Well, instead of rules, it’s more like the five “guidelines” but “rules” sounds much more definitive and generally more awesome, doesn’t it? More attention grabbing anyway! If I were to say “the five guidelines of trailer music” it would sound more like a HR manual than a gripping blog post.

That aside. These five rules are incredibly relevant to the way I work, and the way I encourage other people to work.

If you don’t agree with the rules and have your own, then that’s great. Well done. Again, I could possibly call these the “five anecdotal guidelines”, but it’s starting to sound more like a medical brochure now.

These five guidelines are essential to all trailer composers, in fact all creative people in general. So I would (obviously) suggest you give them a read.

My five guidelines

Now obviously, if I say these are the definitive rules of trailer music I’m going to get a few trailer music composers approaching me like er, Richard, there is no rule book for trailer music.  And you’re right, there is no rule book.  So I’m going to put a caveat here and say, hold on, I’m not calling these definitive rules, these are guidelines to be the best you can be at writing trailer music. 

The reason I’m stating these rules to you is I kind of think more composers need to be more aware of what you’re doing when you write trailer music.  And the first big thing is that trailer music is not just epic music, trailer music is music that’s featured on film trailers.  Some people confuse the two, epic music is a whole sub genre in and of itself, it’s not just trailer music, it is obviously featured hugely in trailers for those huge cinematic Marvel DC Universe type things but there is a whole bunch of worlds of trailer music out there, there’s your stomp swagger drums, there’s your comedy pitsacartos, there are your horror soundbeds, there is your thriller, I mean whatever genre of film your working in you’re going to encounter a fellow genre of music that matches those films, I mean even pop has its place in trailer music.  So I don’t mean that like even pop, the dirty cousin of good music, because I love a bit of cheesy pop.  What I want to do here is clarify just before we continue, when I talk about trailer music, I’m not talking about epic music, I’m including epic music when I say trailer music. 

And that’s a really important distinction to learn, so when people come over to me and they come to the Trailer Music School and they say ‘I want to learn how to write trailer music’, now let’s be sure you can write any type of music to go on a  trailer, you just have to be very sure that you understand these five guidelines, these five rules that I’m going to give you, because these five rules transcend all of the genres of music that fit on trailers and that go on trailers.  And the successful tracks that are placed on trailers usually tick all of the five boxes.  So let’s continue with these five rules and they’re in no particular order, just in case you’re wondering.

Write your trailer cues in three acts

so rule number one, the first one is – to mimic the acts of a film when you’re writing music for a film trailer, now I appreciate that some types of music do not go with some parts of the trailer because some parts of music do not fit act one, you know.  Speed core metal doesn’t fit the act one feel.  So I appreciate that, that’s why when you are writing your speed core metal trailer cue, you need to be aware that within that speed core metal track there may be scope for you to mimic the three acts of a trailer cue.

Now any of you that have done any of my courses, you will already know what the three acts are.  Any of you that have studied any kind of screen writing or film stuff will know what I’m talking about when I talk about the three acts for film.  And the three acts for a film generally are act one, introducing the characters and the world and the whole feeling of the film.  Act two – that’s when the story develops, or the challenges arise, and act three is the climax and resolution. 

Now usually in trailer music you don’t offer the resolution , so your music is climaxing at the end of act three, usually with a sense of tension.    Act one creates the mood and introduces characters and themes etc.  act two, problems arising so you generally introduce pace or introduce weights or size or whatever it is.  Something new happens in act two.  Act three that’s when the fanfares start coming out, the big brass, the big strings, the jazz band and the kind of like the full mood of the film is revealed in act three. 

So you need to make sure that your track mimics those acts.  So say for instance I was writing a purely drum orientated track for trailers, which I have done and I do.  I don’t just write a track, a drum track that’s just a massive fat beat with loads of variations of fills that last for two minutes.  I make sure that it has three distinct steps in it.  An introduction, where I introduce smaller things, there will be a whisper of sighs, so for instance I might just have a tap, tap, tap, a clap going on in the background, in the foreground sorry, but in the background there might be like a dooh sound, just to give it a bit more scale, just to kind of hint at something bigger in their narrative because often those are the trailers that use that type of drum track, i.e like comedy action. You start off with two characters or one character, or you start off in the small, in the details of the story, you know introducing your character, when I say details.  Something small.  So small instruments for that.

