Here are 10 tips to help you compose better trailer music and get your tracks placed in Hollywood trailers.
The trailer music industry is a quite small, but daunting industry – you’re making music for Hollywood trailers, for those big blockbuster movies and games. And if you give it your best when producing music for trailers, and you do it successfully, the reward can be very significant.
So if you’re an aspiring trailer music composer, and want to get your music locked in some of the biggest movie trailers and spots, keep reading. Because here are 10 of my best tips that have helped me get my music and sound design into big trailers and tv spots (Warcraft, Independence Day 2, Starcraft 2, Call of Duty, etc).
As a disclaimer for this article, I am focusing on trailer music that actually gets placed in trailers, resulting in big sums of cash for the composer. You can compose trailer music for the fun of it without any intention of getting licenses, and that’s perfectly fine, but this will be for the composers who want to make a living off it.
But if you have it in your mind to publish your music through a trailer music publisher who can get it in front of trailer houses, and eventually into the actual trailers, this will help you make music they would want to license.
Good luck! See you on the big cinema screen.
Tip #1. How to get licensed in the trailer music industry
It goes like this:
- Figure out what’s trending, and what genre and style you like to write music in
- Search up awesome tracks on YouTube and take the trailer cue structure that works 95% of the time
- Start composing simple but powerful parts, meanwhile learning to produce properly and cleanly – referencing is key here
- Get feedback from professionals, like your trailer music peers and your supervisor
- Improve the track to an agreeable and good state, not to perfection – there are many other fishes to fry
- Finish it, and repeat the process with the next track, becoming better and better each time.
In a few short years or less, you should be seeing messages popping up saying “Congrats, John! Epic Track X just got placed for X-Men 19. That’s $7000 for you, buddy.” on a frequent basis.
Tip #2. In trailer music, quantity matters
If you think you’re gonna make money and live the platinum trailer music composer’s life by making one or two hit tracks and releasing them with a big music publisher, you’re mistaken.
What you want to focus on is quantity with great quality, not obsessing about having a subjective perfect quality.
I need to make this very clear: I’m not saying that you should compromise quality over speed and quantity. If there is a way you can improve your quality, you should definitely do it. But there is a point where if you spend several days more on it, being sort of stuck, it won’t make a big difference – you could have started making other great tracks to push your chances up even further of getting a license. So do NOT compromise quality over quantity. Rather make the track really good and meet the high Hollywood standards, and if the supervisor is happy with it, you continue on to the next one and make that one great.
So: Make the track pro, get feedback and once the supervisor is happy – call it a day for that track and move on to the next one. The supervisor will know what will be successful, and also knows that time is of the essence in this industry.
Your goal is to make a lot of great, qualitative, licensable tracks so that you keep on increasing your chances of succeeding in locking in placements. The more the merrier. If you end up spending thrice as much time on one track to make it “absolutely perfect”, than making three great tracks that might easily place in trailers, you are reducing your chances. There are times when I have spent months working on one or two tracks, getting stuck with them and obsessing over getting satisfied with them, that didn’t do as well as other tracks that I spent 1/4th of the time and effort on that did great.
It’s important to state here that aspiring to make fantastic music isencouraged, and will actually increase your licensing chances, but fervently obsessing over one track won’t in the long run.
Tip #3. Rip off – yes, rip off – trailer music structures
If you don’t want to plagiarize melodies, sounds, and so on, but still be very successful, using other successful trailer cues’ structures is nowhere near plagiarizing. It is the way to go when you’re starting out producing serious trailer music.
You’re taking already established structures that thousands of composers already use profitably, and applying it on your own tracks, with your own melodies and ideas. Put in what ever you want in the track, just try to keep the structure sensible in the framework of how the actual trailers are structured (analyze structures of actual trailer music tracks as well).
I’m not talking about ripping off the main content of tracks, but the structure that makes sense in a cinematic trailer. Editors look for tracks that fit this formula.
