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Talking Head: Composer Roly Witherow on the identity of music in film

Roly Witherow (Balsa Wood [2014], Gregor [2014]) has a wealth of experience in creating music for film. He discusses with Exit 6 his thought-processes from conception to completion, as well as his delight at the changing attitude of the film-goer towards music in film.

Roly Witherow at work

I’m a London-based composer for visual media, mainly films, but also adverts, theatre and even video games. My credits include Balsa Wood, winner of best short film at Regiofun Film Festival, Gregor, British Independent Film Awards nominee, and Tea for Two (2015) part of the official selection at Aesthetica Film Festival.

I’m often asked what kind of music I write, which is honestly the hardest question to answer. I’ve taken a very chameleonic path so far, writing all types and genres of music for whatever the project requires: classical, jazz, folk, electronic, rock, even indigenous Filipino music.

Every film I work on requires a unique musical identity, and sometimes requires a great deal of research, as was the case with Balsa Wood, a short film directed by Dominique Lecchi, for which I wrote a Filipino folk music score. I combined three types of music from the Philippines, “Tinikling” a Spanish-influenced music that uses guitars, mandolins and bamboo sticks, “Kulintang”, an indigenous form of music that uses vast microtonal mallet-like instruments, and Filipino Rock, which combines lilting pacific sounds with American rock influences. Merging these three styles of music was a challenge, but an immensely satisfying one, and I think it gave the film a musical voice of its own.

Still from Balsa Wood (2014)

When I worked with Mark Brennan, director of Tea for Two, he wanted the score to reflect various different threads of the film. There was of course the comedic element, provided by John Challis and Amanda Barrie. For this I used pizzicato strings to place the viewer within the realm of comedy, but there was also a love story between the two main characters which needed genuine warmth and empathy. It took a while to land on the right instrument for this, but I found it in the accordion which can be an incredibly emotive instrument. Finally, some clock-like motifs in the percussion mirrored the imagery and symbolism of the clock in the film and gave it a sense of urgency and suspense.

Still from Tea for Two (2015)

Examples like these are what music in film is all about: music that is actually an integral element of the film. It could be used to locate the film within a certain time, place or culture, like with Balsa Wood (a well-known example would be Morricone’s score for The Mission, set in colonial Paraguay) or it could combine and glue together contrasting themes within the film, as with Tea for Two.

Steven Price’s score for Gravity does something similar in the way it unites the human, mechanical and ethereal worlds through a marriage of choral, orchestral and electronic sounds.

The possible functions and roles of a film score are in fact limitless. It could even be a vital part of the narrative, for example, if it were used to mislead the viewer or pre-empt an event in the film. Johnny Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood does exactly this. His sudden swells of dissonant strings give a relatively slow-paced film an ominous sense of foreboding from the very beginning and leave the viewer with the impression that they are constantly on the brink of a disaster.

These musical challenges are extremely difficult for library and pre-existing music to tackle. How, for example, would you represent the arc of a character’s development through a film using non-bespoke music? Whilst library and pre-existing music can be used to great effect, they are fundamentally limited in their scope. Through the process of the director-composer collaboration that is involved in making a bespoke score, the music becomes part of the essential fabric of the film.

This brings me onto a crucial point. Music for film is TOTALLY different to freestanding music. I’ve even heard one very established composer express the opinion that it’s not music at all. In a sense this is true, since film music doesn’t follow the development of its own musical ideas but rather the development of the film’s plot. In many cases the best music for a certain scene is extremely simple: if there is an emotionally charged dialogue for example, a single held note or two can be extremely effective.

However, it used to be the case that music was always required to be subjugated to the picture, the old saying that “the best film music is music that you don’t notice”. I’m very glad to say that attitudes on this are finally changing! Certainly, in many cases, music has to assume a supporting role to the image, but the powerful ways in which music can be used really are infinite and shouldn’t conform to any rules.


Let us know if you agree with Roly that attitudes to music in film is changing, and tell us your favourite music written for film (if you can pick).

Keep up to date with Roly and his latest pojects by visiting his website:

Or you can follow Roly on Twitter: @rolywitherow

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