Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Learning to Underscore, Part 2: Restyle music you know

It's tricky to try and actually create music spontaneously for scenes. Hopefully you were a musician before you started this gig, and hopefully you've learned a bunch of songs, a bunch of chord progressions, a bunch of styles... You are going to have to develop skills to take those building blocks you've got in your head, and mix them up to create some new stuff.

A good skill to have here is to take a song that has a particlar emotional feeling, and change it so it has another. Perhaps take a happy song in a major key and turn it in to a sad one in a minor key, and vice versa. Or take a relatively straight song and change a few notes to make it discordant and off-balance.

Try this: Take a song you know pretty well. (Doesn't matter what song. Happy Birthday will do just fine. You know that one, right?) Take that song, and imagine how you'd apply that melody and chord progression to a scene with a particular emotion. Happy Birthday is already pretty happy and bouncy. How would you apply that music to a sad scene? A sleazy scene? An unbalanced crazy scene? A dramatic thriller scene?

If it helps, use the lyrical context of the song for inspiration, and imagine merging that context in to a story with a particular emotion. For example, using Happy Birthday:
  • Sad: A kid's birthday presents were all just stolen. (Heh, that happened to me when I was 10. Good times.)
  • Crazy/Unhinged: Narcissistic person is about to turn 40, and is starting to freak out about it.
  • Sleazy: Stripper-gram surprises someone at the door. (Of course, they went to the wrong house.) (This one has never happened to me.)
  • Hyperactive: Kids birthday party; kids are all hyped up on sugar and start trashing the place.
  • Wistful: Someone reminiscing about a long-lost-love's birthday.

Try this sort of exercise with a bunch of different music. Popular songs, TV and movie themes, commercial jingles... Once you get the hang of it, you'll take what might be a small set of songs, and parlay that in to a good repertoire of mood music.

You can do this with your own music, too. In Prognosis: Death!, the show theme music, and particular character theme music, would morph and change to suit the emotion of the moment.

Being able to apply different styles to a song is another important skill. If you've done a little blues, you know a sad ballad, you can pull off a polka... and you can apply those styles to that song that you know, presto, you've got some unique music. Picking up on scene cues with specific styles can give you opportunities to exploit this skill. For example, in a scene with a Jamaican guy trying to pawn a puppy to passers-by, you might play a reggae version of How Much Is That Doggie In The Window. This is a bit gaggy, of course; I don't think this is as important as being able to change a song to match the emotional cues going on, but it's still handy.

OK, so now you can re-style a song with an underlying emotion. That's great! But you're not done yet.

Next week: Using what you know now as building blocks.

This is part two in a series on learning to underscore improvised scenes.

1 comment:

Michael Pollock said...

Restyling familiar music is essentially the art of "arranging." I like Kris' advice about getting your feet wet and progressing toward more freedom and flexibility. When I first began learning to restyle music, I didn't even think about emotional implications - I just had fun manipulating music as follows: I would take a familiar song and improvise on it in isolated ways, such as "rhythmically," i.e., play "Happy Birthday" with its usual melody, but adapt that melody to a different rhythmic a waltz, as a tango, as an upbeat pop tune. Also I'd sometimes improvise JUST melodically, and keep the tune rhythmically intact, or, finally...improvise only on the song's harmony (chords). By proceeding this way I was eventually able to improvise on a well-known song rhythmically/melodically/harmonically at the same time. Again - Kris gives great pointers that should help beginners become experts. It takes patience, and you'll want to think about ways to make these tools your own.

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