And then when act two comes in, woosh, do ga do ga doof, bring in a drum beat, which is like hey the swagger started, the actual narrative of the almost kicked off, so your cue has really kicked off into act act two, and you build that and then you build that.  And then in act three, you then develop your ideas in act two, and just give them a bit more weight, a bit more scale, a bit more size.  That either means bringing in the boys, the big drums or bringing in some reverb that gives the cue a bit more space, or mixing it so that your instruments spread out.  Whatever technique you have to bring  a little bit more breadth to the track because that is act three is like ok this is in full swing.

Now the one thing to bear in mind here, those drum tracks that I have written and that do get written by lots of composers, generally don’t get used for act three.  They generally go on act one and act two.  And if they do go on act three they’re usually then even more trailerised in a stylistic manner, you know someone brings some more guitars, someone bigger horns, you know got to love a massive horn on the end of there haven’t you.  So bear that in mind when you’re writing your track.

Right now onto the second one, now this is quite similar but it does sound in, on its own.  It is the idea that with your music you need to create sonic worlds.  And I’m not going to use the word soundscape specifically here because soundscape has a conneration, what I’m meaning here is your track when it starts and when it goes through needs to feel like when you close our eyes you’re in a new world.  And that’s the wonderful thing about epic music.  I was talking about epic music earlier, is that the way it’s written it’s so linked to kind of huge universal narratives.  And when I say universal narratives I mean narratives that happen within the outer universe, you know space, sci-fi action, that within that music is ingrained new sonic worlds.  But you need to do that with your horror cues.  You need to do that with your thriller cues, you need to do that with your comedy cues, you need to bring in sonic worlds.

And what I mean by that is thinking about how you’re painting a visual picture with your sounds.  What sounds are you putting in the fireground, what sounds are you putting in the background, what sounds are happening on the left and on the right and up top and down below.  Every musical decision you make paints a picture and that’s what you’re trying, that’s what is so wonderful about trailer music is the marriage of your visual, your soundscape that you’ve created, your sonic landscape, and how that then matches up with the placements that you get with it. 

So for instance so many of my cues are often for thrillers, because the sonic landscape I create with my tracks is dark and tesne more often than not, but I’m speaking here about the stuff for elephant music.  The throat albums, sort of dark twisted chello stuff and it then goes on to dark twisted narratives because I paint that landscape.  And my piano tracks are more of a historical drama type of thing.  Believe it or not get put onto historical dramas.  Because they have this conneration in the way that you write and the way that you produce your music.

So the next time you open up a session and you play in a single note, you think to yourself what is the single note saying about the landscape.  And that’s when you choose your reverbs, the difference between putting it through an emulated string reverb and the sonic implications that would have compared to say putting it through a convolution reverb of a cave, the sonic implications and the world you’re creating with your decisions you make within your sessions make a huge impact.  So be clear about the landscape you are creating. 

I often like to work in like a mythical kind of way, imagining giants walking around the background and strange little fairies flying about and then dark little twisted drunk goblins playing music.  That’s probably why lots of my music is out of tune and out of time because of these drunk goblins.

So think about the way you want to visualise your music.  Some people, they will just think ok, this is going to be for Ironman, yes this is rocking Ironman, people well me create little imaginary worlds other times you just think ok well how am I going to mix this as if the band was playing in front of me.  That is still doing the same thing, but what you’re doing is creating a sonic identity that will then be picked up on by whoever chooses your music, a track with a very strong sonic identity stands out a million tons more than a track that doesn’t have a sonic identity.

It sounds obvious I know but I do need to iterate this point to you, to reiterate it, make your tracks within their own sonic world.  And this helps when you’re writing albums as well.

