Group composition: film scoring
Recently one of the members of the Midnight Music Community (MMC) – teacher Brigitte Louise Lessard from Québec, Canada – shared a halloween music technology lesson she has had much success with in her elementary classes. It’s a film scoring activity, but rather than have the students compose a score and match it up to the video in a digital audio workstation like GarageBand or Mixcraft, she has the students perform the music live, along with the film while it’s being shown on a data projector. She video-records the performance and then matches it up with the original video.
The project reminds me of the way pianists would improvise music to accompany silent films in the 1920s. Silent film accompanists would either improvise music from scratch, use a compilation of existing (often well-known) classical and theatre music themes, or they would use a combination of the both. Sometimes original music was composed especially for the movie, but that was not a common practice until the “talkies” came along in the 1930s.
If you’re interested in discussing the history and techniques of accompanying silent films, there are some great resources online. The Silent Film Sound And Music Archive has example cue sheets and directions for accompanists which are fascinating.
Mickey Mouse in The Haunted House (1929)
In Brigitte-Louise’s lesson, she takes a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1929 – the Haunted House – and divides it up into smaller portions. She then assigns each section (around 90-120 seconds each) to a different class and they each compose sound effects and music to accompany their portion of the cartoon.
To help make the process a smooth one, she creates a storyboard to go with each section of the the video which is used to keep the class on track during the composition process. The video is shown to the students and they brainstorm what type of music should accompany the scene and which instruments to use. They use a combination of untuned percussion, melodic instruments and vocal/body sounds.
In the Mickey Mouse cartoon (which you can see below) there is a scene in which bats fly (around the 1’20” mark). Brigitte-Louise recalled the following from the brainstorming session with the students:
“For the flying bats, the kids noticed that I had big sheets [of paper] in the recycling bin. I had just received packed stuff. They decided it would be a good way to “sound” the bats.”
She finds it easier to compose the soundtrack as a full-class activity, rather than split up into smaller student groups.
Brigitte-Louise says the students practice without instruments along with the video – which she displays on the interactive whiteboard. Once the students’ reflexes are good and they are able to match the timing of their sound effects and music with the visuals of the film, they pick up the instruments and play their soundtrack again while she records the student performance with her iPhone.
The final step is to create”montage” of the two videos – the original film and the student performance – in a “picture in picture” style.
Take a look at the finished version here:
Brigitte-Louise has done the same activity with other short films including the Laurel and Hardy clip and Wall E trailer below.
Further reading and resources
- Silent Film Sound and Music Archive
- Wikipedia article on Silent Films includes a useful section on sound and music
- The Wikipedia article on film scoring has a useful film score history section
- The Complete Guide To Film Scoring
- The Internet Archive has lots of public domain cartoons and other videos you can use legally with students
Film scoring tutorials and online PD for teachers
Detailed tutorials, downloadable resources and tips for film scoring can be found inside the Midnight Music Community – the online learning space for music teachers who want simple solutions for using technology meaningfully in their lessons.
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