Don’t Play It Like the Flute

Hans Zimmer just won an Academy Award for his musical score for “Dune,” and if you have seen the movie or listened to the soundtrack, you know why. Zimmer’s soundtrack for Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel is an otherworldly masterpiece that combines Zimmer’s deep, gigantic trademark sound with unorthodox elements like whistling bamboo flutes, distorted guitars that sound like bagpipes, actual bagpipes, scraping metal, and synthesized, rumbling drums. The result is a mysterious, menacing, and captivating soundscape that defies comparison. Disturbing in its beauty, enchanting in its intensity.

When Zimmer was asked to write the music for Dune, one of the first things he knew was that he didn’t want to create the next classical orchestra soundtrack for a science-fiction movie. Instead, he had a certain idea of a sound in his head that would match the setting of the story. A story that was supposed to happen in the future, in a different culture, and on a different planet. So he set out to invent new sounds by using and combining existing instruments in unconventional ways and by even inventing instruments that didn’t yet exist. He worked with an instrument sculptor who builds instruments out of metal, distorted human voices with a compressor beyond recognition, and asked his musicians to play their instruments in the most unusual ways. “Don’t play it like the flute,” Zimmer said to his flutist Pedro Eustache, “Play it as if it was the wind whistling through the desert dunes.”

Why am I telling you all of this? Because no matter what you love to create, there is something to be learned from the way Zimmer approached this project. We are all striving to create work that is novel, innovative, memorable, and inspiring. To get there, however, we tend to focus on getting things right, on avoiding mistakes, on “being professional”. Yes, it is important to have the commitment, dedication, and attention to detail of a professional. But being right? That will only take you so far. What is much more important is to approach the problem in front of you with curiosity and an open mind. With an urge to explore what can be found beyond the ordinary, beyond the right way of doing things. If you want to create something that nobody has come up with yet, it is important that you try out all the crazy ideas others are afraid to try, that you build prototypes, improvise, and freely play with the materials and the technologies you have at hand.

You might not know where this play will lead you. You will discover that some things work and others don’t. You will run into dead ends and discover other paths that open up before you. You will have to abandon some of your ideas while new ideas are born. To discover something totally new, you need to play this game as unafraid and reckless as a child. Play it loud or quiet, fast or slow, alone or, even better, in a team.

Just make sure you don’t play it like the flute.

Hans Zimmer on technology and music:

“It took a while for us to figure out how to actually use this. You have to learn technology in one way or the other. And I don’t mean by reading a book […] or by going on the Internet and spending a bit of time. It’s a more instinctive type of learning where you figure out how far you can push the thing. Where is the sweet spot?”


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