Scratch (Temp) Music – My Thoughts

Scratch Music – a useful tool for filmmakers (and editors) to create a sense of intended mood direction for a scene, or a crippling hinderance for the creative composer?

Most composers I know have a love/hate relationship with scratch music. Whilst it can be very informative for me and very revealing of a filmmaker’s intent to receive a music file with a scene, I have found it can also be a dangerous crutch to lean on.

What is ‘scratch’ music?

A broad definition would be that it is temporary music, added to a film in post-production to assist a filmmaker in demonstrating his/her intended direction for the film’s music; to guide the composer and/or music supervisor in creating the finished soundtrack.

In practice, a director might, for example, instruct his post production team to overlay Hans Zimmer’s tense climactic score from Inception to demonstrate his or her vision for the music style and pace for a battle scene. It also goes without saying that the license for using said cue would cost an arm and a leg. The composer therefore steps in to create a cue that mimics the style and feel of the scratch track.

I have, on occasion, received such a film edit with scratch music added, together with a very basic brief from the filmmaker: “I can’t afford the license to use this piece of music in my film, would you please compose something as near to it as possible?”.

Where to start?

Before I get bogged down in the immersive creative process (locking myself away in my home studio for hours on end, tirelessly attempting to emulate the scratch music’s timbre, groove, cadence, instrumentation, etc), I find it infinitely more productive to first touch base with the director (as it is the director in most cases on low budget projects), to ask more direct questions about their ideas for the film:

  • Why did they choose the scratch music? Was it their idea?
  • If they could, would they change anything about the scratch music?
  • Is this track indicative of the entire soundtrack’s musical direction?
  • Would they be open to other ideas, stylistic direction?

And perhaps the most important question of all:

  • Is this a locked edit, or will the editor work further on the film after receiving the final music? (Trailers are a good example of a coordinated effort between composer and editor, whereby the final locked edit will result from close collaboration of ideas).

These seem like simple questions, but without asking them the job can become very tedious and limiting, or worse; would need constant redrafting or time consuming re-edits.

A common issue for film composers is establishing a mutually intelligible language with the filmmaker, given that it is rarely the case to have a music supervisor on hand to translate the director’s expectations into a fitting soundtrack. Music is first and foremost a language, one which only a few filmmakers are fluent in. I therefore invest a decent proportion of my time for a project in getting to know what the director expects from me; sometimes over a coffee or (more often than not) over Skype. I take this chance to discuss the choice of temp music in depth, trying to interpret their ideas, “Could you make it more.. blue?”, “it’s a bit too… jumpy” or my personal favourite to date, “a little less baywatch-y“. I often chuckle at such feedback, but it can result in very useful guidance.

Moving now to the creative part: working on the track. I won’t give away my secrets, indeed every composer I know has their own approach to interpreting scratch music. Personally speaking, it has mostly been a trial and error process to develop a workflow that fits for me. Suffice to say, beat mapping, matching time/key-signatures, instrumentation all play a part in accurately imitating a temp cue music file. I generally work from the rhythm upwards (a lingering habit from my time composing and arranging pop music), but it depends on the style of course. Furthermore, I subconsciously add my own personal touches, little sparks that perhaps could be defined as my style. In any case, music is art, it lives from expression and should never be reduced to an oversimplified formula.


Whilst I can’t talk from experience here, I have heard that directors can get so attached to their scratch music that nothing can be done to beat it. This is certainly biggest challenge to overcome, that replicating the feel and mood of a fantastically produced piece of music is no mean feat. Another problem is that by following the guide too closely, it becomes blatantly obvious for a perceptive viewer to determine the original scratch music. I watched a very entertaining (and internationally successfu)l BBC show yesterday and could pick out three famous (yet generic cliché) scratch tracks from the composer’s brief. Striking the balance seems to be the key to success.

To summarise; Scratch music may be an invaluable starting point but I’ve found that it should not replace close dialogue between the composer and filmmaker. Taking the time to really analyse the chosen scratch music for the film before jumping in feet first certainly reaps benefits later. Sometimes the bespoke composed end result is light years away from the scratch file, but the most important outcome is that it encourages dialogue to help fulfill the filmmaker’s expectations. This is the most important outcome, after all.



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