Select Page

by Eric Reasoner

Film Scoring: the “art” of creating music for motion pictures – music that will “underscore” the dramatic moments on screen.

Drum Corps: the “art” of creating a musical and visual entertainment experience … (well, you fill in your own definition if you like).

Film scoring and Drum Corps, an interesting pair – different worlds, yet some familiar ground…opposite methods used in development, yet alike in overall intent.

Musical form and visual form, which comes first? The scene or the score, the drill or the arrangement, which one is the primary element? Good question. The answer is … it depends. Let’s see.

The audience files into the cinema and settles into their seats – popcorn and soda in hand. As the “Coming Attractions” finish, the house lights fade to black and our feature begins …

The opening act fades in – Wide shot of a beautiful underwater scene as light filters down from above. As the camera ascends toward something ahead, a school of fish swims past. Slowly, a silhouette becomes clear…it’s a woman swimming near the surface. The camera picks up speed growing closer and closer to the swimmer, until it bursts through the water’s surface – revealing something breath-taking.

Now, what music do you hear for this scene? Something nautical, with heroic french horns? Swirling harps, accenting the movement through the water? Mysterious strings, playing dissonant tremolos to create anxiety? Hmmm….

Welcome to the world of the film composer – the person who must create the appropriate musical “atmosphere” for the movies. It is this person who sits for hours (mostly alone) watching the film’s scenes over and over, until the right inspiration comes. That inspiration being: a musical composition with the right theme, the proper tempo, the perfect orchestration, that will draw the audience into the movie. In other words, creating original musical form which enhances the visual (dramatic) form. Does this sound familiar (or more like role reversal) to you drill designers out there? Yes, in the art of film scoring, the picture comes first – then the music. After the scenes are edited together, the composer is hired to write the musical score. This score is written to follow the shape of the visual form. Sometimes in the background and sometimes up front, the music must always work together with the picture toward the ultimate goal: generate the most effective emotional response in the viewers. Now there’s a familiar concept!

So anyway, in the example above, there are several possible (and correct) musical solutions. The key is – what is the desired dramatic intent (i.e. – what do you want the audience to feel?) In this case, the “breath-taking” revelation at the conclusion of this scene was not a tropical paradise, but a shark attack. The director’s intent was to set up the audience with a feeling of anxiety, then horrify them. The film was Jaws (1975) and the music was composed by John Williams. I doubt that anyone could forget his incredibly effective and frightening score. The success to this score was his theme for the shark … that low, ominous, A sharkpulsating pattern in the double basses. Once you heard it and saw the scene described above, you had been programmed: low bass theme = shark. It is this association – music to visual, that is a key to audience response. Often a subliminal element in films, music can tell you how to feel about what you are seeing on screen. Even though the images on screen may be saying “it’s a beautiful ocean today,” the music may be saying “don’t go in the water!”

So what did we conclude? Well, the picture is “king” in the world of film, and music is designed to heighten the dramatic “experience” of the film presentation. The musical form is dictated by the visual (dramatic) form. Music sometimes accents the visuals and sometimes it plays contrary to what we see – but it is always focused on the dramatic intent of the story, and the emotional impact on the audience.

And what about the “art” of Drum Corps? Well, let’s make a comparison by changing a few words in the paragraph above.

1979 North Star

The audience files into the stadium and settles into their seats – popcorn and soda in hand. As the “You may take the field for competition” announcements finish, the drum major salutes and our show begins…

The opening set starts to move – Wide arcs from 30 yard line to 30 yard line rotate, with percussion in center and guard across the back. As the arcs spiral toward something down in front, a group of dancers runs away holding up long streamers, which trail behind. Slowly, a formation becomes clear…it’s a block, still moving toward something down in front. The block picks up speed growing tighter and tighter, until it stops – revealing something breath-taking.

