Composer for film, television, and games

Three Ways to Score a Scene: Part 1 – Drama


The articles in this three-part series focus on three primary methods, or points-of-view, of scoring any particular scene. Typically the film composer and director agree upon which point-of-view the music should take. However the director often will not speak the same “language” as a the composer. Considering that, the composer must make decisions about which method he will take based on his own experience and from interpreting the director’s notes.

The three musical points-of-view are: Drama, Action, and Setting. Any seasoned composer knows too well the process of composing demo after demo after demo until something finally seems to work. By determining from the onset which method he will use, the film composer can get to work composing much more quickly, with a concise path forward, and with more immediate success.

The first article in this series will focus on the point-of-view of drama.


Scoring the Drama

What is drama?

Drama is something we all intuitively understand, whether we know the textbook definition or not.

…any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results…

A better question is: WHERE is drama? The drama in a scene can stem from any number of things. For example, in a soap opera the drama is superficially evident on the screen or in the dialog. In a documentary the drama may originate from spoken narration or poignant video footage. Drama in a narrative film may come from either of those, or from underlying drama that is only known to the audience. Perhaps only the audience knows about a character’s internal struggle based on previous scenes. Maybe foreshadowing is leading the audience to some conclusion that the characters are not aware of yet.


How to score drama

When it comes time to scoring any of the methods in this series of articles, the film composer must block out anything in the scene that does not relate to the chosen point-of-view. When scoring drama, ignore the knife fight occupying the foreground of the scene. Ignore the cat chasing the mouse. And ignore the lush green landscape. Only write music that enlivens the drama. Otherwise your score will lack focus and cohesion. But more importantly, you will be drawing the audience’s attention away from what the director intends.

Frequently, inexperienced directors will ask the composer to score the drama of a scene but also ask for musical hits for inconsequential moments in the scene. Music that shifts rapidly between drama, action, and setting is one of the trademark characteristics of great cartoon music. Composers such as Carl Stalling were adept at this. Composers and directors must be careful that the music does not inadvertently venture into the world of cartoon music.

Here is an example from my film score for the movie “Destined”. We are presented with a heated physical altercation between two homeless people. A scene like this would, at first, seem to contraindicate an action cue sync’ed up with the hits and grabs before slowly fading off as the fight winds down. Except the physical fight is not what this scene is about! The fight is merely a subtext to the internal drama of David, the homeless man. His life is in shambles, everything is going wrong, and his future is bleak. If anything, the fight is more sad than it is exciting. He can’t even prevail over a street fight with Jenny, a frail homeless woman – the same woman who  ruined his life.


Now watch the same clip with the dialog track removed. Listen how the melismatic, almost medieval chant-like music mimics the on-screen and internal dialog between the characters, while ignoring the in-your-face action.


When to score the drama

Knowing when to score the drama is the result of experience and practice. In the clip above, I knew instantly that the scene was not about the fight. The scene was about David being emasculated and beaten down. I once read advice from an A-list Hollywood composer. He said that when you score a film, never look more than 10 minutes into the future to avoid becoming overwhelmed.

That is absolutely sound advice on a practical level when you’re in the thick of scoring a film. But when you’re spotting a film or making decisions on a film score, you need to zoom out of the scene you’re in and examine it as part of the whole. Funny enough, it took some convincing on my part to get the director on board with my decision on the “David & Jenny” scene above. Originally no one — from the director, to the producers, to my own colleagues at Idryonis — understood what I was going for. It wasn’t until we all took a step back, listened to the cue as part of the film; and, watched the scene as part of the film, that it made sense.

As a film composer, if you’re ever unsure what a scene is about, ask. Ask the director first. If you must, move on to the the producers or even screen writer and demand a well-conceived answer. If you’re working with a new director on a low-budget movie, they may have nothing more than a superficial response. If you get an answer like: “Oh, well… this scene is just the main character walking to work.”  Then maybe this scene doesn’t need dramatic music. However, is the main character walking to work after a fight with his wife? Is he walking to work to face a killer hiding under his desk? Is he walking to work to meet his secretary, with whom he’s having an affair? What is he feeling? Why isn’t he driving? Why is he not wearing a coat in the middle of Winter? All of these questions can help you determine what the scene is about. No worthwhile screen writer would write a scene about a man walking to work! That would be the worst scene ever. Find out why that character is walking to work. That will lead you to the answer. In the absence of a solid answer, then maybe you really do just need some “walking” music.


The overtly dramatic scene

I leave you with a clip of one scene, also from the movie “Destined”, where the musical direction was obvious without even talking with the director. In this scene, nothing but the drama is scored. However, unlike the previous “David & Jenny” scene, the drama is unfolding on the screen before our eyes.


Stay tuned for the next two articles in this series on scoring action, and scoring setting. In the mean time, please leave comments below. I’d love to hear comments and criticisms on this article from budding young composers or seasoned professionals. I will also field any questions in the comments below or on twitter. Follow me @kstahl.


  • Pingback: Three Ways to Score a Scene: Part 2 – Setting | Kevin Stahl Music

  • Patrick Kabugi Says

    Thank you for this very insightful series of articles. I just came across them very recently and they have been very helpful. So have been other posts on your page. Was looking out for part 3 but you don’t seem to have posted that.

  • Hi,
    I am a professional composer, I also lecture in composition at LIPA ( Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts) Part of the 2nd year composition module is to do with film scoring.
    Your very informative and interesting blog echoes many of my own thoughts and with our permission I will be quoting you in a forthcoming lecture and using the examples.
    If you are ever in the UK I would love you to come and talk to my students.

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