Ok, so it's been a while and I've been very busy but I thought I'd try and drop in a quick blog post about writing action/fight music.
A brief overview
Lots of action scenes take place accompanied by major themes from a film or even background songs. This is not really the kind of action music I'm looking at here. What I'm discussing in this post is classic action music - frantic, dissonant and often quite bewildering. Think of everything from Jerry Goldsmith's work to modern films scored by Zimmer. The music has a specific sound and feels a bit like "organised chaos". There are usually no real themes but often melodic fragments occur. Harmonically it is often minor or diminished in nature but changes key frequently and is sometimes polytonal. Below I discuss an approach to how you might build up an action piece, beginning with percussion and layering more devices on top although the order is certainly not set in stone. In fact not only do I often work in a slightly different order, I generally work iteratively, gradually increasing the complexity of the music and moving away from the predictable.
Action music is very often played at a fast tempo (140bpm and above). More importantly it frequently uses busy rhythms of 16th notes or 8th note triplets. These rhythms are usually based in percussion and it makes sense to spend some time learning how to write fast percussion tracks. I wrote a previous blog on this which may be worth checking out. If you're really unsure about writing then you may want to consider working with rhythm loops, at least to begin with. Classic loops are in StormDrum, Stylus (including the Action Drums expansion) and AIR. Working with loops introduces it's own issues because generally you are stuck with entire sequences.
Modern percussion tracks
For action music in the style of Zimmer or Don Davis' work in the Matrix films, loops may work very well. Often the rhythm section will play entirely in 4/4 time and use the exact same rhythm throughout. It's important to note that a fairly solid fast rhythm loop can be made interesting by adding further percussion on top of this, punctuating hit points. Rhythm tracks will often be very fast (particularly Don Davis' stuff) and may be influenced by dance or rock rhythms. Instruments will often be a complete mix of orchestral, contemporary, electronic and ethnic percussion. Japanese taikos have become (too?) popular in recent times.
Classic film percussion tracks
So here we go back to the style of composers such as Goldsmith or Williams. These will tend towards more tradtional orchestral percussion instruments (snare, gran cassa, timps, piatti, suspended cymbals, etc) but definitely have incorporated contemporary, ethnic and electronic percussion into their scores over the years. Generally their rhythms will be more traditional sounding and they will even consider entirely omitting percussion and generating the rhythms from the other instruments, an approach that just wouldn't be considered in modern scores. Also percussion includes tuned percussion and a common trick would be to add a thumping low piano in a score like this. It's a really great effect! Another aspect of these classic film scores (particularly with Goldsmith) is to change time signature a lot, often changing between bars of 4/4, 5/4, 7/8, etc. This adds a fantastic restless quality. It really helps to "throw the listener off-balance" and prevents the music from becoming predictable.
Ostinati are often an important aspect of action music. Their repetitive, rhythmic nature help to add momentum and fortify percussion (or even replace it as mentioned above). Sometimes these can be little more than a single note and interest is generated in the rhythm, other times they actually play out some kind of melodic idea or arpeggio. A common trick is to effectively use one note and then jump to another just for to emphasise a hit (as described below). Minor and diminished scales tend to work well for ostinati. These hits are frequently offbeat. Pretty much all orchestral instruments work well for ostinati but you may want to stay in lower registers for most of the time and reserve the higher registers for really big moments. Having said that, I still enjoy throwing in high violin staccati in eighth notes to add tension.
Once the basic "pulse" of the track is created with percussion and ostinati, we need to start throwing down some hits into the track. If you're writing to picture then often these hits will correspond with actions on screen (explosions, gunfire, car crashes, punches, garden rake in the face, etc) but they don't need to. Usually hits are written in a syncopated and often unpredictable manner to add to the restless feel of the music. Hits are often a combination of percussion with low instruments (such as gran cassa + timp + trombones) but they can include instruments right through the orchestra and often include trills, scale runs, horn glisses and piccolo "rips". Generally hits will carry the bass notes of an action piece but this might not be the case in modern music.
Themes and melodic fragments
Although I mentioned that action music wasn't usually based around themes, it can incorporate theme. Sometimes a slow theme may be played straight across the existing action rhythm and this can work, adding a sense of stability. This is a great way to represent a "hero" turning up in the middle of a piece of action. Themes can also be reworked to fit in the action music. So a fragment of a theme might be played, perhaps reharmonised to a minor or diminished scale and rhythmically more disjointed. It will be vaguely recognisable to a listener but will still sound perhaps less "friendly" and more tense. A thematic fragment might even be used as an ostinato.
With much of the power of action music coming from rhythm and a reliance on ostinati in unison or octaves, it is entirely feasible to almost entirely avoid harmonic ideas. Often there will be at least a suggestion of harmony within the notes used by melodic aspects of the music or an ostinato may outline an arpeggio, for instance. Frequently harmony is basically minor or diminished and simply changes key for interest with bass notes and ostinati moving in parallel to the new key. Key changes will frequently be quite distant and often move by semitones, thirds or tritones. If a sustained harmony is required then often this is taken in the strings or with choirs. Often little more than a pedal tone might be needed and a high pedal tone is a very effective way to hold tension in a piece of music.
Special Effects and Dynamics
One of the final acts to polish up your music might be to incorporate special effects. These can be from percussion, trills, rips, shakes and glisses right up to sound design and synths. They can be hits that add rhythmic elements to sustained noises which might scare or excite the listener. Also, remember to add some level of dynamics to the piece. Drop out the bass or percussion for a bar or swell up to a huge crescendo. If you're main pulse is 8th notes perhaps throw in a bar or two of a 16th note rhythm. Make sure that the track stays one step ahead of the listener and doesn't become obvious or predictable. The longer the piece of music, the harder this becomes!
Working the track
Once I've got the basic core of a track down, I listen back to it and begin to rework it. Usually the first draft will be quite predictable, with straightforward ostinati and fairly obvious hits. After listening to it, new ideas will begin to suggest themselves, usually countermelodies or new offbeat hits and ideas. Sometimes these new ideas will require me to change some of the original idea, perhaps moving hits, changing a time signature, altering a harmony, etc. This is where I get to really elevate a track from the mundane into something new and interesting. This also tends to be the time that gets reduced if I have a very tight deadline (and I always regret it!)
A sample arrangement
Ok, I like to finish with something concrete so here's a basic idea: -
Main pulse using EW pulli sticks, 16th notes @ 145bpm
Ostinato ideas on violas, doubled with horns for louder sections
Hits are a combo of bass + cello + timp + gran cassa + trombones
FX include horn glisses, piccolo rips, trumpet cluster crescendi
Main melodic fragments played on violins 1 + 2 in unison
Changes go from C to Eb to F to A.
Choirs added at final section.
As always this is really just some thoughts and suggestions, mostly to foster some kind of discussion. I'm keen to hear other thoughts on this matter and learn from other approaches.