Jump to content
Will

How Does Each Film Composer Write (Paper or Software)?

Recommended Posts

I was wondering recently which film composers use/used pen/pencil and paper and which use/used computer software. For example, Horner. Or Desplat (I know he uses the VSL but does he sometimes use paper)? Giacchino (obviously he uses MIDI sometimes, but always?) Etc.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In general, composers who grew up before the personal computer (the early 1980s with a milestone being Mac in 1984) use paper and pencil.  Of course there are exceptions.  Also important is Finale and early DAW which were early 1990's and late 1990's.Those who grew up after have no memory of a non personal computer.  It is fair to say that those who grew up after the late 1990's were using digital audio workstations as their primary method of writing music.  Those before it were using pencil an paper.  This is a gross generality.

 

I think it is important that a budding composer not look too much to the past as a way to emulate how it was done.  There was a major change once technology improved on the process.  Do what feels right.  Don't reject the past nor the future trends.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
18 hours ago, Will said:

I was wondering recently which film composers use/used pen/pencil and paper and which use/used computer software. For example, Horner. Or Desplat (I know he uses the VSL but does he sometimes use paper)? Giacchino (obviously he uses MIDI sometimes, but always?) Etc.

 

You watched that VSL interview? Didn't know you were getting into virtual instruments.

 

AFAIK, Shore, Williams, Young, Broughton and McNeely are some of the only well-known examples of composers still writing with pencil and paper.

 

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 minutes ago, Stefancos said:

I don't consider MIDI composers to be on the same level as proper ones.

They assemble music rather then write it. Technology stiffles creativity anyway.

 

How can you make a statement like that if you're not affiliated with composing in any way?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
2 minutes ago, Stefancos said:

It's a know fact. Technology infantizes people. How can you be a proper composer if you can only create music using a battery of computers?

 

Why are you assuming that whoever composes with the aid of a computer can't compose without one? Likewise, would a pencil and paper composer unable to get his thoughts across using a computer be a lesser composer, then?

 

2 minutes ago, Stefancos said:

It's a know fact. Technology infantizes people. How can you be a proper composer if you can only create music using a battery of computers?

 

Source please.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Say John Williams sits down at his piano, tries a few different things, then stumbles upon one he likes and writes it's notation down on a piece of paper with a pencil. 

 

Then say another composer sits down as his keyboard, tries a few different things, then stumbles upon one he likes. Since his computer had been recording everything he did, he has it output the notation of that section to a piece of paper. 

 

Whats the difference? 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Before the invention of the digital camera, digital filters etc it was much harder to make a really beautiful picture. Now every phone has a good camera, and you can use apps and software to tweak and edit a picture till it looks really great.

 

Anyone can do this. It doesn't require any talent or ability. 

 

It's the same thing with music. People who aren't especially talented are able to assemble music that exceeds their actual capabilities. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
7 minutes ago, Stefancos said:

Before the invention of the digital camera, digital filters etc it was much harder to make a really beautiful picture. Now every phone has a good camera, and you can use apps and software to tweak and edit a picture till it looks really great.

 

Anyone can do this. It doesn't require any talent or ability. 

 

It's the same thing with music. People who aren't especially talented are able to assemble music that exceeds their actual capabilities. 

 

If you think about this a little harder, I trust you'll see why it makes no sense. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Jay said:

Say John Williams sits down at his piano, tries a few different things, then stumbles upon one he likes and writes it's notation down on a piece of paper with a pencil. 

 

Then say another composer sits down as his keyboard, tries a few different things, then stumbles upon one he likes. Since his computer had been recording everything he did, he has it output the notation of that section to a piece of paper. 

 

Whats the difference? 

 

The former method presupposes the composer know what certain orchestral combinations might sound like in his head, and requires more abstract/symbolic thinking on his part as traditional notation is more "representational" than a piano roll. However human imagination can only go so far, so there's a degree of indeterminacy in the end result. I know roughly what a bassoon, alto flute and fibre muted horn playing a G4 will sound like, but not exactly. To me that prospect is more exciting, and I bet Williams feels that same small thrill when he tries out a new colour, chord or voicing. While a VST is a time saver and it can act as a prompt, and in a sense like using a calculator you're outsourcing a slice of your grey matter to a piece of software. That's a slippery slope, and why I'll always try and stick to pen and paper, at least at the sketching stage.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I don't like the calculator analogy, Sharkus. It doesn't fit with the rest of what you're saying. The body of your text is giving a fairly emotional argument (thrill, etc.), whilst the former implies a more rational argument.

