In this episode I talk about something pretty, pretty, pretty important.

I’d love to write some more stuff here but I fear I would give away my “secret” tool.

If you want to find out, you’re gonna have to listen 😀


Hi guys and welcome to session number 15 of the trailer music composers podcast.  

Hello everyone.


One with one microphone, who as a teenager found making a phone call incredibly scary.  Welcome to the trailer music composers podcast.

Hey guys, welcome to another session of the trailer music composers podcast.  Now in this session I wanted to talk about something which I would probably consider to be the most important tool in any composer’s arsenal.  This tool will help you in so many ways, if you understand it and understand how to use it. It will help drive your track, it will help give your track dynamics, it will help give your track character, it will help give your track movement, it will help give your track pace.  And it’s something that I often fall back to and the reason I like falling back on it, or to it  is such a simple idea.  And you will probably notice that a lot of my teaching, a lot of the things I talk about fall back into incredibly simple ideas in simple terms, because you know I used to teach young children music, and young children can compose music.  We are all naturally inclined to creativity, whether you believe that in yourself or not.  So if it’s simple enough for young children to grasp then it is simple enough for me to talk about in simple terms. 

And this, and my students will know this because I say this a lot, this tool is simple, it is tension and release, this is the core of everything we do, all our harmonies are essentially manipulating tension to certain degrees and then releasing all our melodies are using the same thing tension and release, all our driving percussion is just understanding how to incorporate tension and release.  All our effects, all our bwaams, all our risers, all our stutters, all our wooshes, they’re all tension and release tools.  Literally everything you could talk of in terms of music is some form of tension release, even using different timbres to help it bring the idea of tension and release, you know a screeching metal sound over some lovely wooden percussion would incorporate tension.  And then the disappearance of that sound, the silence  would be the release, there are so many levels to this simple thing, tension and release that I’m not sure I could really talk about it in as much depth as I would like to without sitting down at my piano.  And as I’m sure you’ve probably guessed already, as I’m walking around in a wood, I can’t really bring my piano with me.  Well I could but it would be a real faff.

So I’m going to talk about it in terms of how we as trailer composers can and do use it.  So for those of you who are new to the trailer composing game you can understand how this tool essentially structures your cue.  Because much like life,  tension release is different levels of cycles.  So the whole cue is one long cycle of tension and then the end of the cue and the release and then within that cue there are then acts.  

So in trailer music we will have our three acts, some may say four, but I like to stick to the three act structure.  We have three acts, that are then smaller levels of tension and release.  You know act one, is one level of building tension and release, act two the same, act three the same.  The way you could see it rather than cycles is like a rising slope, like a wedge.  So the start of your cue is the small end of the wedge, the end of your cue is the big end of the wedge.  And then the same within that, there will be smaller risers up and down and obviously the wedge going up is the tension building and the drop at the end of the wedge is the release.

Much like you’d see on any stock market graph actually, these patterns in music and patterns we create visually are there everywhere because our whole world and life is filled with cycles and patterns. 

So going back to it in a more musical way so we have our whole piece, one build of tension, and then our acts are three separate builds of tension and then a release and then within our acts, whether we use a chord sequence which would itself be its own cycle of tension and release and then within that chord sequence each chord as a function of building tension and releasing.  So that’s why we have the tradition in western composition of usually using certain chords at the end of a sequence because they are the ones that have the most tension, as they release into the start of the chord sequence.  So for instance, ending on the fifth chord, the dominant chord, you know dominant seven whatever you want to use, dominant nine whatever, that has the most tension as you then release into your first chord, be that the root chord or whatever the start of your sequence is.  And then there will be other ones that have similar tension, but not quite as much as a third cord, usually a minor chord will have that tension and release as well.

And that’s in more traditional music terms, if we were doing a sound design trailer we would be using other things, namely texture and dynamics and rhythm to bring tension.  And a lot of the tools we as trailer composers use on a regular day to day basis are there to build tension.  So risers they build tension by using pitch and dynamics.  Swish hits use tension by using texture, what a surprise they use texture and dynamics, by using texture and dynamics again.  Stutters, texture, dynamics and rhythm.  So it’s using those seven basic tools of music to create tension.  And obviously the release, either release as in silence or a drop in dynamics or texture or a return home to a root chord or a root note.  So if you’re doing sound design it’s probably just returning back to the root note bass pulse that you’re doing or the root note drone that you’ve got going on.

And that’s how we structure our cues.  Essentially the most basic thing that we do as trailer composers to bring tension and release is dynamics. So if you imagine that you’ve got an entire two minute 20 track for a trailer you could essentially have a whole orchestra playing a single note.  So let’s say the whole orchestra from strings to woods to brass to tune percussion to percussion all essentially playing one note.  And that one note is lets say A.  So like the orchestra I’ve just tuned to concert A 440 and we start our piece of A, you know this is my trailer cue in A.  Act one would be a slow build in dynamics.  So I could use pulsing, pop, pop, pop, pop, like that, but I’m just going to use drones essentially.  Act one starts very quietly and gradually builds up to lets say a mezzoforte and then we have slight drop into act two which is where we have a return mezzo piano, and actually this then the whole orchestra builds and swells into forte.  So we’re going to, we’ve got loud by the end of act two and then there’s a drop to silence before act three and then we start in forte again and because of the drop to silence forte feels even louder, because of the direct comparison in dynamics.

And then the forte then builds to, forgotten what it’s called, triple F, fortississimo, something like that, into blooming loud.  So all you’ve done there you’ve created an entire cue using dynamics and obviously texture and timbre because of the different instrumentation to create the basic structure of a trailer cue.

Now if you don’t understand the basic structure of a trailer cue, it’s that simple, its three acts, usually, building upon each other.  That’s the most basic, one little wedge building up to a slightly bigger wedge, one little wedge building up to a slightly bigger wedge and then a drop.  And perhaps a very tiny wedge right at the end.  And that’s what we’re doing, every time we sit down to write a trailer cue we’re essentially going how we can fill these wedges with sounds and what sounds can we use to make mini wedges with toe wedges.  I feel like we should be on a cheese podcast.  You know all this talk about wedges.

And this is why it’s the most important tool to be able to grasp.  And I try to get this across to students if you can take the most minimal material and make it feel like you are going through those motions then you have done your job.  Obviously they might want more than just a single note played by an entire orchestra, but you know they might just want that.  There was a, what was that Brad Pitt movie recently.  The space one, I wish I could remember names, you know the one.  And the trailer for that was just  a beautifully orchestrated rise of I think it was a single note, but because of the use of colour and texture from the instrumentation and the dynamics and the timbre as well it just felt fantastic, it was like this wonderful explosion of colour, but it was so simple, it was just fantastic.  

And that’s what we’re doing as composers, that’s an example of tension and release at its most basic.  And if you listen to any sound design trailers, you can hear what they’re doing. If you ignore the fact that, ok I don’t know how to use my synths like this, how do I get those cool robot sounds, ignore that stuff just for now.  Just listen to some of those sound design trailers and just sit back and think they’re building tension, boom.  Release, they are building more tension, release.  

And then once you’ve got the idea behind it, their basic use of wedges, dynamic wedges then you can start to hear, ok how are they doing wedges with colour.  So I’ve talked about using dynamics, but you then develop your, let’s return back to your orchestral cue playing in A.  say you start this cue off as a percentage of trailers do with a harmonic played by the violins there’s one colour then within act two the violas then start to creep in with their A and harmonics then the cellos creep in with their A in harmonics and then the bass creep in with their harmonics.  And they just swell boom, act two drops, initially we drop a touch but then we bring in a  new colour.  The horns are coming in a roll fashion you know, they’re all coming with their A just gradually building.  Admittedly these guys are going to need to take a breath so maybe you will have mini wedges from then.  Ooooh,ooooh, so you will be introducing rhythm. But what you’re really thinking about is colour.  How can I grow this wedge using colour and orchestration and texture?  And ok I;m sticking with the brass so I’m going to have in some trombones and they’ve got  a lovely raspy farty sound which we all love and also at the same time dislike because it’s quite hard to handle.  But it’s there to bring grit to it.  

The strings of course have switched from harmonics, to just simple arco bowing, nothing fancy, maybe they’re a bit close to the bridge you know, just so this is a bit sharper, a bit spiker.  And then within those they will obviously be swelling dynamics.  The horns and the trombone are obviously taking, they’re not doing one long dynamic rise, or dynamic build they will be doing smaller ones. But each one is progressively getting louder and what you find with all instruments is as they get louder the texture changes because the way the reeds, the way the lips, the way the strings vibrate changes.  

And that’s another thing that’s naturally happening when you’re doing this, you’re also adding not just colour, but you’re adding more texture.  So you’ve got your strings and your brass swelling in act two, and then what happens?  It builds to the end of act two and just at the end of act two you do a timpani roll in A, boom, we’re going to act three.

So I’m trying to do this in real basic terms just so I don’t have to sit there with a piano and although I’ve done so many logic tutorials, YouTube tutorials on how I build my tracks but it since for me to talk about it in this simple term.  We land into act three, everyone ‘s playing louder so the text curves have changed.  And we’ve got our horns and out trombones and all four of our strings but now we bring in the tubers, now we bring in the bass trombones, now we bring in the trumpets, now we bring in the bassoon, now we bring in the flute, not we bring in all these other colours and that in itself is a new wedge that’s slightly bigger because the sound is fuller, the texture is fuller, the colour is fuller.  And then you just bring that home to a ginormous climax.  Done.  And then we finish with maybe a single A wedge played by the brass.  Ruuup.  Yes.  I’m talking about this walking in the woods. I want to go back home and try this out because it sounds like a lot of fun.  You know and this is what we do when we do sound design, we’re usually sticking to a root note if we’re honest with you, occasionally we’ll bring in some other notes that have more tension, but we’re basically sticking to a root note and we’re using textures and colours.  So rather than the orchestra traditional orchestra, we’re thinking ok well how can I record my squeaking door and make that a cool sound.  And that’s what you’re doing.

And then when you have things like dumas, bwaams are just mini wedges in themselves, or at least huge fat distant wedges that sound like a battle cry, and every tool we have I want you to reconsider its use and its possibilities in the terms of a little tension and release wedge.  So it might not even be a wedge of tension, it might not be a building wedge, it might be a first wedge that starts loud and has a tail, the tension is immediate.  And then it gradually peters off into release which is what bumas do you know bwaaahhhm, tension.  That’s what hits do although hits have like, will usually have a pore hit rise into them, sort of bwaaaahhhh.  They have the tension will leading up with a bigger spike in tension.  It’s almost like the waveform itself is a visual representation of the tension and release.  And if you look at the waveforms of trailer cues you will notice there isa a big wedge, it starts quiet, gets louder, gets louder, boom, end.  And that’s what we’re doing as composers, this is the most amazing tool.

So then let’s take this a little further, we’re going back to orchestral A track, we start with our act one, we’ll keep that just one note A, (sings note) gradually growing in dynamics adding a couple more textures in there, with maybe a slight quiet timp roll into act two.  In act two, let’s think of another way we can bring in tension.  We could bring in rhythmic tension, we could bring in more texture, we could begin in more timbre, we could bring in rhythm.  And that’s what I could bring in here, rhythm as a tension, I’m going to being in lets say violin twos playing an ostinato, so the rhythm itself does not necessarily create like a tension and release thing, but ultimately it does because the sound is the tension and the release of the quiet. 

But what we’re thinking here, I’m thinking ok maybe I bring in some other notes to add tension to that root note that we have going on.  And the note you choose will determine the nationality of your cue from this point.  Because remember they just root notes, there’s no tonality, they could be minor, they could be major we don’t know yet.  So if you went in for say an A and a C q we’re immediately in a minor cue.  The whole track is changed.  If I went in for an A and a C sharp with a major key immediately this track is hopeful.  So you see the slightest change in tension from a C, a minor third to a C sharp major third is going to bring a different feeling to your track.  So you see as soon as you start incorporating more and more ideas, more and more techniques to your cue, your simple tension of release wedge becomes very, very different.  The tension is different, there is also tension in every piece of music, whether it’s like crazy dark tension from a  sound design cue, or whether it’s just a, it’s a major sort of family adventure, very uplifting cue, but there will be tension in there.  Because there has to be within the melodies and the harmonies that you’re choosing.  

So returning back to our, I’m going to choose obviously a minor because that’s my default, especially A minor, hello.  So I’m going to choose an ostinato that just goes C to A minor, da, da, da, da.    So I introduced something now, what you have here is now you have to see it like this, that in itself is a new layer of wedges.  That then needs to feel like they’re building.  I can’t just keep that going because it won’t be a wedge, it won’t be tension and release, it will be on a microform, but not on a macroform.  We need to feel like ok this is a part of, ok there’s tension building, but we now need to give some level of release or at least keep the tension building.  So you do that by adding new parts or by changing the existing part.  I mean this in itself I could keep going for quite some time, going on about how I can then develop my C to A in my A minor track ostinato.  How I can develop this into a whole cue.  But I’m using it as a very, very simple explanation to how we then use tension and release.  

