Composing Music with Technology for a High School Drama Production An Interdisciplinary Approach

Composing Music With Technology For A High School Drama Production An Interdisciplinary Approach

Robert Bruning

Hamilton Academy of Music

TI:ME Technology Areas Addressed:

Electronic Musical Instruments
Information Processing


High School


Music Theory, General Music

MENC Standards Addressed:

MENC 2: Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
MENC 3: Improvising melodies, harmonies, and accompaniments.
MENC 4: Composing and Arranging Music within specified guidelines.
MENC 5: Reading and notating music.
MENC 6: Listening to, analyzing and describing music.
MENC 8: Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
MENC 9: Understanding Music in Relation to History and Culture


Introduction and Overview



Quite often a professional soundtrack composer is pressured to guarantee that the audience will be completely hooked into the on-screen action.  To do this he or she will often reach back to remember experiences in Music History, Music Literature, or Performance classes for a bag of clichés from the great works in order to create knock off pieces with tried-and true formulae.



Other times their instructions are more concrete and actual examples of recorded music that the director likes (but for one legal or financial reason or another cannot be used) are provided in temp tracks in work tapes of the roughly edited, but unfinished production.



In both cases, the methods employed to meet the order are the same. 



In this lesson plan, I will demonstrate a real world application of Bloom’s Taxonomy as the Hamilton Academy of Musics Electronic Instrumental Ensemble embarks on a formalized step-by-step attempt at the music composition techniques that have been used by Hollywood film and television scorers for decades. Likewise, the concepts in this project will be easily found to subscribe to a several of the California Visual and Performing Arts Standards (Advanced) for music education.



This project actually came about when the Drama department teacher, Ms. Marlene Zuccaro asked me to provide video projections as virtual sets and onscreen text for the schools fall drama production of The Laramie Project. I realized that I would not have the time to be involved unless I could bring my whole class into the picture. We decided that my class should compose background music and scene-change interludes to submit for the directors approval.



I had seen a stage production of this play and found it to be quite powerful without any such soundtrack. I realized that, if Ms. Zuccaro, as the director, decided that the play should go on with little or none of this music, my students efforts should still not go to waste.



I knew also that the HBO television production of this work does however involve many minutes of music cues. This would be our model score, which we would, cue-by-cue, come to know, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. With the permission of Peter Golub, the original composer of the HBO special, scenes from that show could be loaded into our computers and stripped of their original audio track. Our student compositions could be layered into those video clips and, once the stage production has finished its run, the student actors could even be brought in to re-record their lines to the lip movements of the onscreen Hollywood actors! With all this added value as practice for the real world of voice-over acting, coaching, editing, mixing, and producing, this little idea had just taken on an irresistible and exciting life of its own.



At this writing:

1)                      20+ hours have gone into first digitizing a videotape of the HBO show and then chopping only the musical sections into 43 separate computer video clips,

2)                      The class has viewed (with parental permission, of course) and discussed the whole show (this was, itself, due to the subject of the story, an important Civics lesson),

3)                      A classroom agreement has been reached on the many qualities and characteristics to be scrutinized in the original musical score (Bare minimums have been itemized for now with the many principles of Comprehensive Musicianship to be picked up after the stage production deadline has passed.),

4)                      the clips have been distributed to teams of student composers and loaded into their electronic music workstations,

5)                      the students understand that written analyses of what they hear is the first step and that these will be submitted for the first assessments of their work,

6)                      they have never before been more consistently and collectively on task,

7)                      the new music that I have heard so far is coming along very nicely

8)                      contact information has been obtained for Mr. Golub, with the encouraging advice that Of course, Peter will approve of what you are doing! He teaches at the Sundance Film Composers workshop using the same ideas with existing movies. That you have high school students involved in this will be exciting to him!

9)                      the drama department reports fine progress in their work across campus

10)                  the curtain rises on October 30th with the first tech rehearsal on the 25th.

11)                  I am just beginning to think about the visuals that I was originally brought in to do.  OUCH!





