Approaching Temp Music

More often that not, composers are faced with temp music – that is, pre-existing music that has been selected and placed in a working picture. This will, of course, be replaced with your eventual, original composition. Temp stands for Temporary, and can illustrate the musical genre, mood, feel, arrangement or emotional gravitas the director is looking to convey in a picture. How do we, as composers, navigate through this to achieve an original piece of work which carries a unique voice and more critically, the needs and wants of the director?

Initially, it’s important to step back and carefully consider how you, as a composer, feel about temp music. Not just what the music is, but the fact that there is one. You may find yourself appalled at the restrictions it imposes, envisaging something different altogether or desiring a clean slate to which you can begin afresh. On the other hand, you may welcome a Temp score as it can provide an insightful guide or roadmap, or clear direction on what kind of music is needed and leaving less room for ambiguity.

Temp music can act as a rough guide or be a very specific piece which you must keep very in line with. It’s not uncommon for the Temp music to be a pre-existing score from a well known feature production. A popular contemporary song might even be in place, or a piece of library music containing the solo meanderings of an obscure African instrument.

Regardless, it’s important to reflect on your personal feelings and observe your reactions:

1. Is it in within a musical genre you are familiar with?

No composer has mastered all genres. I constantly grapple with the whether I should be more competent in a variety of genres or focus on the ones I’m good at. The latter is probably the smart move here but I don’t like the idea of not being able to compose for something. It’s good to step up to the challenge but be realistic about your limitations. Collaborating with another composer or musician who operates in the genre you are unfamiliar with is very much worth considering.

2. What elements of the music do you like and dislike?

This is will affect how you will approach the work. A dislike of the piece can fuel a desire to write something that works better for your ears. In many ways this is easier than having a Temp score you adore, which can initially be an exciting or favourable prospect, but can result in much self-doubt on whether your work stands up. Allow yourself the challenge of creating something more effective and supportive of the picture.

3. In what ways does it the Temp composition(s) register with you, regardless of whether you like it?

Refer to Alain Mayrand’s article on SCORECast Online for a technical perspective on this point. Making a note of what elements or ‘seeds’ you register with can help you stay focused. Furthermore, It helps to keep a mental note of the more emotional elements of the Temp piece you resonate with.

4. In what ways would or could you make it better?

The question which kick starts the creative process and every composer worth his or her salt has to go away and figure out. Enjoy and let your imagination run free. Concurrently, its important to gauge how emotionally attached to the Temp music the director is. Essentially, how much leeway do you have to deviate from the Temp music and in what ways? This will become apparent with discussions with the director. It’s quite common for the producer, editor, director or all three to become very attached to the Temp music chosen. And as we all know, they are seeing the working cut dozens of times alongside the Temp score.

Directors are busy people and not all have the time to be courteous at all times. Welcome the feedback, regardless of any emotional charge. I once had a director scream down the phone at me in dismay over the timbre of a single instrument in a piece and to my surprise, realised I enjoyed their reaction. It might not have been subtle, but it was passionate. So, every iteration of a composition should ideally be viewed as a challenge. However, it’s not a bad idea to be prepared for your attempts to be bluntly rejected. Lastly, pay attention to the mix on the Temp track if you’re handling those duties too.

A friend once said that mixing is like taking a photograph of a painting – the painting being the composition. Every mix has its own perspective so take care if you’re wanting to deviate from it. You might create a piece that’s on point and working for you, but mixed too differently from the Temp and it could affect feedback. I’ll spend almost as much time mixing as I do writing and recording. From experience, always give the piece a decent mix before sending off – even if your director knows your work well. There’ll be some time to make some amends – it just might mean you don’t get much sleep the night before a deadline.

Being aware of these questions should help give  perspective on the choices you do make. As composers, we should always attempt to surpass Temp music, for we must take belief in this as so to aim as high as we can and effectively create a worthy piece. We might not reach it, but it should stand on its own feet in ways the Temp doesn’t – anything short of this isn’t really going to be ultimately satisfying to you.

“Composing for film is like trying to break through an invisible wall”. Alexandre Desplat

If you found this article useful, you should also check out these two books:

Complete Guide to Film Scoring and On the Track: A Contemporary Guide to Film Scoring.

Author: Rob Bradley

Written by: Rob Bradley

Cervantes, aka Rob Bradley, is a British working composer for the moving image and has scored productions broadcast on the BBC, Current TV and Sky Horror. Advertising work includes American Crew US with director Regan Hall (FAST GIRLS, 3 HOURS).

  • Terry Jones

    Good guidelines here, thanks. :)

    • Rob Bradley

      Thanks Terry.

  • 2-Track Seth

    Nicely written. The focus on one’s emotional reaction–as opposed to a purely technical one–is spot-on.

    • Rob Bradley

      Thanks. Yes, I feel that on too many occasions the root of the issue is indeed emotional attachment.

  • MCR

    Excellent points…How do you deal with ‘demo’ love?

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