Tool #34: Tips for fitting music to a specified time limit

I have been working on two projects that demand that I fit my music into a specified time length.  While one is a film trailer that requires precise timing, the other is an audiobook that requires less precise timing.  With the help of Logic I can manipulate beats and tempo for fitting music precisely for the trailer, but I thought that I’d give you some general tips on fitting music to rougher time constraints, which is more like what I’m doing in the audiobook.

Tips to fit music to time constraints:

  1. Start with the basic idea of a section of music and slowly increase its orchestration.  If you have a theme for a particular section of music,  state the basic theme and keep adding in instruments and orchestration until it’s at its fullest.  This not only adds time to your cue/idea, but also makes a nice overall crescendo through orchestration.  Doing the reverse (starting big and removing instruments to end small) buys time but makes a nice decrescendo and decrease in activity.
  2. Insert bridge material into a completed section.  If you need extra music, then put in secondary-type music (eg. not as active or orchestrated) in strategically placed sections of the already composed music.  This adds time and creates contrast to showcase the main material.
  3. Adjust the tempo.  Sometimes adjusting the tempo can give a section a new feel and shave off/add on precious seconds.  Be wary with this, because adjusting the tempo can also make a section feel confusing and awkward, with the musical ideas not sounding at their optimal pacing and feel.  However, even slight adjustments in tempo can affect the overall timing of a section without compromising the essence of the musical content.
  4. Divide the ensemble into smaller groups, passing the ideas around each group.  For example, you could divide up the ensemble by family of instruments, tessitura, or making your own consorts of instruments.  This is helpful in generating a varied and interesting set of textures and colors while using the same material and using more time.
  5. Use dynamics to ease in and ease out of a section.  If the timing is extremely rough/general, then repeating sections at the beginning and end of the piece and fading in/fading out through dynamics can be effective.  This is especially useful in creating ambient textures and subtle entrances and exits to play with the audience–they may not consciously know that the music entered (or how it did) but it still affects them.
  6. Deconstruct and reconstruct.  Take the material you have and break it down to its salient components.  Then, put them back together in new and interesting ways.  Whether the audience can tell that it is derived from the same material or not, you will have generated new–but related–material, and bought time to fit in the time constraints given.
  7. Fragment, fragment, fragment.  If you have too much music that you want to keep, chop the music up into smaller sections that can be used many times as smaller numbers.  This is great for creating transitions, temporary events, and populating a common theme throughout a piece/product.
  8. Play around with balance and the mix.  Repeating sections but changing dynamics and the position of the voices (if you have control of the mixing of the music) can dramatically change the musical material, thus generating more interesting perspectives on the same content and generating more material (and time) from the same source.
  9. Create a counterpart to the current piece/section, juxtapose it with the original material, and then add them together simultaneously.  Generate countermelodies with different versions of the same harmonies, and present (for example) the original material, the counterpart section (with the countermelodies and revamped harmonies), and then combine them to create a fuller, completely cohesive unit of the two (or more) joined counterparts.
  10. Use motivic development and repetition.  Even if you’re writing amotivic material, there is still a chance that you can modify and repeat the original material, restating it in new ways.  This is a very common technique, and is also a great way to transition between moods and sections as a slow process of developing variation ensues.

I hope you find these tips helpful, whether you’re writing for media, incidental music, or just want to make your material shorter or longer.

Thanks for reading,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s