Score Like a Pro: How to Choose the Best Music for Films

Aug 20, 2018

How to Choose the Best Music for Films

Silent films were fine in their time, but these days no major film is complete without a rich, powerful musical score. Music adds emotional intensity to pivotal scenes, supports the story’s thematic elements, and simply makes the watching experience more enjoyable. Some of the best films are just as beloved for their soundtracks as for their stories (Jaws or Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, anyone?) As an up-and-coming filmmaker, how can you find the best music for your films?

Easy. Learn from the greats. We’re talking about the iconic names in music, like: Williams, Elfman, Zimmer, Horner, Giacchino, and more. What makes these prolific composers so good at what they do, and what lessons can you take from them to find the right music for your future Oscar contenders?

1.     You Don’t Need to Be a Musical Wizard

Sure, John Williams was a classical pianist with a Julliard pedigree before he crafted some of the film industry’s greatest scores, including the Star Wars franchise, Harry Potter, E.T., Indiana Jones, and more. However, that doesn’t mean you need to be a musical prodigy in order to choose great music for your films. Hans Zimmer, who scored a few small movies you might have heard of, like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lion King, and Gladiator (just to name a few), has famously admitted, “to this day I can’t read or write music.”  

The point is that you don’t need to know everything there is about music or even play a musical instrument in order to score your own film. All you really need is a deep appreciation for music and a keen awareness of how it works in film.

2.     Watch Everything in Your Genre

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Before you even think about choosing music for your films, make sure you deeply understand and appreciate the role of music in film. As a filmmaker, you undoubtedly love watching and analyzing movies. Take the time to watch the best films in your film’s genre and pay special attention to the films scores. Listen to the instrumentation, the pace, the musical motifs, and how the music supports each scene within the movie. You don’t want to directly copy anyone, but you do want to develop a refined vocabulary of the musical etiquette for your genre – what works and what your audience expects.

3.     Watch Your Film Over and Over Again

The rough cut of your film is done. You probably feel like you’ve watched it about exactly a bazillion times, but you’re going to have to watch it again… and again. It’s time to find the music for your film. You’ve been watching your movie from the perspective of a director and then as an editor. Now it’s time to watch it as a composer. As you watch the film, let your unconscious tell you what music would be right. This is where watching all those movies in your genre will help inform your decision.

Nathan Barr, who scored the fabulous show, The Americans, explained his initial process like this: “I like to experience the episodes when I’m right there watching. You’ll know right away whether it needs trumps or strings… You know musically what it wants to be.”

One neat trick to consider is to watch your entire film without sound. Watch how the action, the setting, and the actors tell the story just through movement and the frames you chose. Now, use Barr’s advice and let the scenes tell you what music they need.

4.      Identify the Themes and Atmosphere of the Film

As you begin to get an idea of what kind of music you want to add to your film, start thinking about the film’s themes and atmosphere. As the film’s creator, you are already well aware of the story’s primary themes, but now consider how you can support these themes musically. What type of instrumentation matches themes of redemption, awakening, or betrayal? Layer on the atmosphere. Is this a sunny, bright film, or is it spooky and strange? What instruments can reflect that atmosphere? Consider also how the pace and beat of the music can support your theme and atmosphere. For example, the titular theme of Pirates of the Caribbean is bold, brawny, and fast, the perfect musical expression of a powerful pirate ship cutting through the water.

5.     Consider How Musical Motifs Can Play a Role in Your Film

When you listen to the soundtracks of great movies, you’ll hear certain groupings of notes or longer stretches that tend to repeat throughout the film to underline a specific theme, character, emotion, or location. These motifs are a powerful way to express the key components of your film and to create emotional connections to the characters or other factors within the movie.

John Williams is a master of the motif. Listen closely to his Star Wars soundtracks, and you’ll find beloved motifs for each of the main characters – Luke, Lea, and Han Solo. And who can forget the powerful, bold motif for Darth Vader? Just hearing the menacing opening notes of his motif immediately brings to mind the black-helmeted villain.

6.     Don’t Always Go for the Obvious

It makes sense to add big, dramatic music to your climactic scene, but it’s also what your audience expects. Music can be used to surprise and thrill audiences when it catches them off guard like a soft, lilting melody played over a battle scene. Composer Michael Giacchino – he scored Ratatouille, Up, and the new Star Trek movies – discusses how he pushed past the obvious idea of creating a big musical moment to accompany the finale of the movie Super 8, and instead got as quiet as possible to give the action on screen even more resonance.

7.      Don’t Be Afraid to Borrow Great Musical Ideas

No one ever creates an entirely new piece of music. Even the greatest composers stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, and many are unashamed of taking inspiration from their heroes and developing similar sounds and melodies. John Williams’ Star Wars score is among his most cherished and universally acclaimed works, but he didn’t create it all on his own. Careful listeners will hear influences from Gustav Holst, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle.”

That doesn’t mean you should simply steal someone else’s music (more on that below); but rather, don’t be afraid to be inspired by music that you love!

8.     Be Open to Experimentation

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As a new filmmaker, don’t be afraid to go bold with your music choices and try things that are a little out of your comfort zone. We live in a world where anything can be an instrument and where audiences are hungry for something new. Dan Romer used wine glasses and submarine sonar sounds in the score of Beasts of No Nation to great effect. As you start planning the type of music you want for your films, stretch your imagination. Experiment with music from different cultures, different genres, and unique instruments.

How to Find Music for Your Films

Chances are you can’t hire Hans Zimmer to score your film. Also, it can be a little expensive to hire an entire orchestra to create brand new music. As a filmmaker on a budget, your best bet is to use existing music for your film rather than create your own.

Using existing music can make your life a lot simpler in some ways, but it also comes with its own challenges and risks. The first and biggest challenge is ensuring you have the legal right to use a piece of music in your film. If you want to use a particular song, you’ll need to hunt down the owner of the music and either request permission to use the song or purchase a synchronization license and a master license.

If the song was created by an unsigned artist, you may be able to work directly with the artist and get a good deal on the licenses. If you want to use a popular song by a signed artist, you’ll probably have to work through their record label and fork over a lot of cash to use the song in your film. Keep in mind that you need to do this for every single piece of music in your film.

If you don’t, you’ll be guilty of copyright infringement. Stealing music is a terrible thing to do to your fellow artists. It can also lead you into big trouble. If you plan on releasing your film on YouTube in the hopes of gaining a following and perhaps some ad money, YouTube will pull down your video if it discovers you’re using music without permission. The owners of the song can also sue you or demand a share of any profits your film earns.

In other words, don’t steal music!

Consider Using Stock Music Sites

Getting permission to use each individual piece of music you want for your movie can be incredibly time consuming and expensive! A much better and less expensive alternative is to work with stock music sites, like Soundstripe.

At Soundstripe, we work out all the permissions and royalties so that you don’t have to. For one monthly or yearly subscription fee, you have unlimited access to our entire music library, which includes a wide and growing range of genres. Best of all, Soundstripe makes it easy to find the best royalty free music for your films. You can filter our music by genre, emotion, instrumentation, pace, and more and then build individual playlists for each of your film projects. This makes it easy for you to test many different types of music for your films. Our royalty structure also means that you can use the music in any way you want so that you can personalize it for your film.

Go ahead and take a look at our music library today. Start brainstorming which sounds will provide that perfect companion to your film. With Soundstripe, you don’t need a Williams or a Zimmer or a Giacchino to make a great film with an excellent score!

Take a listen to our music for free!
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