Composer for film, television, and games

Three Ways to Score a Scene: Part 2 – Setting


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: DramaAction, 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 focused on drama. This is the second article, which will focus on setting.


Scoring the Setting

What is Setting?

It’s very simple, really. And it’s no different than what we learn in grade school English classes. The setting is where the movie or scene takes place. Most settings — bustling cities, far-off lands, in a galaxy far, far away — have a distinct, idiomatic sound. Often, the simple use of a bamboo flute mixed with virtually any other instrumentation is enough to send an audience member’s mind to China. Mix bamboo flute with solo harp and percussion and you’re in ancient China. Mix the same flute with a hip-hop groove and you’re in downtown Shanghai. Even if proper scales and cultural music theory is ignored, the effect can be acheived.

Why Score the Setting?

We’re always taught as film composers that our music must tell a story and follow the full arc of the movie. Why, then, would we ever chose to ignore the on-screen drama or the action in front of our faces and resort to scoring the setting? You or the director may choose to augment the setting  because in some cases the setting is a symbolic, dramatic, or story-telling element that needs to be reinforced.

A short film that takes place on the streets of Philadelphia might take place there simply because the film maker’s budget only allowed for filming around their neighborhood. That’s not a good reason to score the setting. But consider a movie about a main character who travels to Marrakesh, Morocco to find inner-peace. Immediately, the setting becomes a keystone to the story and a critical dramatic element in itself.


How to Score the Setting

Being able to compose the setting requires extreme stylistic versatility from the composer. The music theory and musicology involved in composing various styles of music is beyond the scope of this article, so I will proceed with the assumption that the composer already has the capability to compose in the various styles that may be required of him. I am considering writing another series of articles about composing in various styles. (Let me know if you would be interested in that.)

I have three examples prepared for you. One is from the Universal Pictures film, Despicable Me. And two are from recent films I scored, both featuring contrasting treatments of this concept. One is a zany Wes Anderson-esque comedy, and the other is a very serious dramatic film.


Example No. 1
Using music to set the scene.

First, we will take a look at the comedy. The movie is called, “The Exotic Misadventures of Beatrix” produced by Badger Tsunami / co-produced by Idryonis Studios and Directed by Chris Potako.

This scene takes place in Sweeden. The only visual cues to confirm this are the Swedish fish, Swedish meatballs, a sundry of Ikea furniture, and the not-so-subtle allen-wrench necklace! Those things, coupled with the character’s name, Sven Svenson, make the setting fairly obvious. Despite being absurdly over-the-top, perhaps a less astute audience would still not pick up on the Swedish theme. In this case, the director and I agreed that the music — as a story telling device — can definitively seal the deal, so to speak.

Listen to the way the music subtly and slowly morphs in texture from it’s standard palette of sounds to a slightly different one as Sven Svenson appears on screen. It is important to note that the only change in the music is in orchestration and texture. The music itself — the melody, harmony, and rhythm — remain consistent. In doing so, the change is very subtle and almost subliminal. Soon after, the music fades out. The audience pieces together some clues as to his whereabouts during his phone call. Then, if they still haven’t gotten it, they are smacked in the face with an absurd Swedish polka as he smothers his Swedish meatballs with gravy.


Example No. 2
Music reinforcing the setting.

This scene is taken from the film, “3 Percent” produced and directed by Ron Strobel. This is a much more straight-forward example of how music reinforces the setting of a scene. In this example, the main character arrives in Marrakesh, Morocco to reconcile his life, which has gone horribly awry due to recent tragic events. I composed this music using traditional Moroccan percussion instruments and various Arabic scales that are reminiscent (though not actually indigenous) to Morocco. The visual transition from suburban America is town-center Morocco is stunning. The music had to match the grandeur created on-screen.


Example No. 3
Music juxtaposed with the setting.

Lastly, we’re going to turn our attention to the opening scene from Despicable Me. This scene very clearly starts out with an Egyptian Desert sound. And then the music very abruptly takes a left turn and smash cuts to  “Sweet Home Alabama”. Although rather jarring, this music cut does an excellent job of juxtaposing the home town of the obnoxious family with the sprawling desert. The director wanted to show that the family’s “setting” has now invaded the desert. After not long, the score changes to an action score, which segues nicely into the topic of the nest post.

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