Jonathan’s Film Music Glossary

April 8, 2014 Features 0 Comments

Film music has its own funky terminology and it’s time you got acquainted with the lingo. I can help you. I want to help you. But you have to help me to help you help yourself or something. So here’s my glossary which includes funny examples, anecdotes and tidbits (is that a word?) from the edges of the world of music. It’s my Film Music Glossary.

(No seriously, is tidbits a word?)

Atonal Music

This is music that shrugs off standard Western harmony and structure, accepted melodic traditions; everything you hear on the radio. Instead, it allows for any sequence or combination of notes and tones to achieve an expressionistic end.

The composer Schoenberg and his pupils are credited with creating this wave – as a group, they are referred to as the ‘Second Viennese School’. Say that at parties and people think you know stuff about stuff.

Anyway, horror movie scores almost always enjoy hanging out in the atonal playground. It has been suggested that Benjamin Frankel’s score for The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) was the first truly chromatic 12-tone film score. That part where the depraved beggar approaches the girl is incredibly creepy… oh yeah, sorry – SPOILERS! Here’s the trailer:



Bumpers are musical transitions; short musical pieces that signal a change of scene or transfer one setting to another or cue an ad break. On ‘Friends’, a box-set of stories which we all know backwards, the bumper is the music you hear when the camera pans up the tall building to show that the action is now moving to Monica’s impossibly massive apartment. I used to like the slightly weird, clarinet-solo-type of transitional pieces on the classic TV comedy show ‘Cheers’. Here’s one at the start of an episode. Why does the saxophone do that exactly? Somebody likes ‘Weather Report‘.



Contractors do the rather tricky job of seeking out and hiring numbers of fabulous musicians for a recording session, as requested by the composer (“I need 3 players on glockenspiel, tuba and kazoo”). They know how much each musician costs and can supply a price beforehand – so you know how much you CAN’T afford. Ah well, we’d all like a ‘Lord Of The Rings’ budget for recording sessions, wouldn’t we?spaceout

Lord Of The Rings Film Music



A ‘cue’ is what we call a piece of music that is written for a film, as opposed to a ‘song’ or a ‘theme’. It wasn’t a term I had come across back in my civilian days – even as an avid film music fan. So there’s NO shame in not knowing this one, ok? Sit down, it’s ok. Do you want a cup of tea?


Cue Sheet

This document lists all of the uses of music that appear in a film or programme. It’s not a page turner. This is coming from the fella that used to write technical manuals for software and machines. You have been warned. Here’s a handy example…


Diegetic Music

This is how you describe music that is happening in the film, for example – club music in the background of a club scene or a song playing on a radio that is featured on screen. One unusual example of this appears in Kill Bill Vol.1, it’s a moment that catches me each time. Michael Parks plays the recurring character of Earl McGraw, who is introduced to us on his arrival at the scene of B’s attack.

A song plays over the scene, ‘That Certain Female’ by Charlie Feathers, but the song abruptly ends when the Texas Ranger parks his car, revealing that the music was actually coming from his car stereo, though it didn’t sound as such when we heard it first. Just Tarantino playing one of his movie tricks again.

Check it out here…



Sounds sort of cool, but it’s actually shit. Ahh, it’s just economics really. This is when a composer hires another composer to write some music on the understanding that they will not be credited for the work in the programme/movie/cue sheet, BUT they can work out a price between them, on that basis.

So no OSCAR for you, but you may be able to buy a rather nice car.

It happen a lot, even with very big composers… or might I say, it happens regularly with very big composers. Or ‘often’.



In English, this means ‘Leading Motif’. Clear as mud? A leitmotif is a short musical sequence that is specifically associated with an element in the film, be it a character, place, event etc. You hear the music and it represents that element. A perfect example of this is shown in John Williams’ ‘Jaws’ score. Without even seeing the titular shark, we know he’s about and he’s peckish because we hear those two bass notes creeping in.

Even more fun is that fact that towards the end of the picture, we are no longer given the ‘heads up’ by this music. The lack of the cue, which we have hitherto relied upon to alert us of his presence, means that Jaws shows up unannounced, scaring the living bejaysus out of us.


Mickey Mousing

This rather piss-takey term describes music that exactly matches the action on screen, as you can see in traditional cartoon scoring. Every little action is mirrored in the music, as in the following short clip.

Ants thieve a steak from a dog. Ants. The cruel, cruel reality of life.


Music Supervisor

These people look after the music clearance when a show/film wants to use existing music, obtaining the rights and can be involved in choosing that music too. This would have been a hair-raising job on ‘Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason‘, the sequel to ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ starring Renne Zelwegger. Jeez, it’s one song to another, to another, in bizarrely quick and expensive succession. It’s like somebody left a bloody radio on in the background!

The 29 songs are listed here…
Another thing about that movie – why did Renee look so unwell in it? I gather they were aiming for ‘plus size’, but they just ended up with ‘chemotherapy issue’.


