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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.

Harmonic material
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.



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Comment by James Semple on February 18, 2009 at 4:30am
The completed track is now up (and on my page's mp3 player). I haven't added the live flute or violin yet but otherwise I think it's completed.
Comment by James Semple on February 13, 2009 at 8:46am
Thanks Phil ... I'm continuing to develop this track and so the latest version will be available at

There will probably end up being a bit of live ww and strings. Hopefully this piece illustrates my approach as I outlined in the article. At the moment it's only 30 seconds long and I plan to get it up to a minute before I start "working the track".
Comment by phil Kelly on February 11, 2009 at 5:51pm
good hook!

Comment by James Semple on February 11, 2009 at 3:38pm
Oh you can check out the basic rhythm at

Plenty more to go in it but hopefully these two basic elements already form a strong rhythmic hook that will be the backbone of the piece (in the end a 1-minute loop).
Comment by phil Kelly on February 11, 2009 at 3:31pm

I have an old 7/8 funk thing on a Finale file you can use ( without da melody of course ) it may be up on my page as "juan Beatov Stomp"
from my second CD :)

Phil K
Comment by Chris Merritt on February 11, 2009 at 3:14pm
Hey James I have an old 5/4 6/4 rockish song I did - called 'one torch' on my website... Can't wait to hear yours!
Comment by James Semple on February 11, 2009 at 3:07pm
Hey Phil, thank you very much for your comments here. Really pleased you're still getting a chance to read my posts.

Your comments are of course right on the money here and you give extremely valuable advice. Both of your main pieces of advice (working around the sfx and using unisons/octaves rather than chords) are aimed at clarity of presentation of the musical idea and you are right to stress this point.

Anyway, now I have to get back to writing some fight music for a videogame! It's currently in alternating bars of 5/4 and 6/4 (although it's a lot easier to write 11/4 in the Cubase tempo map).
Comment by phil Kelly on February 11, 2009 at 1:53pm
The original post by James was excellent and layed out the basics of action scoring quite well are just a couple other thoughts :

Whenever I was dealing with an action scene, I requested that whenever possible a video dub with at least a scratch mix of the sound effects that would be included ( and as we all know ,at a volume level much higher than the music ) in the mix.

In the instances where I was provided with this, I was able to lay out the music in contrasting registers to the prevailing sounds .

Additionally, I tended to favor big multi octave unisons ( and slower moving dissonant counterpoint ) to any chordal pitch sets ( unless they were in the "thinner" -less effects -portions of the overall scene )

finally, I usually tried to make any of the rhythmic motives contrast to the prevailing sfx by chioce of instrument(s)
i.e. If a tank is rumbling by or a series of explosions were pretty much filling up the low end of the sonic spectrum, I might choose a sound like banging on a metallic radiator with hammers with a high upper mid range spectrum to cut through the effects.
Comment by Adrian Ellis on January 26, 2009 at 7:49pm
Hey Simon,

Sorry for the lack of clarity; I am talking solely about doing it for film, where the ensemble is sight reading a tempo change from 75 bpm, to 132.56 bpm with a switch from 4/4 to 7/4 - TO CLICK and it has to be perfect in 3 takes or less, no rehearsal. With the clock ticking and the budget running, you have to work a little differently.

I'm sure a group in a non-film score recording setting, with time to prepare and then rehearse could pull this off, especially if they were good.
Comment by Adrian Ellis on January 26, 2009 at 1:46pm
Hey James,

Another great post. One thing I love about the way you write is that you address the basics first - and everyone can always benefit from a review of the basics. Also, everyone has a different way of presenting something, which can click with someone in a new way.

I would like to add two things:

1. Don Davis and The Matrix - as you all know, Davis worked with 'breakbeat' electronic artist Juno Reactor for this score. JR and Davis collab'ed to great effect - because each did what they do best. While I don't have as much of an axe to grind w/ percussive loops as Chris (though I like his staunch idealism!), if at all possible, I would encourage investigating a collaboration with someone who specializes in making 'beats'. This would prevent the 'jack of all trades' problem, where your orchestral work suffers (or vice versa) b/c you are focusing on making 'beats', etc. Also, collabs are great for new ideas and fresh thinking (read = friction!). Just a thought.

2. When writing for orchestra, meaning, AN ORCHESTRA with living breathing musicians, watch out that you don't slam into a bar with a massive jump in tempo and/or new time sigs. Even if you are scoring in LA you will be crucified. Give the musos a break and break a slow cue/fast cue into it's 2 constituent parts, and record them separately with a 2 bar 'free' click before each to get them into it. OR, have the tempo change happen over a bar of a held note, so that the orchestra can have 2 bars of the new tempo. I would suggest option one is preferable.

John Williams makes fantastic use of chromatic runs in his action cues. It feels like he just has that string section RUNNING around frantically, looking for a bomb. He's also the master of flute rips in action cues. And xylophone, usually in octave/unison w/ strings - weird, but it works - see Star Wars for plenty o' xylo.



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