Cinematic Action Music - Learn TodayHello Composers! =)

My name is Mike, music composer and sound designer since 1998, old school nerd, and coffee addict. So grab a cup of coffee and join me now, to Learn How to Compose Action Music.

You can take the Complete Course on Action Music Composition here.

How to Compose Action Music

Action music come in many different flavors, like all styles of music. The main purpose of action music is of course to add a sense of action. Action can be intense, chaotic and dramatic. But action can also be slow, bold and powerful.

Things to consider with Action Music

  • The Tempo
    From medium to fast or ultra-rapid BPM.
  • The Groove
    From straight and steady, to groovy and adaptive, to complex and chaotic.
  • The Energy Level
    The more and the faster driving rhythms, the higher the energy level.
  • The Intensity Level
    Soft is rarely used in action music. But you can have a range from medium to mega loud.
  • The Authority Level
    Powerful authority mainly comes from the using heavy sounds, bold accents, as well as a rich low-end.

I recommend that when you write action music, imagine a scene from a movie, TV series or video game. A visual representation of the tone, character, energy and intensity of the action.

The Guidelines of Action Music

Now I want to share with you, my top practical guidelines on how to create energy, drive and action vibe into your music. You will learn: the fundamentals of action music.

But remember, as with any guidelines, you should not consider them as rules that you have to follow. Because in music, there are simply no hard rules. However, you should be aware of them, and then be creative with all your decisions when composing and producing your action music projects.

1. Percussion is King

Drums and percussion is the very essence of action and energy in music. Without percussion you will not be able to achieve the true sense of action.

Percussive Mix

The classic drum kit is the perfect example of a complete percussive mix. It covers the full frequency range, from the kick drum in the lows, up the cymbals in the high range. And that is indeed your focus in action music: a big, rich and powerful percussive sound palette.

But your complete drum and percussion mix can include any type of percussive sounds. From organic percussion like shakers, claps, stomps, hand drums etc. To ethnic percussion, to rock drums, to EDM beats, to orchestral percussion, and even sound design hits.

Variation in Dynamics

Percussive rhythms are different from melodic rhythms. The variation is not in pitch, but in dynamics. Make sure to use the range of dynamics in your percussive performances, to add contrast and loudness variation. You can be more extreme in the dynamics in percussion parts than melodic and harmonic instruments.

Power Tip: Another great way to increase the energy and action level is to use rolls and crescendos. These performance styles are especially noticeable on drums and percussion parts, due to the sharp attack and percussive nature of the sounds.

Variation in Complexity

Percussion parts can be anywhere from a super simple and steady drive, to a complex mayhem similar to a crazy drum solo. You can use the full range of complexity to add variation in the energy intensity of your percussion.

The complexity might for example start as a very simple groove, and continue with more busy patterns for your percussion parts when you want to increase the intensity of the energy and action vibe.

Percussive Loops

Using pre-made loops can be a quick way to add a driving rhythm to your music. And it can still be creative, because most often you can control effects and many other parameters of the loops. Sometimes you can even change the order of the individual hits inside the loop.

My favorite ways to use loops, is for sound design type rhythms and hybrid percussion. But you can do whatever you feel like, as long as you like how the final creative result sounds in your composition.

2. Accents is Power

Nothing screams power, like big and bold accents. It’s like the headlines of an article. They stand out from being bigger and bolder, literarily!

Examples of Accents

  • Big Drums & Percussion
  • Sound Design Hits
  • Big Stabs
  • Short Notes
  • Power Notes

Contrast adds Power

It’s mainly about dynamics again here. The more contrast you have between the accents and the rest of the notes, the more they will stand out.

So keep an eye on the velocity levels on the MIDI notes for the percussive and short sounds that are used for the accents in your composition. You can also decrease the surrounding notes in velocity to achieve even higher contrast.

Layering for Extra Impact

Another great way to make your accents stand out more, is to use stacking and layering of sounds. For example, a big low percussion hit may be powerful on its own. But it will be even more powerful if you layer it with a cymbal crash.

In fact, in a standard drum kit you have 2 crash cymbals so that the drummer can achieve even bigger accents with dual cymbal crash hits.

3. Chords with Rhythm

Drums and percussion is not the only way to add rhythmic drive into your music. Melodic instruments and sections can for example play chords in “rhythmic blocks”.

How to Play Rhythmic Chords

By rhythmic chords, I mean to play the chords as blocks in a rhythmic fashion. The most classic example of this is probably strumming the chords on a guitar.

