Scoring a Scene…A Case Study

I recently composed music for a film series called Cause Unknown Season 2. I was also the composer for the first season of this series. Cause Unknown is created by Jay Pickens who is a Washington D.C. based filmmaker. He has established a platform called Diversity on Film. With this platform Jay creates short films that feature a very culturally diverse cast and crew. His mantra is “Representing the Under-represented!”

As a composer there is a lot of thought that goes into creating music for a film. Every note and instrument selection is purposeful. I thought it would be interesting to take a scene from this film and share a little behind-the-scenes perspective of my specific approach to composing music for film.

When Jay decided to make this series it was important to him to have the music be a combination of hip-hop and orchestral music. Both seasons feature a good mixture of these musical styles. An interesting scene developed in season 2 where I chose to use only one of these styles. I’ll provide some context to the scene but first let me talk a little about my working relationship with the Director.

Jay allows me to spot the film myself. I figure out where the music should go (and where it shouldn’t go). He answers any of my questions and helps provide context when needed. This is very different from every other film I work on. So, typically my process is to start by watching the whole series from start to finish. When I start working on an episode I watch it several times. I do this outside of my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) because I don’t want to be tempted to start on the music too soon. I have a spreadsheet that I call “Music Spotting Notes”. This is a version of a spreadsheet used in my Film Scoring 101 class at Berklee Online. The spreadsheet contains the cue number, title, SMPTE IN/OUT, and cue length. After I’ve watched the episode several times I put a row in the spreadsheet for each cue I have identified. Once I start working on a cue, I create a session in my DAW using a template I have designed. The dialogue is pulled into my session and the video is pulled into Video Slave 4 running on a separate laptop synced to my DAW. I verify where I want the cue to start and then in the fifth measure I set the timecode of the starting downbeat. I figure out a good initial meter and tempo and set that in my DAW. I then watch the scene in my DAW and put markers at significant parts of the scene. These might be points such as:

  • The start of the cue.
  • When dialogue starts and ends.
  • Important points in the scene where something new or different is introduced.
  • Where the cue should end.
  • Where the next cue starts.

I then figure out where meter changes (and if necessary tempo changes) are needed to get from one point in the scene to another. This takes shape even more as I begin composing the cue. If another cue ends near the beginning of this cue I import it into my session. Also, if another cue starts near the end of this cue and I have already created it, I will pull that into my session as well. This is so that as I’m composing the cue I can get a sense for how it will feel with the surrounding cues.

Now I am ready to actually start composing. So, with that in mind, let’s get back to setting up story context…

The lead character is Captain Samira (played by Farhaana Nyamekye-Frazier). She is part of the Alpha Project and has worked very hard to get promoted to Captain. In season 1 she was sent on a mission alone to capture a person who had murdered many people. This person is Ananherta (played by Zach Knox) and he is part of the Onawa Faction. During their initial encounter, Ananherta informs Samira that he is her half brother. She is not sure whether or not to believe him. As far as she knows he has murdered many innocent people so her focus continues to be on apprehending him. Captain Samira is subsequently captured by the Onawa Faction. Admiral Adina (played by Maritza Vives), who is Captain Samira’s superior officer, sends the Alpha Project on a mission to destroy the Onawa Faction. During this invasion, many members of the Onawa Faction are killed, including Ananherta. This invasion causes Captain Samira to realize that the Alpha Project also murders innocent people. They are basically an organization who believes if you’re not with us you’re against us. At the conclusion of season 1 Samira is very confused and conflicted.

In season 2, though still disturbed, Samira decides to continue in her role as Captain. Admiral Adina sends her on another mission to the Onawa Faction. In this mission Samira finds herself pointing a gun at Ananherta, who has actually survived the attack from season 1.

a clip from Cause Unknown Season 2 Episode 5 – Seek and Find. In the scene is Captain Samira pointing a gun at Ananherta.

Ananherta recognizes the conflict going on inside of Samira and tells her she is not there because she was sent by Admiral Adina, but because she has questions. This is the scene upon which we arrive for this post.

