Fans of LNGFRM are also fans of just about any media you can think of. We watch lots of movies, play lots of games, and don’t even get us started on all the great TV out there right now.
Every piece of media we consume is made better by its accompanying music, and when there isn’t any at all, we’re completely thrown off.
The good news is we’ve been spoiled for many years now with excellent soundtracks and scores.
We’ve talked about our favorite romantic soundtracks as well as our undying love for Trent Reznor and his wacky minimalist music of doom. Some of our favorite Pixar movies have been graced with magical scores from Michael Giacchino, and Mica Levi crafted one of our favorite horror soundtracks of all time.
But sadly, we know very little about what it takes to create music that makes all of that media more memorable, so we asked around and got in touch with a professional composer who has created scores for movies, video games, and television: Yueh-Yun ‘Sandy’ Chen.
Chen is a highly experienced composer who has worked on projects like ‘Una Vida, Una Cena’ (‘One Life, One Dinner’) for Amazon Prime Video and several solo albums that focus on wellness and focus.
Below you’ll find our full interview with Chen. We hope you learn something new about what it’s like to be a career composer.
Before attending Berklee, had you known for a long time that you wanted to be a film score composer?
Chen: I didn’t know there was a career as a “film composer” until I decided to pursue my music dream, which was one year before I attended Berklee. But I had known for a long time that I was deeply attracted to music, especially film music, in particular from Studio Ghibli, Disney, and DreamWorks movies. My older brother and I would collect CDs from those movies and listen to them again and again. Since I learned piano when I was little, I would also transcribe the melodies and harmonies from soundtracks and try to play them on piano.
Some of my favorites animated movies are from Studio Ghibli by the director Hayao Miyazaki, such as “Castle in The Sky”, “Porco Rosso”, and “Princess Mononoke”. Through watching these movies, I also came to love their music and started to learn that they were all composed by the same composer, Joe Hisaishi, who is one of the composers that I respect and admire a lot. I was inspired by that music, and sometimes I would think how wonderful it would be if I could write inspiring music just like Joe Hisaishi.
During my sophomore year of university in Taiwan, at a public lecture, I learned there’s a way to compose music using computer software. From that point on, the idea of becoming a composer seemed possible. I registered for the course and tried to make some music.
Rather than wanting to be a film composer specifically, I think I just wanted to write inspiring music, regardless of where it would end up.
What has surprised you the most about working as a professional composer?
Chen: The need for strict time management and an open mind.
It’s normal that projects come together at once, and sometimes nothing comes in for months. This is something I’m still trying to adjust to.
When I’m overwhelmed by projects, I know it’s a good time for me to learn how to negotiate with clients, collaborate with others, find help, and take care of both physical and mental health.
When I don’t have a project to work on, it’s a great time to learn something new about my craft or meet new professional contacts.
For me, the most important thing is to stay calm, no matter what the situation is. If I know when I need to do and how much time I have to complete those tasks, I feel comfortable.
What about your music stands out from the competition?
Chen: I would say everyone has their own musical characteristic. So when proposing demos to potential clients, if they choose my music, it might just be because my music can represent what they had in their mind. I think my role as a composer for film, TV, and games is to provide a musical service and write music that can support the story and meet the clients’ expectations.
Are there ever times when personal style gets in the way of a project? Is it possible to put too much of your own style in a piece?
Chen: I think it’s inevitable to have at least a bit of my personal style in every project I work on. Or maybe it’s because I can always find a way to connect with the projects, and that makes me want to write music.
As for putting too much of my own style in a piece, it depends on the story and what the clients want. I’ve worked on a short film where the director asked me to write the same vibe of music for a cue as the music piece that I previously composed just for myself, which is totally my style. But I’ve also worked on a project where the director asked me to just follow the vibe of the temp music.
Are there any major differences between working on a film vs. working on a game?
Chen: I think the major difference between a film and a game is that a film usually has a linear timeline, while a game doesn’t. When composing for a film, the composer knows the exact time frame when an action is going on or when the music should sync with a specific spot. But when composing for a game, we don’t know what the players will do next, so the music needs to be flexible and reflect the action of avatars accordingly, so it’s more like interactive music.
When working on a film, composers have a spotting session with the director to discuss when to have music come in and out, and what styles of music fit the story.
When working on a game, composers discuss with the game developer about different game states or events. Usually game music is loopable, so it can be played again and again repeatedly. Depending on the needs of the story or game functions, the looped music may transition to the next piece or stop suddenly. It can go in so many different directions.
What would be your dream project? Who would you want to work with most?
Chen: I was inspired by animation music, so I would say my dream project would be writing music for an animated feature or an animated series.
As for games, I wish one day I could work on projects that aim for education rather than violence and combat.
There are many composers that I look up to, such as Joe Hisaishi, John Powell, and Wilbert Roget II. But it really would be a dream to work with them. They almost seem like legends at this point.
How often do you ask friends for opinions on your current projects, if at all?
Chen: Music is very subjective and everyone has their taste and perspective. So when working on a project, I tend to focus on the clients’ needs and feedback.
But sometimes I get stuck. It could be when I have no idea what to write, or when I’ve revised for the same cue so many times, or when I feel the music lacks something but I couldn’t tell what. That’s when I would ask my friends for opinions.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since starting your career?
Chen: The importance of communication. I think having smooth communication is the best way to avoid misunderstandings or to clarify something.
There was one time I promised to do score preparation, but I forgot to ask about the deadline. So I did other work first and thought I could do it later. It turned out that they needed the score the next day. After that, I knew to ask for a deadline upfront.
When discussing new projects with a client, I try to get as much information from them as I can, such as the story, temp music, and characters and settings. If I have any questions, I contact them for clarification. When I submit music tracks to my clients, I also ask them for any feedback, as it’s the criteria for me to know if I’m on the right track, and it could save both sides a lot of time.