Scoring a movie

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Curious about scoring a movie?

We’re wrapping up post production on our feature film, Bernard Gets Famous, and we’ve learned so much from making this movie. One of the challenges of indie filmmaking is that there are a lot of skills you have to learn if you’re going to be successful and stay on budget. For this film, we worked on the score in-house. 

Scoring a movie is an incredible skill set, and there are ways that you can learn about it even if you’re not a musician. If you’re the director, you’re going to want to have a say in the score, even if you don’t know the difference between a cello and a violin. Here’s what you need to know about scoring a movie, and how to learn more.

What is a movie score?

A movie score, simply put, is original music that accompanies the visuals of a movie.The music sets the tone and mood of each scene, and is designed to work alongside the rest of the sound design, including sound effects and dialogue. 

It is different from a movie soundtrack, because a soundtrack is a collection of prewritten songs that are selected to accompany the movie, while a score is written specifically for the movie. A score is often created by a composer or a group of composers, while a soundtrack is typically created by a collection of bands and artists. Some movies have an original soundtrack (Bernard does!) but those often refer to original songs that are sung by characters in the film, or songs with lyrics that are featured in the film, rather than the music that plays in the background, under dialogue and other sound design elements.

Why is the score important?

Think about movies where you absolutely love the score. My favorite is Jurassic Park, but there are lots of classic, iconic movie scores. Some that come to mind include Jaws, Star Wars, The Lion King, and Lord of the Rings. Take a moment to think about what makes a score stand out in your mind. For me, the soaring crescendo of the music when the first dinosaur appears on screen gets my heart racing even though I’ve seen Jurassic Park a million times. A score is effective when it brings out the appropriate emotions in the audience.

Now let’s think about other movies, movies without an iconic or classic score. The score is something that, in a completed film, the audience doesn’t always pay a lot of attention to, but if it’s done poorly, it’s EXTREMELY noticeable. Think about your favorite scene in your favorite movie and see if you can call the score to mind. If your favorite movie is one of those iconic movies I’ve mentioned before, I bet you can, but if it’s not, I’m willing to bet that the score doesn’t especially stand out. However, if you watched the same scene with absolutely no music, or worse, the same scene with a completely incongruous score, it would totally alter your perception of it.

Creating a soundscape through music is one of the most important elements of post production. It sets the mood for the entire film.

Hiring someone to score a movie

There are a few ways composers work when scoring a movie. The composer is typically hired by the director, composes music to fit their vision, and then musicians record the score. Some composers can be hired for a flat rate. Others might charge a flat rate per minute of score. Depending on their level of experience, this can be a very expensive part of post production. You can save money on the score by using fewer instruments, having a small group of musicians record the score, or even hiring a composer who can play the instruments themselves. 

Different composers have different pay rates, skills, experience, and visions, so don’t be afraid to talk to a few people before making a decision. You’ll need to balance your budgetary considerations with your needs and vision for the film. Budgetary concerns are why we chose to work with a composer who was able to play the majority of the instruments themselves. This option won’t work for everyone, but it worked well for us, because the composer we worked with is excellent at what they do and fit in well with our workflow. You’ll have to think about what works for your production.

How to learn more about scoring a movie

You may think that a score is just music that fits the mood and style of the film. That can’t be farther from the truth. Scoring a movie is a complex art form, and it’s not just slapping songs where you think they sound good. Even talented musicians and composers have to learn the art of scoring a movie. There are lots of things to consider when scoring a movie, from the mood you want to set to the pitches and keys that sound good with your actor’s voices.

If you’re starting from zero, it’s important to do a lot of research to learn the skill of scoring the movie. It’s too much to cover in one article, and to tell the truth, this is a skill we are just beginning to tackle as a production company. However, there are a lot of experts out there, and some of them generously share their knowledge for free. While working on the score, we discovered a few resources that really helped us up our game.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi


Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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