Film Score Composing - Where Does The Music Go?

A study using only instrumental music proves that anticipation for a musical rush released the same kind of reactions in the brain as anticipating the taste of your food.

You’re told as a filmmaker not to smother your film with music. I decided to do a bit of research as to how true that idea is so I analysed a few productions to understand better how a score sits in a film. 

I was surprised by my findings, which seem to suggest that actually, there is a lot more music in films then we think.

Here are my findings of how much music there is in the first 15-20 minutes of each of these films. 

The Young Victoria

From the get-go this film was incredibly music heavy. That said, I had to rewind a few times to catch where that music was, it was often so subtle. This is the hallmark of great a film score, when you have to watch it again to hear where the music was. 

The music started around 0:00:39 and continued steadily until 0:18:21

Things I learned from The Young Victoria score:

It was brave. The music didn’t shy away from sounding big when it needed to. Because the film is about royalty, the music reflects that and is very orchestra orientated and very regal but when it needs to, it dips away into nothingness. 

Music is a character. One thing that stood out to me were the pauses in this score. They sat beautifully around the dialogue and I started to notice a trick. When there was something important that needed attention in the dialogue the music would stop, almost abruptly. Like a hiccup. It was almost as though the music itself was a character in the scene. 

Piano is ok too. I really appreciated how sometimes the tune was carried by the piano and it worked very well. Often I think we think film scores should only be orchestral or synth but there are lots of other options out there and it really depends on what suits the music at that moment.  

Erin Brockovich

This one surprised me and made me think about my expectations of film score and film genre. Music was used sparingly in this film but the second the music starts (at around 0:02:45) it tells you instantly what to expect. 

Electronic, off the wall and slightly comedic, the music is telling the audience what they can look forward to. Unlike The Young Victoria where pauses punctuated scenes, this score started once a point in a scene was made, leaping off the back of a phrase or look. 


Things I learned from the Erin Brockovich score:

Stop when you need to. Music doesn’t need to fill your entire film. This score was very sparse, the music was repetitive but not in an annoying way and only used when barely necessary. 

Think in genres. Music can reflect something about the movie. The main recurring theme in Erin Brockovich sounds a little bit like an 80s TV detective series theme and I’m sure there’s a reason for that. Erin Brockovich effectively plays a detective in this story and the music sets the mood for that. 

Electronic has it’s place. This score was a shock after The Young Victoria, it was so completely different in style and yet it challenged me to recognise that as a film composer, you need to think outside your favourite music, your box and compose what is right for the film in the way that you can. 

Episode One of The Crown

The Crown on Netflix

The Crown on Netflix

Similar in style and amount to The Young Victoria, the first episode of The Crown, the score starts at 0:01:00 and continues all the way to 0:24:06 


Things I learned from The Crown score:

Low and subtle wins the day. I found it much harder to pin down any melodies quickly in The Crown than I had in previous scores. It was just lying under the scenes and it was a lot more ominous than Victoria or Erin Brockovich.

Wistful can work. I find nearly all the pieces of this episode tainted with a hint of regret and sadness and yet I found the series very easy to watch. The music never dragged it down, only enhanced the drama. Sometimes allowing yourself to write pieces that are sad even when a particular scene isn’t sad can play to the strength of the scene.  

Use the audience to your advantage. Use the score to put the audience on edge and play with their emotions. Apart from the original score, the use of English hymns within the series really brought the story home. “I Vow To Thee My Country” sung about 10 minutes in had me in tears when I first watched the episode. That’s because I grew up singing those hymns as a child, at boarding school. Regardless of my lack of nationalistic feelings, somewhere inside me lives the memory of respectfully standing in a stiff jacket and tie and singing them. Coupled together with the emotion the episode puts forward it sets off extra feelings in me when I watch it. I am moved in spite of myself. That’s great use of music. 

A 2009 study from Petr Janata at the University of California, Davis found that there is a part of the brain that “associates music and memories when we experience emotionally salient episodic memories that are triggered by familiar songs from our personal past.” In other words, our own familiar music can reconnect people with deep, meaningful memories from their past.


The soundtrack to Atonement was one of the more musically intelligent out of the four I watched. If you have read the book or watched the film, you will know that the plot revolves around Briony’s character, who is a writer. The opening music in particular cleverly starts with the sound of a typewriter, then the piano imitates a typewriter while the typewriter becomes the percussion underneath. Genius. I think this is film music composition at its height because it has brought a very important element of the story right into the music itself - quite literally.

Music came in at 01:37 and with a lot of long breaks or pauses, continued to 20:25.


Things I learned from the atonement score:

Point to the heart. Perhaps it is by making instruments imitate some element, or by creating a recurring theme that becomes associated with the main character, however you do it, you should try and make your music guide your audience to the turning point of the story, to its heart.

Combine sounds. Why just use orchestral instruments simply because you’re writing a classical score? Try mixing something unusual (like the sound of a typewriter?) in with the rest of your instruments. You could be surprised at what comes out. Even putting a more modern sounding electronic keyboard over the top of strings could create an interesting feel.

Horror doesn’t have to be horror. I think the music in Atonement is very close to something you’d find in a horror film. It is scary and uneasy and at times it makes my skin crawl. Atonement is a drama, however the themes and underlying message is very disturbing and I think the composer has completely captured that feeling in the music. Just as you should pay attention to the genre of the film you’re working on, you musn’t be confined by it. A style of music not usually associated with your film’s genre may work extremely well.

A Very Basic Guide To Film Scoring


Watch your film and decide where you want music to come in. Watching and thinking are a large part of filmmaking. We underestimate it but we should spend many hours just watching our films before deciding how to proceed. Just spend some time with your scenes and think about where you want dialogue emphasised, what emotion you want to evoke. 

(I would strongly advise NOT putting in any placeholder music from other films or anywhere else, mainly because you can become very attached to the music and then you won’t be happy with anything else and you’ll either have to pay tons of money for rights, or feel a bit unhappy with what you replace it with.) 

Note where you want music to come in and out


Export the scenes and sections you marked as small video files. I usually export them as small Vimeo or YouTube formats - you just need them as a reference for composing, they can be very low res. 

Name these videos in a  way you can remember what music you’re writing for them. 


Import your scene or scenes into a music software like Logic X. I treat every scene or a few scenes together as an individual Logic project. It’s tidier, easier to organise and better for remembering which theme is which. Otherwise it can get confusing if I want to play with different themes and there are a million tracks to deal with.


In your project, add an instrument track that you are comfortable with. I always start with the piano and I use a midi keyboard controller.

Watch the scene again and again, playing different melody ideas as you watch, recording tunes that you like. Keep all these ideas as separate tracks which you can mute. 

I switch between watching and playing and then concentrating just on playing once I have a sense of the scene. I also like to make certain parts of the melody hit specific parts of the dialogue or action. For example a series of notes as their eyes meet, etc., Those details are important and have a massive effect on how the audience feels the scene

When you have a full melody for that section or scene, play it to a metronome (at the right tempo) until you have a reasonably well played piano track of the tune. 

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This is when I start to decide what instruments will play this melody and how to build it all up. THIS MATTERS. Playing a melody you love as an orchestral piece or as a guitar folksy style can have a humongous impact on how that tune sounds and whether it works in the scene. Experiment with different instruments if you like the tune but it doesn’t seem to be working. 

Continue building up the different instrument parts until you are happy with it. I like to take my time, working on each melody section until I’m happy with it, gradually changing the original piano melody into something new.

In conclusion, I think the most important part of scoring music for film is watching and developing a melody when needed. Once that is done you can spend time building up the instruments and sound around it.