I watched a very interesting video a little while ago that explored the phenomena that cinematic soundtracks are becoming, for lack of a better term, more 'bland' in recent years.
It's an extremely interesting insight into the current trends of film scoring, take a look:
Now I gotta say, I was getting worried when I started noticing that for some reason I could never remember the soundtracks, the main themes, the leitmotifs, of modern films that I had literally just seen in theatres. (Which, obviously, is a very big problem if I'm supposed to be one of those musician types who occasionally writes music for film!)
But it turns out I'm not the only one with this problem!
The video brings up some extremely good ideas about why this has happened, why there's no longer memorable music in the big Hollywood Blockbusters:
A need to 'play it safe' when you've invested literally hundreds of millions of dollars into a project.
The modern day mentality that music plays more of a support or background role to the visuals of a film.
An overreliance on temp scores in modern movies.
(Side note: That last point in particular makes quite a bit of sense to me.
Most of the time composing the score to a film happens near the end of the film making process. Often times you're handed an almost-complete version of the movie to write the music to. What happens before that though is that the director will have their 'filler music' of choice in place of whatever the composer is going to come up with, they'll end up editing the film to that music, hearing it over and over, they're going to get used to what the film is like with that particular music.
So nine times out of ten what the composer hears from the director is "Can you write something that sounds like [such-and-such song] but isn't that song so we don't have to pay royalties?"
(In fact the above video has a link to a complimentary video where they show the 'final' music in a film compared to the temp track that was used. The similarities are eerie...)
Now for classic films like Star Wars, so the story goes at least, the temp track George Lucas was working with was Gustaf Holst's The Planets (which by the way is like the most badass music forever) so you know that's going to result in some amazing music.
But let's fast forward 40 years and now we as composers are being told to emulate music that was meant to emulate music that was meant to emulate music that was meant to emulate music ...you get the point.)
One clear example that I noticed of music becoming more bland was Mark Snow's music for the X Files series.
Everyone knows that classic opening theme, but early on in the series it was the music in each episode that really caught me and made me fall in love with the series. (Much to my girlfriend's displeasure as I would constantly run over to the piano to figure out the weird melodic or harmonic thing that Snow had worked into the score)
The first five seasons had incredible music, check out this absolutely chilling piece from early in the show, it's eerie, disturbing, immediately puts you on the edge. This is perfect to match the mood that the show was aiming for. Even if this type of music isn't your cup of tea, you can't deny that its use in a sci-fi horror TV show is just perfect.
Snow takes risks, melodies are chromatic and run over each other, sounds come out of nowhere and then leave before finishing their ideas.
Take a listen and tell me it doesn't put you on edge:
Not to say that Mark Snow could only do the creepy discordant stuff though. Even in the more tender moments of the show, when the music wasn't meant to be disturbing or off-putting, there was still a level of interesting harmonic and melodic choices to his compositions.
Point your ear-holes at this piece:
Now for me, I noticed a change in Snow's music during the first X Files movie.
My guess is when the production team realized that their series was going to be seen on a much wider scale, their first Hollywood mainstream movie, that they decided that they should play it safe because maybe not everyone would 'get' the more experimental not-quite-Hollywood style that had defined the earlier material.
This happened to the music as well.
Just listen to one of the main themes from that 1998 X Files movie.
Mark Snow puts the main theme in there to remind you which movie you're watching, a little bit of discordant strings, and then the music turns into "The X Files Theme With Tribal Drums" and it just stays there for the rest of the piece...
Once the drums kick in the music just sits there, it doesn't even move outside of the A minor tonality of the main theme (other than one instance of a C# minor chord that never comes back)
It gets even worse... At this point it doesn't even sound like Mark Snow's signature interesting and adventurous writing, this piece could be written by anyone, and used in any movie:
The music after that movie just never really went back. It stayed in the safe zone, didn't take as many risks any more. I found myself running to the piano to write out what I had just heard less and less as the series went on...
Here's a sombre piece from Season 9 of the show (Which, by the way, is just straight up garbage. Don't bother watching season 9, it sucks. It's so bad. It's terrible.)
Again, the whole thing is just sort of 'playing it safe', Snow doesn't really do anything interesting with the music, it just sits there.
Mark Snow. What happened?
Now don't get me wrong, the music from those first few seasons will always hold a special place in my heart. It showed that you can do crazy sounding stuff and still have it work in a super popular TV show and that's incredible. There was clearly an awesome cooperative relationship between Mark Snow and the show's producers/directors that resulted in some of the most incredible television soundtracks I've ever heard.
One thing I love when I'm in a film composer role is having the freedom to try things. A collaboration between the director and myself, not just relying on temp tracks and saying "Here, make it sound like this."
Recently I had the opportunity to work with a local filmmaker by the name of Jacquile Kambo on his film Help Wanted. The film has been getting a bunch of interest and has already received Official Selection at Seattle South Asian Film Festival and has received both Official Selection and Punjabi Film of the Month Award from the Canadian Diversity Film Festival.
Jacquile was great to work with because the whole process was very collaborative. He sent me a few examples of film scores that he liked and then, using that as a starting point, let me pretty much go where I wanted musically. There was of course a dialogue back and forth to get things perfect, but there was never any instances of "Do it exactly like this." It resulted in a film score that we were both happy with and, as Jacquile reminds me every time we've spoken since, has apparently received huge praise from everyone he's shown the film to.
In my experience this type of collaboration always results in a much more interesting final product (and is obviously much more rewarding as a composer) because both people are working to their strengths. The director isn't trying to write the music, and the composer can do things that the director might not have even thought of.
Feel free to check out the trailer for Help Wanted below, and read an article about it here.
So I'd like to send out a call to any directors or composers who come across this rant:
Don't be afraid to take risks or do something different with your music!
Directors, let your composers have a little more freedom.
Composers, don't feel like you need to adhere to some pre-existing sounds-like-everything-else style of soundtrack!
You could be the people to make the next movie or television show or game that is praised for its imaginative music, incredible soundtrack, not just another "tribal drums and strings" chase scene.
(And of course there's a certain irony in me sitting here complaining about generic sounding music when over the last few months I've been kept super busy doing music for commercials that require the most unobtrusive soundtracks...)
(To be fair though, I still try to make even that music interesting in some way, even if it's subtle. I will not be trapped by bland musical tropes!)
(Hey, you should hire me to do music for your next bank commercial or dentist office promo music! Check out my Corporate Casual Demo Reel! Hire me! Doooooo it!)
And those are all the things I have to say about film music right now.
- Mike WT Allen