A handy collection of music composition terminology
While this list is far from exhaustive, it’s a fine cheat sheet for some of the most common terms heard among film and TV composers. All definitions have the blessing of ASCAP workshop overseer Richard Bellis.
ASCAP. American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Established in 1914, ASCAP is the first and leading U.S. performing rights organization (PRO) representing the world’s largest repertory totaling over 8.5 million copyrighted musical works of every style and genre from more than 330,000 songwriter, composer and music publisher members. ASCAP has representation arrangements with over 90 similar foreign organizations such that the ASCAP repertory is represented in nearly every country around the world. ASCAP protects the rights of its members and foreign affiliates by licensing the public performances of their copyrighted works and distributing royalties based upon surveyed performances. ASCAP is the only American PRO owned and governed by its writer and publisher members.
Blind Pepsi-Taste-Test. Coined by Tony Scudellari, VP music creative at Sony Pictures Television, to suggest a situation in which a director or producer judges work samples without knowing the composers’ names or resumes. This ensures that a choice can be based wholly on content, without the influence of name recognition. Refers to the “Pepsi Challenge,” a marketing strategy introduced by PepsiCo. in 1975 that had consumers taste-testing Coke and Pepsi in identical no-label cups.
click track. An electronically generated beat that helps keep all the players on the same meter.
composer. Creates original music to enhance the emotional, comedic or dramatic moments in the film.
dub stage. Where all of the sound elements for the film — dialogue, FX and music — are mixed together. Sometimes called the final mix. Involves adjusting levels up and down, cleaning up “production” sound and making choices about sound effects and, in some cases, music placement.
Hummer. Derogatory term for a composer who doesn’t prefer to notate his own music, with the implication being that he merely hums his parts for others to orchestrate.
music cue. A single piece of music within the score.
music editor. Finds and inserts temporary music in order to enhance the film editing process as well as various early screenings. When the composer has been hired, he breaks down the timing of all scenes that will have music into minutes, seconds and frames. This information is used by the composer to create music that is in perfect sync with each scene. Once the score has been recorded, he then prepares the musical elements for the dub stage. He is also responsible for cutting in songs when they are used as part of the score. Additionally, he might be called upon to prepare playback tracks for scenes in which the cast is dancing or singing.
music prep service. Once known as copyists. A company like JoAnn Kane Music now provides many additional services including maintaining libraries of film scores, providing orchestrators, preparing sketches for the orchestrator from MIDI files and proofreading the music before it goes to the recording session. They work with many software programs, including Sibelius and Finale. Due to the speed of a recording session and the expense involved, pristine music prep services are crucial. Mistakes on a scoring session with a full orchestra can be costly in dollars and reputation.
music supervisor. Finds songs for the film and handles all the clearances for those songs. The final selection of songs represents a creative collaboration between the filmmaker and the music supervisor. It can be difficult to match the song with a film for a number of reasons. Most often the challenge is finding the right song for the right license fee.
orchestrator. When acoustic instruments will be used for the score, the composer might create a “sketch” for each cue. This is a condensed version of what the musicians will be playing. It may be either written by the composer or electronically “mocked-up.” The orchestrator takes this sketch and writes the notes for each individual instrument in the ensemble.
ProTools. Hardware and software that has replaced multi-track recording tape in all but a very few instances. Currently the state-of-the-industry when recording and dubbing film music and sound FX.
scoring mixer. Also known as the engineer. Responsible for recording and mixing the score. The scoring mixer may work in an electronic environment or record acoustic instruments on the Scoring Stage.
scoring stage. Where the musicians assemble to record the score.
Sibelius/Finale. Computer programs that allow you to create a score and all of the individual parts for the orchestra. This is the electronic equivalent of paper and pencil in music. Revisions of the musical composition and the attendant parts are much easier.
sketching. Creating the cue in a condensed format to give to an orchestrator or synthistrator.
SMPTE. Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers; usually refers to time code, for which this organization developed various standards. SMPTE is recorded as an audio signal and is also usually shown in a window on the screen for reference purposes. An example of a time code location might be 01:00:16:23, which refers to a time code location of “one hour, zero minutes, 16 seconds and 23 frames.”
spotting. The process of deciding where in the film the music should be, what it should say and often choosing the exact SMPTE location where the music will start and stop.
stem. A sub-mix of a particular group of tracks. Rather than 40 tracks being mixed down to just two (aka stereo), stems (aka sub-mixes) are created combining several instrument tracks — say, all percussion in one stem, brass in another. When all stem faders are set to the same position on the mixing console, it creates the final mix. This gives the mixer the opportunity to make slight adjustments to the mix without going back to the 40 or so original tracks.
Stream. A band placed along the bottom of the film print that tells a composer where music is about to be needed, when it is needed and when it is out. At one time, the band was created by stripping the emulsion from the film.
synthistrator. An orchestrator who creates a synthesized mock-up recording.
Templuv. A director falls in love with the temporary score put together by the film editor and cannot be swayed to accept any changes from the composer.