My Approach To Composing Epic Music
What follows should not be interpreted as advice. I do not presume to tell anyone how to compose, produce, arrange or otherwise create their own art. This article is a way for me to express my own production thoughts so I can solidify them in my own mind, and in the process maybe - just maybe, help someone who might be starting out. I've been creating music for 62 years. YIKES! That is a scary thought. I've been creating music professionally for 50 years. That alarming fact does not qualify me to give unsolicited advice. If anything, it gives me pause. How to convey what I've learned without sounding pretentious? Please take what I say here with a grain of salt. If it helps you, great. If you already know what you're doing, maybe you will find what I say here amusing or perhaps just plain wrong. That is all very cool. The ideas I have outlined below are merely one approach, a set of guidelines I use to map out a specific type of arrangement. Every song I compose requires a different production method so these techniques may work for some and not for others.
Before I began composing in this genre, I always assumed the great epic tracks I had heard in various film, television broadcasts and even TV ads were produced by elite squads of musicians, audio engineers and technical audio wizards who would insert various thundering sound effects into the orchestral elements. In many cases this is true. There are hundreds of Hollywood studios and others throughout the world dedicated to doing just that - they only produce trailer music - and they are good at it. However, if you browse "Epic Music" on Youtube you might be surprised to see literally thousands of videos from hundreds of "Epic Music" composers. It is a crowded field and getting more so every day. For some reason, any kid with a Garage Band rig now believes his path to glory lies in creating the next film score for Batman. But hang on a minute. Is it really that simple?
I spend around 8 hours a day, 7 days a week in my studio (when I'm working) creating my "product" and because this genre contains so many challenging aspects and because they each need to be impressive, it usually takes me around 3 weeks to complete a song. But once it's finished there is still a lot of work to do. I need to bounce out all the "stems" and they all have to be the same relative level - usually -6db. Each song typically contains 6 or more "stems". (full track, full track without vocals, full track without percussion, percussion only, vocals only, underscore, etc). Depending on where and to whom these stems are to be delivered, you may be required to provide surround sound bounces of each stem as well. After you've accomplished this rather uninspiring and frankly tedious task, the material must be mastered. Mastering an album with 15 songs (plus all the stems) means some poor mastering engineer will have the daunting responsibility of making over 90 individual tracks sound as good as possible while maintaining continuity. With surround sound stems included it may be closer to 200. Aren't you glad you're a composer?
THE INTRO: Music produced for film must be such that when played against the backdrop of visual images, the images become so compelling that it doesn't matter if the footage is a dog taking a crap on a baseball diamond. Whatever the film footage, it must be made hypnotic by the music. Typically, the intro is a critical part of the song and it absolutely MUST pull you in with its magic. It must be intoxicating from the first frame and it needs to build gradually. Then, as it builds, it must capture and hold your attention to the point you would rather cut off your own arm than miss where it will lead. If you cannot accomplish this, your listener may abandon the song before you've had a chance to make any meaningful statement.
INTRODUCING THE THEME: After you have pulled your listeners into your mystical, allegorical world, you must now introduce them to the melody (theme) that will carry this story along the path to glory. Glory is coming - make no mistake, but first you need to tell everyone why. The theme is the melody upon which the entire production rests so it should be something memorable. In other words, if you hear it once you may later find yourself humming it in the shower or while ordering a Starbucks. It doesn't matter what instrument you choose to tell this story but it should be an instrument related to the "character" of the story if possible. For instance, if your epic production is about space monsters, a harmonica may not be your best choice. Although....
THE MEAT: Now that you have drawn your listeners into your web and introduced them to the theme, you are obliged to give them something satisfying - after all, they have stayed with you this far - it's only fair to reward them. Transitions are critical here. The impression must be made that you are going somewhere important, scary and dangerous perhaps, but above all, adventurous. A crescendo from the "theme" to the "meat" is a means by which you arrive at a pivotal part of the song - and while that crescendo should be big, it should not be so big that the "real" crescendo coming later is not surprising and satisfying. "The Meat" is where the theme gets some legs so make it stand out. You may also want to introduce some sub-themes at this point which can be used again throughout the song. They add dimension and dialogue to the music. A main theme without sub-theme melodies makes for a very dull conversation.
THE BIG MEAT TRANSITION: Now this gets tricky. Your listener is engaged, thrilled perhaps, but it is vital that you now take them to the promised land. Any builds or crescendos that came previously must seem small in comparison to what's coming. The transition from 'meat" to "big meat" cannot be merely a cymbal roll with a few timpani hits. This crescendo transition must be sufficiently intense that the listener wouldn't mind if that's all there was to the entire song. So think about this section carefully because it is an integral part of the arrangement. Perhaps this will help; It should make you feel like you are strapped to a Saturn Rocket blasting off from another Saturn Rocket which is blasting off from yet another Saturn Rocket which is blasting off from an asteroid hurtling past the sun at the speed of light. It needs to get insane.
