'You get better the more you do,' says composer for TV movies

April 2, 2015

“I haven’t understood a bar of music of music in my life, but I have felt it.”
      -- Igor Stravinksy, famous 20th century composer, quoted at Staceland website

How do you write music for TV films?

Students looking for textbook answers, guiding principals and underlying theories were gently disabused of such notions by Stacey Hersh, who has been scoring films for Hallmark, Lifetime, and other networks for a good part of his career.

hersh“There’s no real methodology to it,” explained Hersh, during one of a series of guest lectures by industry professionals sponsored by the audio and music engineering program.

Given the tight deadlines– no more than four weeks to write, produce, and record a score for a 90-minute movie – “there’s not a lot of time to think and plan; it’s just go, go, go,” noted Hersh, who relies on a lifetime accumulation of musical instincts and intuitions.

“I wish I could intellectualize this a bit more. It’s really something you have to learn by doing.  This is a field like many others where you get a lot better the more you do.”

Hersh, who grew up in Toronto, Canada, said he became interested in music at an early age. He studied piano and percussion, eventually settling on vibraphone and marimba. He studied under jazz vibraphonist David Friedman, majored in music theory at the Manhattan School of Music and in economics at the University of Toronto.

All the while, he was actively performing, traveling and composing for pop bands. “I just played all the time,” Hersh said. “I didn’t really think about what I was going to be doing for my future, for my career. I was just enjoying playing and figuring out things as I went.”   

Eventually he began writing for the musical advertising industry in Toronto. “It seemed like a natural adjunct of what I was doing.” And now, more than 25 years later, he is “pretty much exclusively writing music for television.

“I really came at this in an unplanned, roundabout kind of way. . . “You just don’t know where things are going to take you.”

Here’s some of Hersh’s Q&A with students and faculty.

Question: How did you learn to write music?

“I had some formal composition training (Hersh spent a summer studying arranging and composition at the Eastman School), but not a lot. And certainly none in regard to pictures.  I just immersed myself in it. I watched a lot of TV shows and analyzed what was going on, taking the scenes apart, making notes about where music was used and where it wasn’t.  I enjoyed doing that. It was like taking apart a puzzle and figuring out what all the pieces are.

“I also learn a lot by listening to what other people do. I am often motivated by work that I think is amazing. ‘How did you do that?’ And I have to try and find out.”

Question: When you first get the footage for a film, how do you go about sketching out the music?

“I usually get a cut of the movie, and I’ll just look at it two or three times, just to take it all in. At this point I try not to think too much about the music.

“Then I’ll write some themes over a couple of days, just trying to get some ideas going. I’ll take the best one or two, put them up against the picture and see how it plays. Then at least I have a framework to start from, whether it’s just a motif or a whole theme.

“Since I will need to have my work approved, in this case by the producer, I show that person what I’m thinking about at this stage, because if they don’t like it, I have to go back to the drawing board.”

Question: How much time do they give you?

“From the time I get the raw picture, a minimum of three weeks, a maximum of four. In that time I have to write, produce and record everything, including live instruments if need be, get it all approved and do rewrites as required. This is for delivery for the final mix.

“It’s a very aggressive, compressed time schedule. These dates are not moveable. I can’t say, ‘Hey guys, I need a couple more days.’ It just won’t happen.

“There are long days and long hours. I basically can just get it done.”

Question: How much music do you have to write for a TV movie?

“These are all 90-minute movies. A thriller, with a lot of scenes that depend on mood, tension and drama, may have up to 80 minutes of music. I also do a lot of Hallmark romances/romantic comedies. They have less music, maybe 45 to 50 minutes, because they are much more dialogue driven

Question: Is there any kind of underlying theory that tells you in order to express a certain emotion for a scene, the kinds of sounds and characteristics of sounds you should use?

“I don’t approach it that way. I respond to it on an emotional level. It’s not really intellectual to me; it’s intuition and my musical take on things.

“I just kind of play with sound. I think in terms of density and color. I know that sounds odd and abstract, but that’s how I think. There are chords and textures that are tense, and those that are more open and relaxed.”

Question: For students looking to get into this field, what classes or software do you recommend?

  • “You've got all these computer tools, which are now invaluable. Except for a very few composers like John Williams, for example, we work at a computer. Learn a computer program. I use Logic and Pro Tools, so right there you’ve got your composition program and your recording program.  Get really fluent with it.” 
  • "Get involved as a student in writing music for peoples’ short films. It's a great way to meet filmmakers who may go on to work in film, and you may end up doing music for them if they like what you do.” 
  • “Study scores. When you’re watching TV and there’s a scene with great music, stop it, watch it again and try to figure it out. Do a takedown, an analysis. Look at what instruments were used; look at how the music plays against the dialogue and action. It’s really just using your own analytical tools. It's not something you find in text books. . . its really experiential.”

Question: So if you taught a class on this, would it be mostly project based?

“I would just have people (writing music) every week, analyzing clips and just doing it. It is one thing to read about it, another thing to just roll up your sleeves and say ‘okay, tomorrow I have to hand in a scene and how am I going to get this done?’ You figure it out. Your first attempts are may not be good, but you’re going to learn.”