In this scene there are several things the focus could be on, such as:

  • Ananherta is alive. In the first season we established a 3 note leitmotif for Ananherta that plays anytime he is the focus of the scene whether visually or the topic of conversation.
  • Samira is pointing a gun at Ananherta. At the beginning of the scene there is actually another person who is talking with Ananherta and Samira shoots him. There is clearly some conflict going on.
  • There is an impending attack approaching from the Alpha Project.

While all of these plot points are important, the strongest aspect of the scene being conveyed to the audience are the questions and the conflict going on within Samira. Here she is again in front of this person who is possibly her brother. Is it true or not? If so, how? Why is the Alpha Project trying so hard to annihilate the Onawa Faction? Why did she get sent on this mission? I can hear her saying to herself, “I wanted to be captain for so long, but now that I am a captain do I really want to be a captain for this organization?”

With this focus in mind I chose to make an orchestral lyrical/melodious cue. Throughout Cause Unknown there are driving ostinatos, banging beats, warm chords, and in some places, melodies. So, having a melody is not out of the ordinary for this film. Because I wanted the music to say something about what’s going on inside Samira I thought a melody would work best and I felt like it would best be stated primarily with the use of an orchestra.

Generally, when I’m writing something more melodious I start with a piano sketch. I use a large orchestral template and at the top of my template is an instrument track with a piano loaded on it.

For more information on how my large orchestral template is setup, check out my WALKTHROUGH: Large Orchestral Template YouTube video.

During this scene, Ananherta reveals definitive DNA evidence that proves they are undoubtedly brother and sister. I wanted the music to start out highlighting the uncertainties swirling around inside her and gradually come to the conclusion that he is undeniably her brother. A reality that she must face. When I create a sketch it’s not intended to be perfect. It’s purpose is to help me layout the melody, harmonies and sometimes ornamentation that I think is needed.

piano sketch for “Questions” composed by Julian Montgomery for Cause Unknown Season 2

After writing the sketch I let it sit for a little while, or as I like to say, “let it marinate”. Then I started orchestrating the music. The first decision I made was determining which instrument would initially play the melody. I chose to use a solo oboe for the following reasons:

  • The melody was in a comfortable range for the instrument with the highest note (at least in the first part of the melody) being B4 and the lowest note being B2 which is at the very low end of this instruments range.
  • I liked the color of the oboe. It’s a bit more whiny than the flute or clarinet.
  • The whole first part of the melody could be played by the oboe.
  • I felt like a woodwind would work better here. I considered Strings but I wanted Strings to take over the melody later. For the beginning, I wanted something intimate that would later lead to Strings so a woodwind instrument and specifically a solo instrument made the most sense to me.

Since I chose a solo oboe for the first part of the melody, the question then became what might be good accompaniment. To help me think this through I decided to reference another piece of music that used solo oboe. I referenced a song called “October” by Eric Whitacre. I found a version of this song played by the National Hsin Chuang Senior High School in Taiwan.

For Cause Unknown I have a palette of orchestral and electronic instruments that I use. I try to only pull from this palette for each cue. However, there are times when I decide to introduce a new instrument or sound into the Cause Unknown palette. Every new sound becomes part of the palette from which I can draw in the future. After listening to the beginning oboe solo several times I decided to start the orchestration with the following instruments from the Cause Unknown palette:

  • Two clarinets
  • One cello
  • A soft dark piano

I chose to put the harmony in the piano, and two countermelody lines in the clarinets. The cello eventually doubles the solo oboe. Having the melody and the two countermelody lines I felt added to the questions and conflicts that I was trying to convey with the music. It also stays intimate. The key here being the questions are inside her.

