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FILM MUSIC 101 Everything Filmmakers Want To Know About Music (…but didn’t find where to ask!)

I have been thinking about writing this article for a while. Filmmaking has become ubiquitous. I bet filmmaking is becoming humanity’s number one hobby as the entry-level cost has just about hit zero.

I recently have acquired a new phone that shoots 4K video, has 128 gigs of memory, cost me no money down, and I lowered my phone bill in the process.

But I‘m surprised that many filmmakers still don’t have easy access to the mysteries of the world of music. That subject came up again yesterday at a Film-Com board meeting. So herein I will take up the task of discussing many aspects that occur to me. Not everything mind you, but I’ll try to hit some highlights. Feel free to contact me with more questions.

“The sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie.” George Lucas


I remember seeing an interview with the FBI agents who were the inspiration for the movie “Silence of the Lambs.” When asked how they felt about the movie they said it scared the crap out of them. The interviewer was surprised and asked how they, who already lived the story, could be afraid. The agents responded that their investigation actually moved very slowly and they didn't have that scary music signaling something bad was about to happen.

That's why music is such an important tool in the filmmakers arsenal. It can foreshadow, enhance, or change the intensity of any context including emotional, time or place, lifestyle and all at the same time in just a few seconds. It can quickly say a lot about a character and situation without interrupting the flow.

Music can easily accomplish an abstraction too. For example, make your historical drama contemporary with contemporary music. Make your violent scene more arty and cerebral with a meditative revelry. The possibilities are endless.

“Music begins where words end.” Goethe

I love a Quincy Jones quote I once heard also; to paraphrase it "When I hear music, I see pictures in my head and when I see pictures I hear music in my head." I have long felt that way.

So I’d like to help you make the most of music in your film. Please do not fear music or music makers. Be willing to turn it up and make spaces where you can turn it up. It's the spoonful of sugar that often helps the medicine go down and gets your message to enter with it on a subliminal level.


Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and have not even played one on TV. I did audition for The Firm but I digress. If you are serious about making a film you should have a lawyer to rely on and consult about the legal ramifications of your film. The same goes for composers and songwriters. I’m just giving some basics here as I understand them.

Even in this day and age when I think people should know better, I see, more often than you’d imagine, people using music when they do not have the legal rights to use it. To me there is no good reason for doing this. There are many composers, musicians and songwriters at every price point including free available to help you.

Visual productions need two distinct licenses to use a piece of music, though both licenses can be covered in one document. A sync license comes from the copyright owner of the composition as permission to use the intellectual property of the music synchronized to your visuals. A master use license covers the use of a specific recorded performance of a piece of music. If you want to release a soundtrack album, you need to address that also.

The difference is that if an actor in your movie is singing the song you only need the sync license from the publisher/copyright holder. That actors performance should be covered in your actor’s agreement with them. But if you use a recording from a band or artist, you will need permission (a master use license) to use that recording from the owners of that recording. And there can be additional fees and permissions for the talent on that recording that may need to be covered. The owner of the master needs releases or some form of written agreement with all the talent.

The fame and popularity of an artist along with various legal complications can make licensing costs for an actual hit song quite high. It’s always advisable for indie or new artists to cover hit songs when they go in the studio to record their own original material because even major movies will sometimes seek out and use those covers instead of the hit for this reason or because they want a different style or sound more appropriate to the movie’s vibe.

Sometimes, however, you can get free usage rights based on a worthy cause. I contacted John Fogarty when I was asked to produce a bluegrass version of his tune “Centerfield” to use in a fund raising film for the Nashville Sounds Baseball Team. I thought he might ask a reasonable fee but I was pleasantly surprised when he donated the the sync rights for free because he loves baseball and wanted to help.

Another option is library music and libraries also have contracts. If you use more than a few cuts you could likely be spending enough to get original music written though. Most composers do have their own libraries too. You might be able to get “source cues” (music that appears in a scene as if on a radio or emanating from a bar for instance) and other pieces from your composer’s library.

And Creative Commons is a newer form of simple, inexpensive or free licensing you may want to explore as either a music creator or a filmmaker. Also many music publishers will allow a lower priced Festival License for even a hit song as long as you are only showing it at film festivals. If you get distribution outside the festival circuit however, you may not be able to afford to continue using that “hit.”

There is a lot more that can be discussed about these legal issues and you can find examples of these licenses online.

One last point I would like to make to filmmakers for now is that you do not need to make the creation of original music a work for hire and own the copyright on original music created for your production. A license can grant you all the rights you need without tying up the composer’s creation forever. That’s where good legal counsel can assure you the rights you need.


“Music bypasses the brain and go straight to the heart. I wish my life had more of it” - Dick Cavett

How do you get music into your production? There are many paths.

The first path is with the writer. Stephen King is well known for opening a chapter in a book with a quote from a song. He is scoring his book at the outset like this. Some folks listen to music when they write. Director and writer Cameron Crow has said he likes to create a music score for a scene before he shoots and then shoot to the music. Sometimes a song becomes part of the story much the same way as a song can become a part of our lives.

