Online Master's Degree Course

Composing the Orchestral Film Score


Authored by Sean McMahon


Course Code: OCOMP-599

Next semester starts September 23

12 Weeks

Level 5 - Degree Only

Level 5

This course results in one cue recorded with a professional and full orchestra. The piece will be recorded remotely and does not require any travel on the part of the student. The recording is well-suited for promotional material for the graduates’ demo.

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Composing the Orchestral Film Score emphasizes process. You will compose, mock up, orchestrate, and copy a cue that will be recorded remotely with a professional orchestra. In addition, students will prepare record-ready Pro Tools sessions, work with the orchestra to produce the desired performance, and mix their own cue.

You will expand your “composer’s toolbox” and employ various compositional and orchestration devices to maximize the effectiveness and dramatic impact of your music. You will also learn from Hollywood’s finest composers and studio musicians through video interviews.

By the end of the course, you will be able to:

  • Write effectively for full orchestra
  • Prepare record-ready Pro Tools sessions and professionally formatted scores and parts
  • Produce recording sessions by providing feedback to musicians and managing recording time
  • Create well-blended hybrid cues comprised of sampled MIDI instruments and live players
  • Employ a broad range of melodic, harmonic, and textural devices for cinematic and emotional effect
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Overview Syllabus Requirements Instructors Request Info


Lesson 1: Form in Film Music

  • Review of Film Scoring Concepts
  • Kinetics in Film Scoring
  • Tempo Mapping
  • Assignment 1: Analysis of Dramatic Shifts/Tempo Mapping

Lesson 2: Melody and Counterlines in Film Scoring

  • Rhythm in Melody
  • Pitch Selection in Melody
  • Counterlines
  • Assignment 2: Writing Melodies and Counterlines

Lesson 3: Modal and Parallel Composition in Film Scoring

  • Modes
  • Approaching Modes Melodically
  • Approaching Modes Harmonically
  • Parallel Harmony
  • Identifying Melody Blocks
  • Understanding Constant Structure
  • Assignment 3: Modal Writing/Parallel Harmony

Lesson 4: Composing for Strings and Brass in Film Scoring

  • String Voicings and the Zed Clef Technique
  • Writing Divisi Parts
  • Writing for Strings
  • Balancing Brass Voicings
  • Writing for Brass
  • Assignment 4: Orchestrating for Strings and Brass

Lesson 5: Composing for Woodwinds, Percussion, and Choir in Film Scoring

  • Woodwinds
  • Percussion and Piano
  • Choir and Solo Voice
  • Doublings and Tutti Writing
  • World Instruments
  • Sketching
  • Assignment 5: Sketching Your Final Project

Lesson 6: Textures and Accompaniments in Film Scoring

  • Inactive Textures
  • Active Orchestral Textures
  • Accompaniments
  • Assignment 6: Mocking Up the Sketch of Your Project

Lesson 7: Recording Session Preparation and Best Practices

  • Pro Tools Interchange Review
  • Score Preparation Best Practices
  • Parts Preparation Best Practices
  • Conducting/Booth Best Practices and Post-Session Work
  • Assignment 7: Orchestration and Parts

Lesson 8: Modulations in Film Scoring

  • Why Modulate?
  • Prepared Modulations
  • Unprepared Modulations
  • Assignment 8: Prepare Your Record-Ready Pro Tools Session

Lesson 9: Unifying Agents in Film Scoring

  • Introduction to Unifying Agents
  • Pedals
  • Pulses
  • Rhythmic Pedals
  • Ostinatos
  • Assignment 9: Prepare Your Assets for Recording Session

Lesson 10: Advanced Harmonic Concepts in Film (Part 1)

  • A Free Chromatic Approach
  • Chromatic Mediant Relationships (CMRs)
  • Synthetic Scales
  • Assignment 10: Record Your Final Project

Lesson 11: Advanced Harmonic Concepts in Film (Part 2)

  • Polychords
  • Polytonality
  • Minimalism in Film Scoring
  • Assignment 11: Final Mix of Your Project

Lesson 12: Advanced Harmonic Concepts in Film (Part 3)

  • Aleatorica
  • Writing with Incomplete Parameters
  • Graphic Notation
  • Extended Techniques


Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements 

Prerequisite Courses, Knowledge, and/or Skills
Completion of Orchestration 1 and Orchestration 2 or equivalent knowledge and experience is required.
Students should be able to:

  • Read and fully notate compositions in one of the approved professional notation programs (Dorico, Sibelius, or Finale). 
  • Demonstrate intermediate to advanced experience with MIDI sequencing using sample libraries for music production
  • Demonstrate basic fluency in Pro Tools


  • No textbooks required


  • Pro Tools 2018.12 or higher (First, Intro, and Artist editions are not sufficient)
  • In addition to Pro Tools, one of the following DAWs is strongly recommended:
    • Cubase Pro (recommended option)
    • Logic Pro (recommended option)
    • Reaper
    • Digital Performer (limited support)
  • Notation software, one of the following:
  •  High-quality algorithmic reverb, such as:
    • LiquidSonics Cinematic Rooms
    • iZotope Exponential Audio R4, Symphony, or Stratus
    • ValhallaDSP Room
    • Lexicon Native PCM Reverb Bundle
    • Note: Altiverb (industry-standard convolution reverb) can be used in lieu of an algorithmic reverb. 
  • Orchestral sample libraries (click here for list of approved options)
    • Note: Orchestral Tools' Berlin Orchestra Created with Berklee is strongly recommended.


  • MIDI keyboard controller with at least 49 keys, mod wheel, and additional MIDI CC knobs/faders, such as Novation Launchkey 49
  • Audio interface
  • Studio monitors (pair), such as JBL 305Ps or better, as well as necessary cables. Monitors with 8-inch woofers are recommended, such as JBL 308Ps or better.
  • Professional over-ear studio headphones, such as Sennheiser HD 600, beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO, etc.
  • iLok USB required to use Pro Tools offline. iLok Cloud (free) may be used instead, but requires a continuous internet connection while using Pro Tools.

Important Technical/System Considerations

  • Your computer must be powerful enough to run large film scoring sessions smoothly. You should consider:
    • At least 32 GB memory. 64 GB or more recommended.
    • Recent Apple M-series Pro (e.g. M2 Pro), Intel Core i7, AMD Ryzen 7, or better processor.
      • Note: The entry-level M-series Apple Silicon (e.g. just M1 or M2) is not sufficient, but we highly recommended a Mac equipped with an M-series Max or Ultra chip for this program.
    • NVME M.2 SSD primary internal drive (or Apple Silicon)
  • We recommend storing sample library content in a secondary internal or external SSD with 1 GB/s or higher read rates. Alternatively, you may opt for a Gigabit network solution, such as Vienna Ensemble Pro and secondary computer.

Student Deals
After enrolling, be sure to check out our Student Deals page for various offers on software, hardware, and more. Please contact with any questions.

General Course Requirements

Below are the minimum requirements to access the course environment and participate in Live Classes. Please make sure to also check the Prerequisites and Course-Specific Requirements section above, and ensure your computer meets or exceeds the minimum system requirements for all software needed for your course. 

Mac Users

PC Users

All Users

  • Latest version of Google Chrome
  • Zoom meeting software
  • Webcam
  • Speakers or headphones
  • External or internal microphone
  • Broadband Internet connection


Sean McMahon

Author & Instructor

Sean McMahon is the chair of the Film Scoring department at Berklee College of Music. He is a composer and an orchestrator whose credits include Spider-Man 3, Bridge to Terabithia, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and more. He has also scored a number of video games, including Jump Dewds! and Strata

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McMahon hails from Toronto, Canada, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Film Scoring from Berklee College of Music. He has also completed the University of Southern California’s (USC) Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program in Los Angeles. 

After his studies at USC, McMahon remained in Los Angeles to work for veteran Hollywood film composer and Golden Globe nominee, Christopher Young (The Shipping News, Swordfish, Runaway Jury). McMahon assisted Young in several roles including project manager and lead orchestrator. Their work together includes such films as The Grudge, Ghost Rider, Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas, and dozens more. McMahon has also orchestrated for Oscar-winner, John Ottman, on films such as Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and The Invasion

McMahon has been commissioned twice by the American Composers Forum to speak at national composer conferences on Hollywood film music and video game music. In 2013 McMahon shared the stage with game composing titans Lennie Moore (Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Lord of the Rings: The War of the Ring) and Jason Graves (Dead Space, Tomb Raider) for a game music conference called “Game On!” Read Less


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