THE BIG MEAT: So you survived the rocket transition and you are now in another world altogether. This segment should be to the "meat" segment as a nuclear bomb is to a firecracker. The "Big Meat" segment IS the song. It's what everyone has been waiting for. It is the payoff, the reward, the "promised land" audio wise and it must not disappoint. This segment needs to be much more than merely satisfying. It needs to be LIFE ALTERING. So take your time, use all your skills and tools and make this section so profound that it justifies the title of the song (unless that title is, "Fluffy Just Pooped On Second Base"). The theme melody will be featured here. You introduced us to that theme early on and this is where that melody matures and becomes what it knew it would be when it was all grown up. This melody, now being carried by every musician in your 90 piece orchestra, must be triumphantly huge. The melody itself should have variations from the original to keep things interesting. Don't forget to use your "ghost" themes here as well. This is where the word "glory" comes into full play. If your listeners aren't whispering "holy shit" to themselves at this point, you have missed your goal.
THE COME-DOWN: All good things must end and "The Big Meat" is no exception. How to end it is the question. The good news is, there is no set-in-stone way to end it. An abrupt ending might be perfect or a slow withdrawal perhaps. You have to use your intuition to figure out what works best. How it ends does however, have a lot to do with what's coming next - what you are coming down into, which is the INTERLUDE. The Interlude is usually a quiet, introspective segment which, much like the intro, must hold your interest while giving you time to gather your thoughts after the beating you took during "The Big Meat". It should contain "ghosts" of the theme melody, ghosts of the sub-theme melodies and is often effectively achieved by introducing new previously unused instruments. You must always try to keep things interesting. The interlude is a vital part of any "epic" production and it is also the springboard from which you will launch yourself into "BIG MEAT PART 2". You can use the same crescendo techniques you used earlier to get into it - just be sure you don't copy/paste the crescendo transition you used earlier.
THE BIG MEAT PART 2: This is the same as "BIG MEAT PART 1" except here you might want to consider a modulation. Taking it up a few semitones creates a sense of "going somewhere", and it is very effective in keeping people interested. It adds excitement and gives the impression that the theme is not just a melody - it is actually an important political statement. It informs the listener you are serious about telling your story and that you are committed to delivering it in a new and exciting way. A modulated theme here validates every single thing you have accomplished up to this point. Use different orchestral instruments to add even more validation. Having your story told by different voices (instruments) imparts tremendous credibility.
THE END: Well, it's been fun. The ending is what people are left with after their epic journey and there will be some scars and emotional wounds that need healing. Use the theme melody here to quietly and gently remind the listener that his journey was not in vain - that his suffering through glory was justified - his "redemption through violence" was spectacularly achieved. This is the "cigarette after sex". It is the "cognac in a crystal goblet, while wearing a bathrobe", as a friend of mine (Mark Hewer) once described. Let them down gently. A long goodbye is important here because what you have just been through was intense. You mustn't just walk out the door as if the sex didn't mean anything. It meant something - maybe a lot - to her (your listener) so be a gentleman and let the memories linger. A short disclaimer: some industry pros would vigorously disagree with this approach and rightly so. In many cases, a big build-up to a climactic and abrupt ending is preferable, especially for TV trailers. TV spots need to move on to the next programming quickly, leaving you impressed and wanting more so a long, slowly ebbing ending does not work in those cases. I get around this by using a big climactic buildup and an abrupt ending, followed by just enough time to let the reverb tails fade away - THEN I get into the sentimental goodbye. Works for me.
OBJECTIVE ASSESSMENT: When I've finished a production I like to let it sit for a few days before I listen to it again. Trust me, you will find all manner of things that can be improved and which will be glaringly obvious if you have given the track some "distance". This is crucial. Always let the song rest like a freshly grilled New York strip loin. Instead of 5 minutes, let it rest for a few days - maybe a week if you have the time. Don't go near it. Don't think about it. Avoid the temptation to even open the session. Work on a different song for a while if you have to. You will thank me for this if you don't already employ this technique. It may be the most important production decision you make.
GET A PAIR OF OBJECTIVE EARS: If you are lucky enough to have a publisher who actually cares about your material, he or she may offer some objective criticism. It hurts to hear anyone say anything negative about your recently finished piece of "art" but trust me on this one; an objective pair of ears from an industry professional is worth its weight in gold. Always listen. You can disagree and you can both agree to disagree but at least listen. They are usually right. They are professionals, after all. If you don't have a publisher who cares enough to offer some guidance, get a composer you know to give it a listen. In the end, your heart will tell you what to do.
Okay... Thanks for listening. Now, GET EPIC.
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