From tech to tone, students learn what it takes to score a film

A paused video clip of a young person on a motorcycle sits above music editing software. A video of Filipe Leitao speaking is in the lower corner.

In a film, everything from the lighting, composition and editing, to music, pacing and dialogue coalesce to set a tone. Bright lights, lighthearted banter and an upbeat pop song might create the mood for a rom-com, while slow movements and bass tones might infuse the scene with heightened drama.

Students in Filipe Leitão’s Film and Media Scoring class are learning how to create that tone in their own film scores and compositions. The course is part of a collaborative curriculum in composition and sound design for cinema, games and motion media that Leitão is developing as an assistant professor in both the VCUarts Department of Music and the Cinema Program.

Every two weeks, Leitão breaks down a film genre—drama, comedy, action, romance and animated films—and explains how musical scales, instrumentation, range and rhythm bring a director’s vision to life.

“How could we convey action?” he says. “We could have some bass drums, staccato strings with fast rhythm. We could use rest. For drama, we could use a drone in a low register, and fill notes with piano. I give them the feeling of how we could achieve that mood using our musical tools.”

Filipe Leitão demonstrates how to score an action scene

After talking about tools and technique, Leitão assigns students a short clip from an existing film and they spend a week composing their own score using a digital audio workstation, or DAW, sample audio libraries, and MIDI instrumentation.

Student Justin Willbanks says his favorite assignment was rescoring a scene from Terminator 2.

“I approached this score with a basic ‘recipe’ that Dr. Leitão outlines for us, such as using large drums and percussion, octatonic scales, different ways to create suspense and tension, and always showing what is on the screen with our ears,” he says.

Willbanks started with two drum sets playing polyrhythmically together—one representing the hero and one representing the villain—which created a rhythmic dissonance contrasting good and evil. He then introduced a nontonal melody to create a tense color and texture that later dissolved to show a false sense of victory when the hero escapes.

In addition to technical skills, Leitão also teaches his students what distinguishes film scoring from other compositions, like commercial work or composing their own songs.

“What differentiates film scoring from any other composition is basically two things: communicating moods and synchronization,” Leitão says. “It’s not about my desires—to use a major key or have a fast scale. It needs to serve the film. You have to understand that you are composing, but you always have to submit to things.”

Willbanks says Leitão has helped him break down barriers and misconceptions about composition—such as always working with a pencil and paper or software like Sibelius and Finale—and having classmates from other disciplines has further expanded his ideas of music.

“There are Kinetic Imaging students in class, as well as sculpture students and jazz students—anywhere you might find someone who manipulates and captures sound in some extent,” he says. “It is really nice hearing the perspective of people who usually work in the realm of sound, rather than music.

“Dr. Leitão helped me understand that music can be absolutely anything I wanted it to be. The only thing that really needed to happen in all of my compositions is to have a deep personal connection with whatever I wrote.”