Here is a structure you can use that work for most main trailer tracks. This is taken from the trailer music online course in our course Trailer Music Redefined, # stands for a short break, so the parts are nicely separated allowing editors to use the parts they need:
INTRO – # – BUILDUP – # – CLIMAX I – # – CLIMAX II – # – OUTRO
So go and find a great trailer cue, check tempo, length of track, what parts it consists of (intro, build up, climax 1, etc) and just take the structure the composer did on that and start writing your own music with that structure in mind.
Tip #4. Use powerful source sounds
Trailer music is music on steroids. While you should use clean and clear-cutting sounds, you should always keep this in mind: Trailer music is supposed to be very exciting, powerful and energetic, or when it’s big and building up slowly it should end up very bold and mighty.
In selecting your sounds then, you should always remember to use the most powerful of the sounds you have. Start with a strong source sound and you make the job a lot easier. This goes for all of the elements in your track; brass, hits, percussion, strings, synths, and so on.
If you start building the majority of your music on quieter, less powerful sounds, it’s going to be very hard to get it to a level of intense excitement. It’s like you’re building a tall building with a frail foundation. So instead, build it with a strong foundation, and the building will stand tall and strong. Same goes with trailer music – use powerful source sounds, and the track will be much more powerful and big.
Tip #5. Limit yourself to achieve greater things
Limiting yourself never sounds like good advice, does it? In this case, however, it does make some sense. Hear me out:
Let’s say you have a cue with 60 instrument and audio tracks, all doing crazy stuff – crazy, but cool. And busy. Now, this cue is probably cool and original, but is it licensable? We want licenses here. So instead, imagine that you limit yourself to the usage of only a few select elements in the track; hits, simple transitions, strings, brass, perc bed and a few synths.
All of the sudden, you have to utilize these to the best of your ability, and make them all shine as much as they can together. Bringing a few elements to unity, making them work as best as they can in the manner they should be working. This is what creates great tracks – not having all the options in the world, but by limiting what you have in your disposal, so you can do more with less.
Some of my most successful tracks, that have gotten into big Hollywood film and triple A game trailers have been very simple, but powerful tracks with cool sounds (not a lot of sounds, just unique ones!).
Only after going out of a mindset like this can you really start getting truly creative with sounds, and understand them more, so you can compose unique trailer music. I think this goes for any creative endeavour.
Tip #6. Start with chord progressions, not melodies
Having a solid structure ready in your project for your new trailer music track – meaning having a percussion bed, chord progressions and overall having sketched out most of the structure of the track – will help you tremendously in reaching a finished cue quickly. And we all know speed is essential in this industry.
While having a melody in mind is good, and might be more inspiring and catchy than just chord progressions and harmony, chords are much more deciding to the mood and vibe of your track. Ultimately, it’s the chords and harmony that decide how your track feels – the melodies are fundamental, but not as vital. The chords set the progression of your track and it is what a lot of things in your track builds on.
When you start with the structure of your track, putting down chords, placing breaks, transitions and risers down, all the while having ideas for melody, it will go much quicker to compose the track and eventually finish it.
- Figure out good chord progressions
- Create the intro or buildup with them
- Move on to the climax and use modulations of those chords, or just use the same chords if it works (though variation is great, as editors will have more to choose from)
- Write melodies over the parts
Also, in my opinion, writing over a chord progression is often easier to pull off nicely than writing chords over a melody. More often than not, I hear composers struggling with harmony more than they struggle with melody.
Try this and see if it works for you.
Tip #7. When out of ideas – simply listen
Whenever I feel I’m out of ideas on what to write, or something’s not really clicking when I try, I always take a step back, quit composing for the moment, and listen to some great trailer music cues or watch a few of the cool new trailers.
Doing this will make you feel refreshed, because you’re releasing the strain on yourself to have to come up with good ideas with no real inspiration, and kick back in your chair for a moment. When you listen to some cool new (or old for that matter) music, you will start getting new ideas of your own suddenly, and inspiration kicks in.
When I just can’t put any good stuff into my DAW, or can’t make anything happen that I haven’t done 90 times in the past, I stop and check out new trailers and trailer music. 9 out of 10 times it sparks my imagination, I feel inspired again, and I’m good to go.
