Composing music for film

  • Explore how film music is composed and hear examples from The Avengers, James Bond and Requiem for a Dream.
  • Understand leitmotifs, chromatics and other key terms.
  • Make your own film composition.
Watch to find out how Nainita Desai composes music for films and TV.

The first film containing sound (both music and spoken dialogue) was The Jazz Singer, released in 1927. Since then, music has been an extremely important part of cinema.

Film composers use music to create atmosphere, sync with on-screen action, and create iconic themes associated with characters in movies.

A film composer will sit down with a director and discuss ideas for a film's soundtrack. The composer will then work on ideas for themes and other music.

Once the film has been shot, the composer will write a number of 'cues' (sections of music to be used in the film). The music will then be recorded and added to the film.

Key parts of film music

Leitmotif is a German word meaning leading motif. In music it refers to a musical phrase that represents a character, place or idea.

Different musical ideas lend themselves to different types of character. Characters such as Jaws (the shark), or Luke Skywalker from Star Wars have instantly recognisable leitmotifs.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
Listen to this leitmotif for a character using only C and G (two notes a 'fifth' apart).

The hero: the fifth

The interval of a fifth is two notes that are five notes apart. It is used in many leitmotifs for heroic characters.

Listen to this leitmotif. A film villain might sound like this.

The villain: chromatic notes

Leitmotifs for villains often use chromatic notes. These are one semitone apart, very close together. Villain themes can also use awkward leaps over long distances between notes.

How the musical material is arranged - the choice of which instruments play the melody, chords, bass line or other parts of the music - will affect how the leitmotif is heard by the listener. For example:

  • The hero's leitmotif played on brass instruments, accompanied by fanfare-like rhythms, will suggest our hero is triumphant.
  • The same leitmotif played by lower instruments, accompanied by eerie sounding chords, will suggest our hero is lost or sneaking around.

Listen to famous pieces of film music

Listen to a full orchestra play Portals by Alan Silvestri. This famous theme from The Avengers films is triumphant and heroic, with the leitmotif celebrating the many heroes of the films all coming together.
Listen to the James Bond theme by Monty Norman. This iconic British film theme contains a repeated guitar riff, along with a swing style accompaniment.
Listen to Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell. This famous theme was originally written for the movie Requiem for a Dream. It has since been used in many different films and contexts, including a Lord of the Rings trailer and even as walk on music for football matches!

Create a leitmotif for yourself

Are you a hero or a villain? Try to create a short musical idea that would work as a leitmotif if you were a character in a film.

What is your favourite film? Listen to the music used when your favourite character is on screen, how does it change throughout the film?

If you want to be the hero, use two notes a fifth apart (like C and G, G and D, or F and C). Base your leitmotif around these two notes.

If you’d rather be the villain, try to use notes very close together (creating chromatic melodies), or leap different distances between notes (some awkward leaps include C-F#, C-G# or C-B).

Keywords

KeywordDefinition
cueA section of music used in a film.
leitmotifA melody used to represent a character or an idea, usually found in film music.
a fifthTwo notes, five notes apart (for example, C-G, G-D, F-C).
chromatic notesNotes that are very close together, just a semitone apart.
leapsA distance between two different pitches.
arrangingTaking musical ideas and deciding which instruments will play them, as well as what music will accompany those ideas.

Next steps

Compose your own music for a film
Composing music for video games
How to become a composer