Photo by Kai C. Schwarzer
I recently discovered a lovely Latin quote: Ars poetica est non omnia dicere. It roughly translates to “The art of poetry is to not say everything”.
Not only is it a nice thought to ponder for just about any context, I thought it was particularly relevant to our work as film composers. Often one of the easiest mistakes to make when scoring a scene is to score what’s already happening. Meaning that if the characters on the screen are sad, you write sad music. If they are running, you write running music.
As the great composer and teacher Alain Mayrand says, “Don’t score the man running, score why he runs.” We can already see the man running. By writing “running music” you might as well not be writing anything at all. Is he running away from a monster? Is he running across the finish line in victory? How should the audience feel about it? Tell THAT part of the story, the part that we can’t gather with our eyes alone.
Required reading (or viewing) for any student of composition is Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question. It’s a series of brilliant lectures he gave on music and is truly eye opening. He has quite a bit to say about poetry and music, and if this topic interests you even slightly than do yourself a favor and check it out.
I recently finished a score for a feature film in which this lesson was certainly relevant. My absolute favorite cue from the whole 40 minute score was a scene near the end in which the main character is giving a heartfelt speech. The music for that scene is incredibly simple and almost neutral, but it feels great. It gives just enough support to the actress while still letting her drive the scene. It would have been easy to swell and flourish with each line she gives, but instead there’s just an understated pulsing.
And that’s all it needs.