In part one of my new series, Writing Music for TV, Film, Media Best Practices, I will focus on the importance of establishing a clear emotion in your music.

Serve the Visual: the role of Music in TV, Film, Media

One phrase that I will likely repeat often throughout this series is: Serve the Visual. What does this mean?

When talking about making any type of music for the visual medium, we, as composers, need to remember that our Number One job is not to create the best music in the world; our job is to create the best music for the visual. As makers of the music, we are a member of the visual medium communications team and we have a specific job to do. More specifically, our job in the visual medium communications teams is to create what cannot be communicated visually, or, we enhance what is already being communicated visually: We serve the visual.

For example. If a movie scene is about an athlete who overcame adversity and just won the championship game, this would suggest an overall triumphant, inspiring and positive emotion. Assuming that the film director wanted the audience to feel these emotions, we would expect the music to be triumphant, inspiring and positive. Now, imagine that same scene with soft, sad solo viola music. In an instant, the entire emotion of the visual changes depending on the music.

Another example: If a movie scene is about a personal at the funeral of their best friend. What if the composer decided to use polka music, circus music, music played on the tuba? Would this fit the emotion of the scene?


The Power of Music in TV, Film, Media

The examples above might seem extreme (and silly), but I’m trying to prove an important point: Music is a very powerful member of the visual medium communications team. If you ever forget how important music is to a film, think back to the examples above (or similar examples) and explore the possible emotions that your music could evoke.

In an instant, the entire emotion of the movie scene (the visual) changes depending on the music. It doesn’t matter what is happening on the screen. It doesn’t matter what the visuals are. Music has the power to overshadow it all. Hopefully you can see why it is so important to get the emotion “right”


What Emotions?

So, what are the types of emotions we should be able to evoke through our music?

If we are going to hold such power on the visual medium team, we better know how to conjure up any emotion imaginable, right? Well, a good place to start this study, is to first acknowledge some of the most common emotions.

One thing that always tripped me up was distinguishing between music genre and music emotion. For example, Jazz is a music genre, but it is not an emotion. However, Inspiring is often used to refer to emotions and music styles (although, I believe the main intent of the word is meant to describe the emotion that inspiring music makes us feel.) Romantic is another blurry one for me. I feel like romantic gets used to refer to both emotions and a genre/style of music. This is all terminology talk, but something to be aware of.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will only be referring to these terms as emotions. After all, any genre of music can be used to evoke any emotion. But, the starting point is always to understand the emotion we want to achieve.

I found something on the internet that described the 6 main areas of human emotion. Of course, there are more emotions out there, but, I liked the simplicity of starting with these 6 top-level emotions and then working down to more specific ones. These 6 are:

  1. Happy
  2. Sad
  3. Fear
  4. Disgust
  5. Anger
  6. Surprise

This is a great start if you ask me. In my experience, with the exception of “disgust,” these are all emotions I have been asked to compose music for.  The first 3, in particular, along with the variants, or “sub” categories that come with them, are definitely the most popular (in my experience.) (1) “Happy” and  (2) “Sad” might be the 2 most common and understood emotions. They are also the strongest opposites of one and another. To me, (3) “Fear” is the highest level of  tension/suspense, which, for me, has been the single-most requested emotion to compose for. With this in mind, let’s create a table of other emotions and see where they fit in relation to these top 6.

Happy Sad Fear Disgust Anger Surprise
—Comedy Torment Horror  Contempt  Frustration  Shock
Triumphant Misery Scary
Exciting Depressed Frightened
Inspiring Distress Suspense
Uplifting  Forlorn Tension
—Romance  Sorrow Anticipation
Joy Disappointment Anxiety
Calm/Peaceful Longing  Confusion

The table above is certainly no scientific document to show how human emotions are identified and categorized. What is listed here is not even all of our emotions. What I’m attempting to do in this table is show how many of the emotions we need to write music for, can almost fit under one of the main 6 top-level emotions. And, even more important for this discussion, if we read from the bottom of the table to the top, and imagine a movie scene progressing, we can almost see an escalation up as the emotion increases.

For me, this is best articulated in the “fear” column: A character is first confused, then become anxious, then feels something is about to happy (anticipation), becomes tense, which turns into suspense, before they are frightened and then scared and then all out Horror!!!! This model is far from perfect and it’s only my interpretation. You might not agree with these categorizations, and/or how they fit on my “emotion escalation graph.” But, I do think it’s important to find ways to understand how these all related to one and another. If you’re working on a project, and the director asks for music that creates anticipation, you’ll have some frame of reference for where that emotion sits: it’s not confusion, and it’s not scary, it’s somewhere in the middle, Etc. And, perhaps more important, if the director is using terms like these (and these are exact terms I’ve heard), then, you can help them better understand what they are really looking for from the music. For example: “you (the Director) asked for “suspense music”, but after I viewed the visuals, I’m wondering if something a little lighter, like anxiety, might be a better music goal for this scene?”