 

So, suppose I conjure up a combination of instruments I can't exactly imagine - and play it in my DAW. If I'm not all too pleased with that combination, I might alter it. Which is exactly what I might do in a recording session environment.

 

Anyway, I never use a DAW exclusively - I'll always use notation one form or another. There are so many great ways of syncing up both, these days.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

It's no different than how someone writes a compelling and intricate novel using paper and a pencil.  Notation is just representation of something audible, as the written word is.  In the latter case, it can stay as that, while music is ideally heard.  The point being that none of us has to sound out every syllable of what we write.  Are you posting here while speaking the words out loud to ensure they're what you intend?  Are you having the computer read back the words to you?  I'm guessing neither is the case.  And so it is with music.  If you have keen aural skills, it's not that mystifying.  This is why ear training, as awful as it is, is probably the most invaluable part of a composer's education.  It becomes an internal sense of sound, stimulated by the very look of something on a page.  

 

Where technology really comes into this process is bypassing the need for such aural skills.  Some, no matter how much work they put into it, will never have the same "inner ear" abilities as others.  That's just how brains work.  Notation programs and sequencers give immediate tactile sonic feedback, more than you could even do at a piano, obviously, and render such imaginative difficulties moot.  

Personally, my aural skills are somewhere above average probably, but I enjoy the sense of not quite knowing how something will sound as I write it.  It's liberating and keeps you from getting bogged down in finding "the right note."  One of many reasons I can't translate my process to involve technology at all.  I often wish I could. 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

John Williams would use computers if he were faster when using them.  He isn't.  It takes years to learn and maintain proficiency with the technology and his time is better spent writing music than learning a new tool every few months.  He himself said if he was starting out now he would be part of a more technologically skilled group of composers but his tool was piano, paper, and pencil.  That is a big step backwards for some kids learning their craft today.  I agree one can't assume a composer is better if they use one set of tools versus another.  I do believe all these learning makes you a better rounded composer.  It is good if you perform music yourself.  It is good if you conduct, it is good if you play in an orchestra at a high proficiency level, but it is also good if you write jazz, rock, opera, enjoy reading, have curiosity, public speaking skills, etc...all these things become part of your tool chest that will make you the better composer.  If you lack any of those, that's a hit working against you.  But that may not mean any of these is your thing.  I took a year of violin lessons.  I suck at violin since it's not my thing but it did help me to think more like a violinist and benefited my writing.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
1 hour ago, Jilal said:

I don't like the calculator analogy, Sharkus. It doesn't fit with the rest of what you're saying. The body of your text is giving a fairly emotional argument (thrill, etc.), whilst the former implies a more rational argument.

 

The emotional argument was meant to be a footnote, although it doesn't read that way. The gist of what I was trying to say is this: relying on a DAW as a compositional crutch can restrict creativity. But then again, there are some who said "write as much as you can within your head, and avoid using the piano." Where do you draw the line? The more I think about it, the more arbitrary that distinction between a piano and DAW seems.

 

1 hour ago, TheWhiteRider said:

Personally, my aural skills are somewhere above average probably, but I enjoy the sense of not quite knowing how something will sound as I write it.  It's liberating and keeps you from getting bogged down in finding "the right note."  One of many reasons I can't translate my process to involve technology at all.  I often wish I could. 

 

That's exactly what I was getting at: re the thrill of the unexpected.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You're spot on saying that the distinction between using technology like a piano to aid in composition and using technology like a computer to aid in composition is arbitrary.  Tools are tools, and tools can be used by anyone, and tools can be misused by anyone, and tools can be a crutch for laziness, and tools can be a powerful ally for craft and imagination.  Someone who skates by using sequencers today would, a hundred years ago, be skating by using notation - it just would be laziness with a different tool.  Yeah, you can copy bars in a notation program and end up with boring repetitive music.  You can also abuse the old come sopra on paper and end up with boring repetitive music.  It might seem like computers facilitate cutting corners, but the truth is that they don't any more than any other method did or does.  And the notion that it's bad that anyone can now take nice photographs or nice video or make music with high production values due to technology is patently silly.  It's great for people to be able to do things.  Those who embrace said things fully will no doubt pursue them in more serious ways than the others who dabble as their gadgets allow, and as always it's those devoted few whose work will rise to the top, so one need not worry about the rabble of wannabe artists choking up their precious stream of Great Art...

