By Michael Price

07 February 2018 - 17:53

'I often try to find the right amount of tension in a chord, and a satisfying or surprising way to release that, which will tell us something about the character.' Photo ©

Baher Khairy used under licence and adapted from the original

Michael Price is a composer for TV and film, known for work including the theme for the BBC TV series Sherlock. He talks about writing music for fictional characters, and his work with composers in Vietnam and Ukraine. 

When you compose music for a production like Sherlock, how do you get a sense of what music will fit the mood of the show/film?

The mood and style of the music is usually an instinctive response to the way the writing and acting come to life on screen. I can do some work at the script stage that I think might work, but until I see close-up shots of the actors, I don’t know what sort of music they have inside of them.

You've mentioned in the past that different characters have their own chords. Can you give us an example or two of how that translates to your compositions?

There are inherent feelings that certain combinations of notes create. Where I come from, that is mostly based on our shared experience of Western classical or pop music. Composers have used low, minor key strings to denote sadness in concerts and film scores so often that we have a quick emotional reaction to that kind of music.

Cultural reference points are different within other musical traditions around the world.

We also have cross-cultural responses to music in common, relating to heartbeats and our fundamental body rhythms. Most music works by creating tension and the anticipation of release for the listener. I often try to find the right amount of tension in a chord, and a satisfying or surprising way to release that, which will tell us something about the character.

Here is an example. Jim Moriarty is a Sherlock villain. The final note of Moriarty’s theme moves upward by just a semitone (the smallest interval in Western music), which always sounds to me like a quizzically raised eyebrow.

Is it more important that music matches a character's inner journey, or that it matches the action around that character?

Both, I think. Sherlock is a good case in point, where we sometimes have external, extrovert music for Sherlock himself, and internal, thoughtful music for John Watson.

There aren’t any strict rules for this. It depends on the context of the scene and the drama. Keeping an instinctive, emotional approach as a composer rather than an over-analytical approach is really important.

You've recently delivered workshops in Vietnam and Ukraine with emerging film composers. Are the things you worked on together as composers universal, or is there a significant difference between the countries?

It’s a joy to share the process of writing with other composers, and the terror of a blank screen is the same everywhere. The day-to-day business of a sustainable composing career is also a challenge everywhere, but the regulations for the collection of royalties (money paid each time a composition is used) are different around the world.

In countries with agencies that can effectively collect royalties, royalties become the main source of income for composers, rather than fees (money paid for a musician's service). Where that is not the case, and the fees for composers are not high, it is hard to support the high-quality recording studios and musicians that the film industry needs.

Supporting composers who are trying to build a platform for their unique work and give a musical voice to their region has been worthwhile and fascinating. In Vietnam, for example, there is a rich tradition of folk music styles including Ca trù and Hát chầu văn which were once repressed. It was a privilege to see some of these songs being used in contemporary film music.

What is changing in your area of work, and where do you see film composing going in the future?

With the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon producing more and more content, there are worldwide opportunities, but the business side of making a sustainable career has never been harder. Composers receive little or no payment from online views of their work. Depending on the type of contract they can negotiate, future income is less certain now than in the past.

What advice can you give to emerging film and TV composers – particularly those who are under-represented in the industry?

Seek out a support network, whether online or offline, so that you can sustain and nurture your work over time. Once you have started to write, it can take ten years before you make any kind of living. If you are from an under-represented group in the industry, it is even more important to organise and collaborate with others to make your voices heard. Create a balance of work, study and home life that will enable you to keep going. And enjoy every minute – this is your life, right here, right now.

Find more of our opportunities in music here.

Readers based in England, the deadline to apply for the Artists' International Development Fund is 18 March 2018. Find out if you are eligible and how you can apply. 

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