How To Use Story To Write Music Like a Film Composer

Find me a student who doesn’t have a favourite movie soundtrack!

That’s because the music in film can be so memorable, so evocative, so effective at connecting with your emotions. I know that’s why I’ve always been drawn to film music.

But have you ever wondered WHY they are so effective, or HOW they’re able to connect with your emotions on such a powerful scale? 

Well, the answer in one word is… STORY

Stories are such a valuable tool for teaching composition to students but it can be confronting for teachers to know where to start, or how to use them for creating a composition. 

In my former days as a composer for film and tv, I learnt a great deal about how to get ideas from a story, how to turn them into musical ideas, and then pair those ideas to the visual style, character and drama of the film.

Most likely you won’t have a film you can work with when teaching story-based composition to students, but the step by step process I’m presenting below can work on any composition project that has a story.

But First, a Brief Introduction On The Film Scoring Process

Anyone working on a film at ANY stage of its development operates under one guiding principle, that Story Is King.

The phrase STORY IS KING was drilled into me from my very first day at film school.

When I first heard it I thought Yeah ok, of course, a film has a script and a screenplay, the actors read their lines and the film comes to life. I didn’t yet realise just how much story could influence every small part of the creative compositional process.

The music in any film project must serve a specific purpose. And that’s to enhance the story in line with the director’s vision, with every single note!

The Story Arc

Generally, most stories have a story arc. This arc often follows a single central character, who experiences some kind of CONFLICT or problem, goes on a JOURNEY of some kind that results in a TRANSFORMATION. There may be other major characters, but their role in the story is predominantly to support the central character’s journey.

the story arc is very useful for using story when composing

The Vision

The director will give you a brief on their interpretation of the story, their vision. This will describe the motivations, journey and transformation of the central characters, the stylistic preferences, and the over-arching message.

The job of the composer is then to translate that vision with music. 

Having a really clear idea of the story is fundamental. Without it, you will be flying blind. Or worse, your work will have no connection to the story, and therefore your music will have no meaning or purpose.  

It’s not enough to simply write music you want to write. 

The genre, the instrumentation, the texture, the harmony, all aspects of the musical score needs to serve the story in every way.

So working out how to interpret the story is understandably a very important skill

How the composer interprets the vision is where the art and style of individual composers come in. Where you hear the composer’s unique voice.

Let’s break down this interpretative process into some simple steps.

Step By Step Guide To Teaching Composition Using Stories.

Almost every film composer has a similar process for getting started, and the most important part happens before ever writing a single dot of music.

Step #1. Sit With The Story

Sit with the story for a while to help understand exactly how to use story when composing
Let the story ruminate for a while.

Take some time to let the story sit with you for a little while. This helps you understand exactly how to use the story when composing.

Spend some time thinking about the central character:

  • Get into their shoes?
  • Understand their situation, their back story, their motivations for taking action?
  • Where are they at the start of the story? 
  • Where do they end up? 
  • How do they transform?

For film projects, I would often spend a week in this step. My go-to process was to go for long walks along the beach. I could spend hours walking and thinking before I ever touched the keyboard or tried to compose anything.

Ideas for your students:

Once you have a story you’d like to use as inspiration for a composition project you can ask your student to think about the ideas mentioned above for a week or two between lessons. Ask them to write down all their ideas and spend some time in your lessons discussing and refining them.

Step #2. Assess The Visual Style

All films have two essential parts. How the film looks and how the film sounds. And they need to work together, complement each other, and be working from the same vision. 

All visual departments (cinematographers, costume or set design, make up etc.) take their inspiration from the story. So if the visual and sound departments are both working from the story there’s a greater chance of a cohesive, unified result.

How does the visual storytelling style convey meaning to you?

How an image or film looks coveys a lot of meaning. An image of a dark misty forest makes you feel uneasy or scared. Whereas a warm beachy sunrise fills you with a calm serenity. 

Think about how the image looks stylistically?

