How to compose music for drama

Murray Gold 1‘As composers, drama is at the core of what we do’, said Murray Gold during the opening session of a recent Scoring Drama Masterclass at London’s BFI.

He was the first of three composers to speak at the event hosted by the Screened Music Network. He discussed the different ways you can write music for drama, whether that be for an advert, some form of interactive media or TV programme.

Murray’s work has soundtracked many of TV’s most popular series of recent years including Shameless, Queer as Folk and perhaps most famously, Doctor Who. His was the first of three talks which attempted to lay bare the bones of how to compose music for the screen.

His energetic delivery won over the audience, but obviously underneath the dry humour (he confesses to have Pro Tools on his computer but no idea how to use it) there’s a solid sense of business acumen at work. We picked out the top tips from his talk on writing music for drama…

Find an interesting story to compose music to – and make the music interesting
SoundCloud is full of huge sounding, Hans Zimmer-style compositions. They aren’t very interesting.

Read the script
You need to love drama to score drama and show that you love it.  First time I get a script, I read it. Which some composers don’t do. But reading the script helps you work out where ‘the kick’ is. This job is also a lot more interesting when you’re writing for a show you actually like.

Make your music distinctive…
You need to make music distinctive enough for a child to remember it if they heard in a different room to where it was being played. With Queer as Folk it would have been too obvious to use a house beat-filled soundtrack at 128bpm. Instead I went for American Graffiti-esque kind of music.

… But also recognisable
At the same time, never underestimate how much audiences like to recognise a theme. As long as it’s a nice theme.

With Shameless, I was expressing my love for the original show through the score. My parents had been to America and brought this weird instrument back which worked really well for the programme’s motif. It’s good to apply yourself to the drama, push it through you but still make it sound like you.

Get out of the habit of trying to make a score made cheaply sound big and expensive.
If someone says to you: ‘That really sounds like Hans Zimmer and you did it for £500’ don’t take it as a compliment. It’s not.

Listen to the executive producer – and leave room for humanity
They always want energy from the music and nothing sombre. I really like using the words ‘naughty’ and ‘mischief’ when I talk about music for drama. Everyone gets so caught up in the technicality that they leave no room for humanity.

Find a way to support yourself
My parents were frustrated at my career choice as any career choice in the arts is precarious. When you start off, you do need to gain as much experience as possible and this inevitably entails working for free. It does beg the question ‘how do you survive’ and it’s probably now harder than it’s ever been.

Find out more on upcoming masterclasses from the Screened Music Network website.