How to Underscore

A couple of people have asked recently how to approach the concept of an underscore. If you are unfamiliar with the word or its meaning then allow me to give a brief explanation…

Underscore is essentially background music. During TV shows or films it is often necessary to write music that sits underneath dialogue, but the thought process behind it is far more than simply whacking out any old tune. So here are my top tips when faced with a scene that needs underscore.

1) Does the scene really need it? Think about this hard. Is the scene trying to depict or describe something that just isn’t coming across with the actors’ performance? What can you say that they are not already? Take some time to critically watch a film or two with some of the best actors in lead roles – Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert De Niro, Helen Mirren, Leonardo DiCaprio etc. Watch out for those intense emotional scenes. What is the music doing? That’s right. Nothing. The best actors can get everything that needs to be said emotionally, physically and verbally into a scene leaving the composer little or nothing to add. Nine times out of ten you do not need to reinforce a good performance with what the actors are already saying.

Lets pretend that I am a producer and you know nothing about my film. I tell you that one of the scenes is about a young Wife that is saying goodbye to her husband as he goes off to War. She doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. The scene has a large amount of dialogue and is three minutes long. I then ask you “how much music do you think this scene should have?”, your response should be “I need to wait and see [how well your actors do!]”. If you have DiCaprio and Keira Knightley on the case then it’s unlikely you will have to write much/if anything!

2) If you decide that your music does need to say something that the actors are not, then you must tread carefully. What is it exactly that is not coming across? Is it the underlying tone of resentment that the Wife is holding towards the Husband that isn’t coming across on screen? Is the Husband having an affair and there is a more sinister tone needed? Then you need to find a way of writing “resentment” or “sinister” musically. What you do not need to do is write what emotions are already there!

A perfect example of this is near the beginning of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Turn the sound off and watch the scene as Lila Crane is driving out of town after stealing her boss’s money. It’s just a woman driving a car, right? Occasionally she checks her mirrors like any good, safe driver would. Nothing particularly interesting about that! Now watch again with Herrmann’s intense score over it. Suddenly Lila is not just out for a morning drive anymore!

3) Not only do you need to consider the tone of your music, but you also need to think about the subtlety of if. Underscore should be understated. It should never draw the conscious attention of the listener. It should creep in with no one noticing and do the same on exit. Can it have thematic material? Of course! But no one particular instrument should jump out with a big melody that draws the attention from the actors’ performance. Different composers approach this in different ways. Mr Zimmer is likely to add sustained strings or a pulsing synth line under the scene, whilst John Williams will more often than not be throwing around small snippets of thematic material around the entire orchestra, never letting one instrument hold the theme for more than a bar or two. This creates incredible textures that never allow one instrument to fully shine through and grasp the attention of the listener, but compliment the picture very well indeed.

4) If you are writing under dialogue then the dubbing mixer is going to turn your music down. Right down. This is where a little bit of technical knowledge comes in handy (failing that, use your ears!). The normal frequency range for a human voice is between 500Hz to 1K. Of course it covers more than that but that is the main bulk of it. So as far as humanly possible, get out of the way! Try your best to keep instruments out of this frequency range, as if you have a lovely cello line that is slap bang in the same frequency as the dialogue, your music will be turned down so low that it was barely worth the effort in the first place. Keep it out of the way and it is more likely to sit louder in the mix and compliment the dialogue nicely.

To summarize, underscore should be necessary, revolve around tone and texture rather than big melodies, be subtle and stay out of the way of the dialogue. Simple really…

Ok not quite, it’s a difficult thing to do and it is often the hardest music to write. Understanding what a scene really needs is the hardest part. Get that right and you are most of the way there already.

About the Author

Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson is the Postgraduate Course Manager at ThinkSpace Education. He holds a Master’s degree in Composition for Screen from the Royal College of Music and is passionate about furthering the careers of ThinkSpace students all over the world.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Orchestral Mixing ?

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