Music for films

About a year ago I was asked to compose and record a piece of music of late for a short film with the Dutch Malaria Foundation to persuade World Governments to stop the sale of counterfeit drugs for malaria in Africa.  Here is the piece:

The composition process raised some important learning points for me:

  • By the time I was given the soundtrack job, the film length was fixed at 2″02′ and there is a fixed point in the film where the ‘lights go out’ and where the music has to build to and then stop.  I had developed 3 prototypes as time was precious, based on an e-mail which told the story of the film.   All three prototypes had to be ditched once I saw the film due to timings and other considerations.  None the less the preparatory work was important in terms of being ready to respond rapidly once the film was available.
  • The brief was that the ‘audience’ for this film and music is a global one and therefore it was important not to make it too ‘African’ in terms of musical references, whilst still retaining some sense of focus.
  • The subject matter is harrowing, yet the goal is to get people to watch the whole film and then sign the petition, so the music has to moderate the possibility of switching off the film before reaching the end.  Two minutes is a lifetime these days on youtube.  In musical terms, the piece moves from a minor feel to a ‘major lift’ before the silence and is followed by a kind of requiem which is an echo of the introduction but stripped bare.  I used the sound of a ‘mosquito zapper’ at the beginning to signify some idea of the subject matter and a heartbeat which stops at the critical point of the film.  It was very tricky to get the music to stop in exactly the right place as the film length had already been set.  That is of course the challenge for a music soundtrack producer.

Postscript:  The film never got to ‘market’, due to complex politics and legal wrangllings by the charity.  This is a great shame and I was gobsmacked to find out that the original purpose of helping save lives has been replaced by pointless bureaucracy.  At this point, I wonder about the point of volunteering in such circumstances.   I still vigorously support the charity goal and the other volunteers who put their time into the project, but feel disappointed over this development.  Here’s what one social entrepreneur had to say about this:

“If you’re going to take the time, energy, knowledge and expertise of people, at least don’t screw them over in the process. They have the right to be credited for their work, just as if someone you’d paid to do the work would have. Your behaviour towards Peter Cook is why many with high level skills and expertise won’t even attempt to help charities out. Because they don’t value the people that support them, and don’t give them simple credit when it’s due. You’ve basically taken Peter’s work, recreated it (not identically) and not given him a basic thank you. This behaviour is not ok, this behaviour is disgusting, and is tantamount to stealing. Experts work hard to develop their expertise and to take it without any payment (a simple credit in this situation would have been appropriate) is something that any person with a conscience would find shameful, just like the criminal trade in FAKE malaria drugs.”

Strong stuff!  Anyway, enough bitterness – it’s a vital cause and I urge you to support it by signing the petition at FAKE DRUGS KILL.  You will also hear how the charity followed all my advice on the music soundtrack structure and ‘musical devices’ to illustrate the film.  I’ve added their modified version of the film soundtrack here so you can hear what happened after communications broke down with them:

I guess you might say that I would feel bitter after all the time I wasted on this!  Perhaps, in the words of the song, “It should have been me” 🙂  I feel quite exploited by all this, however, I would still like the music soundtrack to be the best it can be.  In this context, I  have a few professional points to make about this replacement piece that they would still do well to address if they want it to look and sound professional.

  1. There is considerable background noise between the introduction ‘heartbeats’ which dilutes the tension and would not have been done by a professional.
  2. In my opinion, the ‘electronic pops and squeaks’ are rather loud in the mix and some are ill timed with the visuals.  The bass line is rather heavy and synthetic against the Erik Satie piano piece.
  3. They shortened the film (I’d told them it was too long before I started work on it).  The impact of this was to cut the opportunity for a “major lift / crescendo” section to the silence.  Instead they have chosen to simply repeat the Erik Satie motif and ‘chorus’ line.  The piece remains in a “minor feel” and thus does not follow the story line – ill child, goes to doctor, gets the cure, it’s all going to get better and then a shock, when the drugs don’t work …
  4. The middle section ends untidily half way through the ‘bar’ since it is not timed to the storyline and revised film length – This is another casualty of shortening the film and using the Erik Satie piece as the backdrop – although that would be quite easy to fix.
  5. They also plagiarised my  suggestion of a requiem – an echo of the introduction but stripped bare.
  6. They did use my suggestion of having a call to action at the beginning in the film – originally, the viewer would not have known what they had to do until 2 minutes later.   That’s a lifetime on You Tube!  I’m glad they put the weblink right at the beginning – it took some persuasion to get this done as I was told the original film could not be altered.

So they took ALL my advice.  I should be flattered with such levels of plagiarism 🙂

To finish, let’s hear a piece of music from the master of film composition, Brian Eno.  This piece from the album “The Shutov Assembly” has a strange calming but disturbing feel to it, which kind of sums up the way I feel about this project in hindsight.


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via


8 responses to “Music for films

  1. Hi Peter

    I was impressed with you shared this with me in November last year.

    Somewhat out of order for the plagiarism to occur.


    • I’m still working on turning this round in the background Claire – I’ve had some hate mail from other volunteers who think that I’m spoiling the project by my efforts. Far from it, the Chairman of the Foundation reported that signings have increased dramatically since I started my ethical objection to the CEO’s behaviour. They only have 6 followers on Twitter – My cat has more than that! 🙂

      I’m continuing to promote the cause, and support the volunteers who put so much in. My angst is with the two people who have put personal ambition before fair treatment of those involved.

      Thanks so much for your support.


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