In today’s world where filmmaking has become more accessible than ever, choosing the perfect soundtrack has become an increasingly rare talent. We don’t all have the budget for a dedicated composer, so understanding how to score your own film—understanding how choose the perfect music—is more important than ever. You have to understand not only the scene and not only the song, but how the two intertwine to create something brand-new.
Here are some tips to help you choose the best soundtrack for your film.
A video has a shape and a rhythm just like a song does. Knowing how to complement the visual shape of your film with the auditory shape of your soundtrack is an often-overlooked skill, but it’s one that can make or break a scene. Big objects need big bass. Small objects need delicacy, intricacy, finesse. Fast movement or cutting needs a quick tempo. This film from Michael Langan, “Choros,” demonstrates the important relationship between visual and auditory shapes, and the way they can bring each other to life.
Choros from Michael Langan
Don’t use songs that have become famous in other films. If your audience can remember where it was originally used, it will pull them out of the new experience you’re trying to create for them. The bond an audience makes with a soundtrack can be powerful. Their experience of the music—especially if you choose it well—will be forever entwined with the story you tell. The Shins’ song “New Slang” is off the table, along with pretty much every song from Garden State. Do some research beforehand to make sure you’re using the song in a new way and your scene won’t be overpowered by the audience’s nostalgia.
It’s Okay to Be Silent
Your film doesn’t need wall-to-wall music. Let your audience breathe sometimes. Pause here and there to let the natural sounds take center stage; it will make the music you do use all the more effective and memorable. In this beautiful little documentary called “La Mer de Pianos (The Sea of Pianos),” the majority of the soundtrack is naturally recorded. Only near the end do filmmakers Tom Wrigglesworth and Mathieu Cuvelier cleverly introduce a piece of jazz to tie the whole video together.
La Mer de Pianos from Wriggles & Robins.
Don’t Go for Epic
If your video isn’t epic, your soundtrack shouldn’t be either. Your music should complement your subject matter and never overpower it. It’s important to understand a scene’s weight, scale, and importance first, and then choose your soundtrack accordingly. A musical mismatch can make an otherwise quaint scene melodramatic, leaving the audience wondering if they’ve missed something or if you’ve spent too much time in the editing room.
Make sure you have the proper licenses and permission for any and all music used in your film. Using unlicensed music not only runs the risk of your project being taken down (or worse, a lawsuit being filed), but it hurts artists in general. Just as you’re putting time and sweat into creating something you love, you are using music from musicians who’ve done the same. The more we can properly compensate artists for their art, the more incentive they will have to continue creating amazing things. Licensing can be expensive, but think of it as an investment in an industry you love. Or, if that doesn’t motivate you, think of it as an investment in not getting sued.
Break All the Rules
So now that you have a good idea of how to choose the perfect music for your film, disregard everything and try something off-the-wall. Sometimes a complete contradiction in shape, pace, and era can create an unexpectedly amazing effect. A great example of this is Jay-Z’s soundtrack for The Great Gatsby. Sometimes breaking the rules is the best thing you can do.