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Writing A Film Soundtrack – Where to Start

COSMOS Banner Soundtrack



“Composing music is hard work.” — John Williams


If there’s one partnership that proves how music and movies belong together, it’s this one.

Good music is a catalyst for both storyteller and viewer, as a film maker it will help you develop dynamic, exciting and original ideas and will act as the glue that holds your story together… but it goes beyond that – this glue will enhance your visuals, improve performances and sculpt the edit. It is, put simply, incredible.

We are very excited about the development of the COSMOS soundtrack as we are once again teaming up with our longtime collaborators and good friends, CDMH Music. The two members of the company, Chris Duncan and Mark Heath, will be writing guest posts exclusively for this blog, revealing their process and sharing tips and tricks along the way. The soundtrack is in its early days, but its already fantastic. We hope you’ll enjoy following along as it develops from concept tracks into the final score for the film. You can follow @CDMHMusic twitter for more regular updates from the guys and their progress.

This is the Cosmos Main Theme, one of two tracks currently in production for the film. Please have a listen and then read on below to discover how CDMH Music are developing this concept soundtrack.

So without further ado, let’s get going… Chris… Over to you!


Who are we and what are we doing here?


That’s me… mocking up some tracks.

Well, we are two young composers from the UK who are currently working on pre-production music for Cosmos. Elliot and Zander Weaver thought it may be a nice idea for the blog to include some extra facets of the production including how we’re developing the music… so who were we to say no?!

Admittedly, it is the end product that matters, and the majority of people will not concern themselves with the ‘process’. However, for those of you who are interested we will be posting a number of blogs showing the development of the music from (very) basic piano ideas to a fully orchestrated score. Note that, this is not the way to write a soundtrack… simply a way that we have found works with these Directors!

How did we start?

Well, it started with a conversation with Elliot & Zander followed by us being given copies of the script to read through. Perhaps not a necessary step by any means, but we like to get a feel for the story and truthfully it always gets us a little bit excited, so why the hell not?

We were sent 10 guide tracks, from other films, which were tagged in on the script so we could get an idea as to the feel at various key moments. We actually quite like this stage, as it is a nice way to bridge the director-composer gap (that can be a challenging obstacle to say the least!).

Themes themes themes

We usually tackle these next as they are the cornerstone of any good score and are the most important to get right. For Cosmos we need two main themes — one as the “Cosmos Theme”, the other as a Character theme”.

Cosmos Theme — main theme of the film. Something that is memorable, somewhat ‘modular’ so we can allude to it at other times in the film and can range from subtle to epic orchestration. Character Theme — a sentimental, sincere theme that can help to create a feel for the evolving relationship between the characters. Let’s make sure this one can go from subtle to epic too hey?

Piano Ideas

Early theme ideas on Piano for Directors to listen to…

Our process for this is simple… open up a piano patch (Cinesamples: Piano in Blue in case you were interested) and play around until we have maybe 8-12 solid ideas that we can listen back to the next day without immediately deleting.

Here, we find it infinitely handy working as a pair. If the idea has gotten past the infamous ‘next day listen’ we send it to each other and get brutally honest feedback – usually along the lines of ‘‘you’re better than this’’ or ‘‘maybe we shouldn’t use this idea’’. When we miraculously have enough to warrant sending to the Weavers, they listen to them all and we have a meeting to decide on which to pursue and which to ‘shelve’.

The biggest issue with this method is that these ideas are obviously written with a full orchestra in mind. For us composers it’s easy enough to imagine how it will sound… that’s the point right? It is, however, a bit more difficult for the directors. We do this mainly for speed to be honest, and fortunately Elliot & Zander trust us enough to accept it when we say ‘‘it will sound better when it’s orchestrated… I promise’’.

Here are the two piano tracks:

Cosmos theme:

Character theme:

Next stage, yep you guessed it…


We take the two ideas that have been agreed upon and spin them into a 5-ish minute mockup using a full orchestra. Computerised midi orchestra of course, but it gives the directors a much clearer idea of how it can sound. These mockups ideally will include numerous variations of the themes and different orchestration which can create a variety for different moments of the film. Conveniently, one idea was mine and one idea was Mark’s meaning we could both get going with the fun stuff right away.

For the orchestration it is very important to initially think. It can be very daunting looking at your blank template not knowing where to begin. Think think think.

Music Notes

COSMOS Soundtrack Notes

The music should be created in your head before you even open up your template. I usually use a notepad and hand-write the structure, chord sequences & specific inversions, melodies & counter melodies (our favourite) and what instruments are going to be used. This keeps me (relatively) focused and somewhat curbs my tendency to go off on tangents and procrastinate.

We both use Logic Pro X to write and have mirrored systems. This means that all of our sample libraries are in an identical place on our systems so one person can save a file and the other can open it without any trouble. Regarding our template, it’s roughly 200 tracks with a full orchestral setup including strings (constituting about 80 of the tracks), brass, woodwinds, percussion, choir, effects etc etc.


Logic Pro X

For anyone who writes orchestral music on a computer, we would highly recommend setting up a template in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice – we use Logic, but they’re all as good as each other really aren’t they? Templates may take about 20 minutes to load but the actual writing process is sped up dramatically as there’s less faffing about looking for patches and you can do some speedy trial and error. It all comes back to the tangents and procrastination again. Less distractions, keep your eye on the ball and all that. If anyone is interested in the patches we have used then feel free to ask in the comments, we didn’t feel the need to bore you (any more) with those details just yet.

See… I just went off on a tangent, apologies.

The whole mockup process will take around 5 days and usually involves some rather lengthy email exchanges between the two of us with comments on specific elements. These go into a lot of detail and are often related to mixing/patch sounds rather than the actual content. It isn’t exactly necessary to have mockups sounding immaculate but we do like to make them sound as real as possible — it gives your idea more… just more!

So this is the point we’re up to at the moment. Two of the mockups are done and we will be getting notes from the directors soon.

Here they are:

Cosmos theme:

Character theme:

So What’s next?

Well, we will be coming up with some slight variations on those two themes initially. The two of us are going to swap tracks and work on the other’s idea to come up with some variations that the other may not have thought of. Then we have some other tracks to mockup. These are less thematic but more atmospheric and include an action track, a percussive track and scary/suspense ideas.

After these have been written we will produce a ‘Cosmos Suite’ which is likely to be around 20 minutes long and will contain all the ideas, fully orchestrated as one track, in the order that they will appear in the film. This is simply because we are in a rather unique position to develop the music in pre-production and this will cut down on time when we are scoring the actual movie. Plus it’ll be pretty cool to have afterwards and good for you guys to get to listen to!

So there we are, let us know what you think of these tracks and check out the blog for more updates and developments!



Chris Duncan

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