How do I combine the right techniques (harmony, melody, orch.) to evoke certain musical emotions?

Mar 22, 2022

Just under a week ago now I sent an email out asking everyone what their biggest question on composing was. And boy, what an overwhelming response… 200 questions just the first day!

So even though I was tired and it was 2 am, I stayed glued to the screen and read them all. I’ve answered two questions so far, but there’s one big question that keeps coming up. And it’s a question I hear so often from composers:

How do I combine the right techniques (the right harmony, melody style, orchestration, etc) to evoke a certain emotion when I’m writing music in one specific style?

If you’re like most composers, you start by using trial and error to really ‘nail’ that perfect piece of music.

But that isn’t easy (understatement). Let’s say you’re writing music for a movie and you need to show the sadness of the character whose father was murdered while also showing the rage within her towards his killer… Is anyone else’s mind blown right now, thinking about using trial and error to come up with such a complex, layered, emotional piece?

Because here’s a secret: the ability to evoke emotions (and presenting them in your own unique voice) is one of the keys to being a successful composer.

So what else can you do instead of time-consuming, headache-inducing, trial and error?

Let’s start with some insights from one of our teachers, Tony, in our Facebook Group earlier this year. Tony shared with the group the summary of a chat he had with a successful film composer.

In short, he said that sometimes when it comes to tasks like these, we tend to get too technical. It’s easy to get caught up and forget the basics like score reading and listening… things like going to concerts and rehearsals, and just listening to music. Because although this may seem simple, this gives us a model of those who have succeeded that we can learn from and replicate.

Another great answer to this question came from one of our students, Nicolas Schuele. Nicolas explained that a few years ago, “everything he was making sounded like utter s**t”, and that he thought the main issue was, “lack of mixing knowledge”. He immersed himself in studying mixing but still didn’t see any notable improvement. That’s when Nicolas realized he needed to learn everything he could about music theory and orchestration. Result? Job offers from a publisher, a trailer house and a local director.

What do both of these insights have in common? When you’re composing it’s easy to get caught up in the technicalities... but don’t underestimate the fundamentals. Because like I said in a recent email, you can’t move to advanced concepts if you haven’t mastered the fundamentals.

You might be wondering at this point: how can I learn all those fundamentals and make sure I have everything I need to give me the best chance of success?

Imagine for a moment if someone had done the work for you… going through hundreds of movies, analyzing harmony, melody, rhythm and orchestration, and extracting the keys to writing in 4 emotional styles. Then put the results of each into one, easy-to-understand page.

It’s kinda like the fast track to success, right? The fundamentals and secrets of great composition, laid out for you, ready for you to use to create your own magic.

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When I started in Hollywood 9 years ago, and I wanted to learn how to mix my orchestral mockups. I asked the top Mixing Engineers and Score Mixers in town if I could sit down in their studios while they were mixing soundtracks. Some of them were happy to have me and I would take notes of everything I'd see and I'd ask questions at the end of the session. I've compiled them all for you in this guide!!

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