used (especially Hans Zimmer) as both instruments in their own right and strange ambient sounds.
  5. Watch movies with little music or muted. Attempt to find the basic mood of the movie and compose a theme for it. Extra credit: write music for a few scenes of contrasting emotion (i.e. a fight scene, a romance scene, etc.).

I found a good way to practice is writing an approximately five-minute intro to a movie, as the beginnings of movies tend to have a good distribution of suspense and action and tend to be one of the better-made parts of movies (to "hook" viewers).

So... suppose one doesn't have access to a whole orchestra? There are many alternatives (like writing for different genres of music, or using only piano, etc.). The cheapest alternative would be setting up a simple MIDI studio. Tone generators are less expensive than keyboards and may be a good choice. However, Propellerhead Reason has been used on soundtracks (the opening theme to Alias was made entirely by the producer of the show on Reason, as they hadn't yet hired a composer). Reason 2 is especially fit for the job as it is relatively inexpensive (about three hundred dollars) and contains a wealth of synthesizers, effects processors, samplers, etc. It introduces the NN-XT, which is a sampler especially made for orchestral sounds and comes with an entire CD devoted to horns, strings, percussion, woodwinds, etc.

As for the MIDI studio, all one needs is:

  • MIDI interface (depending on what connector it uses and the amount of channels it can handle they can be as little as fifteen dollars or as much as a few hundred dollars; and then there's mLAN...)
  • Computer that has at least two hundred mHz. Any OS will do (although Mac OS and Linux come with softsynths, which are software tone generators).
  • Sound card (some sound cards have MIDI interfaces and some have MIDI tone generators; this will moot the MIDI interface and rackmount tone generator respectively)

Well, one now has the knowledge and equipment. What now?

Describing things with music:

I had this question for quite a long time: how does one describe something with music? Well...

These are only my suggestions after seeing movies utilizing various genres and styles. I also added some of my recommendations as well.


  • Romance: long, tender melody, quiet instrumentation with many skips and unexpected pauses. Usage of unusual borrowed chords and romantic period style instrumentation is also effective. Favors strings and woodwinds over percussion and horns. See: Star Wars Episode II.
  • Heroic or Action: short, minor key, highly melodic melodies that tend to use masculine endings (ending on one note rather than two, like in poetry, though substituting syllables). Favors horns and percussion over strings and woodwinds. See: The Rock.
  • Humorous: It is common for humorous scenes to use popular songs or no music at all, but when music is needed it tends to be light-hearted and in the major key. Instrumentation that may be found useful are pianos and woodwinds. Depending on the style one is going for Scherzos might be appropriate.
  • Subterfuge: tense, mid-tempo. Drums with heavy echo (very common on new-ish spy soundtracks), simple synth lines that fade in and out (represents anything from ambient conversation to a vague claustrophobia), ambient noise, simple horn melodies. See: The Agency (T.V. show).
  • Places

  • Forests: slow, lush instrumentation using a lot of slow, wispy synth pads and mellow strings. A lot of ambient noises, like bird calls, or perhaps something more exotic (reptiles, "alien" noises). See: Jurassic Park II/III.
  • Factories: utilitarian percussion tends to replace traditional percussion. Things like drills, hammers, etc. Synths, especially deep, 303-style basslines and "acid"-ic melody lines seem to work well.
  • Stores and other common places: simple orchestration, mildy "humorous". Major key, laid-back. Pizzicato and other stacatto-sounding noises, piano. See: Kate and Leopold.
  • Water: very slow, synthesized pads, strings. Strange chord progressions. The same would work for space. See: The Abyss.
  • Air: high instrumentation, quick tempo, heroic-sounding melody. Strings, brass, little percussion. See: Pearl Harbor.
  • I will add some more later as they come to me.

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