Right on to number three.  Now this was the hangover from my days working at advertising, but this is, trailer music is motion picture advertising, it’s still advertising, your track needs to have a build, it needs to build, build, build, build, build, build, build build, build, build, build.  Now just in case you didn’t get what I’m saying it needs to build ok.  So many people forget that even if you keep writing in a pop, I keep using pop as an example, even if you’re writing in a kind of seventies prog style you need to have an element of growth within your track.  So that’s why, notice I say growth rather than build because sometimes building implies like increasing the amount of notes that are happening within a minute.  It doesn’t always mean that, it needs to feel like it’s growing, whether that’s growing with breadth of pitch, whether that’s growing with dynamics, whether that’s growing in frequency of notes, whether that’s growing in complexity, whether that’s growing in orchestration, whether that’s growing in texture, whether that’s growing in tombra, whether its growing in silence, how is your track building.

And this will keep coming back to you, can you make your track feel like it’s developing, even though your idea is essentially a four chord sequence with a four note melody.  How can you make that feel like it’s growing, like its building?  Because that’s what all the trailers are trying to do is they’re trying to sell this story, and the stories are building to a climax.  And that is act three, the climax is act three.

And then the ultimate climax of the trailer is boom come and see this movie, it’s amazing.  It’s as amazing as this music, if not more amazing.  So make sure your tracks have build, and have growth, think about how you’re writing and how each time you reiterate a chord sequence how it is growing, how it is building upon what was before.  It’s really important and it’s often overlooked.  Especially if you’re like me and you absolutely love loops, love loops.  You know I sketch out tracks using loops all the time, and I don’t mean other people’s laps I mean I write an idea and then just loop it till the end of the track.  So that’s why the way I write is often layering and textural because I rely so much on looping ideas.  But I know how to then grow my ideas.  How can you grow your ideas?

Right on to number four.  Right number four, it’s like this is one of those underwieghing things that people say to you.  It’s kind of like when I used to write in advertising, you know the type of feedback you get for working in traditional product advertising, well the feedback you get from the advertising companies, the clients, is always just so irritating.  It’s always so inane and almost useless.  You know like because they feel like they’re trying to give you feedback on something to give you feedback, rather than actually being critical about what you’re writing and how you can improve it.  So this kind of like you know what your track just feels a bit too orange for me, can you make it slightly more pink?  Ok.  That’s interesting.

So the thing here is your track needs to have impact.  And yes it is annoying when I say that because how on earth do you make the piece of music have an impact?  And the thing you need to do is ask yourself a few questions.  Now when I’ve listened to a piece of music I like, why have I liked it? I can guarantee you because it has impacted you in some way.

So for a good example being I’m a big fan of Tool.  And specifically their album Lateralis, and the opening track of that album is immense, it has such impact.  Because of the build into the idea.  Now obviously Tool are incredibly good at creating impact with their riffs, because their riffs are phenomenal and their writing is phenomenal, making their drum bass and guitar sound that big is no mean feat.  But it has an impact.  Before the track even kicks off, you press play, you hear that lift going up and down, fooo, do, do, do, do, do, do, and it kicks off and you go wow this is awesome.  This captured me in the same way when I heard Buddy Holly by Weiser when I was a kid, yes, this has  impact.  There’s something about it.  And this kind of goes hand in hand with making sure that your track creates a sonic world and it has character. 

And the same like, there’s numerous examples of trailers that have created an impact for me.  A good example would be the Infinity War trailer with Redshift on it by Mark Petrie.  That track has a huge amount of impact as did the trailer.  So you can listen to those tricks and say what is impactful about this?  You know what is it that captures me?  Because usually the tracks aren’t complicated you know.  Not much of the music we listen to is complicated, it can be boiled down to the same core sequences, the same melodies, the same rhythms, but there’s something that is creating impact.  Whether that impact is literally just a physical massive hit that then kind of hits you in the gut and makes you go to the toilet or whether it’s just this eire sound, this wonderful eiter sound that captures you, because it’s created a sonic landscape.

