To many musicians, being a film composer might seem like an impossible dream, a goal accessible to only those special few magicians who can conjure up any musical mood or emotion at a moments notice. But in truth, you don't need to be a magician. You just need to understand how moods are created in music.
Film scoring is all about establishing moods and reinforcing emotions. Nothing does that better than music. So once you understand how to create moods and emotions in music, you're well on your way to becoming a film composer.
Let's start with the simplest example. If you play and hold a C major chord on the piano, at a moderate volume, you immediately establish a happy mood–or at the very least, a content mood. Now if you were to play a C minor chord, you would create a sad mood, or at the very least, a contemplative mood.
See where this is going?
Now take that C minor chord, and instead of holding the duration for a few seconds, repeat it many times very quickly at a loud tempo. You immediately create an attention grabbing moment. Something is happening—or is about to happen.
Now take that same C minor chord, and this time when you repeat it several times, hold each chord for two beats at a very slow tempo and at a soft volume. This now feels like a funeral march. This is the essence of film scoring—using music to either enhance the mood or to create a new mood. Basically, film scoring is about providing the proper emotional support for the film.
There are four basic ways to create moods in music. They are through melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration.
It Starts with a Piano
Let's take our musical examples one step further. Here's a very simple musical figure:
I'm simply playing the notes C and E together. These are the first two notes of a C major chord.
A Playful Mood
I'm now going to create three very different and distinct moods from just that one simple piano part. Here's the first mood:
I've now created a playful mood by adding a melody on top of the piano part. The instruments I chose to play the melody are the piccolo, clarinet, glockenspiel and xylophone. And I used the C lydian scale to choose my melody notes from. The combination of these colorful instruments playing a lydian scale melody, creates this playful mood.
In this example, I made use of harmony when I established the piano part. I made use of melody when I chose the lydian scale for my notes. I made use of rhythm by utilizing a playful rhythmic pattern of quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. And I made use of orchestration by choosing bright and colorful sounds.
Now I'm going to use that exact same piano part and create a more heartfelt and melancholy mood.
As you've just heard, I used the English horn and solo cello to play this new melody. The mournful sound of the cello combined with the English horn playing in a low dark register, help to communicate this touching, heartfelt emotion. The melody notes were chosen from the A minor scale. Since the notes of our original piano part (the notes C and E) are found in the A minor scale, I was able to make use of the sad quality that is inherent to the minor scale.
In this example, I made use of harmony when I used that same piano part. I made use of melody when I chose the minor scale for my notes. I made use of rhythm by utilizing several half notes, played at a slow tempo. And I made use of orchestration by choosing sombre sounding instruments.
Now I'm going to create one more mood using our original piano part:
The mood is now very agitated and excited. There is even a sense of danger. The most obvious change is in the instrumentation. We've added a dramatic bass figure, played in unison by the trombones, cellos and timpani. But what makes their part so exciting are the fast, syncopated 16th notes. That also creates a sense of agitation.
But there is still one more element contributing to the sound and that is the notes themselves. By emphasizing the note Ab, I've added additional tension to the music. That's because the note Ab is not found in the key of C major, which is our implied key. (Yes, even though our previous example ventured into the key of A minor, the piano notes C and E naturally imply the key of C major).
In this last example, I used that same piano part for the harmony, which was then altered by my use of melody which contained the note Ab. I made use of rhythm by utilizing a frenetic, syncopated pattern. And I made use of orchestration by choosing loud, aggressive instrumentation.
So you can now see that I achieved these three distinct moods by using a specific combination of melody, harmony, rhythm and orchestration.
Virtually all musical moods are created by a combination of these four basic elements. To learn more about creating moods for film, TV and games, check out my full course here.
And here's a video from the course you might enjoy: