Film Scoring 101

Author: Donald Wilkins   •   Course Code: OCWPR-260

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Today, more than ever, music fulfills a vital role in feature films, documentaries, and television shows. The works of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) are almost as well known for their musical components as they are for their visual content, thanks to their scores by Mark Mothersbaugh and Angelo Badalamenti. Drawn from Berklee College of Music's film scoring curriculum, Film Scoring 101 guides you through the process of creating original music to accompany a visual medium. The course begins by focusing on the aesthetics, terminology, procedures, and technical aspects of film scoring. As the course progresses, you'll apply these skills towards your class project of scoring a short film. By using a broad range of techniques including click tracks, spotting, scoring under dialogue, free timing, and the creative use of overlap cues, you'll learn how to develop a dramatic concept for your score and how to synchronize it seamlessly to visual events. You'll also learn some invaluable self-promotion tips, such as creating an effective scoring demo and ways to collaborate on scoring projects. If you are a composer drawn to the challenges and rewards of professional scoring assignments, this course is for you.

By the end of the course, you will:

  • Understand dramatic implications through analysis of visual examples
  • Demonstrate a facility with fundamental and advanced scoring techniques
  • Score several visual sequences of different dramatic content using a range of scoring techniques
  • Spot for music, conceptualize an approach and produce score for a complete short film
  • Understand the expectations of professional scoring and identify a variety of scoring opportunities

Lesson 1: Drama and Music

  • Absolute Music vs. Functional Music
  • List Situations Where Music Provides Support
  • Technological Advances
  • Early Film and Sound Technology
  • Film Scoring Terminology
  • Categories of Music in Visual Media
  • Musicals: Adapted to Film - Original Film Musicals
  • Assignment 1: Identify Musical Usage

Lesson 2: Dramatic Functions

  • Composer As Storyteller
  • Plotting the Dramatic and Musical Arc of a Scene
  • A Symbiotic Relationship
  • Dramatic Function: Three General Categories
  • Assignment 2: Music as a Tool for Dramatic Development

Lesson 3: Film Terminology and Dramatic Application

  • The Stages of Film Production
  • Setting Up and Shooting a Scene
  • Film Grammar and Linear Structure
  • Common Abbreviations
  • Dramatic Application of Camera Movement and Perspective
  • Assignment 3: Analysis of Two Scenes from Apollo 13

Lesson 4: Spotting

  • Before You Start Writing
  • Consideration When Spotting
  • Music Spotting for Under the Tuscan Sun
  • Film Grammar and Linear Structure
  • Assignment 4: Sinead Rising Talking Points

Lesson 5: Working with SMPTE Time Code

  • SMPTE Time CodeWorking with SMPTE Timecode and Timecode Offsets
  • The Music Summary/Master Cue List
  • Importing/Opening Video in a DAW
  • Creating a Off-Set Timecode Start for Music in a Video
  • Specific Guidelines for Digital Performer, Logic, and Pro Tools
  • Assignment 5: Score Sinead Rising

Lesson 6: Synchronization-Part 1

  • Music Mixes and Quick
  • Time Audio
  • Copying and Bouncing QuickTime with Audio
  • Tangible Content - Aesthetic Choices
  • Synchronization Defined
  • Three Primary Scoring Methods
  • Scoring in the Digital Age
  • Create a Cue Layout
  • Downbeats and Upbeats
  • Assignment 6: Score a Scene

Lesson 7: Overlap Cues and Transitions

  • Overlapping Cues Defined and Illustrated
  • Why and When to Use and Overlap
  • Techniques for Creating Overlaps
  • Musical Considerations: Tempo, Tonality, and Timbre
  • Assignment 7: Creating Overlapping Cues with Comments

Lesson 8: Spotting and Scoring a Short Film

  • Putting It All Together
  • Spotting - Transitions and Overlaps
  • Creating the Spotting Notes
  • Assignment 8a: Spot the Blue City Movie
  • Creating a Music Summary
  • Developing a Concept for the Score
  • Assignment 8b: Spotting Notes

Lesson 9: Compositional Devices in Dramatic Scoring 

  • Compositional Devices Relevant in Dramatic Scoring
  • Themes, Motifs, and Associated Elements
  • The "Theme"Thematic Development and Manipulation
  • Pedal Point, Canons and Fugues, Negative Accent
  • Sketching Out a Scene: Design and Layout
  • The Anatomy of a CueAssignment 9: MIDI Track Work - The Attic Photo Score

Lesson 10: Free Timing Concepts Applied to DAW Scoring

  • Methods of Free Timing Defined/Examples
  • Explore Stop Watch
  • Conducting Beat Patterns
  • The Written Click
  • Creating a Sketch to Timings
  • Dead Cues and Reference Timings
  • Conduction Live Players
  • Assignment 10: Create a Sketch Score

Lesson 11: Scoring under Dialogue or Narration

  • Dialogue is King or Queen
  • Open and Closed Scoring Situations
  • Considerations for Scoring Under Dialogue
  • Scoring Methods Under Dialogue
  • Dialogue and Music as Counterpoint
  • Narration vs. Dialogue
  • Assignment 11: Apply Dialogue Scoring Techniques

Lesson 12: Professional Scoring: Preparation and Application

  • Trust and Believe in Yourself
  • Creative Collaborations: Getting Started
  • Considerations Before Scoring
  • Creating a Budget
  • Assignment 12: Create a Music Budget for the Blue City Movie

Donald Wilkins

Author & Instructor

Don Wilkins is the Chair Emeritus of Berklee College of Music's Film Scoring Department. A graduate of Berklee (composition) and trained as a music editor in Hollywood, his experience in scoring and supervising music for film/video productions spans over thirty years. Hired to update and expand the original scoring courses at Berklee, he greatly expanded the Film Scoring program, adding new courses to the curriculum and overseeing the formation of this major field of study, now one of the largest at the college.

