How do you get started when scoring a film that requires ethnic influence in the music? Over the next couple of months I will be scoring a number of ethnic influenced films and I'll be sharing my process with you every step of the way. Our first step is the research, but it includes much more than music.
Films I will be scoring include an Irish influenced animated short by Grounded filmmaker Justine Howard, a Greek influenced documentary feature by director George Tsioutsioulas, and an Asian influenced Legend of Zelda fan film by A Boy Named Bellamy filmmaker Israel Combs.
Music plays a different role in almost every culture, from celebrations and ceremonies to spiritual healing. Understanding the culture outside of the music can help you understand how the culture views music and what role music plays in that culture. This will also save you any embarrassment you might suffer if you use music at an inappropriate time, such as playing music that traditionally is only played during funerals over a scene of celebration. While the audience may not pick up on this mistake, it's still important to be as accurate as possible when dealing with these situations as there may be audience members who do catch this and it could take them out of the scene.
You can't truly understand the current culture without knowing at least some of the country's history. Music has an incredibly rich history around the world and many instruments and musical conventions have traveled from country to country and have been adapted along the way. This can be especially important if the film takes place at a certain period in history.
Instruments & Ensembles
Probably the most identifiable aspect of certain ethnic music is the use of certain stereotypical instruments, such as the shakuhachi or sitar. But while it's important to understand the traditional instruments of a particular culture, it is equally important to understand the ensembles they belong to. Again, the audience may not catch that you're mixing instruments that traditionally were never on stage together, but if you are trying to capture an authentic cultural sound, you should research how various instruments were performed together in various ensembles as well.
Harmonies & Melodies
As with stereotypical instrumentation, harmony and melody play a large role in ethnic genres. It's easy for Western ears to get stuck in our traditional chords and scales, but the world is full of incredibly complex harmonies and melodies, some even using microtones (tones between our traditional semitones). You may even need to tune your instruments differently to achieve an authentic sound,
Rhythm is often overlooked by many musicians and composers, but if you've ever studied ethnomusicology (the study of ethnic music) you know how incredibly important rhythm can be. I'll never forget my ethnomusicology course from the University of Oregon, where we had African percussion ensembles performing and were asked to identify the downbeat (beat 1). The professor made a fool of us all when he began clapping the downbeats, which in some cases were so far off from where we thought that we couldn't identify them even after the professor explained the rhythm. This type of research can open your eyes and ears to a whole new world of rhythmic exploration.
Do you know the history of your culture's music? Tell me where you're from in the comments and keep an eye out for the next segment of this blog series!
Film | Music
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