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
6 hours ago, Stefancos said:

Agreed, but there are a lot of people who consider themselves a good photographer but wouldn't be able to take a decent snap without their digital aids.

 

On the contrary, it's much easier to get a good shot on an analogic camera. Almost any way you end placing the camera will end up looking decent at the very least. On a digital camera you have to be much more careful and precise, as you get far more detail. So I don't think this comparison applies, honestly.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I thought I posted this, but it never showed up or got eaten by the board, so: "I know Shore uses pencil and paper.  According to "On the Track," Broughton and Young write by hand as well (although a poster here once said Young has abandoned that), and HGW and Debney start on paper but move pretty quickly to computer. "

 

1 hour ago, TheWhiteRider said:

You're spot on saying that the distinction between using technology like a piano to aid in composition and using technology like a computer to aid in composition is arbitrary.  Tools are tools, and tools can be used by anyone, and tools can be misused by anyone, and tools can be a crutch for laziness, and tools can be a powerful ally for craft and imagination. 

 

Someone who skates by using sequencers today would, a hundred years ago, be skating by using notation - it just would be laziness with a different tool.  Yeah, you can copy bars in a notation program and end up with boring repetitive music.  You can also abuse the old come sopra on paper and end up with boring repetitive music.  It might seem like computers facilitate cutting corners, but the truth is that they don't any more than any other method did or does.

 

And the notion that it's bad that anyone can now take nice photographs or nice video or make music with high production values due to technology is patently silly.  It's great for people to be able to do things.  Those who embrace said things fully will no doubt pursue them in more serious ways than the others who dabble as their gadgets allow, and as always it's those devoted few whose work will rise to the top, so one need not worry about the rabble of wannabe artists choking up their precious stream of Great Art....

On one level, I totally agree with you.  Tools are tools, and it's ultimately about the person using them and not the technology that facilitates their work.  But that's the key word: facilitate.  Once you get used to the process, you can work much more quickly using notation programs, and for someone like me who's dysgraphic, the aid in precision is a godsend.  But I don't think you should have to rely on those digital tools to produce something.  There's a reason photography programs, for example, still begin instruction on film.  It's that you learn technical skills and process that can't be hand-waved away by "computer magic."  Even if you ultimately make the decision to use, say, digital focus or Photoshop to touch up photos as a professional, you've learned to create art that can stand on its own.  You've learned about photo composition and light balance; you've learned about the inner workings of your craft.  Art doesn't exist in a vacuum.  Someone might be self-taught or lack formal training, or consciously choose to break with tradition, but by the time that person's really making something meaningful and lasting, that artist is aware of his or her predecessors and contemporaries, and has developed a fundamental understanding of the methods of his or her choosing.

 

And that's why I think that either proficiency with traditional notation or considerable experience in a performance tradition that doesn't rely on notation is really essential for a composer.  When you come up with an idea in your head and can immediately put that on paper (or into a computer), or play an instrument and subsequently transcribe it, or even play directly into a multi-track recording (with some pre-existing plan and intention), you're showing a much deeper understanding of what you're doing than someone just fiddling with a sequencer until the playback module gives affirmation that the result sounds "good."

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
9 hours ago, Jay said:

Say John Williams sits down at his piano, tries a few different things, then stumbles upon one he likes and writes it's notation down on a piece of paper with a pencil. 

 

Then say another composer sits down as his keyboard, tries a few different things, then stumbles upon one he likes. Since his computer had been recording everything he did, he has it output the notation of that section to a piece of paper. 

 

Whats the difference? 

 

The difference is that the other composer will never be John Williams.

 

Spoiler

I kid. I kid. Or do I.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I mentioned Broughton and Young earlier, @Gnome in Plaid. ;)
 
To get back to the DAW vs notation argument, I'd say both are ultimately restricted in some form. A DAW gives you a finite set of articulations to fiddle with (depending on whether you use keyswitches or not they may or may not be directly visible), an what will eventually be written on score pad is restricted by your knowledge of notation or skill translating your musical thoughts into it. A beginning composer may feel more freedom using a DAW as he may not yet be fluently familiar with all the different articulations of, say, string instruments. In that regard, computer composition can be pedagogical. It can be a catalyst of further development.
 
