They may agree about a lot of things, but film composers differ on this fundamental question: Should a score be self-effacing or in-your-face?

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GONE WITH THE WIND. Jaws. 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s hard to think of these films without hearing the music, too. But does that make them good scores, bad scores or neither? Will you know a good score when you hear it? Or, in fact, when you don’t?

Buddy Baker

“The audience is not supposed to notice the score,” asserts Buddy Baker, chair of USC’s Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television Program. “You go to concerts, not movies, to listen to music.”
Baker, who declines to give examples of bad scores or name names, says generally, “if you go to a movie and find yourself listening to the music and not paying attention to the story-line, there’s something wrong.”
Longtime faculty member and prolific film composer David Raksin bristles at that suggestion. “I don’t believe in all that jazz – that ‘if you don’t hear it, it’s great.’ There have been great scores that didn’t go unnoticed and didn’t do any harm to the film.” In fact, he says, the whole idea is a fallacy: “Whether a score is noticed or not doesn’t have much to do with whether it’s good or not.”
David Bondelevitch, who as a music editor is used to striking a balance, concedes something to both sides: “Contemporary audiences are pretty hip,” he says, “so when they notice any element consciously, they become suspicious of being manipulated.” On the other hand, Bondelevitch points to “moaning and groaning TV music” that functions as background music. “It’s generic and ambient. You do need to notice it, but notice it unconsciously, emotionally.”
In other words, an audience should feel moved rather than jerked around. Which points to what’s most vital in scoring for the visual medium: A good score must support the drama, not upstage it. In Raksin’s words, it must “aid and abet.” Whether or not it can stand on its own as music, says Baker, is all but irrelevant as long as it works with the pictures.

THAT SAID, how do you write a good score? There’s no simple blueprint or formula. In fact, one of the most startling experiences for students in USC’s scoring program is seeing how their classmates tackle a scoring assignment. Of the dozen very different cues created for the same scene, Raksin says, fully half will work well.
When asked about his own creative process, instructor Elmer Bernstein – with more than 200 scores to his credit, including the music for Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Ten Commandments (1956) – has this to say: “When I get a film, I spend a week looking. I watch it over and over until it informs me. Then I go through and make a plan in consultation with the filmmaker.
“Once that’s done,” he adds, “the next step is prayer and hoping God is good.”

Very rarely do the composer and the supervising sound editor work together – which explains why a “war of the sounds” often breaks out at the dubbing stage. There are exceptions. The Matrix (1999) composer Don Davis and supervising sound editor Dane Davis (no relation) worked together closely; the film is noted for its score-sound effects symbiosis.
Ingmar Bergman, who used very little music in his movies, is also known as the “Phantom of the Orchestra.”

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