The Tasks of this assignment are, as I understand them:

I.                      Choose one musical work to be used in my curriculum and possibly used in concert.

                                                                                i.       Peter Golubs score for the HBO movie The Laramie Project, consisting of more than 40 very short pieces

                                                                                  ii.       The possibility of our original work, based on some of Golubs ideas, appearing in a live stage production of the play The Laramie Project is our possible concert performance.

II.                   Provide a copy of the score

                                                                                i.       Mr. Golub, on a 10/16 visit to my classroom, offered to provide a copy of his score for classroom analysis and discussion in an as-yet-unscheduled return visit.

                                                                                  ii.       For purposes of this SED 525 assignment, however, all I can provide are the videotape dub from a television cablecast and a CD from that same HBO movie, which was a gift from Mr. Golub.

III.                Provide and possibly discuss my philosophical reason for choosing this work

                                                                                i.       I believe that a real-world application of learned techniques is the best way to provide motivation for a student to learn and retain the information. This notion is, I think, the prime reason for the noted success of sometimes otherwise unsuccessful students in performing arts classes.

                                                                                  ii.       In this case, I have long wanted to bring the experience of writing to picture into my classroom. Until this connection to the Drama departments endeavor, though, I have been unable (and a little bit afraid) to come up with a solid lesson plan that could bring this experience to life for the whole class.

A.                  I have taught and/or known Hamilton Electronic Music students who have pursued soundtrack-scoring experience and who have met with some success in this field after graduation. Examples are:

a.       Julia Newmann and Robby Elfman recent graduates from the USC film scoring school, students of my predecessor

b.       Justin Skomarovsky a 2002 graduate who, in his senior high school year, and while enrolled in my class, conducted an 80-piece orchestra on the Newman sound stage at Fox as they played his cue for the animated feature Ice Age. His music has also been heard in the trailers for Master and Commander.

c.       Alexander Tovar a 2003 graduate of my course who chose to accept an invitation from his idol, Philip Glass, to intern and study under him at his New York production company.

d.       Kevin Bivona a current and fourth year student of my program, who last year, produced and recorded music for an industrial film for the MTA and more recently produced music in the Judy Judy ads for the Judge Judy TV show.

e.       Gregory Blum a 2003 graduate after 3 years of my courses, who composes and produces the music for his own animations.

B.                   Until this project, discussion of film scoring consisted mostly of encouragement to look into it as a future career goal, citing the limitations of a life spent in pursuit of fame and fortune as a pop music star to students who, by their very presence in my class, have already expressed a lack of desire to be very involved with the worlds of traditional classical music. Meanwhile, the real-world application of learned skills has always consisted of the years end final project a portfolio CD of originally produced/or engineered music recordings, as well as occasional video-enhanced performances for friends and families in the school auditorium.

C.                   TV composer Walter Murphy once visited the classroom and absolutely enthralled my students when he showed clips from a show they were familiar with, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first with his underscore included and then without. The value of the skillfully composed but previously unnoticed music was beautifully illustrated.

a.       Music helps to tell the story. The wrong music leads the story down an unintended emotional path. The right music can take the scene farther down its intended direction than even the screenplay writer can imagine.

b.       Now, with the interest of Mr. Golub in our work, and with the help of our mutual friend at Fox, I hope to attract more such guests.

IV.               List the musical concepts that will be taught using this piece. Before they begin the synthesis any of Golubs ideas into original works of their own, each student must contribute to his/her teams BY EAR analysis that must incorporate all of the following:

                                                                                i.       Harmony has been discussed as we analyze Golubs predominant use of minor scales and modes to constantly remind the viewer of the gravity of the situation of a town that is struck with grief and dismay after a brutal murder.

                                                                                  ii.       Melodic content is noted to be highly motivic and repetitive. Also it is quite transparent and sometimes even non-existent, in favor of sections that consist merely of chordal vamps.

                                                                                     iii.       Rhythmic values to be avoided in the somberest scenes include staccato and fast dotted rhythms. Longer tones are emphasized, except in just two lighter emotional moments and also a news report scene at the site of a parade where a marching band is going by. Rhythmic accuracy and cohesion are mandatory. To achieve this, each cue is to be recorded with a metronome click track turned on and automatic quantizing is employed. For purposes of accelerando and ritardando, tempo maps may be later drawn into the MIDI sequence.  The scenes of a murders confession are underscored with avant-garde atonal sounds that are completely devoid of countable rhythms.

