The Art of Music in Filmmaking: Selecting the Right Instruments for Your Score

Posted on: February 28, 2024

The Art of Music in Filmmaking: Selecting the Right Instruments for Your Score

By matching the instrument's timbre, tone, and emotional capacity with the narrative's demands, filmmakers can create a more immersive cinematic experience.

One of the vital determinators of a good movie is its music score. You can’t have one without the other, and every movie critic worth their salt will tell you that music plays an incredibly significant role in creating a great movie. If you watched “Gladiator,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” or “Indiana Jones,” you know firsthand how legendary those scores are and how intrinsically they’re connected to your memory of the movie.

That’s why the right choice of composer is vital to a film’s success, and there’s a good reason for it – what we remember from truly excellent movies are the emotions they awake in us. If score writing interests you, these tips should help you navigate this complex and beautiful artistic journey.

Why is choosing the right instruments so important in a film score?

If you’re a movie lover, then you know just how much your favorite flicks shaped your perspective and life views, and one of the reasons for it (along with the story, directing, and acting) is the memorable score. Whether we like it or not, we’re first and foremost emotional beings, and if something resonates with us on an emotional level, chances are we’ll wholeheartedly love and embrace it.

Movie directors know this very well, so they carefully choose composers for their projects. The best composers create music that will:

  • Correspond with the genre of the movie. For example, romantic movies will have softer melodies, while action and drama usually boast music with different, often intense tempos.
  • Set the emotional mood. This is one of the score’s biggest tasks – to bring the audience closer to the characters’ feelings in different situations and show how they grow and change as the movie progresses.
  • Connect you with the characters. Characters will often have their own mini-score, music that you connect to their emotional state or appearance in the scene. Think of the “Jaws” theme, “The Imperial March,” and “Harry Potter” theme, and you’ll hear the music in your head instantaneously. That is the power of a truly epic movie score!

But how do you achieve this? How to create music that will transfer the feelings of loneliness, joy, danger, or despair? It all starts with choosing the right instruments, of which each can become an extension of a particular emotional state.

Selecting the Right Instruments for Your Score

The greatest beauty and challenge of creating a film score is that you have all the freedom to structure it in a way that mirrors your view and understanding of the movie. For this reason, directors and composers work very closely together in order to achieve the best results, creating music that will transfer their vision to the audience’s ears and hearts.

If it sounds complex, it’s because it can be. Thankfully, you can follow some general directions when choosing the right instruments for your score because each group of instruments comes with its own emotional palette.

1. Versatile Strings

String instruments are most widely used in film scoring and it’s no wonder, seeing how versatile they are. You’ve got your classical strings like violin, cello, contrabass, and non-orchestral instruments, which include guitars, harps, mandolin, etc. Each of them has the ability to conjure a wide variety of emotions, depending on how it’s used.

Violins can bring out the depth of emotions, be it love, melancholy, or sadness, while cello can invoke a sense of alertness or deep longing. Contrabass is the largest of the three, so it can be used in tense scenes that carry great importance to the story. When it comes to guitars, even straightforward strumming songs can convey a colorful array of feelings, from contentment to deep pain. If you’d like to accentuate the geographical uniqueness of a location, you can use national instruments like mandolin, lute, or lyre, to name a few.

2. Rhythmic Percussion

The percussion instrument family includes a variety of drums, cymbals, and bells that add movement and action to the music, signifying excitement and underlying tension in a dramatic situation. If there’s a fight going on, chances are that you’ll hear percussions in the background as they bring the feeling of danger and intensity into the real world.

3. Ethereal Woodwinds

If you’re a fan of epic adventures laced with magic and intrigue, you’ve heard your share of woodwind instruments. Flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon are the primary representatives of this instrument family, and whenever you’d like to bring forth a sense of magic and playfulness to a scene, woodwinds are your go-to. Bassoon’s sound is a bit more blunt, so it can be used in obviously funny or absurd scenes.

4. Heroic Brass

There are many different brass instruments out there – the trumpet, French horn, and tuba being the most famous of them all. When you use them in your score, you bring about a sense of power and greatness. Heroic themes have plenty of brass in them, mostly because their expanding and seemingly omnipresent sound has weight and epic quality to it, one that inspires unforgettable bravery and majesty in those acts of courage. If timed correctly, brass instruments can also underline a comedic moment and make it even funnier.

5. Multifaceted Piano

Piano is one of the most frequently used instruments in movie scores, and it’s easy to understand why. Instrument’s all-encompassing range can paint a melodic picture for just about any type of movie scene, be it a nostalgic memory, a moment of painful discovery, or an understanding that the character is in love. This is the reason piano is so beloved by score composers – they can fill in just about any emotion, as long as there’s a player who can play it in the right way.

Conclusion

While these instruments all carry their own color and emotion, how you use them changes the impact they’re going to have on the audience. Movie composers play around with finding new sounds and using non-traditional approaches to create unique and memorable scores all the time. All this is to say that the only limit to creating your movie score is your imagination and that once you understand the basics, you can build on them and transform them into whatever you’d like.

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