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Playing Change In Dialogue

Scoring Series :: September 06, 2014

One of the hardest things that many filmmakers grapple with is what to do with music during dialogue. A good argument can be made that dialogue needn’t have much music. However, to the extent that there are important plot points during a dramatic or comedic film, or important emphasis points in a corporate or promotional film, that happen during dialogue or narration, the filmmaker is missing out on the opportunity of highlighting these important moments for their audience and moving their story to the next phase. Essentially, what well made film regardless of purpose doesn’t have at least some moments that turn on a spoken word at some point?

Issues arise however when the dialogue or narration reflect an important change in the characters, message, relationships or other important aspects that directly affect the fundamental storyline. Some media creators don’t know how to appropriately score such important changes reflected in the dialogue.

The basic rule of thumb is: When dialogue includes a change that affects the storyline or import of the piece, music should reflect that change, highlight or follow it so that the audience knows the importance of the change and that it matters to what the movie is about.

Our good friend Larry Jordan asked director and filmmaker John Putch if we could use a scene from his movie “Route 30 Too!” for this example, so grateful thanks go to John and Larry for helping us put this together.

In the first video link you’ll see the scene without a score. One friend is confronting another friend on how she treats people. It’s a short sequence, roughly about 30 seconds and towards the end the second friend has an epiphany and sees the error of her ways. This change is an important moment and we, as an audience, need to understand that something important has changed between them. It’s important for the music to play this specific moment when this resolution, manifested by their hug, happens.

"Route 30" Dialogue Sequence, no score:

I did two examples, both using Sonicfire Pro. The choice of music style is completely personal and valid style choices can vary widely, so your choices might be different yet perfectly appropriate. In my first example the music clearly plays their tension, then just when they hug, hits a nice neutral cadence chord. Its important it be neutral and neither too bright or positive, nor still too dark and tense. While the hug is very positive, the context is 30 seconds of tension, therefore a bright, positive chord would sound out of context, even though its visually correct at that specific moment – its not set up. On the other hand if the chord was still dark and tense, that belies the obvious positive change that happens between them. The music should change its tone at this moment. By the way, the use of neutrality in music with visuals is an important concept that you should develop, it comes in handy more often than not in film.

"Route 30" Dialogue Sequence, scored with track "Unrevealed Truth":

In the second example I decided to have something with a little less tension. The piece I chose (both of course from the SmartSound Royalty Free Music library) plays more tenderly from the start and has a beautiful build throughout. Here the ending chord is more subtle than in the first piece but it has a nice string swell as they hug and the piece ends with the right sense of neutral finality that we want to go with this scene. It’s slightly dark actually but it still works because it is set up with the tenderness that comes before it throughout the scene. Whether tense or tender, the moment where the second woman apologizes and they hug – that’s a change that should be reflected in the music as well.

"Route 30" Dialogue Sequence, scored with track "Sometimes":

A couple of short notes on Sonicfire Pro technique. You’ll see in both screen grabs that I am using the rubber-band volume controls to control the over-all volume of the entire piece at certain points. This allows me to control the volume of the piece relative to the dialogue while still using Mood Mapping (in the second piece, the first was a stereo track) to control specific mixes of certain blocks to get the right intensity and, yes, mood, at certain points. In both examples I achieved the precise ending I was looking for by using the Smart Razor feature then finding the exact right ending I needed from the blocks of the track in the Bin window and making sure it hit at the right moment.

Sonicfire Pro project file, "Unrevealed Truth"

Soundtrack Unrevealed Truth


To successfully score dialogue or narration, find moments where a change in storyline, character or importance is made during the dialogue. Make sure your music plays that change at the exact, right moment and with the right “tone” that reflects the change appropriately, in the context of what came before it. With these guidelines, you’ll be able to use music to extract real value and impact from your dialogue and narration sequences and increase the power and effectiveness of your video and films.

Sonicfire Pro project file, "Sometimes"

Soundtrack Sometimes

Special thanks to John Putch and Larry Jordan. To see more of the “Route 30” Trilogy, and filmmaker John Putch and his films:

Putch Films website

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