Do you want a composer? In my humble opinion, that's the best way to get music in your film! There are many organizations, classified ad venues, schools and websites to help you find one. With fast internet, phone and Skype they can be anywhere though it’s easier if you both are in time zones not extremely far apart. Many talented folks are looking for experience and exposure. Just like filmmaking, the cost of the tools has fallen as their quality has improved. My first 10 megabyte external hard drive for my dedicated music workstation cost $10,000. alone.

How do you chose your music person for your project? Personally, I think a really good composer should be versatile. I would say judge more by the quality and versatility of the sound of their reel than by trying to find the exact sound that you're looking for on their reel.

I read an interview where Hans Zimmer said he took on a movie requiring a big band swing score for half of his normal fee, just because he didn't know anything about big band music and wanted to learn. I think that’s a typical attitude of genuine film composers. Music has infinite variations and many film music composers love to explore and do new things, and they will do them very well. Part of the first conversation you have with them is to gauge their passion for your project and their passion to create the style of music needed.

“No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.” - Billy Holiday

Communication is certainly the key to getting the music you want. Can you think of a memorable film in the same vein as yours? Do you remember the music? If not go back and check it out. This can offer you a reference point and you can define how similar or different the music is that you would like in relation to this reference point.

You need to have a great conversation with a potential composer or songwriter to see if you communicate well. You need to be very honest if you don't know a much about music, and that's okay. You can discuss the emotions, reasons, and the feelings that you want to convey. Tell them if possible, whose music you like, or think is appropriate for your story. If that goes well, I'd say give the composer the script or synopsis and ask them to do demo based on all the info you impart to them. Often the themes used in big films start in this way.

Next comes a spotting session where the person in charge of approving music points out the places music is needed to the music creator and how it enters and exits. Typically, there are many occasions when you want the music scoring to sneak in or sneak out. This helps keep the viewing experience seamless. Your composer should be paying attention and taking notes of all the exact cue spots.

If you as a filmmaker aren't real sure about musical terms, it's best to avoid them. I've worked with some pretty brilliant directors who mangled musical terms and might have sent me off in the wrong direction if I didn't make sure I knew what they meant. I've been told to put the music in a higher register when they really wanted it faster. I've been told they wanted the music faster when they really wanted more divisions to the beat and not more tempo. For the music maker it can really help to have an instrument in hand when discussing music with the film person. If nothing else, there are free keyboard and guitar apps for your phone. Filmmakers may want to consult online musical terms glossaries before trying to use that sort of language.

“Music is the universal language of mankind” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Similarly, it shouldn't be hard to find YouTube or other links to show the composer styles of music or sounds desired. Music libraries also allow you to search for styles and emotions and often even allow for a download of an audio watermarked copy that you can use to illustrate a sound for the producer of your original music. The more info or examples you can use to illustrate what you want, the better. A search for “movie scores” on Youtube yields 141,000 results.

Temp music is is commonly used in editing a film. I find that good video editors have a musical sense and tend to want to edit to music. During the edit they will grab any music they feel appropriate and not worry about whether it can be licensed. This offers a relative point of communication about what the final music ought to be also. You can discuss the good and the bad of where the temp music is or is not working.

There is an inherent danger with temp music though, the scourge of Temp Love! Using a particularly fabulous piece of hard to license music in a very perfect way raises the bar very high for the original music. So if a composer is brought into the production early they may be able to contribute to the temp music and attract that initial infatuation to their work.

“Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable” - Leonard Bernstein


Again I must admit there is a lot more that can be written about the how of getting music into your production but I will just gloss over one more area here, and that is cost. The production triangle has three sides: cost, speed, and quality. Choose two. If you want a great score and you want it fast, then that will likely cost the most. On the other hand you may be able to get great quality at lower cost if you give the composer more time.

Another old rule of thumb says 5% of the budget should go to sound and the majority of that can be music. Looking back at what George Lucas said, that’s quite a bargain. In a VFX heavy film that percent could be smaller but most indie films are not VFX driven. As long as I am mentioning sound, it sure is great to have a serious sound man with an adequate amount of gear on the shoot. Sometimes music can help mask sound problems in post but more often sound problems can have a negative effect on the score. Again, remember what George said? So a great audio post expert is also a great idea in my humble opinion..

Another cost factor is real instrumentation versus digital recreation. If your temp music is the soundtrack from a big movie created with a 90 piece orchestra it will likely sound better than a digital simulation of an orchestra. There are a number of things to consider here. How big should the music sound? Do you really need such a big sound? A small group of live musicians well recorded might sound fuller and be more appropriate to a smaller project or an intimate scene. Even one ‘live’ player can add a lot to a digital score but please remember it adds time and effort. You can also consider if maybe a simple contemporary palette of sounds is more appropriate to your scene or story.

Another way for your music maker to possibly get paid is from a performance rights organization. This costs the filmmaker nothing other than a little time spent helping track TV and foreign performances which is increasingly handled by computers.

I have one last thought here on cost. Yes there are many free composers these days looking for that experience, credit on IMDB, and exposure. But as my mom always used to say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. That applies to both everyone’s attitude and also to the idea that even free help would appreciate at least a little for expenses like a fine meal and a bottle of scotch.

“Music is for every single person on the planet.” - Robert Plant

There are indeed many paths. The universe is made of music; as explained through String Theory. Anywhere you want to go music can help take you there. So enough words … let the music begin!

©2016 Leonard Wolf

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