5 musical terms film makers often get wrong

Musical terms

The musical vocabulary can be a nightmare to navigate. With commonly used words taken from no less than 4 different languages the risk of using one improperly is behind the corner, even for navigated musicians. Nevertheless I think this should not dissuade film makers from employing musical terms when giving directions to composers. They will likely respect your proficiency with the music realm and, in general, you could even build a stronger relationship. Before you start bringing into play your mezzo-fortes and your accelerandos let’s review some of the most commonly encountered musical vocabulary mistakes.

1️⃣ Rhythm

Have you ever asked a composer to have more rhythm in a particular cue? While this is not wrong it can leave much room for interpretation, creating confusion on what aspect of a piece you like/dislike. Confusion could potentially lead to receiving a cue that is very different from what you have in mind. You are probably trying to get one of the following 2 things:

  • A piece of music in which the beats are closer to each other, one that if conducted would need faster movements of the baton. In this case you should ask for a faster tempo. Find a definition of tempo here.
  • A piece of music in which you can hear more intricate performances in the percussion. In this case you are close to using the right term. The best way to put this would be to ask for a more active rhythm section. Keep in mind you can generate a similar but subtler effect by making non purely rhythmic instruments (like violins) play more notes in between beats. To achieve that you can ask to increase rhythmic subdivisions in particular instrument or group of instruments.

2️⃣ Harmony

The concept of harmony is a tough one to master. Here is an easy way to look at it. When you sing to yourself the theme of a famous movie you are singing the melody. Harmony is the sequence of compound sounds created by all the instrument accompanying the melody. We call each step of such sequence a chord. Harmony is what gives us the mood of a piece, be it sad, joyful, triumphant, suspended. The same melody laid on top of different harmonies can generate very different results. This is, in fact, one of the ways your composer can achieve effective thematic development.

3️⃣ Atonal

It is rather common to confuse the concept of atonal music with that of dissonance. They could both be used to give composers very precise (but different) directions on the music you’d like to obtain so here is what they mean:

Atonality is a kind of harmonic world where there is no centre of gravity. No chord from which the piece starts its harmonic journey and towards which it leads your ear to expect it will go back to. Most of the modern music you know and love is tonal instead. Atonality, in its lack of gravitational harmony can give the inexperienced ear a feeling of dismay, hence sounding almost aleatoric (random) or even dissonant.

What dissonance describes in music, though, is a set of sounds generated by two (or more) notes played together and distanced by specific frequencies. To better understand try this: go to a piano or piano keyboard and play two consecutive notes on a piano (like c and c#, a white note and the black note right after). The cringing sound you just obtained is a dissonant interval. It would be beyond the scope of this article to list the various dissonant and consonant intervals but this is such an interesting area of music theory that I’d be happy to suggest a few textbooks if you wanted to learn more. So to wrap the paragraph up remember: an atonal piece of music can be either dissonant or consonant. Furthermore, if a piece is full of dissonance it can still be a tonal one.

4️⃣ Flute (or violin, or any very specific instrument)

The sounds produced by some musical instruments can be very similar in determined registers/dynamics. To the extent that could lead the most experienced ear in failing to recognise one from the other (in extreme situations). Therefore I advice not to mention specific instruments when giving directions. Instead of saying “I don’t like the flute here” try one or a mixture of the following:

  • Describe the quality and role of that particular instrument. In example: the high sound playing the melody.
  • Talk about instrument sections (families). In example: The low string instrument, or the nasal wind instrument.

If you are keen to learn more about musical instruments there are a few books I could link you to. In the mean time this brilliant page has easy to play recordings of all the most common instruments, do check it out!

5️⃣ Minimal

In the year 1968 composer Michael Nyman derived the term “minimal music” from the broader concept of minimalism. Many years later and the term has found its way in the vocabulary of many. Though not everyone uses it correctly. If you’d like the music of your movie to feature only a bunch of instruments, to have a small, quasi chamber-like effect you should ask for an intimate sound. Minimal music, instead, is characterised by a combination of the following: repetition of small cells, little or no motion and constant harmony. In other words it is possible to have a piece that is minimal and that does not sound intimate at all, and vice-versa.

Bonus words: mezzo forte and accelerando

At this point you might be wondering about the words I mentioned at the beginning of the article. While they might not be as important in your vocabulary as the other terms discussed thus far, here is a brief definition nevertheless:

Mezzo forte is an indicator of dynamic, how much (or little) intensity the produced sound should carry. In this case we are requesting a moderately high dynamic. The most common dynamic markings (from least to most intensity) are the following: pianissimo (pp), piano (p), mezzo piano (mp), mezzo forte (mf), forte (f), fortissimo (ff).

Accelerando is a tempo marking. It instructs the performer to gradually increase the tempo of a piece. Its opposite is rallentando (gradually slowing down).

More tools

With so many areas to cover (and as many technical vocabularies) it is comprehensible that a film maker might not get musical terms right all the time. Nevertheless I hope the communication with your composers will improve after absorbing this article. If you haven’t read it yet here is an article on how to deliver better videos to composers to unlock their full potential and obtaining perfect scores for your films.


Originally published at Film Scoring Tips.