  • How do the colours look – warm, muted, dull, dark, cool or faded?
  • Are the people/landmarks/object in the images clear, obscured, tinted, large or small.
  • Are the images busy, complex, simple, or sparse?

Now think about:

  1. How do these stylistic choices affect how YOU are feeling? 
  2. How does it reflect what the central character is feeling?

Having an image really helps you to connect on a deeper level to the character’s journey. It allows you to really imagine yourself in their shoes. 

To really know them.

Ideas for Students:

When I’m composing on non-film projects I often visualise an image in my head. For example, sometimes films I’ve seen in the past can provide inspiration, and sometimes books that I’ve read can conjure images in my mind.

Help your student to describe the visual style of their stories. If you don’t have a visual reference point (ie. a picture, or a film) ask your student to visualise an image from their story and describe it to you – the colours, lighting, features and textures. 

Ask your students, how do these visual characteristics make them feel?

Step #3. Brainstorming Words

Ok. So how does all this stuff help me come up with actual musical ideas?

Well, music is inherently abstract, therefore, its meaning is inseparably linked to our personal experiences and memories. So, physically writing down on paper actual concrete words to describe the feelings and images you get from the story creates a solid, tangible foundation from which you can build your music.

This is where the real fun begins!

When you describe in simple WORDS what you want your music to say, it will clarify how you want your music to SOUND.

Do not underestimate this part of the process.

Ideas for Students:

So now that your students have had time to get into the mind of the central character, and have assessed the visual style of their story, you can help them brainstorm descriptive words to describe the story. Particularly those words that evoke a feeling or a memory or that will connect with them personally on an emotional level.

Words such as warm, colourful, vibrant, strange, dark, wise, fractured, vulnerable, lonely, fragile, fierce, energetic, naive, strong, persistent, brave, harsh, bare, serene.

#4. Design The Musical Palette

I love to think of the music in a film as having a musical palette. Much like paintings have a colour palette. Or more specifically, a selection of colours used to create the style and effect of the painting.

Our musical palette is made up of the sounds, instruments, and textures, that will colour our composition.

Ideas for Students:

Now that you have brainstormed a whole bunch of words to describe the story and the main character you’ll need to connect those words to sounds that convey the same meaning to you. 

Such as 

  • Warm = low cello and french horn OR low-mid range sounds and moderate long rhythms
  • Serene = soft high sustained strings and slow harp pizzicato OR high range sounds and soft dynamic
  • Brave = rhythmic brass with percussion OR forte dynamic and fast accented rhythms

If you have access to Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like garage band or Logic Pro, or music notation software such as Musescore or Finale, you can use virtual instruments and synths to your heart’s content. The choice is utterly endless.

If you’ve only got a piano there’s still heaps to work with. Think about pitch range, dynamics, rhythm, articulation and textural spacing of voices ie. closed spacing versus wide open spacing.

If you need inspiration, look for other works of music that resonate with you around the feelings, words, emotions that you have brainstormed? What sounds/textures/rhythms/harmonic progressions/tempos/tonal registers have they used? 

Analyse these influences and pick out one idea to start you off.

Next Steps

Now that you’ve interpreted the story and created your musical palette you’re ready to get to work writing the music and developing your main themes. When you truly know your central character and their journey, it can feel like you are the vessel for their story. 

Let the music flow through you. It’s magic!

If you need help condensing all this information I have created a simple 4-page workbook you can use to help you explore this process with your students.

How To Compose Powerful Music Using Stories - A Film Composer\'s Guide
About the Author

A multi-passionate music professional, Geri has many strings to her bow. She’s taught piano, theory and composition for almost 20 years and is an experienced composer and orchestrator in the Australian Film and TV industry. When she’s not hanging out with her 3 kids and her musician partner she’s usually found collapsed on the couch watching some sort of epic SciFi/Fantasy show with her cat Saffy on her lap.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Related Posts

Sign Up Now to get your FREE Improvisation Starter Guide!