Another way to play rhythmic chords is to play them with short note articulations on orchestral strings, brass, woodwinds etc.

You can also play the chords as arpeggios. Arpeggio means “broken chord”. Essentially this means to play the chord notes separately instead of as a block of notes.

By playing the chord notes in a sequence you can add drive and energy into the very chord progression. And there are many ways you can control the playing style of the arpeggio.

Variation in Length & Sustain

When playing rhythms with chords, you can also add variation in the note length, as well as the sustain of the specific articulation.

Imagine strumming on an acoustic guitar for example. You can vary the note length on each strum by letting some chords ring out longer.

You can also use various degrees of palm muting on the short strums, to get variation in the length of each sustain.

It is similar for many other instruments, like orchestral strings for example. Where you can use different short note articulations like spiccato, staccato, staccatisimo and perhaps add a marcato articulation on the accents.

Variation in Dynamics

As always, variation in the dynamics is very important to add life into a performance. And even more so in rhythmic parts.

Not only can you have dynamic contrast between each chord in the rhythm, but you can also add variation in the individual chord notes on all chords.

4. Drive is Vital

Drive is energy, and energy is action. That is why it is vital to keep the push and movement with some kind of driving rhythm in your action music composition.

Add Drive with Ostinatos

Ostinato basically means “obstinate”, and refers to melodic rhythms that repeat (or bounce) on the same note a lot.

Examples of Ostinatos

  • Pulsing Basslines
  • Chugging Guitars
  • Driving Short Strings

The main focus of an ostinato pattern is to create a driving rhythm that adds energy into your music. You don’t have to bounce on the same note repeatedly though.

You can in fact switch notes many times in the ostinato pattern, for example bounce around on the chord notes or scale notes.

Often the ostinato will focus on a main note value for the rhythmic pattern, for example a 16th note ostinato. But you can add some spice in the timing and groove of the ostinato too, by for example adding some rests into the pattern instead of a straight drive.

However, the overall vibe of an ostinato pattern should have a repetitive groove. It will feel like an obstinate drive and pulse in your music, which is the very purpose of an ostinato.

Add Drive with a Rhythmic Pulse

Sometimes you simply need a kind of rhythmic pulse that drives the energy of your track in the background.

Examples of Rhythmic Pulses

  • Rhythmic Soundscape
  • Clicks & Sticks
  • LFO Pulses
  • Gate & Stutter Effects

Rhythmic Soundscape

Any type of sound texture that has rhythmic movement. For example a light atmospheric sound with high end shimmering delay synced to a note value.

Clicks & Sticks

Very short percussive sounds like stick hits or even clicks, are great for subtle background rhythms. They can still be fast and driving, but don’t take up too much room in the mix since their sound is so thin and light.

LFO Pulses

Using one or several synced LFO’s to add pulsing movement in various parameters, is another great way to add drive and energy into otherwise long sustained sounds, like pads, or bass drones for example.

Gate & Stutter Effects

Adding a rhythmic gate effect, or some kind of stutter effect, is an easy way to create a repeated pulse into your sounds. You can make this pulse anything from a simple straight groove, to a complex rhythmic mayhem.

5. Contrast is Mandatory

Using high contrast in basically every aspect of the music composition is very much the norm in action music. Especially high contrast in the dynamics of the parts of course, but also high contrast in the very arrangement using sudden fills, rapid changes, big shifts in intervals etc.

Bold Accents & Power Notes

Action music relies a lot on having big and bold accents that truly stand out in the mix. Which can be accomplished with high dynamics on the percussion parts on those specific notes, as well as the same on short articulations on melodic and harmonic instruments.

But also by using what I call “Power Notes”, which can be big percussive hits, stabs or massive sustained notes. For example:

  • Sound Design Hits
  • Layered Big Stabs
  • Sustained Powerchords
  • Braahms

The Power of Silence

One of the most interesting aspects of music composition that I am a personal fan of, is the power of silence.

Music is essentially a mix of sounds and silence in time. Which means that the silence has an equal part of the music as the notes and sounds have. And one way to use silence to your advantage, is to introduce silence before a big accent or power section.

You can remove parts, notes and sounds to maximize the contrast before that big accent. Or simply reduce the notes close to the accent to give it more room to breath. Because dynamic range can add contrast, but nothing beats silence and space for increasing the impact of your accents.

