You'll often hear different compositions in trailers compared to the actual movie. And that's because different tracks are used for these trailers. For action and adventure types, for example, you'll find short high-intensity tracks are used to help drive these trailers. The kings of trailer music are Thomas J. Bergersen and Nick Phoenix. They put together the Two Steps from Hell albums, which are collections of their trailer music compositions.
Take a listen to the following track to get an idea of their level of music composition.
The track includes huge string sections that build up at around 1:10, and big boomy percussion is introduced to increase the intensity. Brass stabs are also used to heighten the intensity.
And take a listen to this track:
It starts with an awesome string ostinato. Then there is a breakdown, and then it kicks back in with a male choir and an even faster strings ostinato. There are awesome dynamics in this track. And it's crazy how they get so much pace from this track with the instrumentation used. Later in the track the solo female vocal adds a softness to the manic elements.
So often the key with trailer music is getting to the point fast and adding as much impact and dynamics into it as you can to hold the viewer's attention and sell the story. This can include a mix of orchestral and synthetic elements. So start taking this style of music apart and see how you can compose your own slant on trailer music.
Hans Zimmer… I mean Film Music
I’m a huge fan of film music, and even more a fan of Hans Zimmer. He keeps revolutionalizing the way that film music is produced. And my favourite example is the music he did for Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. A classic is his "Molossus" track from Batman Begins. He introduces his simple but powerful two-note theme in this track. Take a listen at 1:18. I can't believe he can just use two notes to make a theme so memorable. But that's the power of the track. Also in the song is his powerful use of percussion, synth gate patterns, and his stylistic ostinato string patterns. And probably the most memorable of all is his use of the low trombone crescendos.
Hans is also brilliant at writing emotive pieces. A great example of this is the track "Time" from Inception. It starts with a simple single note piano melody line. In the background is a low gated bass synth line. And slowly he introduces orchestral string elements to reinforce the melody.
Pianos are great instruments for emotive pieces, especially when you add a heavy dose of reverb to the instrumentation. Notice how this simple track continues to grow throughout, so also keep this in mind to grow the dynamics of the track and hold the listener's attention.
…and John Williams
Another amazing film composer is John Williams. I'm a kid from the '80s, and there are so many iconic films that he composed for from my childhood until now: Superman, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, all the way through to Harry Potter.
My favorite piece is actually "Hedwig's Theme" from the first Harry Potter. Williams has a great talent for creating majestic themes for characters. And this theme is just that:
Take a listen to the instrumentation and hear how different instruments create different moods. The music box melody in the beginning builds up the mystery. The introduction of the flute runs gives you the idea of a bird in flight. And then the pizzicato string melody after this further enhances the mystery of the track.
John Williams is the ultimate master. So take a listen to his other tracks and pick apart his melody ideas, chord progressions, and instrumentation. You can learn so much.
Another classic example of a powerful work of his is his Superman theme:
This is a very simple melody on brass, but John Williams makes use of big interval jumps between the notes to build the heroic theme.
And then take a listen at 0:30 to how the instrumentation builds up before the big hit at 0:45. Brass always works wonders for heroic themes. But also notice his use of woodwinds throughout the track, especially at around 1:20. A lot of film music is very orchestral driven. So getting a good understanding of how the orchestra works can really help your compositions. And listening to greats like Williams can also help you along that journey.
Indie Games…and Fez
The Indie Game field is a market that has really grown over the last couple of years, and there have been some interesting music compositions coming out of these games as well. There has been a big throwback to the retro games from the '80s like Super Mario, Donkey Kong, and their 8-bit NES soundtracks. Take a listen to the highly successfully indie game, Fez. The music was composed by Disasterpeace, who incorporated 8-bit sounding synths but with a modern twist.
Take a listen to Disasterpeace’s Adventure track:
It’s great composing in this way—using synthetic elements and their instrument limitations to help you write the composition. Reverbs and delays really help push these 8-bit synths around the composition and create interest. Definitely try to write a track in this 8-bit style. You can really learn a lot especially in how they created their percussion. For example, using a white noise oscillator to create snare sound, that's genius.
John Powell on Adventure and Action
Another film composer that I think has a great collection of work is John Powell. He has covered quite a bit of different genres from the animated How to Train a Dragon, through to the Bourne saga.
Take a listen to his How to Train a Dragon track:
Writing for animated films can be quite challenging as it has to be fun, plus capture the essence of the characters. You can hear how John embellishes the track with elements to suggest that the characters are young. He uses very light sounding instruments. But at 1:05 it kicks into a more upbeat almost Celtic sounding piece, which suggests action and flight plus the authenticity of an old time period.
John also produces great action pieces like his Bourne themes:
It begins with an ominous chord progression to depict danger. Then it kicks into a percussion part that revs up the action and intensity that is present in the movie. Also, spiccato strings ostinatos are used to help increase the sense of pace and movement. So as you can see choices of instruments and the way they are played can have a huge impact on the mood that you get from a soundtrack.
The Martian and Its Openness
Another way at looking at composing for film and video games is for the music or score to be very open and ambient. The opening track that Harry Gregson Williams composed for The Martian, "Mars", is a great example of this. He has kept the arrangement very sparse. And because the environment is Mars you need to think of sound in a different sense. So low rumbling pads are used to create the sense of isolation, and a very sparse and simple melody is played by a piano/string combination. A few synth elements pop in and out of the arrangement. Synths (and especially synths with arpeggiators) are great instruments to use for ‘spacey' scenery. Gregson Williams combines some orchestral elements in the track to create suspense. But all in all, the track is very open, expansive and ambient.
And of course, Danny Elfman
I’ll finish off with the composer that got me into composing for media in the first place, and that is the great Danny Elfman. I think my first song I heard from him must have been The Simpsons theme, but nothing beats the music he has composed for some of Tim Burton’s animated films: The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, and his classic feature, Edward Scissorhands.
What I like about Elfman is his use of haunting female choirs to create a sense of wonder. Take a listen to his Ice Dance track from Edward Scissorhands:
How beautiful are those choirs! Choirs (even if you use choir sample libraries) add a human element to your compositions, and a sense of wonder. So let’s say you’ve written a piece of music that is mainly using synth elements. Try add in some choirs and hear how this humanizes the piece.
I hope that what you get out of this article is that your choice of instrumentation, chord progressions and melodies and harmonies has a huge impact on how your tracks are perceived. And choosing the right elements really helps the track sit better with the visual of the media. But it does take practice and a lot of listening to other film composers to get there. Film and Video games are really paving the way with great music compositions. So get out some other tracks that inspire you and make note of what is happening in the track and more importantly, why. I hope this has helped you along with your new media composing journey.