Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should


When working with directors, it’s not at all uncommon to get a very specific request regarding music like “can you just mute the trumpets” in a specific spot. Often the answer is yes, I can. We have the stems and it would take just a click of a button to mute those trumpets in that spot. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so is what the director really wants, nor is it what we should do.

Rather than immediately complying with these types of specific requests, I try to find out what is behind them, what’s really bothering the director. More often than not there is an underlying issue that isn’t about muting the trumpets (or whatever the case may be) but something else. For example, those trumpets are stepping on dialog or a sound effect. Often there is a better, more musical solution to address that problem. So I always try to figure out what is the cause of the director’s request so I can offer the best possible musical solution.

For example, when I worked on The Wolfman there was a very dramatic and impressive cue during one of the moments where the werewolf lets out a monstrous howl. I was asked if we could mute certain elements, which I could have done very quickly and easily. But when I inquired on why, the director explained it was competing with the beginning of the howl and he wanted to make room for that low guttural buildup into the full-on howl. We needed to make room for the sound effect.

Now that I knew why he was asking to mute certain parts of the music I completely understood that there were certain frequencies that were fighting at that moment with the sound effects. But simply muting them would have taken away from the energy and impact of the music. I had a better idea. I could re-cut the cue (which by now had been conformed several times over from its original form anyway) and delay the musical phrase that stepped on the beginning of the howl just a little bit, making space for those low guttural sounds without sacrificing the integrity of the music. So that’s what I did. I was able to give the director what he wanted in a much more musical fashion, and he was thrilled with the result.

This is but one of countless similar examples I’ve had over my career, and what I’ve learned is how important it is to figure out what is behind these types of very specific requests. Directors and producers are not musicians and it’s not unusual for them to make specific suggestions that might not be the best musical solutions to very real and legitimate issues. It’s just their way of expressing what’s bothering them, by offering the solution that they can easily identify, but might not be the best musical solution. As the composer and music editor, I feel my job isn’t just to execute their requests verbatim, but it is to understand what is triggering their notes and to offer them the best musical solution(s).

One of my favorite compliment that I have ever received was by a producer who told me “you never give me what I ask for, but you always give me what I need.” He loved that I always cared to understand what the underlying problem is and offered him better solutions than he knew to request.

So next time someone who isn’t a musician gives you a very specific request, remember that’s their way of solving a problem, it’s their way of communicating, but it’s your job to find out what the underlying problem is and offer them the best musical options you can come up with to solve that problem. That said, sometimes the problem is that they just don’t like trumpets and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes muting the trumpets is the right move. The trick is to figure it out so you can give the client not just what they’re asking for, but actually exceed their expectations.

For the record – no trumpets were harmed in the making of this blog. I have nothing against trumpets, I was just using them as a random example.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.