Linear Film Composition

Films are linear, even though the story line may not be. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is an excellent example of a non-linear story. While we as the audience are not seeing the events in a chronological order, we are seeing the events in the order of the film. The film isn’t presented in an aleotoric manner, randomly presenting scenes. Directors spend a great deal of time sorting out just how the film fits together to end with the desired result.

Music is the same way. Music follows a linear path, even though there are pieces that are composed or designed to be performed aleoticially, the actual performance is linear. It is this linear path that should be the concern of the composer and the performer – particularly in terms of composing for film.

Typically film composers have the advantage of having the entire film or story before composing the music. But even with this, the composer needs to spend time thinking about what it is they are composing and how the composition will develop with the film. If there is a theme present in the first portion of the film, how does that theme develop, what changes to the theme are made as the film progresses? In the end, what is the final result of the theme and does it match with the final result of the film?

This doesn’t mean the music for the film needs to be composed in a linear fashion. It is very possible to come up with a variety of options for the overall film, and then play with these options creating a series of variations. Then work through the variations to see which fits where. It may be that the end of the film is clearly one of the variations and gets composed first. Other sections are then taken from this variation to create puzzle pieces that are all part of the end result, but not the complete picture. The audience then has elements of the film and music they put together as the film is presented.

However, once all the various pieces are done, the composer should go back through the composition and create a time line. This should show the progress of the variations, the orchestration and other aspects of the music so there is a flow from beginning to end. It is important to know the music not only fits the scene, but contributes to what came before it and leads to what is to follow.

Record producers spend a fair amount of time composing the order of an album, concerned at the place of the music order and the effect it has on the listener. Although we may choose to listen to the music out of order, the order as it appears on the CD is thought out to give each piece the best presentation in terms of what comes before and after. Film music should do the same thing.

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