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Good music in a movie is not only good music but also music that is in sync with what happens on the screen. I can imagine it's not a trivial job to achieve this. So it made me wonder what generally comes first. Is the music written first and are the takes and cuts "choreographed" around it, or is the music written afterwards?

To make this an answerable question I'd like to focus on feature films, not musical films. And I'd like to know the general trend, because obviously there will always be exceptions to the rule.

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As a side note, I remember an interview or something where it was stated that Ridley Scott used to play parts of the score Vangelis was already working on, while filming at the set of Blade Runner. But probably one of the exceptions to the rule, considering the many production problems and irregularities with that movie. –  Napoleon Wilson May 23 '13 at 19:11

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

From How Film Composers Work:

The film music composer:

  • Meets with the director and movie producers, when the film has been shot and is being edited, to discuss music needs for the film.

  • Takes part in a spotting session, in which the film composer, director and others watch the movie and decide where each segment of music should start and stop in the film, why it's being included and how it should sound.

  • Writes the score, a compilation of all the musical sections needed for the film. The score for a feature film is usually about half the length of the film, so a composer would probably have to write about 50 minutes of music for a 100-minute movie.

  • Prepares scores for the musicians, or gives notes and a rough score to the arrangers and copyists so that they can provide a complete musicians' score


From Sony Pictures Entertainment Museum - Scoring:

The composer is involved in the very beginning of the post-production process in order to create the perfect melodic theme for a score.

Some composers get their inspiration by viewing dailies or rough cuts of the film.

A director usually has musical ideas for certain scenes, so the composer and director watch the film during a "spotting session" to spot-check the places in the film where music should be heard.

The music editor generally attends the spotting session and is also responsible for integrating source music (songs not created for the film) with the score.


But as Wikipedia points out:

In some circumstances, a composer will be asked to write music based on his or her impressions of the script or storyboards, without seeing the film itself, and is given more freedom to create music without the need to adhere to specific cue lengths or mirror the emotional arc of a particular scene.

  • An example of this is Hans Zimmer and his score for Inception, as he notes in this interview:

    ... usually films are being made in bits and pieces and there’s a structure of how you work it: the composer sees the movie and discusses the themes with the director and he goes off and he writes the theme — we didn’t do any of that on [Inception].

    ... The score was really coming together in my head after I read the script and just in talking to Chris [Nolan] ... Then Chris went off and shot the movie, and I went to the set, saw the designs, saw actors doing their thing, etc.; but when it actually came time for Chris to edit the movie, he wouldn’t show it to me anymore.

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+1 Nice, rich answer! –  Gert Arnold May 23 '13 at 14:49
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Ah hell - give it to Oliver :) –  Nobby May 23 '13 at 15:22

As a filmmaker, I can provide some insight into this, however there are always going to be exceptions to the rule.

In general, a film is scored after editing—a notable exception to this would be the specific use of a particular piece of established music, in which case the editor may well be asked to edit to the beats of that music.

For a scored film, it is important to get the edited film to a 'lock', which means the visual elements (SFX finished or not) are in place and edited. There is a sense of visual 'timing' that an editor can employ, and this might well affect the composer's decisions.

Once the picture is locked, the composer can then go in and create the music, whether it be sweeping themes, leitmotifs, or short snippets to emphasize a scene.

In order to stay on budget, the producers do not want the composer having to rework pieces to fit re-edited sections, which is why the picture lock is so important.

(I'll add more to this answer in a few hours: on the road right now ;)

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