The melody then starts some ascending notes. It starts off with a few notes that are a familiar progression starting on B and then going up chromatically to a D. In keeping with the focus of questions and uncertainty, the melody continues to ascend which may not be expected. I chose to put this part of the melody in cello and english horn. The english horn added a little bit of roundness to the sound. It still sounds like strings but there is a very slight woodsy kind of sound that is added by the english horn. From my early orchestration classes, I learned that cello and english horn is a good combination. The cello in its upper range is eventually doubled in unison by violins II. I chose violins as opposed to violas primarily because I preferred the color of those two instruments together. The orchestration starts to grow some by adding in upper woodwind embellishments and a staccato bass line played by contrabass and piano. Another good instrumentation combination I learned in my orchestration classes is flute and harp. So, harp doubles in octaves with some of the upper woodwind runs. There is also a few measures where the harp and flutes do a subtle call and response acting as a countermelody.

As Samira says to Ananherta “enough word games, take me to Onawa” the music changes keys in an attempt to accentuate the conflict going on inside her. In the first half of the cue there are several key changes because it helps to convey uncertainty. As we start to approach the presentation of the DNA evidence by Ananherta the brass family is added. One of the chords used at this point is one of my favorite chords to use for suspense or “who done it” types of situations. It is a minor triad with a sharp 7th. In this case it is a Dâ™­min#7 with a 13 added in for additional color. Upon the reveal of the DNA, the melody now moves to violins I and II doubled in unison with a countermelody in horns. There is also a strong bass line starting to pulsate with contrabass and piano.

As the evidence is presented, Samira is at a loss for words. She can’t refute the evidence. She can no longer emotionally run from the truth that Ananherta is her brother. While this is transpiring on-screen, we start to have more driving music. The bass line is now being played by contrabass and contrabassoon simultaneously being accented on the first and third beats by low brass. A descending melodic line is placed in upper strings, each note being played with an accent. Every instrument that is playing is either helping the driving rhythm or the melody in some way. In addition to the orchestra, I add two electronic instruments that are used throughout Cause Unknown. One instrument is an 808 to add some kick and thud underneath everything. The other sound is a synth patch I use throughout the series to add to the overall suspense/thriller feel of the film. Throughout the cue, percussion is used to accent the music. Early on, the percussion includes the use of cymbal rakes, bass drum hits with a soft mallet, and soft timpani rolls. Later it becomes cymbal hits and crescendos along with more dramatic timpani hits and rolls.

The ultimate purpose of the music is to take you from internal questions to ultimately Samira being confronted with strong evidence that not only answers some questions but causes additional questions. The music syncs with certain parts of the scene but in subtle ways such as:

  • Key changes
  • Increased instrumentation
  • Rhythmic changes in the lower register

Below is the final piece of music that appears in the film

My main purpose for sharing this post is to give you an inside look into some of the thought process I went through as I was composing music for this scene. This is the type of thought I put into every scene. This is why I absolutely love being a film composer. Some of the questions I asked myself while thinking through this scene were:

  • What is the primary emotional focus of the scene?
  • What is happening in this scene and how does it relate to the rest of the film?
  • Where is dialogue and where is there no dialogue?
  • Is music even needed to help convey the emotions?
  • What type of musical approach would work best? (i.e. melodic, driving, harmonic, etc)
  • What instrumentation (taken from the already established palette of instruments) would best help me achieve the goal of the cue?
  • What size instrumentation is needed?
  • Are there any points in the scene that need to be synced to in some way?

I hope you find this post interesting and insightful. If you have any additional insight, questions or suggestions for me I would love to hear them in the comments.

Now, on to the next film!


I am an Los Angeles, CA based Composer for Visual Media including Film, TV, and Video Games. I am also a Berklee Online student. I have composed music for several short films. I am an independent contractor composing music cues for companies such as Burnett Music Group and ScoreKeepers. Through those relationships my music has appeared on several television shows. I have been producing music for more than 20 years. I have produced projects for several independent artists as well as two compilation projects called Soul Cutz Vol. 1 and 2.

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
2 comments on “Scoring a Scene…A Case Study
  1. Yvette Echols says:

    Love this, awesome!!!

  2. Kevin says:

    This was so well written and thorough I felt like I was in an expert film scoring class. Your sensibilities around your workflow just make so much sense. I have some definite thoughts on how to improve my own process after reading this.

    Thank you so much for doing this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *