Music Editing 101 – The Spotting Session

We’re about to have our first music spotting session of the new season. What exactly is a music spotting session? It’s the first of seven music editing steps that I go through on every episode of THE SIMPSONS or any of the other shows or movies I work on. I’ll write a different blog post about each of the seven steps as I experience them on our first episode of the season.

A spotting session is a meeting with the composer, music editor, executive producer (or show runner), sometimes the script writer, sometimes the film editor, and, in feature films, the director and the music supervisor. The purpose of the meeting is to pick the “spots” where there will be music. (By the way, there are also spotting sessions for sound effects and dialog with the respective editors.) SIMPSONS music spotting sessions are usually attended by Composer Alf Clausen, Executive Producer and Show Runner Al Jean, Supervising Producer Larina Adamson, Post Production Co-Producer Dominique Braud, and me.

As music editor I play the dual role of secretary and musical advocate. Al Jean comes to the music spotting having already lived with the show through its writing, voice recording and animation stages – a process that takes 7-9 months before we get to this point. He brings musical ideas to the session that he’s formed over that time. Some music suggestions are even inserted into the script by the writer. Alf and I are seeing the show for the first time, so we bring a fresh set of ears to the story, the jokes and the potential for music. To Al’s credit, he always considers Alf’s and my suggestions for music spots, what the tone of the music should be, etc. Al has final say but he’s very open and collaborative.

We run through the episode scene by scene, discussing how to use (or not use) music. The session will typically run 60-90 minutes long.

In music spotting there are three critical questions that I ask about every cue being considered (“cue” is film-speak for “piece of music”):

  1. Where does the cue begin?
  2. Where does the cue end?
  3. Why are we putting this cue in the show?

Questions 1 & 2 seem rather generic and obvious, but each start and stop point get hefty consideration. A cue that starts on Bart’s face may suggest to the audience that the music is about his emotions. Start the cue ½ second later during Lisa’s reaction and the audience is led to feel what Lisa is thinking about Bart at that moment. Sometimes a cue ends right on the cut to a new scene or location. This helps tell the audience that we are on to new business. Sometimes the end of a cue is a long, held chord or note called a “tail”. When we tail from the end of a scene into the start of the next, it forms a sort of emotional “bridge” carrying the emotion of the previous scene into the next, connecting the two.

As for question 3, we discuss the why of nearly every cue in thorough detail. Again, sometimes the answer to “why” is pretty obvious … sad scene, sad music; happy scene, happy music, etc. But sometimes the music helps point out the subtext of a scene – Bart puts on a happy face to hide sad feelings he has over something that happened previously in the story. The audience already knows what he’s feeling on the inside and the music plays sad to remind them of that story point. Music for Homer is often ironic – he’s all pumped up about something he’s done or some scheme he is about to hatch and the music plays to his positive attitude. But by now the audience knows that like the Coyote chasing the Road-Runner or Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, things will not turn out as planned.

Sometimes the music is what’s known as a “source” cue. This means that the music is coming from a “source” in the world of our story (i.e. Otto’s Walkman, Lisa’s sax, The Larry Davis Experience, Homer’s TV, etc.). In film music there are two kinds of music: underscore (or just “score” for short), and source. Score is music that only the audience hears and is used to fortify an emotion or story point; source is music that the characters in the story can hear. Sometimes it’s just background music that doesn’t do anything for the story – it helps set a location like a restaurant or an elevator. Sometimes it can act like score in that it brings out an emotion, like when Lisa would listen to her Bleeding Gums Murphy records and get inspired to be a jazz musician.

Then there is the MONTAGE. A series of short scenes with no dialog, little-to-no sound effects, and only music playing the action. This is often a popular song with lyrics that tell a story and connect each of the scenes in the montage (i.e. Skinner fantasizing about Calliope to “Jennifer, Junper”; Bart dreaming about having a brother to “Get Together”). Every now and again Alf writes original score without lyrics for a montage (e.g. Homer frolicking through “The Land of Chocolate”).

On THE SIMPSONS we have one more type of music – the Broadway-style musical production number. In the strictest sense, this is source music, but it certainly qualifies as score as the lyrics of the song help move the story forward and bring a definite emotion to the scene. I’ll discuss the whole song process in future post.

I take extensive notes during the session, writing down as much detail as possible. I used to write the notes long-hand, but have been using a laptop computer for the job since about 2004. Alf also records the spotting session with a hand-held audio recorder. It used to be on micro cassettes until about 8 years ago when he switched to a digital recorder. Now I can have a copy of the recording as well to make sure I didn’t miss anything during the session. The digital file can be easily archived and searched for any historic reference.

OK, now you know all about the music spotting session. Our first one for the new season is next Wednesday, August 3 for episode NABF16, “The Falcon and the Doh’Man”. This will be episode #487 and is currently scheduled to air as the season premier on Sunday, September 25, 2011 – but things in my world often change at the last  minute, so stay tuned.

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12 thoughts on “Music Editing 101 – The Spotting Session

      • Hey Chris,
        Well.. my major is called Music Production, I am a young composer and I just finish this class called Advance Music Composition for Media and part of our assignment was to read from you blog and to get familiar with the terms “Spotting, Source, Score” etc.
        Thank you for answering back I learned a lot reading your post Thank you
        Zis Guerrero

  1. So Alf composed “The Land of Chocolate” cue? I just thought it was a re-recording of stock music from the 50s. That’s definitely one of the most memorable music moments from THE SIMPSONS. Heck, I even hum/whistle that on occasion! Has it been re-used since Season 3 other than the 138th Episode Spectacular (or was that the same recording)?

    • “The Land of Chocolate” is one of MY favorite cues in the history of the show. Alf has done variations on that motif over the years, but there is only ONE “The Land of Chocolate” cue. We DID rerecord the cue for the “138th Episode Spectacular” owing to musicians’ union rules. Check out some of my other favorite cues in this blog post: click here

  2. Quick question, when you guys are watching the show during the spotting session, how complete is it? Is the voice work already implemented? Is the animation complete? Just curious.

    • All the voices have been recorded but may not be final. New scenes and jokes can be added right up to one week before air. Animation is 80% – 100% finished by spotting. Some scenes are more complex and need to use every available second before air.

      It all depends on the episode.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. This is very interesting. I am a freshman Recording Arts major/Music Minor at Loyola Marymount University. I am very interested in becoming a music editor. I wanted to know your advice if I did want to pursue that. I looked at your body of work and it is incredible.

    • Thanks for checking out the blog and my resume. I have been a very fortunate man, indeed. If you haven’t already done so, read my first post here. In this wacky business called “show” there is no established route to a job or success once you have one. My best advice that I always give is “be prepared”. This means learning all you can about the job you want, and about the tools used on the job. For music editors today that means Pro Tools, word processing, and having a music education is very helpful but not mandatory. Leave another comment after you’ve read a couple of my early posts on how I got started and let me know what you think.

  4. Beautifully articulated and very informative. “There you go again using words to communicate things”. Homer Simpson?

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