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Temp music is short for “temporary music”. It’s music that the editor uses as a placeholder before the actual music is written.
Sometimes temp music is used because it gives the editor something to cut to. Other times the temp music helps the director or producers get a sense for how the scene will ultimately play out while they’re still only working with a rough cut. Another reason to use temp music is as a way to communicate with the composer, and it’s this last use that I consider quite valuable.
Many composers loathe temp music because of a situation called “temp love”. This is when the director becomes so used to the temp music that they become completely attached to it. For whatever reason, the temp music has become inseparable from the scene, and thus the director wants the score to be as close to it as possible. This can cause a lot of stress and difficulty when the composer is never able to write the literal exact same music and frustration results on all sides. This is a legitimate reason to dislike temp music, and something I’ve experienced a few times.
As a communication tool, however, temp music can be fantastic. Many directors don’t know musical terms (and many think they do but use them incorrectly). It is so much easier to talk about music with music. Between “I want something fun” and “Listen to XYZ track. I love how the strings are giving us such an energetic pulse,” the latter contains so much more useful information!
When it comes to temp music, what I advise filmmakers to do is this: go ahead and use temp music however you see fit, but I don’t want to hear it if I don’t have to. Let’s only refer to the temp music later in the process if it’s necessary, as a way for us to compare the score demos. That way we can talk about specifically what the temp is doing differently that you like and as a result, have a productive conversation that takes the score to new places.