Now, what is the music that you hear for this show? Something classical with traditional brass figures? Swirling “pit” vibes/xylophone/misc. percussion, accenting the spiral movements? Abstract melodic runs and dissonant trills to create anxiety? Hmmm….

Well, this is a fictitious drum corps show example and, although it may be an interesting exercise, it is also sort of the “opposite” approach to designing a drum corps show – seeing the visuals then writing the music. This procedure (visuals then music) is a curious juxtaposition from the world of drum corps. In drum corps, we start with the music. It’s style, tempo, harmony, and instrumentation – the musical form dictates the development of the visual presentation. The color, movements, and patterns all grow out of the shape of the musical arrangement. Always, (we hope) keeping in mind the ultimate goal – generating the appropriate emotional response from the audience.

1983 Valley Airs

In the film scene example above, there may be several possible musical solutions depending on the personal tastes of the composer and film director. But, as long as the music relates to the dramatic intent and visual form of the scene, it will work. So too with drum corps, the visual presentations of a particular musical piece may vary with the interpretations of different visual designers. The important point is: a strong relationship with the musical form. Without this relationship, the audience is left to try to figure out what it all means. And, just as there are films which aren’t so good – there are also drum corps shows which don’t work so well.

This is not to say that visual designers are at fault. There is a great amount of responsibility resting on the shoulders of those people creating the show concept especially when selecting music. It is much like writing the screenplay for a film. The plot, the characters, and the dialogue must all work together to create the proper flow, and then with the right music – the film comes to life. When designing a drum corps show, this same flow is first dependent upon the right choices in music. If mistakes are made at this early stage, then even the best visuals in the world can only be partially successful.

In conclusion, I leave you with this: As they say in the film business – if the audience can’t understand it (or at least relate to something on the screen), they won’t feel anything – SO don’t expect a box office return. I then submit, the same holds true in drum corps, if they don’t ‘get it’ – you missed the real goal: connecting with your audience.

Addendum: Since this article was written in 1996, several years have passed and the art of Film Scoring and that of Drum Corps have both changed. My intent in this article was to look at the opposite processes involving music and visuals within these two ‘arts forms’. For Film Scoring, the picture came first and the musical score came afterwards. For Drum Corps, the process was opposite – musical choices, compositions and arrangements came first, followed by drill and visual design.

With the advancements in digital technology, electronics, amplification, instruments used, etc. the process has been impacted for both art forms. One can argue that even the names of these ‘arts’ are in flux. The use of Film (actual 35mm motion picture film reels projected in the theater) has become almost entirely extinct, even though we still may use the term film when referring to “movies”. As for Drum Corps (formerly Drum & Bugle Corps), the move to Bb ‘brass’ instruments, trombones, concert French horns (yikes!?), amplification, and elaborate visual presentations (including programs to explain the show concept) have all played a role in its evolution.

Today, the processes used in the creation of a Drum Corps show and a film score have also changed. My original question in the article was: “Musical form and visual form, which comes first?” for each art. The answers were clear in 1996 as noted, but now there are very blurry answers for each. Today, it seems that music OR visuals could come first in either art form. And/or, they can influence each other in a myriad of ways – merging and morphing with each other in the process.

In film scoring, such A-list film composers as Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, mention their fervent choice to be involved as early as possible – even before filming begins. That way, their themes and musical ideas can inform and influence the filmmaker’s process from the script / screenplay moving forward, as opposed to starting their work after the film is shot and edited.

Likewise, in Drum Corps the show designs emerge from staff meetings and brain-storming sessions that could have either music OR visuals guiding the direction. The importance of music being first, it seems, is no longer necessarily the case – depending on each corps’ staff. Also, either aspect (music OR visuals) could change or be changed by the other, depending on the desired effect. This requires some (hopefully) wise choices, when it comes to editing the music for a specific visual effect and not ruining the integrity of the musical composition.

Overall, both art forms continue to develop – and hopefully improve – with the new methods used for scoring a film or designing a corps show.