Making the Music Line Up Properly

Weston Cutter


Ryan Elder’s a composer who is presently working on the excellent Rick and Morty, the Adult Swim show from Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, and the following’s an email interview that transpired toward January’s end about composing, working to picture, and–briefly–“the O.C.”


1. Just in the most general way (and, maybe better, in your own words), can you explain what you do? (I believe) I understand the actual doings—you make music, score films and TV shows, etc.—but then there’s also, for instance, on your website, an area where you do remixes, too. And, presumably, you make your own music for non-commercial (or: non-strictly-commercial) uses. Basically I just want to understand this better and also want to not sound like a dick by presuming I know a single thing about any of it.

My main focus is music for video. Be it commercials, television shows, films, documentaries, internet shorts, whatever. I’m concentrating mostly on television right now but I’m working on a documentary as well and have done commercials for the last 13 years. I also (more as a hobby and a potential marketing tool) do electronica/hip hop remixes for artists that ask me to. I don’t really make my “own” music but that’s (fortunately?) a byproduct of being too busy making music for others.

2. How did you get into this line of work? What’s the genesis story? I don’t know if I’ve actually heard this at some point, but I don’t believe I have.

The short, depressing answer here is nepotism. The long answer is right after I got my degree in music composition from Macalester College I went to Los Angeles to intern at a company called Emoto Music (then Admusic.)  The producer there was my step-cousin and my step-uncle used to work for them as well. So the original opportunity was due to nepotism but it quickly became obvious to me that I would have to do the work and prove to them that I had potential as a composer. Presumably I did because 9 months after my internship ended they brought me on as a junior composer. I worked for them as a staff composer for 11 years after that doing mostly music for advertising. A few years ago I went freelance but I still do a lot of work for Emoto while building up my television and film connections.

3. Do you like the work? I mean that in the simplest way. It seems like a sort of amazing thing: if you have the chance to score cool things, it must be amazing (and there’s got to be some incredible satisfactions on offer in finding a great musical counterpoint to a visual…that fires up this almost mathy part of my head). But then again, it takes no imagination to consider someone wondering if, in fact, it isn’t sort of hard to have your work subjugated to visuals–to have your work always be *with* or *of* something else. Is any of that true, or not at all? More simply than all the above: is your work by nature not only collaborative, but complementary, and does that ever feel burdensome or unfun?

Yeah, the work is ludicrously satisfying. I love it. I love that it’s for visuals. Because of that I never have to face a completely blank page. I always have somewhere to start that at the very least has a mood or tone to convey. You’re right about it being “math-y” and that’s probably another reason why I enjoy working to picture. I was a computer science minor in college and took my fair share of calculus classes so I’ve always had a penchant for the more logical side of music. The nerdy gamer in me really enjoys the challenge of figuring out how to make a piece of music hit all the right moments.

I haven’t really thought about this until you mentioned it here but the idea that every time I compose something it’s at its very core a collaboration is also satisfying to me. I work best when I can bounce ideas off of other people. Sure, sometimes the person on the other side of the work (be it the director, ad agency creative director, editor, whoever) can be difficult to work with but I try to see that as a challenge worth overcoming. It doesn’t hurt that they’re often the one rewarding me for my efforts, too.

4. Is there anything like a career trajectory for stuff like what you do? I guess the only musician who scores films most of us know by name’d be Williams, but his stuff’s overtly symphonic, which seems a step removed from your work. This may just be a dumb question, but I’m curious.

There’s obviously no one way to do it but the most common career trajectory for a film/television composer is some form of music school followed by a period of saying yes to any and all projects regardless of pay. These days that includes student films, internet shorts, Youtube videos, whatever you can find. From there hopefully you can land a gig assisting another composer by writing additional music for them (commonly referred to as “ghost writing”) and finally lining up your own major projects to work on, usually as a result of the connections you’ve built along the way.

5. Also–and this is probably borderline impossible to address–but do you feel/see/believe there is or has (in the last decade or so) been a shift in the significance regarding music in visual stuff? I’d argue: it seems that way to me (and it seems specifically to have arisen from “Friday Night Lights,” but that’s just one unlearned man’s unwise take), but I’m curious about the insides. Are there shifts or changes in your industry that you can track? That you can address?

There is without a doubt a shift towards licensing existing music for all forms of visual entertainment. I’m most familiar with how it happened in advertising but it definitely happened in television and movies as well. “Friday Night Lights” is a good example of music licensing playing a major role in a show. “The OC” comes to mind as being another great example of a show that put a lot of new bands on the map simply by placing their songs in the soundtrack effectively. Now a lot of shows and advertising agencies not only want to use existing music but have the desire to “break” a new popular band through licensing.

The biggest way this affects someone like me is that now I’m not just competing with other composers but I’m also competing with major recording artists on occasion. That being said, I’m a huge proponent of using existing music to score a scene if the music is right for it. Justin Roiland, the co-creator of the show I score now (“Rick and Morty” on Adult Swim) has great taste in music and a few times throughout the season has placed a licensed track. I absolutely love his choices and wouldn’t dream of arguing for composing something new but if I thought a song wasn’t working I’d like to think I could tell him so and come up with something that worked better.

6. I hadn’t even thought to ask, too: how collaborative is your process? Does it vary project to project? Does (for instance) J Roiland or D Harmon send you back after you’ve done something for “Rick and Morty” (which by the way is excellent), asking for a redo, or asking you to tweak things?

The amount of collaboration can vary quite a bit from project to project. On “Rick and Morty” I usually discuss the animatic (a rough mockup of the show done as an outline for the animators) with Justin and we figure out what areas need music and what that music should sound like. Usually we speak in terms of mood. For example he might tell me a scene needs a tense dramatic score here or a touching, emotional moment there. This mood description is like a whole different language that I’ve learned to speak. Sort of a one-way communication method. I have to describe the music in terms a non-musician can understand. After I’ve made a first pass on the music Justin and/or Dan will listen to it and give me notes. For “Rick and Morty” the notes are very minimal. On other projects (namely commercials) I’ve had to do as many as 5 or more rounds of revisions. The number of revisions required is often proportionate to the number of people that get to have an opinion on the music.

7. You wrote before that it’s a thrill to figure “how to make a piece of music hit all the right moments.” I’m infinitely curious about this. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get this articulated clearly, but here’s a shot: it’d seem that your job entails a sort of aesthetic/emotional precision. There’d seem (to an outsider) that there are incorrect ways of doing things–jarring combinations of video and sound. In the most basic, basic way, how does someone in your world make music that hits the right moments? Is there anything like a repeatable process or system by which this happens? That seems (to me, a guy who gets to write poetry/fiction that has no allegiance to any end other than where my head ends up) terrifying and intense, this notion of hitting moments, but also rewarding in ways solo work can’t be.

As far as making the music hit the right moments goes, it’s a fairly logical process but the more tips and tricks you know for making it work, the better. If you’re lucky you get to choose a tempo that has downbeats that hit the moments you need to hit but if you’re required to use a specific tempo then you have a lot of methods for making the music line up properly, be it meter changes or just writing melodies with strong beats on the moments you need. There are a lot of ways to finesse these moments and often the difference between a great score and a mediocre score is how those moments are treated. If I’m getting too inside baseball here just take what you can from it. A lot of it is just a “feel” thing. Often times I’ll get my tempo set and then simply hum to myself a melody or rhythm I think will work to the timings of the picture. Once I have that kernel the rest is just filling in the blanks.

As an aside, when I first started at Emoto I heard of a mythical book that was just a huge list of timecode and tempos that told you what beats would hit where in the timeline based on your tempo. Now we just use software to figure that out but before computers when everyone composed on paper this book was apparently quite useful. Sounds awful to me though.

In addition to getting the timings right there’s again the question of getting the mood right. Not only do you need to solve the puzzle of hitting your marks but you also can’t convey the incorrect mood. It’s obvious to almost anyone if I put heavy metal on a commercial for fabric softener that it won’t work. The music more likely needs to be light and simple for something like that but how light and simple?  Should it be earnest?  Should it be quirky?  These are terms composers use all the time to discuss the mood we should try to convey and we often deal with pretty grey areas.

8. Go more into the thing about hitting moments and tempos and all that. I followed what you wrote (I think), but was sort of amazed to suddenly consider that you were given stuff about either moments or tempos: when you get stuff, what info are you given? Duration of the required piece is obvious, but are you commonly given tempos? Are the moments you’re to hit made explicit, or is that a matter of you reading/watching the work and making those decisions?

One thing I forgot to mention about the process that is a pretty important part of it is that 9 times out of 10 when you get an early version of the video that you’re scoring it has “temp” music on it. Something (a song, another composition, a piece of stock music) the director or editor liked but isn’t quite making it work exactly. Sometimes the client absolutely loves the temp music and in that case as a composer you’re going to want to have the same tempo most likely. The one thing you absolutely have to create is the same mood. Usually I’ll have a discussion with my client about what is and isn’t working about the temp music and that’s when we’ll also discuss the moments in the video we’ll want to hit with the score. Any other moments beyond that are at my discretion (read: whim.)

9. And from the q before last, too: it’s absolutely obvious that heavy metal in a fabric softener commercial’s not gonna work. On the other hand: is there any part of you that wants to push at that stuff—at aesthetic expectations? I ask this, again, as someone whose job requires that sort of push (if a poem gives exactly what you expect it to, it becomes cliche and the writer goes nada)–does any part of you *want* to make metal for a fabric softener commercial, want to bend the arc of composing in that direction?

Oh yeah, of course. The one thing you want to be careful about here is that if you have an inspiration and you want to make that heavy metal work (for example) then you should probably take the time to create an additional version that’s more akin to what the client is expecting. That way you’re covered. It’s always great to blow them away with something unexpected but you’re being paid to deliver a product so you better cover your bases. If I was a tailor and you came into my shop and asked for a custom suit in black I’m going to make that suit in black for you even if I personally think you’d look better in white. Doesn’t mean I might not try to get you to try on a white suit at some point though. I guess that might be the difference between composing for video and writing poems? Do you ever write poems for someone else on commission?