In Life - Debriefed, Thoughts on Writing

The life of a free lance musician is by it’s very nature unpredictable. One day you’re writing something for a choir.  The next day, it might be a Country song. And the next day, maybe a quick underscoring gig for a TV spot falls in your lap from out of the blue.

That’s what happened last weekend when I got a text from the producer for “Pathway to Victory,” a cable TV program broadcast by 1st Baptist Church Dallas.  Several years ago, I wrote the theme music for “Pathway to Victory.” Since then, I’ve scored several short films for the show.

It’s not unusual – in fact, it’s really the norm – for original TV music to be an “I-need-it-tomorrow” gig.  It was that way when I was writing TV advertising music in the 80s, and I suspect it will be ever thus.  In this particular case, the producer had tried to post score with generic library music, but nothing seemed to fit. She decided original music was the answer and, wondered if I “could possibly get it to her by Monday morning, because it was scheduled air mid-week.”

Sunday night, I loaded the edited TV spot into my DAW and watched it (with dialogue) about five times to get the emotional feel of it. Because of constraints on time and budget, I knew the score would have to be simple.  Fortunately, it turned out that simple was what the spot needed.

I went with my first idea, and kept telling myself it was brilliant – just so I wouldn’t waste time second-guessing. Because the spot is short (:45), I could create the music without writing anything down. (This is very unusual for me. I typically at least notate a sketch of the score.) I found a basic tempo that fit, and worked out a simple piano bed that slipped in and around the spoken words, and shifted appropriately with the scene edits. The finished track consists of piano, two subtle synthesizer beds, and a percussion track so spare it’s almost inaudible.

About five hours later I had a mix ready. I slept on it and checked it the next morning to see if I still liked it. Then I shipped it off to the producer. She and I both are thankful for the Internet and Dropbox.

So – for those of you interested in putting music to picture, and who are willing to accept that 99.9% of such work is NOT for Hollywood films, here are a few helpful takeaways from this latest little gig of mine:

LESSON #1: The pictures matter more than the music. Don’t allow your music to distract from the visuals.

LESSON #2: The music will always be mixed below the level of the dialogue. The bigger your music score, the more it will be turned down in the mix whenever someone is talking.  I learned a long time ago to think of the Voice Over as the “melody,” and I try to write music that accompanies the spoken word.

LESSON #3:  When writing for this particular client, I like to try to hide snippets of familiar hymn tunes in the music bed. I look for a hymn tune whose lyrics fit the message of the spot.  Even though the lyrics aren’t sung, I like to think the subliminal connection to the hymn might be felt by the viewer.  I’ll let you decide if chose well for this spot.  (I only used six notes – but a real hymn-person will catch it.)

So that was last weekend. I wonder what might happen this weekend?


Showing 16 comments
  • Ed Rush

    “I Need Thee Every Hour”? If I’m wrong, whatever the hymn is, it fits very well. Haven’t heard/sung “I Need Thee… in a long time.

    • rsterling

      Absolutely correct, Ed. But an old Music Minister like you would know that! 🙂

  • Bruce Cokeroft

    Great description of a great experience. Your perspective and input to this type of production is spot on, too, in my opinion. Great blog as always, Roberto!

    • rsterling

      Thx, Bruce!

  • Crista Sereni

    “I need thee”- watching it the second time while listening to your music made me want to run out and buy copies for Christmas gifts! Thanks for sharing.

    • rsterling

      You got it! (No surprise.)

  • James Westbrooks

    Here’s a thought meant to encourage. What I love about Rob Sterling is not what he has become, but what he has remained. Our life paths go so far back that I knew the Rob who was. How I praise God that that Rob is still the same. I love you and the memories we share. James

    • rsterling

      Thank you, James. You know that Cindy & I feel the same about you and Nancy.

  • Bonnie Arbaugh

    Really nice! Perfect music for perfect words and visuals. One not overpowering the other.
    The words and movie just became part of the symphony. Very inspiring. Thank you for your take aways. So helpful.
    Bonnie Arbaugh

    • rsterling

      Thx, Bonnie, for the kind words.

  • Vickie

    I can hook you up Crista. It is only available through 🙂

  • Vickie

    Thank you Rob for your brilliant work on such short notice! It literally brought tears to my eyes.

    • rsterling

      You’re absolutely welcome. thanks for the call.

  • Deborah Craig-Claar

    Somebody said the greatest inspiration is a deadline. (Maybe it was you.) In any case, you always seem to rise to the former and meet the latter. LAS. (Lovely as always.)

    • rsterling

      I didn’t say that. Wish I had…

  • Deborah Craig-Claar

    Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure it was Walt Disney. (He would know.)

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