I wonder ... if Williams would have been born some twenty years ago, would he prefer using a DAW?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

He would be confused and baffled by such infernal machinations! After attempting to master it's use for a few hours he would be found on the grounds outside, hugging a tree and sobbing!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 9/26/2016 at 11:10 PM, Jilal said:
I wonder ... if Williams would have been born some twenty years ago, would he prefer using a DAW?

 

 He would consider it voodoo that something that looks like a trashcan can simulate an entire orchestra. Actually, he pretty much answers this in the USC interview from a few years back. He mentions technology as  being hard for him to grasp because unlike the current students he didn't grow up with it.  I think we can infer from that had he been born recently he would have embraced it.… and probably kick all our asses with his skills with it given his characteristic work ethic.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
17 hours ago, Stefancos said:

Before the invention of the digital camera, digital filters etc it was much harder to make a really beautiful picture. Now every phone has a good camera, and you can use apps and software to tweak and edit a picture till it looks really great.

 

Anyone can do this. It doesn't require any talent or ability. 

 

It's the same thing with music. People who aren't especially talented are able to assemble music that exceeds their actual capabilities. 

If I thought the highest purpose of music were a dick-measuring contest of "capabilities", I'd be on board with this. But to me, it's to hear and listen—and write—works that move others. While I admire technical ability, I love the fact that computers allow people who are less technically capable and trained to create more music and more photographs. I want more people to be able to express themselves in music just as easily as they can in words.

 

So actually I agree—MIDI composers certainly aren't on the same technical level as a paper and pen composer. But so what? If we took this attitude towards literacy, the written language might still be reserved only for elite scholars at universities, and only professors could be poets.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
20 hours ago, Stefancos said:

Agreed, but there are a lot of people who consider themselves a good photographer but wouldn't be able to take a decent snap without their digital aids.

 

What your argument comes down to is orchestration and performance, not composing.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
On 9/26/2016 at 2:08 PM, Jilal said:

 

You watched that VSL interview? Didn't know you were getting into virtual instruments.

 

AFAIK, Shore, Williams, Young, Broughton and McNeely are some of the only well-known examples of composers still writing with pencil and paper.

 

 

 

No, no, I'm not really into virtual instruments at this time. I'd just watched a little of the video once when I was wondering how composers worked (obviously aside from pencil and paper).

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I know that Gordy Haab (SW:Battlefront/SW:TOR/SW:Kinect/Halo Wars 2) uses pen and paper. He has dedicated team of mock-up artists that help him present his ideas to producers utilizing virtual instruments. He has mentioned it in several interviews.

 

http://cpa.ds.npr.org/wshu/audio/2016/10/GordyHaabMix.mp3

6:18

 

Not really a "film composer", but thought I will post this anyways, since I am his psycho-fan.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There's a certain convenience, and immediacy to composing on a computer, but pen-and-paper has a certain bespoke quality, that indicates a personal touch.

Having said that, three of the best damned scores of the 80s were (I think) composed, and performed on synthesisers.

 

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

There's only one cue I can think of where I really felt that the computer had guided the composer too much (a cue from Badelt's The Time Machine) and the cue sounded odd as a result.

 

Otherwise, I've been surprised to find out a few composers who work with pen and paper, or who work with computers, which implies that from a fairly surface level, it doesn't really matter.

 

I'm a programmer, and I use an IDE, which is an environment which speeds up the writing process. However, it doesn't do that by creatively or logically doing anything, rather making the 'mechanical' side (typing and formatting) more efficient. Hence, it doesn't remove the need to know the language. There is a debate going on at the moment at work as to whether a professional coder should be able to work without these tools, and the overwhelming consensus (at least among those who have deadlines) is that you'd be an idiot not to use them.

 

Some on Stack Overflow will preach that you should be able to write a program on a napkin. I say: why make life so hard for yourself?

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Yes. I've said it before and hopefully won't say it again, but tools are tools. Today's tools are as legitimate and capable of aiding in the production of brilliance as the old ones are. It depends on the person using them, and what works best and most efficiently to facilitate their creativity. There is nothing more "bespoke" or "personal" about writing on paper than other methods.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

×