It’s like, it’s almost like someone snapped their fingers and you’re there you know., like going back to that Tool song.  The lifts, the lift goes, snaps. I’m there, like the band is playing in front of me and it is awesome. And that goes with most of my favourite abns, my favourite song, favourite film scores, last of the Mohicans, that amazing piece of music The Kiss did, de, de, de, de, de la, de, that line, that motiff that pattern has so much impact.  How are you going to create impact?  And I can guarantee you if you follow this little step you can create more impact. 

If when you’re listening to your track, you’re sitting there and you’re listening to your track and if it doesn’t get you excited it’s not going to create an impact. Your track needs to get you excited.  You need to listen to it and you need to think this is awesome, I love this, even if it’s just a spark, even if it’s just something where you’re like yes, I love this track, I don’t know why but yes, because that is what people pick up on, that is the impact.  It’s the energy when people put into their music that then comes out the other end.  So when people put good energy and exciting energy and passionate energy into their music it comes out to the listener.  When you put like mah, into your music it comes out to the listener.  And that’s a really important and really vital thing for you to take note of, make sure you are writing music that excites you because that will create the impact.

And my fifth and final rule, really again it holds onto the same thing is adding a touch of you.  And I don’t mean some kind of weird toilet paper advert kind of way, I mean like so many times I’ve written a piece of music because I’ve listened to so much Zimmer or because I’ve listened to so touchy Danny Hoffman and I just get inspired by their writing, but I’m not putting me into the track.  I don’t mean literally my DNA, I’m not taking the idea and I’m not putting my own twist on it.

Now my most successful music has been the music that I ever managed to develop my own vocabulary, either sponcially, not sonically, obviously sonically because it’s music, well done Richard.  I mean either texturlaly or harminically or whatever it is.  And you can pick out certain trailer musicl composers because they have put themselves into their music.  You can hear it, you can hear when you know my friend Cairon Birch, you can hear  Cairon Birch track because he has added elements into all his tracks that you can identify straight away.

I like to think I have done the same thing with some of my sounds.  So when you hear a piece of music you go oh yes that sounds like Schrieber.  Great, in which case success.  But you’ve got to think how can I create my own identity?  And it comes back to the last point as well.  Making sure that you’re enjoying what you’re doing and just get weird sometimes guys, get weird.  Try new things.   A lot of the throat albums that I’ve produced with elephant music came from me wanting to have some string players and not  being able to have the time to get them in.  So I just grabbed my old cello that I had in the attic, not because I played the cello, just because I love instruments, brought it down and I just played this drone.  Actually it was more like a braum.  Brrr. it got put on a trailer just like that did. 

And then off the back of that, people were saying they loved the sound of the organic cello.  So I was so let’s put some, let’s make some music with this cello let’s make some music and I started just playing it.  Not thinking of other trailers, not thinking of other people’s writing, I was just writing as if I was locked up in a cave.  You know you hear stories of so many musicians and bands on off away into their little cabins in the woods and working on their next album.  Because what they’re trying to do is  they’re trying to create their own sonic identity within their music.  That’s the sign of  a great composer and a great writer and a great producer that can put their weapons stamp on things.  And that’s what you need to start practicing too, how can you put a little bit of you into your music.  Ok.

So just to go over those points guys make sure you try and mimic the act of a film, so that’s basically act one, act two, act three, make sure you try to create a sonic world.  And make sure that track feels like it’s progressing and its growing and its building.  And you want to have a track that creates impact by writing something that excites you.  And then you what to give it your own little stamp hey if you like this, this is brought to you by Richard Schreiber.  That type of thing except without obviously a watermark, it’s kind of like a watermark but without actually being a watermark.

Now I hope you enjoyed this podcast and if you did please subscribe to it and leave a review and you can go checkout the Trailer music School if you want to learn how to write more trailer music, or at least to join other like minded composers because there loads of us chatting away about trailer music stuff and learning from each other.  I’m by no means the font of all knowledge when it comes to trailer music, I am just like you, I am very keen to learn how to improve and get better.  But I also have  a lot of experience that I am very keen to share.  Anyway I hope you enjoyed it and thanks so much for taking the time to listen. You are totally awesome.