Movie reviews often laud amazing screenplays, stunning visuals, and top-class acting with praise, as these are key components that establish the heart and soul of a film. However, one element that deserves more attention is the musical score. There are melodies that make our nails dig into armrests in horror flicks, our hearts race in action films, and our eyes overflow with tears in emotional scenes. Musical scores don’t tend to be the focus of the movie viewing experience, but they can make—or break—a viewer’s emotional investment in a film.
Behind every musical score is the composer. For local composers like Carmina Robles-Cuya and Divino Dayacap, the need to perfectly complement a scene and create a musical score that delivers the required emotional impact is no easy feat, and there is much to explore in their role of musical scoring.
A unique sound
Robles-Cuya’s fascination with films and their musical scores is deeply rooted in the media she watched and listened to growing up. She was fascinated with how AM radio dramas “leaves us to our own imagination” with their use of frightful sounds to conjure the plot in her mind’s eye. Since then, Robles-Cuya has leaned toward horror films. “There were so many,” she says when asked about films that inspired her. “To name a few, The Omen, The Exorcist, Jaws, [and] Superman.”
Years after being introduced to the horror genre, Robles-Cuya chanced upon an advertisement looking for musical scoring trainees as she was walking around the University of the Philippines-Diliman campus. With her love for films and her own background in music, it seemed like fate. She began training and six months later, found herself scoring for a TV show under the late director Wenn V. Deramas, “He liked my work and from there I built relations with the people from the industry.”
Feng Shui came next, helmed by acclaimed director Chito S. Roño. The success of Feng Shui cemented Robles-Cuya as a force to be reckoned with in the industry. She would go on to score several more hits like Ouija, Caregiver, Katorse, and Be Careful with My Heart. Her 18-year career speaks volumes of her dynamic talent and sterling reputation, but Robles-Cuya treats every project like her first, saying, “I always want to start my work on a clean slate.”
Similar to Robles-Cuya, Dayacap also credits the productions he grew up with as the source of his passion for the craft, citing the classic films from his father’s collection for enchanting him with their distinct look and feel.
When he started practicing the craft in 2014, he incorporated his love for the vintage in his style. “[I’ve] been a history buff since [I was] a child,” Dayacap says. “So I love [doing research] on historical styles.”
This set him on the path to scoring Pusong Bato, the 2015 Cinemalaya winner for Best Short Film.
His favorite composition was something he made for a short film where he was asked to replicate the cheesy and overly “bakya” sounds—sounds reminiscent of popular culture—from the 70s. “The director asked me to compose written pop songs that define the era,” he says about this project. “So I actually got to incorporate my own lyrical skills and songwriting preferences.”
The composition process is one unique to each composer. Robles-Cuya’s process begins by putting herself in the shoes of an ordinary moviegoer when she previews a rough cut of the movie. She needs to “feel the scare” for horror flicks, while looking out for the parts that make her laugh in comedies. “Basically, it’s [about being] empathic about other people’s feelings and how you would translate it into music,” she explains. She then selects the instruments she feels would best fit the project’s overall theme and decides which moments are in need of scoring. Then, she finally composes and makes revisions.
Dayacap starts his score construction by hearing the director’s vision for the project. He then procures the script and the latest cut of the film, before hunkering down in his room. His fingers wave over the ivory keys of his piano, the embers of a melody forming, his score beginning to take shape.
“I’m a lover of melody, so I’d always sneak a melody in there somewhere,” Dayacap says about his process. However, he also recognizes the necessity to compromise with film directors at least on some levels, “The directors here are the masters of the film…we film scorers are simply vehicles to realize the director’s intention.”
Music has a psychological effect on listeners, and it has proven to be an effective medium in influencing people’s emotions. “A score can make or break a film,” shares Dayacap. “A certain score can turn the exact same scene from an emotional scene into a comedic one.” Atmospheres ranging from the eerie to the exciting can be created with the proper score composition. In the hands of a skilled composer, music becomes a medium to express the emotion and nuance shown in a scene, telling an aspect of a story that dialogue alone would not completely convey.
Musical score composers have very important roles in constructing a scene by creating the auditory foundation for visuals to be built on. Directors, actors, producers, and writers all play a part in a film’s success, but the role of a composer is equally crucial. It is thanks to the way their craft complements the work of their fellow filmmakers that audiences everywhere can enjoy such riveting and poignant moments in cinema—many of which speak to their hearts and minds, touching them in ways only the sound of music can.