To my point above, the “emotion terms” I have used in this table, are taken directly from the terms I hear from people when working on music projects. They will use terms like these to describe the types of emotions expected from the music. For example: “we want something uplifting as the scene opens up.” Or, “we need to show the character forlorn after all their lover left them.” Or, the most common request: “we need create tension between the two characters.”


How to Express Emotion in Music

Music fundamentals gives us the two most powerful tools for expressing emotion: The Major (Happy) and the Minor (Sad) keys. Of course, saying that all music in major keys is happy, and all minor keys are sad, is a terrific over-simplification to say the least. But, this is a good starting point. It’s certainly helpful that these two musical modalities do a nice job of expressing the two most powerful (and opposite) emotions – this will cover a lot of ground!

If follow this musical theory, and we dig deeper, we can see these musical themes follow the foundations of sound theory. In other words, there’s some science behind all this major and minor, happy and sad talk.


It’s all Math: The Harmonic Series

When we open our music theory books, we learn early-on about the harmonic series. To briefly summarize (and over-simplify) here: Whenever a note is played, we hear not just the frequency that produces that note, but, we also hear a series of overtones (harmonics) that play in ascending frequencies above that main fundamental frequency (note.) For example, when you play the note A on your piano, you hear the octaves of that A, as well as octaves of E (the 5th) and C# (the major 3rd) others. The most dominant of these overtones, the first harmonics – ones closer to the fundamental, A. are all members of the Major scale: A, E, C#. This is why notes in the major scale sound so “pleasing” or natural to us. There is no dissonance/tension created because all the notes “fit” together.


Writing Music for TV Film Media the Emotion


When we introduce notes that do not appear dominant in the harmonic series, our ears hear this as a conflict: something is not quite right. This is what creates tension in music, and tension is something that our ears need to resolve. We are waiting for the resolution back to that pleasing, harmonious major key.

The key of A minor has a  C natural instead of the C# from the major scale. This C natural is not part of the harmonic series for A. Therefore, we hear the resulting family of tones as having tension: looking for resolution. In the case of major and minor keys, this tension is with the 3rd of the scale: C# vs C natural. The relationship between these two notes creates a tension that, to our ears, creates the battle between Happy (major) and Sad (minor.) The sad is trying to resolve back to happy.

A more dramatic tension is created between the 5th of the scale. In this example, that would be E. If we flat the E, we get Eflat. In the key of A, this would be a diminished interval relationship. A diminished sound takes “Sad” to the next level, and starts to introduce elements of anxiety and fear, as that Eflat is trying so hard to resolve back to the E natural. This is a very powerful interval, and you can probably already imagine it being used to create more suspense, and eerie emotions.

After writing about all this intense music theory, I hope you understand that this is just a way to put some logic, based in nature, behind how music “works,” More specifically: why certain note relationships evoke the feelings they do. You can use this is a starting point for your music, and also, as tools for injecting more tension when needed.


How instrumentation can impact music emotion

To me, a tuba sounds funny and a viola sounds sad. Of course, you might not agree. However, each instruments does have its own specific sound, and, we can leverage the qualities of each sound to support the emotional aspects of our music. I discovered a fascinating study done by Empirical Musicology Review. They wanted to understand what made certain instruments sound more “sad” than others. One of the key takeaways they discovered was that the instruments that could better recreate the sound of the human voice (mostly string instruments) tended to be the most capable of sounding “sad.” I’ve included a few screenshots from the study and you can read the full paper here.

instruments that sound sad

img class=”aligncenter wp-image-987 size-full” src=”” alt=”instruments sound” width=”841″ height=”354″ />instruments that sound sad

Stick with a Single, Clear Emotion

This best practice is primarily for writing music for sync purposes. Or, in other words, when you’re not being asked to score to picture, but instead, when the music is created first, with no specific visual in mind. In this scenario, a TV show might wait until the editing phase to begin to “audition” various pre-recorded pieces of music (called “cues”) that can be placed (aka synced) to the visuals. This is where the term “sync” comes from: “syncing music to picture.”

In this context, you want each cue to represent one, single emotion only. If you start the cue sad, but then transition to something happy, or to yet another emotion, this will confuse and delay the music and video editors, as they are looking for a specific musical emotion to support a specific visual emotion. If the emotion on the screen changes, then, they will simply search for the best musical cue to support that new emotion.


Perceiving emotion in music can be difficult. What I might think is tense, you might think is scary. Therefore, in the case of creating music for TV, Film and Media, I suggest focusing on creating a single clear emotion for each cue. If, from one listening, your audience can’t tell what emotion you are trying to convey through a piece of music, then, it’s likely that it would not be a successful cue in the TV, Film and Media world. In this world, there can be no question about what the emotion is. Film directors and TV producers use music as a powerful creative medium to support the story they are telling. In order to tell a clear story, that a viewer can follow, the music and visual must match.

Check out my Intro to Orchestral Sample Library series!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *