Ed Cavagnaro, Program Director    KCBS

"Steve has written and produced our last two sounder music packages. In both cases, we were extremely happy with the product, as evidenced by the fact that we didn't hesitate to go back to Steve when we needed to freshen our sound. I was amazed by how quickly Steve clarified our somewhat fuzzy concepts and developed music samples that helped us find exactly what we were looking for. He patiently listened to and understood our issues and provided us with many alternate cuts as we tweaked the sounder openings and beds until we arrived at the final excellent product. Steve's music is great, and he's a pleasure to work with."

Tom Donald, Director    Tom Donald Films

"Steve Shapiro is that rare composer and music producer that can actually read minds. At least, he reads mine. Maybe that's because we've been working together so long, but whatever the reason, I've come to value his unique ability to know instinctively what will work, and what won't. Steve even allows me to play his keyboards from time to time, and he generally refrains from overt laughter." 

Ray Salo,     Salo Productions

"For over ten years we have worked with Steve Shapiro in a collaborate way for music, narration and mix for TV and radio PSAs, travel videos and corporate videos. He offers a wonderful blend of technical knowledge and artistic sensibility which raises the production process to new levels of achievement."



"I'll know it when I hear it."
I have been hearing that phrase from clients for the 30 years that I have been scoring music. It is very difficult to articulate in words the right music for a project. You may not know how to speak about these things. You need to ask yourself, 'What are you trying to do? How do you want the listener to feel? What mood do you want to create?' You don't have to be musically literate to engage in this conversation. You want the music to help communicate on a very intangible and emotional level that is compelling and satisfying and causes people to respond in a really direct way.

Remember the scene in The Godfather where Michael murders Sollozzo and McCluskey in the middle of the restaurant, sacrificing his own innocence for his father's safety? It's difficult to think of a more powerfully emotional moment in film. The use of music in this scene holds the key to powerful communication in a cynical, post-baby boomer age. Walter Murch, the sound editor for The Godfather said: "In the hands of another filmmaker there would be tension music percolating under the surface. But Francis wanted to save everything for those big chords after Michael dropped the gun. So Michael shoots them and then there's this moment of silence and then he drops the gun. The gun hits the ground, and then the music finally comes in. It's a classic example of the correct use of music, which is as a collector and channeler of previously created emotion, rather than the device that creates the emotion. I think in the long run this approach generates emotions that are truer because they come out of your direct contact with the scene itself, and your own feelings about the scene - not feelings dictated by a certain kind of music."

In this case, the music was best used after the scene to channel and amplify a previously generated emotion - not to force or create emotion. Sometimes, the lack of music makes more impact. Silence can truly be golden. The where the music goes can be as relevant as what kind of music.

Good background music can contribute to the effectiveness of an advertisement merely by making it more attractive. Music serves to engage the listeners' attention and render the advertisement less of an unwanted intrusion. Music can tie together a sequence of visual images or a series of dramatic episodes and narrative voice-overs to create a sense of continuity and smooth out sequences of discontinuous scene changes or edits.

Musical styles have long been identified with various social and demographic groups. Therefore, musical style will assist in targeting a specific market. The style may function as a socioeconomic identifier -- a device for addressing a specific audience. The objective is to portray a particular style or image which elicits strong consumer allegiance, but which is also broadly based. It is comparatively easy to create a minority product, but this results in a small market. Thus, in the music, we may want a hip hop "feel", but not "real" hip hop, because that would limit the broad appeal. A hip hop feel that has no edges, even no vocals, will have a wider appeal. Music is arguably the greatest tool advertisers have for portraying and distinguishing various styles. Advertising music is perhaps the most meticulously crafted and most fretted-about music in history. Nationally produced television advertisements in particular may be considered among the most highly polished cultural artifacts ever created.

Music is very subjective. Sometimes, music works well as a counter to the film style. A film scene may be fast paced, but the music may work better being slow. It is amazing what music will make you feel in the context of a visual medium.

Think outside the box.


In bad television and B-movies, music is used in a very simple minded way. Happy scenes have happy music, action scenes have frenetic and fast music and love scenes have very romantic music. This does not leave much to our imagination. A creative approach to music scoring allows for an additional emotional element that is not on the screen. For example, a love scene may have music with tension and anticipation which adds uncertainty and complexity. Music that plays against what is on the screen can be very effective. Romantic music used in a non-romantic scene can impart a lyricism that might not be obvious visually. This art of juxtaposing music and visuals can give an authentic and emotional truth; things are rarely black and white. Sometimes you go contrary to what's on the screen, and sometimes you go with what's on the screen.

If music is be used under narration, it must acknowledge that narrative. That may make the music seem rather simplistic, unsophisticated and minimal when heard without the narration and yet in context it works great. The narrative actually becomes a musical element in the composition - a rather prominent lead instrument. The music is then serving the scene. This is true in both dramatic films and informational films. It is exactly for this reason that a lot of production music is now offered with "lighter" alternate mixes. The editor can then use the minimal version under narration and the fuller version during B roll footage without narration.

Spotting music refers to where the music goes and what it will sound like. You could have fabulous themes, great orchestrations and great players, but if the music comes in and out at the wrong place, it can ruin a film. If a particular instrument enters in a way that is obtrusive, it can destroy the dramatic impact of a scene. The music starts and stops, swells and retreats, instrumentation and textures are carefully crafted to fulfill specific dramatic functions. The point of the music is to further the story, to move the drama along, or tell us something about the characters or situation. In order to accomplish this, the music must be placed sensitively. When music is present in the film, it must be there for a reason, or it is probably not necessary. Does there need to be music? One must be absolutely sure that a given scene needs music. Some things to consider include dramatic needs, as well as what music has come just before or just after the scene in question.

If there is music, what are you trying to say with it? This goes beyond happy, sad, light or dark. Are you moving the drama forward? Are you expressing the character's thoughts or feelings appropriately? What instruments will accomplish these goals best? If you are clear on why the music is there and what it is trying to accomplish, then your job will be that much easier.

Different spotting approaches include playing through a certain piece of action, to emphasize it, or to foreshadow an event or not. The music can begin right on a cut, a few seconds before it, or even right after it. It can start immediately after an important line of dialogue, or it can wait and let that line sink in. It can foreshadow a dangerous situation, or play it more neutrally. There are countless spotting decisions to be made that will affect the drama, and the audience's experience of the story.


How can music contribute to a film? Aaron Copland has said "music can create a more convincing atmosphere of time and place." There are a variety of ways of achieving an atmosphere of time and place, or musical color. In a broad sense, musical color may be taken to represent the feeling aspects of music, as distinct from musical structure, or line, which might be considered to be the intellectual side. Color is associative - an accordian can give us a sense of Paris, bagpipes call up images of Scotland, the oboe suggests a pastoral scene, and rock music may imply dancing. The effect of color, moreover, is immediate, unlike musical thematic development, which takes time. Color is easier and quicker to achieve than musical design.

One way to impart color is to use musical material indigenous to the locale of a film, i.e. authentic music from that location. However, sometimes we might not want to use "authentic" Chinese music but just want to achieve a Chinese "flavor" or "color" by using a pentatonic scale with Western instruments. The Western listener may not understand the symbols of authentic Chinese music as he does those of Western music. Therefore, authentic Chinese music might have less of a dramatic effect even if it does convey the "realism" of being in China. The director will usually have a strong opinion about which approach is more appropriate.

This emphasis on color does not mean that musical line should be ignored. The primary reason film composers have traditionally stayed away from complex lines and structure is that such complicated structures cannot successfully be executed without competing with the dramatic action.

"Music can serve as a kind of neutral background filler. This is really the kind of music one isn't supposed to hear, the sort that helps to fill the empty spots between pauses in a conversation. It's the movie composer's most ungrateful task. But at times, though no one else may notice, he will get private satisfaction from the thought that music of little intrinsic value, through professional manipulation, has enlivened and made more human the deathly pallor of a screen shadow. This is hardest to do . . . when the neutral filler type of music must weave its way underneath dialogue." Aaron Copland

This can sometimes be the film composer's most difficult task - to be subordinate. Sometimes the function of film music is to do nothing more than be there, as though it would exist as sound rather than as 'constructed' music. Even though it is filling a rather subordinate role to other elements in the picture, "filler" type music is in fact a very conscious dramatic device.

Music can help build a sense of continuity in a film. It can tie together a visual medium that is, by its very nature, continually in danger of falling apart. Film editors are very conscious of this particular attribute of music in films. In a montage, particularly, music can serve an almost indispensable function: it can hold the montage together with some sort of unifying musical idea. Without music the montage can, in some instances, become merely chaotic. Music can also develop this sense of continuity on the level of the film as a whole.