Non-Diagetic Music

Music that is not happening within the scene on screen, so basically, almost any music score you hear in a film. In ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, whenever Charles Bronson’s character Harmonica plays his, eh, harmonica on screen, this is DIAGETIC music (the other characters can hear it too), but when Henry Fonda’s character Frank shows up and we hear Morricone’s epic guitar theme, there is no epic guitar orchestra performing in the scene itself (only we, the audience, hear this music). Sometimes this situation can be the source of a joke. Here’s Family Guy’s Star Wars parody, showcasing one of these very jokes…


Orchestrators and arrangers take musical pieces that are already composed and re-organise the music, so that it can be performed on a different set of instruments. For instance, an orchestrator could receive a melody and chord sequence performed on one piano and have to expand that source material ‘vertically’ for an orchestra, making choices about what instruments will play what aspect of the music. Or perhaps the orchestrator might have to arrange a pared down version of the piece, on fewer instruments that originally composed.

I recall being credited incorrectly for a job…

<ENTER MOAN MODE> A musician played string parts on a synth and then sent me a recording of the same. My task was to write out sheet music to be performed by a live orchestra based on the synth chords, working out what each individual instrument of an orchestra should play for their range and sound and elaborate the music in the appropriate way, adding material or varying lines for better effect. You know, ORCHESTRATE!!!

Imagine my grumbliness when I later see that the original synth guy is dubbed ‘orchestrator’ on the project and I’m a ‘transcriber’.



Performing Rights Royalties

When music is publicly performed or aired on radio and television, a performing right royalty is due to the composer and publisher. The royalties are collected by performing rights organizations (in Ireland, the wonderful IMRO, thank you!). This process is why The Pogues’ Shane McGowan’s wallet does quite well after Christmas. And quite rightly, ‘Fairytale Of New York’ is a masterpiece.

Performing rights royalties are fair and just for composers, but nonetheless, on one occasion, I had a totally psychopathic, corporate bastard roaring at me down the phone, telling me that there was no such thing as this process – and so I should not expect money from television broadcast. I do hope something goofy and unpleasant happens to that plonker.


SMPTE (or Time Code)

Time Code is a reference number, a running clock, that you can find displayed on video material during post production. It shows hours, minutes, seconds and frames… like this:
TC 01:02:03:04 means ‘one hour, two minutes, three seconds and four frames in’.

It’s an extremely valuable point of reference. Everybody working on the project has access to that same reference, so musically cueing up, coming in, getting out, syncing to action has a definite point in Time Code.

What does it stand for? It stands for The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. Sorry you asked eh?



This biological-sounding term refers to the job of watching edited footage, identifying where there should be music and what sort of music it should be. Often, the director and composer will work this out together. On TV programmes, the composer may end up doing this job on his own, having become accustomed to what the producers or director like.

You have silence and from there, imagine music. It’s fascinating really. One day, Bill Conti has bare footage of a boxer training for a big fight, the next day, he has this life-changing, tear-welling cue on paper. Just… just watch this.

Sync Rights

The right to use an existing piece of music in a production. This is what the Music Supervisor has to looks after – remember? No? Go back to ‘Music Supervisor’, don’t pass go and don’t collect $200.


Temp Track

This is what you call music that is placed on video before a composer has written original material for the project. The editor might use existing music while editing footage, the director might include it to present what he’d like to hear from the score, before the score is composed.

A lot of composers hate temp tracks – I have to say, I like them. It can be unfortunate when a director gets unwaveringly attached to his temp track and you end up having to mimic it to reach an agreement, but a lot of the time, I find temp tracks a nice source of inspiration.

During one project I worked on, the director used a lengthy orchestral piece as temp. As a result, at one point, a visual moment of victory ran over a beautiful, sad minor chord on strings. A rather unusual juxtaposition.

I would never have made that musical choice from scratch, but MAN – did that matching work! Ah, it was amazingly effective, evocative and thoughtful. So of course, I composed a beautiful, sad minor chord at the same moment in the film. Feck ‘original‘, whatever that means any more. I watched that scene with the temp as a viewer and was genuinely moved by the music. I doffed my cap to the accidental magic of that moment and hoped to ‘pay it forward’. With full credit, of course.



A theme in a film can refer to the music that is played over the credits, the ‘main theme’ and/or a more protracted statement of musical elements that are in the film, a complete unit. So you might have a theme for a character, which can be any length and from that theme, you draw a leitmotif which is shorthand for that character. Take for instance Williams’ awesome theme to Superman, which is 5 minutes long, and from which, short phrases are quoted in the movie to represent the character (these are the leitmotifs).

Here’s another weird thing about the Superman theme. There are TWO of them – equal in footing and memorable, but different.

There’s this one…

And there’s this one…

Funny huh? I know that Williams presented two alternatives for themes for Indiana Jones to Spielberg and he said, let’s have them both… ( and (, so perhaps something similar happened earlier with Superman. Just listen to those themes though… like big flags that say ‘I love film’, aren’t they?

Another example of this dual-theming is the classic BBC sitcom ‘Only Fools & Horses’. If I said I’m going to hum the theme to ‘Only Fools & Horses’, I could sing two different themes…

The opening credits song is the “But here’s the one that’s driving me berserk, why do only fools and horses work?”, the closing credits song is the “No income tax, No VAT, No money back, No guarantee” one. Another case of alternatives – ‘ah feck it, keep both of them’?



In a musical sense, the underscore is the opposite of a main theme. It’s music that stays in the background, often behind dialogue, not over-stating anything, but effectively providing atmosphere. It usually enhances a mood – and sometimes it smooths over cracks. A scene might find itself needing ‘help’: call in the underscore.

That’s it, my pedigree chums. Talk to you again soon.