Right now I’m scoring a feature documentary. Enter the temp cues! Temporary music is a complex part of the scoring process and, as Ken Karmen states, is a double-edge sword.

The Good
A temp cue gives the director and editor something to play with and test. It helps communicate some broad intentions without very many words. After all, things like orchestration, composition styles, instrument timbers, etc are not typical vocabulary for the visually minded. With one listen a composer can hear the desired intention without having to rely on deciphering adjectives or metaphors. A handy clarification device.

The Bad
…after weeks of watching the film with temp music, a temp can become part of the scene’s identity. It feels comfortable and something different feels awkward. This can limit the range of musical possibility for that particular scene. If a composer has a different angle it might require time to sell the concept. Also, since temp cues can be pulled from random sources, cues can be disjointed from other musical elements in the film, maybe lacking continuity with the instrumentation and themes previously stated.

Bottom line: Temp cues are a standard part of the process. They provide a great communication between the director and composer but they have hidden dangers for any film composer. Here are some more interesting reads on the subject.

Editors Guild Magazine Article
My favorite quote from this article was by Ken Karmen. Here is the expert.

Karman calls the temp a double-edged sword. “For better or for worse, temp dubs have become an integral part of modern post-production. While they do allow directors more time to explore various musical directions, they often have the effect of limiting a composer’s opportunity to approach the music with a fresh perspective. It’s not unusual for a composer to find himself in the position of having to compete…. The process engenders a kind of musical inbreeding.” While he acknowledges the importance of the temp, Hall does feel that it sometimes serves only to mask insecurities. “That’s only human nature, but sometimes the overuse of music becomes only a background and adds no emotion, ” he says. “Music should start for a specific reason, play a point of view or an emotion, and then get the hell out, not drawing the audience’s attention. Music never saved bad acting, and it never saved a bad scene either.

I also thought this excerpt from The Filmmaker’ss Handbook was great.