                                                                                    iv.       Dynamics are quite extreme, depending on the purpose of the scene. For opening credits and scene-change intermezzi, forte will be common, but most of this material is intended to be not noticed and certainly cannot play over the dialogue.

                                                                                  v.       Golubs serious but not overbearing balance has been achieved by his use of varying components of a chamber orchestra.

                                                                                    vi.       The recording ensemble is sometimes balanced, augmented and modernized with an occasional chording electric guitar and a Fender Rhodes electric piano sound. Likewise, open voicing is apparent and gives the music air. In this way Golub maintains adequate space for the overriding dialogue of most of the scenes.

                                                                                       vii.       Intonation is not necessarily an issue for us, as our electronic synthesizers are, so far, doing most of that work (too?) flawlessly. Between now and the time of application of our music to the video clips, however, there may indeed be choices made to bring in student instrumentalists as session musicians. Attention to intonation then will be crucial, as everything is apparent under the scrutiny of isolated multitrack recording.

                                                                                         viii.       So very obvious in this endeavor is our need to pay heed to the emotional mood of each scene. It is sometimes easier to analyze the parts of Golubs work than it is to re-create their sum. Being ever mindful of the mini-story behind each scene has been crucial to our success.

V.                  Other concepts presented in this lesson:

                                                                                i.       A viewing of this show by the class was intended to stimulate thinking and discussion about their own thoughts and feelings about homosexuality, homophobia, murder, hate-crime, mid-Western America, deniability, grief, religion, and the controversy that has followed this theatrical work as it has been presented and sometimes blocked from presentation in several cities and towns across the country. While we have been under the gun of the production deadline, not very much time has yet been devoted to this discussion, but more will follow. The play promotes overt condemnation of hate and hate-criminals, but otherwise, I think, it presents a very even-handed expose of the thoughts and feelings of many real people from several points of view. Everyone carries a piece of the truth is the motto on the CD cover. It is that message of embrace of diversity that I hope will find a home in the hearts of my students.

                                                                                  ii.       The musical glossary in the California VAPA standards contains no mention of several terms that are essential to a modern recording artist/composer/producer. I think it is criminal that so much music education seemingly prefers to actually hold our students back from productive musical participation in todays economy. In order to promote my students beyond their state-approved music education and into the very real world of musical work in an industry of artists and artisans that has been a vital contributor to (not just a recipient of) state and federal tax dollars for over a century, I must introduce them to a vocabulary that surpasses the 19th century. Examples:

A.                  SMPTE

B.                   Hits

C.                   Spotting

D.                  MOS

E.                   Etc.  

                                                                                     iii.       As I enter into page 6 of this paper, I wonder how much of the readers energy I should take to justify my claim that this Laramie Project lesson plan is a completed example of Blooms Taxonomy. When you imagine the various stages of our listening to, discussion of, examination of, classifications, modifications, discoveries, and arrangements of Golubs score, BEFORE we combine, integrate, modify, rearrange, substitute, plan, create, design, invent, compose, formulate, prepare, generalize, and otherwise rewrite these musical cues, I hope that you realize that all that remains is the Evaluation stage. For the stage production, much of that is out of our hands, but before the application of our tracks to the video clips, much in-class activity will surround the evaluative actions that will bring about several revisions of our work.

