There are thousands of ways in which you (the composer) can emphasize the drama of a scene, and every composer will interpret the scene differently. Below are just a few ideas to consider that are widely utilized by many successful composers all over the world.
1. Orchestration and Genre Clichés
It is important to consider exactly what kind of film it is that you are working on so that you can understand what kind of drama is necessary to convey in your music. For example, the drama that may take place in a science fiction thriller like James Cameron's "Aliens" (composer: James Horner), is not going to sound like the drama that you would find in a movie like Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha" (composer: John Williams).
So your first question is going to be this: what is my orchestra? This will again depend on the style of the film. So let's consider some useful clichés that are found in film scores:
Time and Place:
Period and regional scores are very effective, and at times absolutely necessary. Consider the ensembles and instruments that are used in those areas or time periods. If you're writing for a film that takes place in medieval Europe, lutes and recorders work nicely but if you can get a hold of someone who plays a hurdy-gurdy or a sackbut then you're using authentic medieval instruments. Keep in mind that no audience will know what these instruments are unless maybe they have a degree in music or a hobby collecting ancient instruments; the important thing is that they sound like medieval Europe and have been used in the past. Likewise, using authentic Chinese or Japanese instruments like the hichiriki or the ever popular shakuhachi can be very effective as well.
Scores to analyze:
• The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Howard Shore)
• Pirates of the Caribbean (Hans Zimmer)
• Jade (James Horner)
• Memoirs of a Geisha (John Williams)
• Back to the Future Part III (Alan Silvestri)
Every genre of film has its set of musical clichés. Every composer will use the cliché differently, so I will only generalize a couple for the sake of addressing them.
Modern action film scores range quite widely in style. One common technique used in today's action films is the use of rock or metal elements such as drum grooves, distorted guitar, and heavy breakdowns. Another technique being used is utilizing loops and electronic sounds. Last on this list (though not even a slight conclusion to the possibilities) is the use of the always-delightful brass minor-second clusters.
Scores to analyze:
• Batman Begins (Hans Zimmer)
• The Bourne Ultimatum (John Powell)
• Salt (James Newton Howard)
• Tron: Legacy  (Daft Punk)
• 300 (Tyler Bates)
Many of the techniques used for action films are used in a similar way in horror films. The differences are found in the style of the horror movie. Psychological thrillers tend to use more 20th century composition based techniques such as wrong-note harmony/melody, prepared instruments, odd instrument registers. Action-based horror films will obviously use more of the techniques I discussed in the action film section.
Scores to analyze:
• Citizen Kane (Bernard Herrmann)
• Drag Me to Hell (Christopher Young)
• Psycho (Bernard Herrmann)
• Rosemary's Baby (Krysztof Komeda)
• Sleepy Hollow (Danny Elfman)
Note: It is important not to over-use these clichés, they are only tools – you wouldn't use a single screwdriver to build an entire house, so don't use a single cliché to build entire score!
2. Motivic Manipulation
Once your motifs and melodies have been established, you can start thinking of ways to manipulate them so that they can express the various emotions throughout the film (you should actually be keeping this in mind while you are writing your themes). Changing modes and keys, inverting, reversing, shortening, and lengthening are all extremely useful ways of changing your melodies. Changing the harmony behind the melody is also very useful. It doesn't matter which technique you choose, as long as the outcome is a fitting emotion for the scene.
Michael Giacchino's score for the movie "Up" has great examples of motivic manipulation.
Slowing a quick melody down or speeding up a slow melody will change the feeling of the melody completely. In some cases, this can reverse the mood of the motif entirely, making a sad theme full of life, and a lively theme more personal and reserved. One technique that I enjoy using is taking a melody or theme and turning it into a background texture for a new other alternative melody. This is very effective for tying different themes together. Another technique that I think is really cool, but can only be used if the director allows, is using a slow tempo without a pulse during a fast paced scene. Obviously this doesn't always work, but it is a cool way to slow the scene down if its not meant to feel like a climax.
4. Using Silence
Silence. The word alone is quite powerful. It may seem a little strange to think that silence could be used in a medium like music, which needs to be heard to be experienced. But that's just it, we can hear and experience silence. Silence is an extremely powerful tool for composers! This is especially true when the audience is used to hearing the music. Try to envision this situation in a hypothetical film: a woman comes home to a dark house. She hears something in the bedroom, and walks slowly and quietly as she approaches the room. She opens the door to see her husband having an affair with another woman; she says nothing and the scene ends. Now that is a pretty dramatic situation (not to mention a little awkward), and you could definitely score the scene. In fact it almost demands some mysterious music. But now think of how dramatic and traumatizing the scene would be without music – you hear every foot step, every breath; you feel her uncertainty, and you especially feel her anger.
Watch M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village" and listen to how James Newton Howard uses silence to emphasize the drama in his score.
This one is kind of obvious, but it is so important that it needs mentioning. Here's the number one rule: don't give away the scene! If you give the audience too much information too soon, you have failed the audience, the director that put his life savings into the film, and obviously yourself because you probably won't work for that director again. So don't do it. But, there is some fun to be had with timing. I'm sure we've all seen a suspenseful movie where the music makes us think the killer is right around the corner and then BAM...nothing. This is really one of the only time you can do this, and its just another tool to use to trick the ears of the audience and keep them on their toes. But like everything above, use it sparingly.
Film | Music
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