HOW TO GIVE EFFECTIVE COMPOSER FEEDBACK

By Jenny Leigh Hodgins

writer Jenny Leigh Hodgins offers feedback tips for composers

Offer what you know.

(This was originally written as part of an article for Film Scoring Practice Facebook group, a growing community of composers with 3,800+ members. Original Post here.)

WHAT DO YOU WANT

Remember, in Film Scoring Practice group, our united goal is to help each other improve as composers. Think about what you’d want listeners to tell you about your music. It’s nice to hear positive things about our original ideas. But getting a few ‘likes’ and generic comments about how great your music is does not tell you anything useful. You want to hear what makes it great music, right? (So you can compose more music, equally as great!) Or, if it needs work, you want to know how to get it from ho-hum to legendary status!

THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG

Some people have studied music formally, while others are self-taught. The important thing is to find a way to express your feedback that shows what you know about music, and communicate that naturally. None of us need to be a musical legend to give useful, effective feedback to a composer! We just need to be willing to offer what we know.

Some of my most useful feedback has come from non-musicians, without any use of music vocabulary! We know that experiencing music is completely unique to each individual, so there is no right or wrong about how it’s perceived. And every artist enjoys hearing about someone being affected by their creation.

ONE WAY: DON’T TALK IN MUSICAL TERMS

Since we’re aiming for scoring music for film directors, communicating without musical language can be super-helpful! Think in terms of mood, speed, color, character, scene, and story when commenting on Film Scoring Practice assignments.  Use these words as a basis for describing the music, and compare how the music stands up to those elements.

Did it work? Does the music match a character’s personality? Does it show something in the story we don’t see readily? Does it point something out in the story or character that isn’t obvious, or does it make something obvious even bigger? Does the speed of the music fit the emotion, dialogue, and/or action of the scene?

For example, in regard to how music can suit a character, let’s consider Hans Zimmer’s music for Batman. By using only one ominous, spacious, long, low pitch, Hans Zimmer created a musical theme that represented the Joker character. He used one sound, which he elaborated on through electronic manipulation, and later built orchestration as textures around that sound. Think about words you could use to describe what worked with that or not.  For example, you could say, “I always knew to anticipate the Joker’s presence whenever I heard that one low pitch. It signaled evil, and that something unpleasant was about to happen. That music fit the scene, and especially expressed the dark personality of the Joker.”

ANOTHER WAY: USE MUSICAL TERMS

If you know music vocabulary, use specifics! Here are suggestions about what to listen for when preparing a feedback comment to your peers:

  • Describe what instrumentation choices, changes, and ranges are used and why it works or doesn’t work. For example, if you hear a flute in a range below middle C, make a suggestion that it be a different instrument (such as bass flute) that plays that range in reality so the music sounds more authentic. Or, if instrumentation overwhelms the vocalist in dynamics, range or texture, make suggestions to thin out the instruments or change the range of frequencies used to allow the vocals to be heard. If the scene requires heroic music, suggest switching out the strings for the French horn section at a particular point. Or, suggest another instrument choice that is known for conveying a heroic mood.
  • What sounds good to your ears about the production quality, mix, pan, or volume? Give specific tips on how to improve the mix, such as panning instruments to emulate where the sit in a live orchestra. Explain how production quality may be improved if you boost the volume through compression. Or, offer a link to a tutorial on the topic that would be useful for the composer.
  • What’s happening in a composition that demonstrates quality, keeps listening interest, shows diversity, beauty, or memorability (catchy). It may be the harmonic progression, a particular chord or a note that adds an unexpected color to a traditional chord.  It may be a catchy melodic or rhythmic pattern that hooks your interest.
  • What uniqueness, clarity, or level of artistry do the lyrics express? Did the words express something in a way you haven’t heard before?  Do they send a clear message that moves you emotionally?
  • How do any or all of these add or detract from the mood of the music, or your response to the music?

GIVE PROS AND CONS

Don’t just offer compliments on what works well in the music. The goal is to improve, and we need to know our weaknesses to develop our skills.  So offer at least one comment on what didn’t work for you and make a suggestion on what you would do to improve it.

SELF-REFLECT

These are just some suggestions. There are plenty more things you could listen and comment on besides those discussed here. As you receive feedback on your music, ask yourself what you intended to work successfully? Are there things you remain unaware of, or need to learn? Getting feedback in those areas may open up blind spots for you so you could become better as a composer, right?

GIVE BACK

So let’s give something useful to a fellow (feminine) composer; Talk about what you know.  Listen for it in the music. Think critically. Think about how you’d feel if someone gave you constructive criticism that helped you improve your skills. Now, go do that for someone in Film Scoring Practice group!

What do YOU listen for when looking for music composition quality? List it here as a comment!

SUMMARY:

  • Think about what you’d want listeners to tell you about your music.
  • Be willing to offer what you know.
  • Express yourself in a way that’s natural for you.
  • Don’t use music words. Instead, describe mood/emotion, speed, story, scene, color, character.
  • If you know music vocabulary, offer specifics.

Give Effective Feedback Short Version

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