Keeping Score: The Music in Movies

by TJ Ducklo 06/18/2013 13:34 (UTC-08:00) Pacific Time (US & Canada)

The music in movies can often be as important as the characters themselves. What would Jaws be without the iconic “Duh duh” string melody? Who couldn’t hum the Star Wars theme right now on cue? And would 007 look as awesome jumping from trains without his signature accompanying tune? In the latest in a series of events that celebrate the creators and makers behind film and television, the MPAA, together with CINE, hosted two experts in the field of music scoring and supervision to share their knowledge and discuss their craft. Dan Carlin and George Clinton, each the Chair of the Scoring for Motion Picture and Television department at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music and Boston’s Berklee School of Music respectively, joined Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday for an educational and fascinating conversation on the music scores and soundtracks we hear in movies.

Clinton is a composer by trade whose work on film scores has appeared in the Austin Powers series, Mortal Kombat series, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and many others. Carlin is an Emmy® award winning music editor, conductor, music supervisor, and soundtrack producer on such Oscar®-winning films as The Black Stallion and Last of the Mohicans. They each brought a different perspective to the discussion to give the audience a complete view on how it all works. 

Clinton described his creative process and some of the new challenges he faces as a composer:

“The most important meeting a composer has is the spotting session- where we actually pick where the music should go in the movie. After that meeting, I’ll go away and I’ll write for two weeks. I’ll sit at my house at my studio at the piano, and after I’ve seen the movie several times, start to come up with some thematic material. I’ll pick a scene I think is going to work, and I’ll jam to that scene over and over again, trying to emotionally connect and have it be an instinctive reaction rather than an intellectual one.

And I’ll show it to the director and producers, and we’ll go back and forth until I record with the orchestra. But one of the unfortunate things about film these days is that they keep editing right up until the very last minute. There used to be a thing called a locked picture, now there’s not even a latched picture. Scoring these movies now is like trying to fit clothes on a running man.” 

Carlin, as an editor, producer, and music supervisor, has a different musical role than Clinton and is often tasked with searching for the appropriate existing song that evokes the desired emotion or fits the right cinematic moment. He emphasized the importance of working with other creative minds in this process:

“Collaboration is what I love about Hollywood. You’re on the team. If anyone’s got an idea, throw it out and if it’s good, it sticks and if it’s not, we move on. But let’s involve as many people as possible.”

When asked by Hornaday if there is any song he cannot stand to hear again, Carlin answered in the same spirit of his previous answer: “If it’s been a good experience, if you do it right through collaboration, you never get tired of hearing it.”

Dan Carlin and George Clinton serve as important examples of the thousands of dedicated, talented people who work every day to entertain audiences across the globe using their craft. The industry is full of gifted artists like Dan and George, and the MPAA looks forward to continuing to celebrate the creative community’s work through future events. 


From left to right: Ann Hornaday, George Clinton, and Dan Carlin

From left to right:Dan Carlin, Ann Hornaday, and George Clinton

Photo Credit: Joy Asico

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