I’ve been asked many times about music for film. Music is an essential element in a finished film; it helps tell the story. It can add life to a home video, a vlog, blog, and do wonders for corporate videos. Music that’s too strong can overpower the story, and I’m not only talking about how loud it is. I wouldn’t use upbeat, danceable rock and roll in a sad scene. Music that doesn’t work with the picture and natural sound can be distracting. Music with lyrics fight narration and interviews. Every element of a film must work seamlessly together or we risk losing our audience.
Not being a musician it’s hard for me know in advance what music will work best in a particular scene. I may have a sense that jazz or classical, or country, or percussive rhythms might work, but I’m often wrong. So, I try not to be tied to a particular idea. I won’t know until I hear the music while watching the scene. Now that iPods are ubiquitous it’s easy to watch and listen at the same time. What’s so interesting for me is I instantly know when a music cut is not working. It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. TURN THAT OFF! Knowing if it’s working well, is harder. So, I listen to dozens of tracks, a few seconds each, longer if I like a track, make a list of what might work and then cut those “selects” into the scene, adjust the volume levels and watch the scene over and over, winnowing down my best picks until I’m happy with my choices.
On a home video, whether it be a family barbecue or a cruise through the islands, music can help move the film along, give it energy. Finding the right cut that works in a particular scene. Many editing programs like iMovie can add music by simply checking a box. Likewise, vloggers need to find music that keeps the momentum going. Music can really help when you’re explaining a complicated how-to process. If you’re editing, not just checking the add music box in the editing program, let it work for you. Look for instrumental music, not too slow, or you’re audience will fall asleep, not to fast or your video will feel rushed. Read your narration pausing for a beat in your sentence structure, commas, periods, paragraphs, to allow the audience to take in what you say, to breathe. Adding a pause of ¼ of second can make the difference between feeling rushed and being just right. If it’s a new thought or new paragraph, pause longer. Cut to the next image, let a moment go by before we hear your voice again. Let the music work for you.
Levels are very important. Too loud and viewers can hear your narration of a person being interviewed. Too low and it’s bothersome. Usually a bit lower than what you think is perfect, works. If you have a sequence without talking let the music swell, then drop it down just before the next dialogue is heard. Ask a friend or family member whose opinion you trust watch your film, not just for music, for everything.
Don’t just cut any piece of music in. If it doesn’t work, don’t use it. It might even be your favorite song of all time. Doesn’t matter, it still might not work. In fact, most music won’t. You need to be picky, because when it does work, it will capture the attention of your audience and make your film better.
Please don’t add wall-to-wall music to your vacation or vlog videos. Constant music can become incessant and really disturbing. If you’re shoot at the seashore, for example, let the natural sound of the waves be your sound track. Bring the music in again later. Space music out, change the pace and rhythms to match the mood.
And, beware of copyright infringement. If you post on YouTube and mark it private, it’s probably illegal but most likely you won’t cause a stir. If, however, you check the box allowing the whole world to see, DO NOT use a copyrighted song. You can be sued; and they will win. “Oh, it’s just a little film,” you might say. Sorry, that doesn’t matter. Someone worked very hard to get themselves to a place where you now love their song and wish to use it. I advise not using it.
Recently, Kateri Jochum, a talented radio producer, suggested I put music on my 10 Shot Video exercises. She thought they’d flow better with music. She’s right, they would. But these aren’t finished films. They’re practice. I want you to look at them to see how one shot leads to another – wide to medium to close – how stories are told in their elemental state, visually, even with the sound off. I’m not editing my 10 Shot Videos. They’re straight out of the camera, like the learning system I teach in Ready, Steady, Shoot. If they were finely cut finished films, I would absolutely add music.
Music is not easy to incorporate. Just like shooting it takes practice to get it to work for you.
What do you think?
The photos are from my film The Rhythm of My Soul. I profiled country, bluegrass, mountain, and gospel musicians in Southern and Eastern Kentucky> Most didn’t make their living playing music, but they sure could rock!
(photos courtesy Kenny Dunn)