This month, our regular columnist Lisa looks at the different challenges that are involved in writing songs to a commission
s well as writing and recording my own songs, I’ve been involved in a variety of other writing projects. These have included composing a film score for a short US film, writing jingles and songs for an ITV1 series and writing top-line melodies for dance tracks. Here, I’ll discuss my own experiences so far and hopefully provide some insights on the process of composing music to a brief.
It’s important to understand from the outset what the director or company require from the music for the project, so that their needs are met. My first foray into composing a film score was in NYC, for a short independent film called Q To The 6 Train. The director wanted an acoustic heartfelt sound for the score and, after our first meeting, felt my style would work well. I was sent three temp tracks, mostly musical scores, from which to work. A temp track is a piece of music or audio serving as a guideline for the mood or atmosphere that the director is looking for.
The director also sent me a detailed e-mail with a breakdown of each scene and the exact time codes. I soon discovered this would be a very different challenge from writing my own material, which often comes from personal experiences and has a more song-based structure. Now, I needed to sync instrumental compositions to a rough cut of the film. It required a lot of patience: re-watching each clip and listening really carefully to the dialogue and the story that was being told.
“It was a real departure for me not to write lyrics”
As it was a real departure for me not to write lyrics, I kept in regular contact with the director to make sure I was moving in the right direction musically. He gave me feedback on my arrangements and ideas at every stage and advised me to try and make the dialogue my lyrics, using the lines that were being said as my inspiration to compose and underscore what is being said. I kept this in mind to ensure the music fit the images and conveyed the right message.
After these initial challenges, I found I got into a really productive rhythm and mindset and was able to get the tracks to a point where the director felt “It’s a lock” – a film-editing expression meaning that it’s perfect, you can lock everything into place so nothing gets altered. I learned that it’s key to achieve a balance between feeling creative and inspired, and the job of fulfilling the vision of the filmmakers. When the director suggests altering pieces of music or asks you to compose pieces that don’t make the final cut, it’s important not be too sensitive. Always keep in mind that you’re a part of the process, with the job of lifting the story, providing the soundtrack and musical accompaniment.
I was also sent lyrics by the director to compose music for the film’s title song. Again, this was a new challenge for me – writing music to lyrics written by someone else – but, as I love writing melodies for songs, I found this came easier for me and luckily the director felt the song perfectly captured the motif for the story.
I’ve also composed music for a number of sketches that featured in an ITV1 comedy show, and my brief for this was very specific. It included writing a jingle in the style of an 80s coffee advert, plus a theme tune for a cheesy daytime chat show. Having clear information like this really helped a lot, allowing me to research and listen to similar adverts and shows that have gone before so I could fulfill their brief.
I’m a fan of electronic music and have had my songs remixed. This has led me to sometimes being asked to write top-line melodies for dance and pop tracks. A top-line is essentially the melody and lyrics of the song. A producer, DJ or label will send a track and sometimes I’ve had a brief that the track has to be in the vein of a particular artist or track, so I research and listen repeatedly to what they have suggested. As with the film score, I record my initial melody and lyrical ideas into my computer and enjoy working spontaneously, trying to get a theme and experimenting with verses, choruses and ad libs. I often find I get a good foundation of the song in the first couple of run-throughs, all the while keeping in mind what criteria are required.
“It’s exciting stepping out of your comfort zone musically”
It can be difficult to come up with an original idea but I’ve found with dance music it’s key that you want to keep it simple, not complicate it with too many words and let them flow and have a great instant hook. When I’m happy, I then send a clean .WAV of my acapellas to get their thoughts and make adjustments to my vocals and melodies if necessary. I keep them on file, too, in case anyone wants to hear examples of my work.
It’s exciting stepping out of your comfort zone musically if you get the chance. I’ve relished my experiences so far of writing in different styles and would welcome the opportunity to do more. Keeping to a brief definitely has some different challenges involved, you really have to ensure you’re flexible, professional and have patience as you could be spending hours trying to capture the director’s vision. I would love to hear any of your own experiences of writing to a brief and what particular challenges you faced.