Creating memorable themes

I am slated to score an upcoming feature film and the director has given me a script to look at and wants me to come up with a catchy, universal, memorable theme that will make the audience remember his film once they hear the music.

My challenge is that everything I submit, while it sounds great, it is not memorable or catchy enough to him, and I'm basing all these sample themes off of just a script which is full of so many different emotions. I have no picture to go off of yet as they are still filming so I really can't get inspired visually. It's getting to a point where I am getting upset that I may never please this director. What makes it more aggravating is that I'm doing the score for a very reduced rate as the director is a student director. And the director's previous film work is well, home video looking. No tripod. Terrible acting. Sorry to say but if his feature film is not going to up the ante on the filmmaking end, the music may be the only thing decent in it. I don't know why he's so dead set on me coming up with the most amazing theme ever in the history of film. The film should be about telling the story, the music should complement and support it, not be the focus. What needs to be memorable is the film as a whole.

So I ask you fellow composers: Have you ever been in this situation? How do you write memorable themes? What even makes a theme memorable? When it comes to instrumentation, what do you do, less instruments, more instruments? I would like to open it up for discussion.

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  • Thanks for your reply Bob. I agree with you on the point you made about how it won't be my fault if he's unable to convey a picture of what he wants. He's got to make the film first and then music can come later when he's piecing it together. What's crazy is that he got back to me a few minutes ago after my 8th attempt and says he finally likes the latest theme. Crazy directors! In my five+ years of scoring for film, this is the first time I've ever started work on music before seeing at least a rough cut. I have a feeling though, knowing my luck, once it's edited he may want to go a different direction with the music... I'll enjoy the relief for now!

  • It's just iteration after iteration. Even John Williams has to go through countless variations on an idea before he comes up with something he is truly satisfied with. I assume you've heard the stories about what he went through to come up with the main themes for Indiana Jones, or the five note motif from Close Encounters? Well we all know how memorable his themes are!

    My basic suggestion to you would be to try work on a melodic ideas for your principal characters on their own without an underlying harmony in place, this *will* take time. If you can come with melodies that work well in isolation then the chances are they will work equally brilliantly with whatever harmony you choose to underpin them with. This also has the advantage that the themes will be endlessly malleable to the needs of the scene at hand.

    I will say that you do have my sympathies however, it sounds a bit like the guy is asking for the earth on a micro-budget to me. :P

  • I have scored for amateur films a couple of times. I would never even consider doing it without seeing some of the film. The action on the screen is what leads to an appropriate score, by not having it available to you, you're missing the one nutrient you must have. You're in a losing situation. Suggest you insist on seeing some of the film as a condition of continuing on.

  • In the past --- music came before the film. In the present --- music comes after the film. The aforementioned are generalizations. As for people --- people are people. As for places --- places are places. As for things --- things are things. As for ideas --- ideas are ideas. The aforementioned are generalizations.

    We, as composers, don't have time or space to agree or disagree with people, nor places to make us distracted, nor things to lust after, nor ideas to make us distracted: we must do what the patron needs/wants: if the patron doesn't know what's needed/wanted, then we must either convince them that what we've created is what is needed/wanted or humble ourselves and ask a plethora of questions in a diplomatic charismatic manner.

    The actual act itself might be one session of composing or a great number of sessions composing. The actual act is more like what dear dad used to preach to me: "Son, give them what they want!" This nonsense about conditions and about performing a blame game isn't professional: communication isn't where it needs to be --- be open and honest concerning the fact that you'd like to make the project a success, and add what you believe you need/want, in order to accomplish that.

    "It ain't you vs. them; it's a team!" --- "Good luck!"

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