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Video Scoring Tip:
When To Use Music In Video

Scoring Series :: July 16, 2015

Cary Grant - adding music to videos

Cary Grant in Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" (Bernard Hermann, score)

In a previous Video Scoring Tip we discussed how to score change in a dialogue scene. In this installment of Video Scoring Tips we are going to be talking about when to put music into a scene in general. We’ll give you the elemental tools that professional filmmakers use when they determine where music should start in a scene or sequence. It’s the music version of the old classic acting line: “What’s my motivation?”

Finding the right moment to put music is a filmmaking skill that anyone can develop. Here are some key techniques you can use:

  • On a “Look.” What’s a look? Anything that has to do with some sort of change in the character; the look on their face changes, they see something - off screen or on - that changes their demeanor or changes the story line, the look of how they dress, who they associate with, etc. A look can be a lot of things, and often gives you a very good opportunity to introduce music in a beneficial way to your movie.
  • A Shift in Activity. The activity in the scene or characters often changes, either becoming busier with more motion, or less busy with less motion. Music can often add energy and excitement to this. The classic version of this is the detective standing on a street corner, suddenly seeing a criminal he’s after, speeding by, and jumps into his car to chase. The chase is an increase in activity and motion. But changes in activity can be far more subtle than this and even changes to less busyness and less motion can often be compelling to highlight with music as it helps control the pace of the movie or video.

Best Marigold Hotel - adding music to videos

Judy Dench in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (Thomas Newman, score, 2011 and 2015 sequel)

  • A Change in Scenery or Background. This is obvious; the characters move from indoors to outdoors, drive from the city to some mountain vista, go from a quiet discussion in a kitchen out to the back where there is a backyard barbecue and party in full swing, get in a plane in NYC and fly to the west coast, etc, etc.
  • A Change in Story Line or Import. In a previous Scoring Tip we discussed scoring a change during dialogue. This is often where you will find a change in story line or import revealed. However, there will be times when this won’t be through a conversation but through the characters perspective, or some other filmic device. However it’s done, it still begs to have music highlight the moment.
  • Bonus Tip: Putting music smack dab on an edit, a cut, is typically a poor place to start music unless its an MTV-style music video, or is a hard cut to a party or some other scene with music in it. The emotion or story line impetus to start music is not typically found on the cut (above exceptions noted), it is typically found during the scene. While edits are critical for the pace of the movie, the quality of performance (many a bad acting scene was helped tremendously by a great editor!) and many other crucial aspects, music directly on cuts, unless it’s required, doesn’t tend to help the audience connect with the characters or story.

Gregory Peck - adding music to videos

Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird" (Elmer Bernstein, score)

There are almost limitless examples of these techniques. Both classic movies as well as new movies rely on them to use music to drive their story line and etch the characters in the audience’s mind. Classically, almost any score by the great masters of the art; Bernard Hermann, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein and many more, will be loaded with these types of uses. Use IMDB to locate some of their films and watch if you haven’t already.

Many new films also make effective use of these techniques. While “American Hustle” was an all-dialogue movie (yes, dialogue through the entire movie!) with a completely period song score, composer Danny Elfman used period-style, original background music during off-camera narration by the main character (played by Christian Bale) to very effectively create his back-story - and cinch our liking of him even though he was a despicable con-artist.

American Hustle movie - use of music

American Hustle (Danny Elfman, score)

The PBS TV series, “Downton Abbey” is masterful at using music on scene transitions that turn on a dramatic moment. It also makes great use of dialogue underscore that starts as the dialogue becomes more dramatic.

While these are character and dramatic driven examples, these techniques can apply very effectively to other types of films and videos to support and enhance your message, and make people far more receptive to your film or video. Some creative thinking in applying these techniques can add depth and American Hustle movie - use of musicdimension to your movie no matter what its content.

Of course, Sonicfire Pro is always there to help you get the music just right for every scene and sequence. These techniques are far easier to do with it, than with regular music, which gives you no direct control over the timing or elements. Coming next month: Part II – When to End Music in a Scene.

Successful filmmaking!
Kevin Klingler