Stephen Deutsch: Teaching Film Composition

Like many others, I started writing music to picture by accident. I had been trained as a classical composer and pianist. I entered into the TV and film profession, at first in television, with the belief that a ‘proper’ composer could improve the music of television drama, which I believe was then composed by ‘hacks’. Thus, during the first few years of my career, I made it my business to write music which was full of sophisticated musical devices, canons, unconventional melodic and harmonic devices as well as much counterpoint (including the occasional fugue). I was also very concerned to make certain that the sync points within the film were well signalled by my music (and became defensive if a decision was taken to move the music by a few seconds, or even a few frames). Back then, especially in television, such over-composed music was not unusual, but the extent to which I did this might have been excessive, even for the time. However, I was especially fortunate for the generous spirit of producers, who suffered my musical arrogance and even continue to employ me.

Some years later, when I was teaching film music, I noticed that the score produced by Leonard Bernstein for the film On the Waterfront also suffered from such compositional arrogance. Bernstein seemed unaware that characters were actually talking on the film, so insistent he seemed to be on displaying his significant compositional expertise. It’s a great score, completely suitable for a ballet, but not much use as film music.

It was through teaching that I gained my first real insights into how films’ sound and music actually worked together. Having established the MA degree in Film Composition at Bournemouth University, it became clear to me that a film’s sound was much wider and more subtle than the music which often fought with it. A few years later, the course was expanded to include sound design, at which point I began to understand considerably more about how music, sound, dialogue, and editing contribute to the postproduction entirety of the film. My concurrent appointment as head of screen music at the National Film and Television School, reinforced and developed these insights further. This was an environment in which composers were expected to collaborate closely with editors and sound designers.

It has since become my belief that a composer wishing to learn their craft for film should not be taught film music. Rather, they would benefit from the study and practice of sound design. By so doing, they would understand more clearly how their music fits into the general ‘Soundtrack’ of any film, and be able to tailor their music with this in mind.

Recently, a music teacher at a local High School asked my advice about how to prepare students (year 10 (or 10th grade)) to complete a film music assignment required for their qualification in GCSE music. Unusually, there was no syllabus or assignment brief for this activity. I suggested that the students do not compose music for an already existing sound film (since dialogue, and especially the familiarity of the original music might pose problems), but rather to find a silent film and compose to that. I mentioned Murnau’s Nosferatu as an example. Further, I suggested that as students were using Digital Audio Workstations for their compositions, and that the musical software packages they were using could import audio as well and send midi information, that they take some audio recorders and collect their own sound effects and atmospheres. It has been my experience that this activity forces composers to weigh the relative importance of both their sound and musical gestures, and to think of the entire soundtrack as a score.

The most important advice I would give those hoping to compose for film can be summed up in these words:
It’s not about you, it’s about the Film!