How to Improvise Film Music on Piano
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In this interview, Jonny sits down with pianist, composer and educator Joshua Foy to explore how to improvise film music on piano. PWJ members can view the full interview here.
Joshua is an award-winning composer, educator, and music director. He received his Bachelors of Music from Chapman University in Music Composition and his Master of Fine Arts at the California Institute of the Arts in their Performer/Composer program. He has had the privilege of teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, Duke University and the Young Americans College of the Performing Arts.
Joshua co-composed and served as the music director for the theater production Piedra del Sol by director and playwright Maria Morett at the Getty Villa. He also was the music director for the original musical In Bermuda! by playwright David Largman Murray and composer Bobby Halvorson which featured such actors as Bryce Dallas Howard and Josh Gad.
He has written award winning film scores for The Newest Pledge, (Romance) in the Digital Age. Joshua has also composed the score for several episodes of the webseries The Computer Lab.
This is a guest blog post by Joshua Foy.
When we improvise film music, we’re trying to create various moods based on what is happening in a scene. Context is what is going to govern how one characterizes a mood. It can be expected norms of what sadness or happiness would mean. Or, perhaps, the time period you wish to evoke. Location, instrumentation, orchestration, texture; all these parameters will go into how one creates a mood.
One thinks of Earle Brown’s seminal work December 1952 in which an instrumentalist gets a score which is thought of more as an abstract painting. Brown asks the performer to play however they wish in any order and direction of the score. This can be a liberating and frightening experience for the performer.
Here you are. Playing the role of the composer as well as the performer. As you can imagine, performances of this piece will vary from person to person. And they’ll have to rely on what mood they’re feeling that day to give the various elements of that score meaning. You may want to interpret a vertical darkened rectangle as a cluster chord on the piano, or a double stop on the violin, or a rolled note on the marimba in its lowest register. Or, conversely, one may use a harmonic on the cello or a multiphonic on a clarinet. It’s fair game.
With all of that in mind, in our interview, Jonny wanted to explore how one can improvise film music by manipulating a pitch cell or collection of pitches, to elicit certain moods. He chose the below pitches [Figure 1].
I’ll focus on three of the four moods discussed: happiness, sadness, and suspense.
Film Improvisation Mood 1: Happiness
Firstly, you have to remember what is at your disposal or compositional arsenal, as I would say to some of my students. I find myself at a keyboard which has its own strengths and weaknesses – idiomatic use of the instrument, limited duration of pitch, dynamic range, pedaling, voicing, etc. Let alone some of the aforementioned elements of the time period, location, texture, as well as the given melody, rhythm, tempo, meter, counterpoint, and of course, harmony.
As Jonny describes this early morning routine, I kept the melody in the key of C while providing a common arpeggiated bass line [Figure 2], giving it a sort of pep, whilst coloring it with shifting, albeit diatonic (found in the key) harmonies. To keep things interesting and to keep up with Jonny’s story, I modulated a few times to embolden the melody.
Film Improvisation Mood 2: Sadness
Here, I opted to play this in a minor key, Bb minor, with a descending repeated note ostinato in the right hand. Descending lines to represent sadness or longing is a common technique that goes as far back as Baroque opera in its use of the sighing motif. [Figure 3] I use quite a bit of pedal to add to this despondency and alienation. Something that is unique to the piano.
Unlike with happiness, I play the given melody in the left hand, modally altered since we’re in a minor key, outlined by a shifting harmony but this time with a bit of dissonance – the use of a major IV chord in minor key. Giving it both a sad yet hopeful feel. [Figure 4]
Film Improvisation Mood 3: Suspense
Clearly, I set out to try something very different with this mood, employing a completely different texture. We have a faster tempo, change of meter (various compound meters), a variety of articulations, and I’m still in a minor key but I’m using far more dissonant chords. Texture is denser because the bulk of it is in the middle to lower register.
There’s a kitchen sink approach here. I’m altering the harmony as we move on to a new phrase. I’m altering the melody where it’s not note for note the same, but has a similar shape so that the listener can still recognize it (we call this tonal transposition). We also have ostinati galore in both the left and right hands [Figure 5 and 6].
But what stands out the most is how removed the harmony is from a home key and how unsettled it is. Avoiding the movement to the I chord of the key or using static chords of some kind can create a sense of unease because we’re lacking that resolution that our ears desperately need. It also helps that I was assisted by a string patch from the keyboard, giving me more room to play with counterpoint and dissonance.
One of my favorite activities I have my Music History students participate in is finding tunes that represent different emotions. Typically the emotions of happiness, sadness, and anger. This assignment is after our discussion of Plato and Aristotle’s thoughts on how music affects the emotions. After every student listed their songs we try to find commonalities between them all. With happiness, it’s upbeat, in a major key usually, and the texture is relatively light. Sadness is where we typically find the music slower, more sparse in instrumentation, and oftentimes in a minor key. Anger gives us a faster tempo, and a harsher dissonant texture.
You can, however, break away from these norms and find ways to play emotions differently when you improvise film music. Try doing what Jonny and I did. Find a melody and play around with it. You’ll never know what you’ll come up with. Context, as I mentioned before, will forever be your guide.
For further exploration of film music improvisation techniques, check out Jonny’s in depth course. It covers progressions, scales, ostinatos, and patterns to create inspirational and dramatic textures on the piano.
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