So this is providing tension right because it’s driving the track forward and adding finality.  And then what you can do is you’ve got your A in the brass, still swelling and pulsing and you’ve got your A in your strings and you’ve got your ostinato coming in.  So your choice now is how do you then take that ostinato to bring more tension?  So there are countless ways.  My usual go to is to add another ostinato but moving in a different way.  So bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, it might be going in the arpeggio, duh, duh duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh.  And that’s how we then do it as composers.  We take essentially started an ostinato.  And we want to feel like there’s a wedge, a build going on.  We take our C ostinato and in the second violins and we push it into the first violins, but instead of just C and A going A, up an octave A, down to E, down to C, dah, dah, dahm dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.  That’s not right is it.  A, E, C, B, (sings notes) something like that.  And again what I would do there is I would bring that in as tension against existing ostinato because we’re not releasing this.  This is what ostinatos do really well, or riffs do really well, they keep the tension going, so they themselves are along a bigger wedge within our act two or our act three whatever it is you’re doing.  They are our bigger building tension.  And you increase the tension by increasing the amount of notes, the pitch of the notes, the dynamics of the notes.  And that’s what I would simply do, just get them to do a build, just keep building guys, keep building into act three etc. etc.

So if you find you are encountering the issue of my track is stagnating, my truck feels like a loop, my track feels boring, how do I develop my cue?  Return back to the wedge, return back to tension and release.  If you notice that you’ve got essentially a loop happening for your entire act two, the tension and release isn’t going to work because it’s not really releasing.  Because you’re not developing the idea, you’re not building the track and that is the key here to how tension really works for us trailer composers.  Is the track building, or is it growing, constantly and consistently?  You can sort of every bar add a new instrument and you would give it the sense of development of growth, of building and that’s what you’ve got to do.  So if you’re like act two the publisher comes back to you and says love the ideas but it kind of feels  a bit looped in act two can you do something about it here?  Sure can.  I think how can I add tension and release?  Boom first step riser, hello.  

That’s one of the easiest and quickest ways to make a loop feel like it’s growing and building.  The other one is dynamics.  If you played around with your automation in your velocity in your volumes of your instrumentation, have you explored growing this cue with automation, Yes or no.  have you explored, if yes to those, yes to the riser have you explored growing this cue in pitch?  And what I mean by that is traditional on the rise to a climax of a track of a piece of music there will be a, not a flourish per se, when you’re hearing classical music you will hear a flourish, dominant to the tino climax at the end, the cadets I should say, you will hear a flourish.  What you can do is sometimes for us trailer music composers because come on we want it in simple terms, you just take your ostinato and you change the voice.  So if your ostinato is going A, E, C, B, that’s up to A and then back to, sorry up to E and then down back to A.  Then you take your bottom A chuck it  up an octave from A down to E, down to C, down to B.  then the next bar bar you chuck your B up, so you go A down to E, down to C, up to B, and then you do that each bar, gradually getting your ostinato to progress up in pi8tch and that will make your track feel like the tension is growing.  You do that same with long chords you increase the voicings pitch, you can either just move the voicings within the parts so violin twos, they’re sort of gradually going up in pitch, or you just add new elements.  So you get the device parts where each chair within a section will be adding a new note, so the chord becomes more dense and more rich.  

But you’re using pitch to build it, are you using timbre to help it feel like it’s growing.  If you’ve got all, if you’ve done all of those things so far and your publisher is still saying it feels loose, then maybe you add a new element with a new timbre.  So is there a metal sound in there that we can add, is there a wood sound, what sounds have you got and what does it need to feel like it’s developing?  And as trailer music composers when we’re using sound design specifically and when we’re using orchestration in our big epic tracks we’re thinking in terms of metal, woods, strings, reeds, brass, you know all this stuff is just adding another level of colour, timbre to our track.  Are we using texture to build?

