So You Wanna Be a Film Composer, Part II: Phases of the Game

As promised last time around… a self-test to get you started.

Football has offense, defense, and special teams; we have the categories below. Rate yourself in each phase of the game to see where you stack up.

Note that you shouldn't add these to reach a total number of points—in several cases, having four or five points may mean you're spending too much time away from composing (!). Rather, think of this as a bar graph, where each category has a sweet spot in which you want to operate.

UPDATE: I’ve revised several of these categories, adding a bit here, removing a bit there… the world keeps on spinning, and changing, and we have to move with the times.

Music composiiton: Plain ol’ tonal harmony
1. Piano sound pretty! (Sometimes)
2. I have a basic understanding of scales and simple common practice period harmonization.
3. I can perform a Roman-numeral analysis of, say, a Bach chorale.
4. Secondary dominants, predominant chords, chromaticism, modes… all familiar territory to me.
5. Tonality is my playground—to be used or transcended at will.

Music composition: Advanced harmony/modern techniques
1. Um, why are all those ugly notes in there?
2. I’ve studied a few serial and atonal works, and can “think in octatonic” or other scale forms.
3. Alternate tunings and notations; minimalism; musique concrète… I’m cool with all that.
4. I’m just as comfortable writing outside the tonal system as I am working within it.
5. The full range of sonic expression is at my fingertips. I’m involved in creating what comes next.

Music composition: Contemporary styles
1. Who is this Dr. Dre of which you speak, and why would a physician be involved in music?
2. I can crank out a lead sheet.
3. I’ve studied production in one or more styles: Jazz, Hip Hop, Latin, etc.
4. I work regularly in one or more contemporary/popular music genres.
5. Whatever a client desires, I can deliver—regardless of style.

1. Hey, the big instruments play lower! Handy to remember, huh?
2. I know the instrumental families and have a pretty good grasp of ranges.
3. I understand balance and blend, and know the idiomatic tendencies of most standard instruments.
4. Orchestration is an integral, instinctual part of my process from the moment I conceive a musical idea.
5. I could teach Ravel a thing or two.

1. Floor, wall, wall, ceiling… but what if the cue is in 3/4?
2. I know basic conducting patterns and recording session protocol.
3. I’m comfortable at the podium, conducting a variety of ensembles and/or styles.
4. My skills and experience allow me to interpret a performance—not just survive it—regardless of the musical terrain.
5. I am a full-time professional conductor.

1. …These go to eleven.
2. I understand basic signal path, but my mixes aren’t consistently solid.
3. I have a strategy for building my mixes and a set of go-to tools for fixing problems.
4. My mixes are an expression of my musical opinion and personality, executed with the same control as the writing itself.
5. I’m a full-time professional engineer or music scoring mixer.

Music Performance
1. Never picked up a musical instrument in my life [um… seriously? —LHS]
2. I’ve dabbled on one or more instruments, but never taken lessons.
3. I’ve studied, but wouldn’t be comfortable putting my performances on recordings.
4. I’m a competent musician on one or more instruments.
5. I’m a full-time professional musician.

Music Prep
1. Every Good Boy Does Fine; Good Boys Do Fine Always.
2. I can copy music by hand… and players can even read it!
3. I have experience with a major music notation software platform (Finale, Sibelius or other).
4. Copying scores and parts is a snap. I've customized my software and/or key commands to my preference.
5. I'm a professional music copyist.

Gear: Hardware/Software
1. I haven’t really started thinking about my own studio. I have a computer, but no other gear.
2. I can use my computer to record sound. Not that it’s sound someone would pay actual money for (yet).
3. I have a functioning home studio, but I’d like to expand in order to get a better sound.
4. My home/project studio is more than simply adequate—it’s a resource, and sometimes an inspiration.
5. Those guys at Remote Control… they’re cool and all, but they could use some more gear.

Gear: Sound Libraries
1. You mean people sell sounds? That you can buy? Weird!
2. I have a basic set of samples, but nothing fancy or exotic.
3. My studio is armed with a reasonable variety of samples, loops, virtual instruments, synths, etc.
4. I can call up pretty much any sound I need, in nearly any style I’d be asked to write.
5. If it’s out there, I own it. If it’s not out there yet, I’m probably beta-testing it.

Gear: Expertise
1. I know where the ON switch is, but I’m afraid to start pushing buttons.
2. Where’s that manual again? I’m digging in, but have a lot to learn.
3. I can run my gear with no problem, but some of the power-user commands are a mystery.
4. I've created my own macros/custom key bindings, and each piece of gear is optimized for my work flow.
5. I build my own electronic gear and/or work as a developer for a manufacturer.

Film Music History
1. Buncha old guys wrote some tunes. What’s the big deal?
2. I know the basic history of the art form, and a few of the “big names.”
3. I’ve listened to numerous scores from across the decades, and have a working knowledge of film music history.
4. I’ve written (term papers count) about multiple film composers, studied scores old and new, and can identify style and approximate historical period from a “needle-drop.”
5. Bring it on, Jon Burlingame… I am a veritable Film Music History encyclopedia.

