Grammy Nominated Composer Christopher Tin on Scoring Techniques and Tips for Breaking Into the Industry

This week we’re chatting with the incredibly talented Christopher Tin, composer for film, video games, and advertising. Christopher’s (first!) album, Calling All Dawns, is nominated for 2 Grammy awards.  Video gamers may recognize the album’s opening track, “Baba Yetu”, which is in the running for “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists,” as this song was written as the theme song to the video game “Civilization IV.”  A native Californian of Chinese descent, Christopher was educated in England and now brings his diverse cultural background to his compositions.

How do you approach scoring a film?
Much of the time you get a lot of direction from the other creative people involved in the film: the director, the editor (in the way he or she chooses temp music), and even the various levels of producers.  When you are given some creative freedom, though, you try to do your best to read each scene… look for the dramatic beats, look for the dramatic arc, and score to that.

How does the visual affect the audio?
It’s immensely important to the visuals.  The music will set the tone for a scene dramatically.  Without it, a scene will often fall flat.

What are the differences to consider when scoring a film v. video game v. advertisement?
The most obvious are the technical requirements.  A film is a set, static sequence of images, and you can carefully synchronize your music to it.  An advertisement is similar, but you’re obviously confined to the short format of 30 seconds.  A video game is constantly in flux.  The music you write has to be able to look indefinite and seamless, and you can’t try to synchronize it to any gameplay events, because you never know what will happen within the game.

Do you actively participate in the marketing of your music?
I do, quite actively.  I’m involved in all web activities of my music, and I’ve also started doing residencies with orchestras and choirs that want me in attendance as they perform my works.

Do you have an agent and/or manager?
I have an agent for film/TV, and am currently in negotiations with various publishers for representation of my catalog.

How did you break into the “scoring” market? Did you have a notable big break?
Same thing with anything else in music, you just have to impress the right people at the right times. Early on in my career, I had some established composers give me a chance working with them on their projects: guys like John Ottman and Joel McNeely, whom I look up to as mentors in my field.  One particularly notable event, though, was meeting the jazz pianist Billy Childs at the Sundance Composers’ Lab.  Billy referred me for my first TV job–a documentary for the Discovery Channel.  From there, my clients and resume started branching out.  The people who worked on that first documentary with me went on to do other documentaries, then other commercials, and so forth.  The secret to developing a good career in Hollywood is simply to do good work, again and again.  Just be a reliable composer, do a good job to the best of your abilities, and people will keep coming back to hire you.

Any advice for other artists trying to get into that area of the industry?
Work on your craft!  You can network all you want, but unless you can deliver consistently and reliably, when the chance comes for your big break, you might not be ready for it.

Do you have any recommendations for other artists regarding retaining the rights of your music when it’s played on television, and through film viewings?
Always retain your rights whenever possible.  If you’re in the business of writing music specifically for films, video games, and TV, it’s very likely that the production company will insist on owning the music you write.  However, if you’re just licensing music that you wrote on your own, you should never give up your rights.

Buy Calling All Dawns on iTunes

Check out more of Christopher Tin’s work

  • John

    Great piece! I’ve done similar work on a smaller scale, indie film, public access radio/TV and am starting a business to do it later in the Summer of this year. If Christopher reads the comments, please feel free to continue writing more articles like this. It is very helpful to gain industry insight. I would also like to know if he holds workshops or lectures about these same topics.