His professional credits include feature films, documentaries and series work for CBS (Hometown) and cable TV (Breaking Ground). He scored the music for the Academy Award nominee Urge to Build, and supervised the music on other nominated films including Academy Award winner Carl Hess: Toward Liberty. His expressive score for A City in Bloom, commissioned for the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, was nominated for a New England Emmy.

A dedicated teacher and mentor, he has supervised the music of over 200-student film productions scored at Berklee and fostered the careers of many successful alumni in the film and television industry.

Jack Freeman


Jack Freeman has been teaching courses in film music editing, composition, and history at Berklee College of Music since 1991. He also supervises and designs facilities and classrooms in support of the Berklee curriculum. Freeman has extensive experience in film and video production, working in the fields of network broadcast, cable, and community television, and is well-versed in a wide variety of analog and non-linear editing platforms. He has given seminars and demonstrations in film music for the "Grammy in the Schools" program among others, and has composed original music for a variety of documentary, industrial, and experimental films and video productions.

A native of Saskatchewan, Canada, Freeman received a bachelor of music in education degree from the University of Regina (SK), and a bachelor of music degree in film scoring from Berklee College of Music. He was an artist in residence for the Saskatchewan Band Association, conducting numerous clinics and workshops across the province, and composing and publishing several works for concert band. Freeman continues to play trombone and piano in a variety of settings in the Boston area, and assists non-profit groups in video production.

Pinar Toprak


Pinar Toprak is a composer with an impressive number of credits (27 scores in the last five years), including the 2010 film The Lightkeepers starring Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, and Bruce Dern. Her score for the film was on the Oscar short list of eligible scores. Other credits include scores for the action film Behind Enemy Lines 2: Axis of Evil, the crime drama Breaking Point with Tom Berenger and Busta Rhymes, the animated feature Light Of Olympia featuring the voices of Debbie Reynolds and Phyllis Diller, and the romantic drama Say It In Russian starring Faye Dunaway and Stephen Brand. She has also written music for the Xbox 360 video game "Ninety Nine Nights" produced by Microsoft, as well as numerous trailers and commercials.

Toprak was born in Istanbul and began her music education at the age of five at the renowned Istanbul State Conservatory. While at the conservatory, she studied composition, violin, and voice, and graduated with a diploma in classical guitar. In 1997, she moved to Chicago and studied piano and jazz theory with many master jazz pianists. She later decided to combine her two biggest passions, music and film, and traveled to Boston to attend the Berklee College of Music. She finished her bachelor's degree in film scoring in just two years and moved to Los Angeles to further pursue her career in film music. At the age of 22, she received a Master of Music degree in composition, and her thesis was commissioned by California State University and performed by the CSUN Symphony Orchestra.

After completing her master's degree, Toprak joined the Media Ventures team (now known as Remote Control), home of the legendary film composer Hans Zimmer, during projects such as Pirates of The Caribbean, The Last Samurai, and King Arthur. After working as Zimmer's programmer, she decided to venture on her own. She currently resides in Los Angeles, working out of her own studio on several upcoming, exciting features.


Completion of Music Theory and Composition 1 or equivalent knowledge and experience is required. Students should be comfortable with the features and workings of their DAW (digital audio workstation) of choice, be it Logic, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, or any of the other programs specifically listed. An existing competency in creating music, combined with a thoughtful awareness of drama and human emotion will be critical assets to draw upon from your own background.

You should have the following prerequisite musical and technical skills:

  • Ability to read and create music
  • Ability to compose music and create scores (either from a notation program such as Finale (full version) or Sibelius, or handwritten and scanned
  • Intermediate/advanced experience with MIDI sequencing and digital audio software for producing and finalizing musical mock ups (MP3) via sample library
  • Ability to import video (QuickTime) and create an offset start point in your DAW for scoring purposes
  • Ability to create final audio mix within a QuickTime movie and submit

Courses that may help you prepare for Film Scoring 101 include the following:

Requirement Textbook

Complete Guide to Film Scoring: The Art and Business of Writing Music for Movies and TV by Richard Davis, Berklee Press/Hal Leonard

Software Requirements

  • One of the following digital audio workstation (DAW) software applications: Digital Performer 6 (or higher), SONAR X1 (or higher), Logic Pro 8 (or higher), Cubase 5 (or higher), Pro Tools 9 (or higher). Students should possess an intermediate sequencing skill level with these programs. If your DAW does not have a sample library, you should also have either a hardware or software sound source or third-party sample library
  • QuickTime: current version - Note: Quick Time Pro (V7) is also recommended for certain editing features not available in higher versions
  • Microsoft Excel, OpenOffice, or other program that allows you to work with Excel and Word files

Mac Users

  • OS X 10.9 Mavericks or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Windows Users

  • Windows 7 or higher (click here for system requirements)
  • Latest version of Google Chrome

Hardware Requirements

  • 500 GB Hard Drive/External HD
  • USB or Thunderbolt Audio Interface
  • MIDI compatible keyboard synthesizer
  • 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended)
  • Speakers or headphones
  • Webcam
  • Internet connection with at least 4 Mbps download speed ( to verify or download the Speedtest by Ookla app from your mobile app store)


Got a question? Contact our Academic Advisors by phone at 1-866-BERKLEE (U.S.), 1-617-747-2146 (INT'L), or by email at We can also answer basic questions in the comments below. Please note that all comments are public.

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    12 weeks
  • 3-Credit Tuition
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