6. Chaos is Welcome

For action music with a very intense vibe, chaos is most welcome in your music composition. Chaos in the same way as a movie can have lots of jump cuts in the editing, changes in the camera perspective, surprises in the storyline of a scene etc.

Examples of Chaos in Music

  • Lots of Fills
  • Instant Transitions
  • Rhythmic Changes
  • Harmonic Dissonance
  • Big Intervals & Leaps
  • Jumpy Chord Leading
  • Lots of Movement

When your action music is playing in for example an action scene of a movie, the viewer/listener should never feel at ease. Because action music is the opposite of relax music. You should make sure that the that the drive, intensity and action vibe is always present in your music composition.

7. Intensity is Energy

In action music, louder and more intense is better. Powerful percussion, big sounds, heavy accents, bold low-end and intense rhythms. But of course, you need dynamics. Variation in intensity. You can not make a build-up of energy if every single second is already maxed out for loudness and intensity.

Examples of Intensity Boosters

  • Fast Rhythms
  • Power Hits
  • Power Notes
  • Risers
  • Sub Booms
  • Rhythmic Build Ups
  • Harmonic Build Ups
  • Sudden Drops

When you drop one or more elements in your action music, something else should take over the main drive to make sure the intensity level does not go too low. Unless you want to use the power silence to add intensity from anticipation and sudden impact.

The Elements of Action Music

I will now give you a huge list of examples: of specific instruments, sounds, playing styles, elements, and even production techniques you can use in action music compositions.

  1. Big Percussion
  2. Sound Design Hits
  3. Action Drums
  4. Percussion Loops
  5. Rhythmic Textures
  6. Clicks & Sticks
  7. Build-Ups
  8. Fills
  9. Marcatos
  10. Power Notes
  11. Big Stabs
  12. Strumming
  13. Chugging
  14. Heavy Riffs
  15. Arpeggios
  16. Ostinatos
  17. Stutters
  18. Risers
  19. Sub Drops
  20. Rhythmic Effects
  21. Pulsing Sounds

Action Percussion Tutorial

Percussion plays a huge role in action music. In fact, I always say that percussion is the king of action. For action music specifically, you want the percussion to feel big, wide, deep and powerful.

How to write Percussion Parts for Action Music

  • Choose the Tempo
  • Experiment with the Groove
  • Create the Main Beat
  • Add the High Drive
  • Add the Fills & Details
  • Boost the Accents

Ostinato Strings Tutorial

String ostinato patterns is one of the fundamentals of drive and energy in film and cinematic style music. And very important for adding that action and intensity vibe.

How to write Ostinato Strings Parts

  • Experiment with the Groove
  • Get a feel for the Main Accents
  • Choose the Harmonic Movement
  • Write the Main Ostinato
  • Add a Second Ostinato
  • Boost the Accents
  • Automate Dynamic Movement

Pulsing Synth Tutorial

Pulses and rhythmic movement synced to the grid and tempo of your music, is a very important element in action music.

How to create a Pulsing Synth Line

  • Choose your Synthesizer
  • Design the Sound (Waveforms, Envelopes)
  • Choose the Pulsing Method
  • Write the Harmonic Progression
  • Design the Pulse Rhythm

Rhythmic Chords Tutorial

You need drive in action music. Lots of it. That is why chords in action music are often played rhythmically.

How to create Rhythm in the Chords

  • Write the Chord Progression
  • Design the Voice Leading
  • Choose the Instrument
  • Record the Rhythmic Drive
  • Boost the Accents

Bold Accents Tutorial

Action music is all about power and intensity. Loud means loud! And nothing can do this better than having big, bold accents that stand out. In this tutorial I will show you just that. How to make your main accents feel truly powerful.

How to get Bold Accents in Your Music

  • Add Powerful Sounds on the Main Accents
  • Boost the Velocities on the Main Accents
  • Decrease the Velocities around the Main Accents
  • Layer the Accents with many Tone Colors
  • Layer the Accents for a Bigger Frequency Range

Congratulations + Your Final Project

Congratulations my friend! You have now learned the main foundations and techniques for composing action music.

Here is your Final Project

Now it is time to test your knowledge, practice your skills, and learn by doing. Because it is the most powerful way of mastering any field. Try creating the following 3 types of action music:

  • Bold & Powerful
  • High Energy & Driving
  • Chaotic & Intense

Have fun practicing your skills in action music composition. My name is Mike, and I wish you great success, on your journey in music! =)