The Many Screens of Composer Brian Tyler

Chris Fitzgerald
May 10, 2012
Composer Brian Tyler speaks to students via Skype.
Photo by Chris Fitzgerald

Taking time out from his busy schedule scoring The Expendables 2 and a Frederic Chopin biography, composer Brian Tyler visited with Berklee students via Skype this April. Organized and hosted by Alex Arntzen of Berklee's Film Scoring Network, the event was part of the Learning Center's popular forum series in the Media Lab. More than 100 students filled the room and spilled out into the lobby. Charismatic and friendly, the surprisingly humble Tyler has an impressive film and game résumé that includes Steven Spielberg's Eagle Eye, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.

Tyler said the biggest challenge getting into the film industry is that you have to know people to get a gig. He reflects that when he was starting out, "I even sent a demo to my agent that I have now, who never even knew I sent it. So I knew that didn't make it past reception." His advice was to get work as a composer's assistant. He noted that he eventually passed work that he didn't have time for on to all of his previous assistants, and many of them went on to achieve their own success. When asked what qualities he looks for in an assistant, he stressed the importance of knowing film: "I find it kind of amazing how unknowledgeable often the younger composers are about film itself." Watch the classics, he said. "Really when it comes down to it, you're dealing with a director."

When asked, "How do you keep your sounds original when everyone has the same sample libraries?" Tyler equated it to rock music: "Take any particular year, like 1970, and you basically had people playing on a few different Gibson guitars, a few different Fenders, Ludwig drum sets, everyone had a Fender P Bass, and maybe a Rhodes a Wurlitzer and a Mellotron. That's basically what rock bands were using, yet the Stones didn't sound anything like the Beatles, which didn't sound anything like Zeppelin."

His conclusion was that technique and taste in the studio are a huge factor, as is, of course, writing. "You can hear any John Williams score and distinguish it from a James Newton Howard score, yet they're using the same exact people." He went on, chuckling, "I don't know why, but it makes me feel good that things naturally take care of themselves, and so much of it has to do with the person." He advised students never to work on a project where their music is expected to sound like another specific composer. "I would never recommend [that] because then you'll never get your own voice, and then you're interchangeable with many other clones."

On scoring for video games, he noted that the process is completely different, in that the music is nonlinear. He equated video game players to film directors: they could play through a level quickly, and the intensity of the music needs to reflect that, or they could be novices and get stuck in the corner for 15 minutes, and the music needs to take a back seat without getting too repetitive. There need to be so many permutations that Tyler noted, "When someone plays the game, they're probably hearing the music in a way that I've never even heard."

It's a big change going from video game composing to working with the A-list action hero cast of The Expendables. Tyler said, "I'm sitting here facing this way watching Stallone do his thing [on screen], and he's standing right there. And I don't know how to refer to him, do I call him his character? It's definitely a pinch-me moment."

Hear Tyler's music at