Film Scoring/Theory of Film Scoring/What is Narrative Music?

You need to be a film editor, too!

This course in music and filmmaking is:
Film scoring introduction for filmmakers
This lesson is:
Introduction - The basic theory of film scoring
The pages in this lesson are:
Summary: Basic theory of film scoring for filmmakers
Page 1: What are the different kinds of music?
Page 2: Film score example "George Lucas in Love"

Theory and random thoughts
Understanding the different kinds of music in a film score.

This repeats and expands on the previous page.

If you are getting bored, click here to have some fun!

What is narrative music?

There are many kinds of music in a motion picture but narrative music is the most fun.
Narrative Music simply means "music which tells a story".
Before we begin, you must understand what is narrative music and how it differs from other kinds of music such as background music and songs.

Narrative music is the most important music

Just another actor
Narrative music is like another actor in the movie. Narrative music is like the announcer for a movie. Narrative music tells the audience what mood they should feel. Without narrative music, the audience might not know how to feel. The audience needs someone to guide them.

How long is narrative music?

Narrative music has an average length of 3 seconds but each theme can be as short as one second or as long as ten seconds. Often narrative music will be linked together to make a single, long piece of music with many different moods, one mood after another.
However, be aware that for all of your homework assignments in in the course on film scoring are all three (3) to five (5) seconds long. Keep it simple!

Narrative music vs. dialog (Dialog always wins)

Narrative music is usually very loud therefore narrative music can never be used when there is dialog. In motion pictures, dialog is always the most important thing. Therefore, never have narrative music when there is dialog because you will not hear the dialog.
A Confict!!!
Do you see the conflict?
By now, you should be thinking, "When there is dialog, I need narrative music to explain the moods to the audience. But when there is dialog, there is no place to put narrative music."
This seems to be a major conflict. "I need music but I have not place to put it."
So how do you add the necessary music if there is no room? That is the question!!!!
Dialog is the winner
By the way, when there is dialog and narrative music together, only one wins. The winner is the dialog. The looser (the musical sound track) will be turned down by the movie's mixer at the last stage of movie post-production. Therefore, you must find a way to add narrative music while not stepping on the dialog. How can that be?

The Solution

Below, I explain the solution to this problem. To make room for the dialog, you edit the scene, adding gaps for the music. These gaps will stick out horribly unless the gaps are exactly the same length as the narrative music.
And there is a perfect solution for that problem too. You must learn to be both the film editor and the film composer.

What is Musical Sound Effects?

Filmmakers do not need to create music. They only need to create the proper mood. Many times, filmmakers can do this with just musical sound effects.

Musical sound effects are extremely short and simple musical tones, rhythms, or melodies.

Foreground music

The music (and musical sound effects) for a motion picture can be loud or can be soft.

Loud music is called foreground music.

Many timess, loud music helps tell the story so it is called narrative music.

"Don't forget the background music"

Background Music

Background music quietly adds to the mood of the scene.

Since narrative music is loud (just like the actor's dialog), narrative music can never be on top of dialog. But background music, being much softer, can play when the actors says their dialog.

Rule for background music: No drums

Even though background music often contains rhythm (which you will learn about in the lesson about the "Sound of Joy", you must never use drums. This is the same frequency as the voice and creates spikes in the volume. This makes listening to the dialog harder.)

Exceptions to the rules

Above, you learned that you must never have narrative music when you have dialog because narrative music will drown out the dialog. Naturally, there is an exception to this rule.

  • What if you do not want the audience to hear the dialog? What if you want the audience to fight to hear the words of the actor? What then?

Silence of the Lambs

Watch Silence of the Lambs. Listen to when Dr. Hannibal Lecter is saying very bad things. The dialog by itself is very simple. But by adding narrative music on top of the dialog, the audience cannot hear the dialog clearly. The audience must strain to hear the words. This creates tension and makes the audience feel uncomfortable.

How to make room for narrative music?

The solution -- (You are going to learn a great secret of extreme value!)

If narrative music is so important, how do you fit it into the scene? Since narrative music is never supposed to be on top of dialog, where do you put it? Narrative music is so loud, it would drown out the dialog so it must be placed before or after each sentence or phrase, never on top.
So how do you find space between actor's dialog for the narrative music?

The answer (Pay attention!!! This is very, very, very important!)

You make room. You physically cut the dialog apart in the motion picture to leave a gap for the narrative music. During post-production, it is too late to ask the actors to pause in the middle of their dialog. Therefore, you must add the gaps as you edit the film. You must change the timing of the dialog using a film editing program. (Do you see a problem with this?)

Wear two hats

Working with the film's editor
How do you convince the editor of the motion picture to create the necesary gaps for your music between the lines of dialog of the actors? This is not easy!
The perfect solution
The perfect solution is you should learn film editing as well as film scoring so you can become both the film's editor and the film's composer. Then you have completed control. Then you can create the music and add the gaps in the dialog at the same time! That saves a huge amount of time.
This way, you will always have the correct length of the music and the pauses between the dialog. This is the best way to get a perfect edit of a dramatic scene.
Think about this. You can do it!!!

The next page

To understand narrative music, take this pop quiz

Contact your instructor

Your instructor for this film scoring class is Robert Elliott.
You can email me by clicking here.