VI.               A description of how each of the concepts of this plan meets the California VAPA Content Standards for Grades 9 through 12 Advanced

                                                                                i.       ARTISTIC PERCEPTION – Processing, Analyzing, and Responding to Sensory Information Through the Language and Skills Unique to Music. In this lesson plan students notate, listen to, analyze, and describe music and other aural information, using the terminology of music. They will

A.                  Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given aural example (1.4) and

B.                   Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive (1.5).

                                                                                  ii.       CREATIVE EXPRESSION – Creating, Performing, and Participating in Music. In this lesson plan students apply instrumental musical skills in performing a varied repertoire of music. They compose and arrange music and improvise melodies, variations, and accompaniments, using digital/electronic technology when appropriate. They will

A.                  Perform (for recording) on an instrument a repertoire of instrumental literature representing various genres, styles, and cultures with expression, technical accuracy, tone quality, and articulation, by oneself and in ensembles (level of difficulty: 5; scale: 1-6). (2.5)

B.                   In some instances the composing teams will decide to perform in small instrumental ensembles with one performer for each part (level of difficulty: 5; scale: 1-6). (2.5)

C.                   Compose music in distinct styles. (2.6)

D.                  Compose and arrange music for various combinations of acoustic and digital/electronic instruments, using appropriate ranges and traditional and nontraditional sound sources. (2.7)

                                                                                     iii.       HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT – Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of Music. In this lesson plan students analyze the role of music in our current multimedia dominated American culture, noting cultural diversity as it relates to music, musicians, and composers and the styles and instruments for the music that is required for this film score work compared to the music that they might otherwise be producing for their own CD. They will

A.                  Analyze how, with the advent of cinema, the roles of musicians and composers have changed or remained the same throughout history. (3.1)

B.                   Identify uses of music elements in nontraditional art music (e.g., atonal, twelve-tone, serial), especially in the murders confession scene. (3.2)

C.                   Compare and contrast musical styles within various popular genres in North America, noting the importance of the electric guitar when Golub uses it to point out that these events took place in middle America (3.6)

D.                  Analyze the stylistic features of a given musical work that define its aesthetic traditions and its historical or cultural context. (3.7)

E.                   Compare and contrast musical genres or styles that show the influence of two or more cultural traditions. (3.8) The augmented chamber orchestra is Hollywood on an independent film budget as part of an intimate examination of mid-Western Americans and pressures and pleasures of their culture(s).

                                                                                    iv.       AESTHETIC VALUING – Responding to, Analyzing, and Making Judgments About Works of Music. After the tech rehearsal deadline and with the assistance of Golub himself, students will critically assess and derive meaning from both his and their own works of music and their performance of musicians according to the elements of music, aesthetic qualities, and human responses.

A.                  In an A/B listening session they will compare and contrast how a composer’s intentions result in a work of music and how that music is used. (4.1)

B.                   Hopefully that session will lead them to analyze and explain how and why people in a particular culture use and respond to these particular tools of the trade. (4.2)

C.                   They will compare and contrast the musical means used to create images or evoke feelings and emotions in this particular musical work and the work of others in this field. (4.3)

                                                                                  v.       CONNECTIONS, RELATIONSHIPS, APPLICATIONS –
Connecting and Applying What Is Learned in Music to Learning in Other Art Forms and Subject Areas and to Careers. In this lesson plan students apply what they learn in music into social studies, psychology, and philosophical areas. It will hopefully help them to develop competencies and creative skills in problem solving, communication, and management of time and resources that contribute to lifelong learning and career skills. They also will learn something more in-depth about the actual practices of careers in multimedia, television, and/or film scoring.

A.                  Through this direct connection to the original film composer and his passionate connection to this dramatic piece of social commentary, there can easily be derived an explanation of the ways in which the principles and subject matter of music and various disciplines outside the arts are interrelated. (5.1)

B.                   It goes without saying that we will have analyzed the process for arranging, underscoring, and composing music for film and video productions. (5.2) As an added bonus, both the Electronic Music and Drama department students will experience an adventure in voice-over acting and production.

C.                   Along the way, and throughout the course we will continue to identify and explain the various factors involved in pursuing careers in music. (5.3)

VII.            Include a related listening activity, or perhaps an example of a painting/work of art, or literature that relates to time place, style, culture, etc. that could be used with this music.

                                                                                i.       Golubs music is related to an original stage play, an HBO movie, a CD release of that soundtrack, and now these students stylistic knockoffs.

                                                                                  ii.       Student work is in direct connection to a dramatic theatre event, being Ms. Zuccaros interpretation of the original play. I certainly expect my students to be in attendance.



Perhaps you will choose to join us as well.  








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