Is there something we can do, this is why so many lovely string articulations, so many lovely brass articulations, you go from choral brass playing to quevre, so it goes from lovely like (sings) to gritty dirty farty, lovely brassy sounds.  Are you doing these things, are you exploring the articulations to get different textures?  And if you’re not in orchestral writing you just think in terms of sounds around the house, or sounds from your synth. You know everything here is routed in a  signway, maybe I will bring in some sawtooths here just to bring in some more nasty, gritty, sync sounds.  Admittedly synthesis is, I would not even say my strong point, it’s the distant cousin of my strong point, you know it’s something I very rarely touch.  I like to work fast and quickly.  So I very rarely dive into my synths beyond presets or mucking around with the most basic of filters etc.  But if that is your jam, think in terms of texture, and that’s what synths is, you’re building the texture using different waves, different sound waves.

Now I kind of feel like the tension of this podcast is going to be releasing soon, but what I want you to take away from this is when you’re entering any kind of trailer music, whether you’re going in full epic orchestral, whether you’re going in hybrid, whether you’re going in organic sound design, whether you’re going in horor strings, whether you’re going in swagger drums, whether you’re going in tribal percussion.  Any form of trailer music I want you to think about the wedge, the tension and release and the build.  Are you utilising those most basic tools?  

And I’m talking in these terms because I don;t want to exclude people who don’t understand theory to the same level as me, I don’t want to exclude people who don’t understand sound waves to the same level as me, or even effects or even just talking about production to the same level as me.  Because I am by no means a whizz on any of those things, but what I like to do is I like to return back to the simple things that I can discuss with any composer, any person who is interested in sound.  Does this feel building, where’s the release, where’s the tension.  Just ask yourself that when you listen to your track, especially a track that you’re not really keen on.  And it might be a bit of a shift of mindset for you, but you can even look at a riff as tension and release, especially those brilliant metal riffs that you get, sort of climbing up and down, all those lovely modes that you’ve got, they will essentially return back to the real note at some point, that’s the release.

If you can’t hear the tension and release it might just be so quick and small the wedge might be so miniscule that it’s quite hard to detect, but it’s there.  So go back to your door, that’s your digital audio workstation, whether that’s Logic or Cubase or all those other ones that I’ve never heard of and start playing around with that basic wedge shape.  Just load up a single drone and play with the automation of that level, of that instrument.  You know.  And you will find if you load up a single drone and do the wedge gradually getting bigger and bigger, building upon itself, increasing tension and the release is always in there too, you will find you can drag, copy and paste that note and automation onto loads of different sounds and you’ve got yourself an incredibly basic trailer cue.  Just chuck in some hits, a couple of risers, job done. In fact I’m going to go and do that when i get home, because that sounds like a lot of fun.

Right I really hope that you not only got something from this, but actually kind of enjoyed it because I like talking in basic terms when it comes to music, because music is something we all share so there should be some commonality in the language as well.  Obviously I’m doing it in English I don’t know any other languages, sorry guys.  

I hope you enjoyed it, and I’d love to hear anything that you write based on what I’m teaching you.  And if you’re one of my students take this on board for all the briefs that I’ve set you, how can I keep this building, because quite often the tracks that I get submitted from students and other aspiring composers alike they’re great, the ideas are great, they just haven’t grasped tension and release and building.  They’ve essentially given me three loops, act one loop, act two loop, act three loop.  Yes act three is bigger sounding than act one, but there isn’t a growth and a build in the act themselves, there isn’t a feeling of development, there isn’t a feeling of growing tension and release.

So you want to send me some tracks, make sure you’ve got that in the bag.  And that’s what you do in those lovely horror cues, thise, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah boom, all those lovely weird sounds just like micro and tensions are released.

Ok, I’m going off piste again, I’m getting too excited about it.  Go home, if you’re not already at home that is and have a play, just with that little someple exercise I gave you.  Just a long note and the automation, expanding those wedges.  And see how it sounds.  And then you think ok well how can I do that with other instruments, how can I do that with harmony. And then you can make the wedges smaller, and then it becomes like this wonderful growing Steve Reich cue, you know Stee Reich is an absolute legend, and his music is obviously huge and has inspired me and thousands if not more other musicians.

Now thank you so much for taking the time to listen, I do really appreciate it.  Love it if you could leave a rating review for the podcast head on over to the trailer music school check out the courses, want to sign up for membership, that’s great too, great to see you in the community.