I am going to show you how to make trailer music. I love trailer music and I love teaching it too.
Looking over the free content on "how to write trailer music", I feel that quite a few basic elements are missing. So I thought I would create a post that details the most important elements of making trailer music and how I have done it successfully for over a decade.
What makes me suitable to teach you how to make trailer music?
I have been writing trailer music for over 10 years now. I have hundreds of trailers under my belt and multiple awards for my work. I regularly get my work placed on trailers in many different styles; classical, sound design, piano, acoustic, beats etc.
I have been teaching aspiring composers how to write trailer music since 2017 and am now seeing those early students become full-time trailer music composers. This Vikings: Valhalla trailer features music by one of my first students.
Let me show you the most important aspects of writing trailer music that will help you to make any kind of trailer music you want.
What is Trailer Music
Before we dive into the finer details of writing trailer music I wanted to clear something up.
Trailer music is any music that is produced for use in trailers. It is not just epic-orchestral music.
Trailer music can be Hip Hop, EDM, Nu Metal etc. As long as it has been produced for use in trailers then it is trailer music.
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What Makes Trailer Music Sound Like Trailer Music?
Now you know that "Trailer Music" is any kind of music that is produced for trailers it begs the question, "What makes it sound like trailer music then?"
Enter the word "Trailerization" or "Trailerisation". This is the process of taking a piece of non-trailer music and making it fit the world of trailers.
The reason I am introducing you to this concept is that it is the key to understanding how to turn any musical genre into trailer music.
- Making the structure of the track fit the 3 or 4-act structure of movie trailers
- Adding in Trailer hits
- Adding in Cinematic transitions
These three elements are crucial to trailer music across the board and are what make trailer music sound the way it does and complement trailers the way it does.
Trailer Music Structure
Let's dive into structuring your music to fit the "trailer music structure" because if you learn to do this right then it could mean the difference between your track getting a placement or not.
Trailer music is traditionally split up into 3 Acts to fit the narrative structure of a film. Each act has its own purpose and reason for functioning the way it does.
Act 1 sets the scene of the trailer of the character(s) in their life before they are thrown into the story. Basically, this is their life before it all changed; before he met the girl, or before they moved into a haunted house, or before the world almost ended etc. Musically, Act One reflects that but also builds into the next act and sometimes hints at what is to come in the rest of the trailer.
Act 2 is the point in the story when the main character's world starts to change. For example, Alice enters Wonderland, Uncle Owen buys C3PO and R2D2, and when Harry starts getting letters from Hogwarts. Musically, we bring in elements to reflect that like driving string patterns, pulsing bass lines, big brass sections, and rolling percussion etc.
Then we have Act 3. When our characters are thrown into facing their problems, struggling against all odds, with very little chance of success. Or at least that is what the trailer makes us think. Musically Act 3 needs to sound massive, filled with drive, tension, impact and emotion - it has to feel like the world is in the balance.
Trailer hits are an integral part of all trailer music. They can take a piece of romantic music or lofi hip hop or even simple drones and make it feel like trailer music.
They bring the weight, scale, and impact that we need in trailer music to match the often larger-than-life and/or otherworldly visuals.
Not only do they act as veritable explosions in our music, but they also serve to accent interesting parts of our music and give the trailer music editor something clear to cut to.
You might be thinking, "Hold on Rich you haven't shown me how to write trailer music yet" and this is where we start.
The first thing we are going to do is to sketch out our trailer music track. This works to outline the structure of the cue but also to alleviate the age-old problem of not being able to finish a piece of music.
Cinematic effects are those whooshes, swooshes and swishes that editors use to accent changes in the edit like mood, scene, or pacing. Because of their use by editors, it has meant that composers have started to use them in their tracks to give their music a cinematic feel and give the editor something to work with more easily.
As a composer, we would place these sounds in a few places in our track:
- At the start and end of an act
- Every 2/4/8 bars (making sure that it doesn't sound repetitive and fits into the track)
- To emphasise the entrance of a new musical element; arpeggio, rhythm, melody or chord sequence
This is one of those things that has been around for ages but has only become a buzzword in the last few years.
Signature sounds do what they say on the tin, they supply a sonic "signature" to the track so that it has its own unique identity and can more easily stand out from all the other tracks.
As more and more trailer music gets created it is becoming more and more important for composers (and their music) to stand out from the crowd.
My simplest and most easily accessible advice for creating signature sounds is to go out and record your own. Nothing fancy just a sound source and a microphone. This at least ensures that you start with a unique recording that you can then manipulate in your DAW.
When I started writing my own music, I would approach each new song like it was going to be something nobody had ever heard before. All this did was create a huge amount of stress when writing new music.
As I got more experienced I quickly realised that trying to find "the perfect" chord progression was a fruitless waste of time.
I could instead choose one of the many effective, tried and tested chord progressions and just get on with it. After all, Beethoven didn't turn his nose up at a I-V progression now did he?
My advice to you is to make 2 quick and simple decisions:
- The tonality are you going to choose - major or minor?
- Choose one of the many progressions in your chosen tonality
If you have chosen a major key then you can choose from one of these popular trailer music major progressions:
- I - IV | (One of my favourites) In the key of C major that would be – C - F
- I - iv - IV - V | (Hugely popular) In the key of C that would be – C - Am - F - G
- I - iii | (slightly sad sounding) In the key of C major that would be — C - Em
If you have chosen a minor key then you can choose from one of these popular trailer music minor progressions:
- i - VI | In the key of Cm that would be – Cm - Ab
- i - VII - VI - V | In the key of Cm that would be – Cm - Bb - Ab - G
- i - VI - v | In the key of Cm that would be – Cm - Ab - Fm
Creating Drive & Urgency
This is one of the most important elements in trailer music and one that is often overlooked. Without the drive and urgency your music will not push the tension and narrative of the trailer, so will not get used.
The great news is that it is actually really easy to create drive and urgency; with pulses and patterns.
A simple single pulse played on any instrument will drive your track forward with very little effort on your part.
If however, a pulse is not appropriate in your track then creating a pattern/ostinato instead will do the job nicely. This is actually my preferred way to create drive and urgency because you can include different intervals in your pattern that will create their own harmonic tension, as well as the pace the pattern has set.
Sub Genres of Trailer Music
This is one of the most misunderstood things about trailer music; that all trailer music is epic orchestral. Ehhhh?!
Trailer music is any music that is written for specific use in movie trailers.
You can have soft acoustic trailer music, drone trailer music, trailerised EDM, and trailerised string quartets. You name it, as long as it has the elements discussed in this article and has been written for trailers then it is trailer music.
This is how I have managed to make a great living writing trailer music because I diversified into multiple subgenres in trailer music; horror, thriller, family adventure, action, romance etc.
If you are interested in learning more about trailer music then you should sign up for my Trailer Music Course and kick-start your career in trailer music. Or if you want to learn how to write in all the subgenres I have had success in then check out my Ultimate Trailer Music Course Bundle.