Choosing the right music for your scene can be tough. I can remember how much time I would spend sifting through hordes of tracks online just trying to find that perfect match for the project I was working on. Sometimes I found it and it was amazing, in fact, some of the best pieces I’ve put together resulted from finding the song that seemed to be perfectly timed and composed to fit the scene. Other times I had to settle for something that kind of worked because I was working on a project that had a deadline and being anymore scrutinous would have compromised the entire effort.

Think about music from the start

If you’re writing the script for the projects you direct, you can add notes in screenwriting and word processing software to iterate the type of music that comes to mind. These notes often come in handy during your script breakdown and they help you to collaborate with your music supervisor if you have one onboard. This will also help to make the overall approach to directing your film more cohesive because you’ll have a clearer vision of the end result.

Do I need music?

Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it works better with total silence. Try playing the scene with just the production sounds and foley. If it’s terribly awkward and not hitting any of the notes you want, then read on.

Close up of sheet music from high angle
Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Eliminate possibilities

Considering using the Beatles? Bob Dylan? U2? Radiohead? Forget about it (Unless you’ve got major money to play with)  In fact, even the smaller artists on your morning playlist are probably out of the question depending on how big they are. If you’re working on a very tiny or no budget at all, your options are limited to resources like free music libraries but if you have a little bit of cash, then Artlist is a good option for you.  That may come as disappointing news but on the flip side, it actually makes it easier for you to choose by eliminating a huge number of options. One trick I like to do is find the right tone (even in a copyrighted piece) and then replace it with something usable that has a similar vibe.

Consider the legalities

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

A common myth about copyright is that there’s no need to obtain permission from the artist if you’re not going to be making money from the project. This is not true.  Outside of creative commons options (which require you to give credit to the artist), you will need to either pay for a music license or get in touch with the copyright owner and receive written permission to use the piece in your film. You will need a music release form to do this which you can download online for free.

Find 10 options

The next step is to find 10 tracks and try them out to see what vibe they give off.  Through this process, you may discover how powerful music is in completely changing the way your scenes will be interpreted. I can think of times I set out for a specific sound only to arrive at something entirely different.  Notice your reaction as you try out different pieces, you’ll quickly get a sense if you’re on the right track or not.

Use playlists

Websites like Soundcloud and Envato allow you to make playlists of songs you like.  Use these to your advantage by creating playlists for different moods. Sometimes you’ll find a piece you like that isn’t right for your current project but might work for something else so save these to a separate playlist. You may even be able to share it with your filmmaking peers. 

Start or join a group playlist

Some websites offer the shared playlist feature which allows multiple users to add tracks to a playlist. You can amass quite a lot of high-quality music this way if you pick the right people to collaborate with.

I can’t find the right track anywhere, what now?

Sometimes no amount of searching online will get you anywhere. This may be an indicator that you’re in need of a custom solution for your work.  If you’re on a very tight deadline, this is where things can get tricky for you if you haven’t come into the project prepared. Here are your options.

Make it yourself

Photo by Derek Truninger on Unsplash

One of my favourite film OST’s is that of Upstream Colour which was composed entirely by the director, Shane Carruth. I’m all about collaboration but I’ve also been able to find the right vibe for a scene by creating my own music. Resourcefulness is one of the key qualities in pushing forward in any filmmakers journey, so download a free DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and give it a go.  If you can’t seem to get it right after trying long enough it may be time to….

Have a composer do it

music composer working at audiostation

This is why the networking side of filmmaking is talked up so much. If you know some composers that are looking to build up their portfolio, here’s a chance to let someone else take reign of the music. It’s possible they can come up with something better than you could have ever dreamed of. Just make sure you thoroughly and clearly articulate your ideas but do allow them to surprise you. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to relinquish control of your work, you might think such a thing could hurt the final result but it also might elevate it to a whole new level.

Use it wisely

So you’ve got the right track for your scene but have you considered how you will use the chosen piece within the film? Will it be playing gently in the background? Will it be diegetic? (in the character’s world) or non-diegetic? (outside the world of the characters)  Will it slowly fade out or will it cut out suddenly? This is something you can play around within the post-production process to find what works.

The takeaway

If you’re new to the art of filmmaking, you may find this whole process more time-consuming and stressful then what you bargained for.  The trick is to build up a long term repository of options for yourself. This means having composers in your network, keeping a list of websites you can go to for music and if you hear a great piece of music in another film you’ve watched,  you can always find out what it was and if it’s something you can get access to or not. You may also find you can reuse or repurpose some of the music you created yourself in other projects. If your finding browsing music sharing websites is turning out to be a massive time sink, that may mean that you need to come into your next project with a bit more homework done so that you can be a wiser and more level headed filmmaker going forward.

Got your music selection down pat but still have a messy editing experience? Click here to learn how to organise your Premiere Project.

Author Tim Gardner

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