Tip #8. Listen to proper feedback – not any feedback
Getting proper feedback is crucial in order to succeed in this industry. Sure, you can create music, put it out there for the public, or send it to trailer production houses if you have those connections, and hope for the best. But the vast majority of times, there will be certain aspects in your music you should adress to maximize licensability, and the way to do that is to listen to people who know.
The people you should listen to when it comes to your trailer music are first and foremost the trailer editors and supervisors of trailer music publishers. These guys live and breathe trailer music, and they listen to it every day to find the proper matches that they can edit and cut for their projects – they know what they’re talking about.
Moreover, you should also listen to feedback from the successful trailer music composers who have many placements and years of experience in the industry under their belt. Don’t just go for your friends’ “It’s really great! Maybe make it longer, add brass, …” etc etc. You’re making music that editors can use, not music that is simply for listening entertainment.
While your friends – the ones who aren’t experienced trailer music composers or supervisors – are probably being nice and giving you encouragement by just saying it’s really good and epic, that feedback won’t truly help you get placements. Their feedback might be of value to you in an amiable way, because it’s nice with encouragement, but you want the feedback that pushes your music into new heights for you to get it up there on the big IMAX screen. Real and justifiable feedback.
Tip #9. Write trailer music – not soundtrack music
A common problem film and game composers face when trying out trailer music is the issue where the music is nice and atmospheric, but there is simply not enough anticipation, sense of urgency, and/or variation present to be particularly useful for trailer editors who are looking for music for their trailers and tv spots.
Trailer music and epic soundtrack music share a lot of similar properties; big and bold orchestral elements, thematic and cinematic progressions, but there is one thing that is fundamentally different, and that is the purpose of their end usage.
While this is not necessarily always true, it’s safe to say that soundtrack music is more geared towards serving the film or game as a more long-lasting element, building character and emotion to its media. Soundtracks can also be big, bold and urgent, but they don’t serve the same purpose as trailer music cues do.
The absolute main purpose of trailer music is first and foremost to build anticipation and create a sense of urgency in the trailer. And it only has a few short minutes (or sometimes even less time) to do this. The entire spectrum needs to be present:
- Introducing the audience to the film or game that is on campaign
- Showing more and more, building up anticipation for what it’s about; story, characters, direction
- Going all out bananas showing quick and action-filled scene cuts and teasing the audience with all the awesomeness
- Releasing the audience from this tension and give them info on when it’s out
- Breaks in between all of these to give some space for transitions
All of these main parts need to be present in the trailer, so time is of the essence, meaning you only have so much time to truly create that sense of urgency and make the audience clench their teeth in anticipation for this new release.
So if you want editors to pick your music for their new movie trailer, you need to get out of the soundtrack-mentality of slowly building up moods, thinking it needs to be highly melodic and thematic, and instead stick to the trailer music formula.
Tip #10. Watch, Listen and listen again!
Watch the latest blockbuster movie trailers, be sure to focus on the trailer music that is edited into them, and finally try to find the tracks that have been used and listen to them. Once you do this on a somewhat frequent basis, you get the following benefits:
- You know what is trending
- You understand the structure that most trailers share, what the properties of the different parts of the trailer are and their purpose.
- You get inspired and can generate more of your own ideas based off what you’ve seen and heard
These are just some of the benefits, but they are the main ones. Doing this will help you create great music of your own. You’ll hear how the tracks should sound, what characteristics are present in the trending style of trailer music in all the different genres of trailer music and types of trailers. You’ll get more references to how your own music should sound like composition-, orchestration- and production-wise.
So, instead of just watching the trailers without focus in the future, analyze the music and sound design in them. Find the trends. What types of sounds did the editor choose for specific parts? How did they use the accents of the music to cut the scenes to? And so on. Use similar approaches for your music. Mimic the sounds even! You’ll very likely end up with something unique anyway, even if you do your best mimicking their sound. At least you know the editors love that stuff at the moment and probably will for a while ahead.