Film History
1. Nouvelle vague… emphasis on the vague.
2. I know about Rosebud and Tara and Rick’s. The classics, in other words.
3. I’ve studied the history of cinema around the world.
4. I’ve done in-depth research and/or read widely in the field. I might even own some Rohmer-era issues of Cahiers du cinéma.
5. I can pontificate for hours about the relative merits of, say, Huang Jianxin versus Wong Kar-wai.

Film Terminology
1. Words of the day: Director, camera, movie.
2. Dutch angle, cinematographer, pickups.
3. Slug line, walla, cigarette burns.
4. Brute, overcranking, chromakey.
5. Abby Singer, diegesis, zoopraxis.

1. I wanted to finish this quiz, but I forgot the website location. And I lost my laptop.
2. Car keys and the rent—I’m pretty good about the obvious stuff.
3. I have an organizational system in place, and attend to it fairly regularly.
4. I create my own custom templates in FileMaker/Excel/Numbers.
5. My backups have backups, and nothing is more than a keystroke or two away. Total organizational control.

Physical Fitness*
1. Low.
2. Fair.
3. Average.
4. Good.
5. Superior.

*This one is no joke. Ignore your physical health at your own risk. Seriously, composers like to brag/complain about how many all-nighters in a row they've had to pull, and how bad their nutrition is. It can be funny, but ultimately it's self-destructive. There's a fine line between hard-ass and dumb-ass; don't cross it. A good resource for overall fitness measurement and goals can be found here.

Personal Presentation
1. Dorito-stained t-shirt? Check. Spinach in my teeth? Check. Let’s take a meeting!
2. I have reasonably good interpersonal skills.
3. People say I’m a good hang… and it doesn’t mean they want to hang me.
4. I’ve spent time and energy—and money—cultivating an image, an impression. But I’m not, like, a jerk about it.
5. It’s like there’s an aura around me. I am an “it” machine.

1. “Always late, but worth the wait!” Am I not just the cutest? Isn’t that clever? Hee hee hee… (Tell me again: Why isn’t my phone ringing?)
2. My alarm clock and I have reached a grudging respect for one another.
3. I’m on time, nearly every time. LA just has so much traffic, you know?
4. 15 minutes early is on time. On time is 15 minutes late. 15 minutes late is career suicide.
5. If I’m late, I’m in the hospital or dead. Literally. I would never disrespect a colleague—or worse, a client!—by wasting their time.

1. Pee Wee Herman said it best: “I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”
2. No longer a lone wolf, but there’s tension in the pack. And I’m not quite sure how to be alpha.
3. I’m working on finding the best qualities in the team I assemble, and inspiring them to become even better.
4. I’ve put together a well-oiled team that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
5. Jack Welch, Winston Churchill… and me.

Professional Network
1. I know the number for Domino’s pizza.
2. My friends and colleagues are solid resources for each other, but I don’t really know too many Industry people.
3. Hanging out with filmmakers, studio execs, etc. is a regular part of my social calendar.
4. If there’s an opportunity out there, chances are I can hook into it with a text or a tweet (or an e-mail… or a phone call, if I must).
5. I am the Hollywood Creative Directory.

Social Media/Personal Brand/Marketing
1. I have a Facebook account.
2. I have a loyal core of Twitter followers, and post regularly.
3. I've automated regular social-media posts, and have worked with/am working with a publicist to maximize my visibility.
4. Building my personal brand is integral to my career plans.
5. Gary Vaynerchuk texts me for advice.

1. Most of the time I find myself wondering why people do things.
2. I understand people’s basic emotions and drives.
3. Insights concerning others’ motivations and desires are common for me.
4. I can instinctually position my interactions to get the most out of my relationships.
5. Freud? Amateur.

1. I’m surrounded by idiots.
2. I can get through a meeting without a fistfight breaking out. Usually.
3. Contributing to a positive environment while getting my viewpoint across is a balance I’ve learned how to strike.
4. I know how to get the most out of a creative relationship, and understand the nuances of interacting with my colleagues.
5. Patience, young Jedi…

Current Events (General)
1. I know who won the last Presidential election.
2. Headlines? Sure, I follow ’em. Maybe even browse the news sites in the morning.
3. I consume news regularly. I'm always up to date on the latest events.
4. Maybe I’m spending a little *too* much time catching up on C-SPAN.
5. I’m a news junkie. My favorite news sites refresh in the background as I work/eat/sleep/shower, and the TV is locked on a news channel.

Current Events (Industry)
1. I know what movies are out this weekend.
2. If there’s a major studio or network shake-up, I hear about it.
3. I read the trades, and I know who most of the players are.
4. My expertise extends beyond the latest script sale or studio green-light. I’m up on all the latest.
5. Variety calls me for the latest scoop.

Current Events (Culture and the Arts)
1. Elvis on velvet.
2. I’ve watched the Kennedy Center Honors.
3. I keep tabs on the local, national and international art scenes and major cultural “happenings.”
4. I’m actively involved in local/regional culture. I even travel to take part in major national or international cultural events.
5. I know where the hippest gallery openings and art-world scenes are… because I host them.

Graphic Design
1. Hand-writing my cover letter in pencil isn’t that bad… is it?
2. I know enough to avoid Comic Sans at all costs.
3. I can navigate a graphics and/or layout app, and know a bit about typography.
4. I understand the concepts and principles of graphic design, and apply them to all my work.
5. I am a pro-level graphic designer.