Inspiration, Pro Tips

7 Ways to Use Music to Create Mood and Meaning Onscreen


Filmmakers love toying with our minds. It’s what they do best if they’re good at their job. They can deploy any number of ways to manipulate the audience, whether it’s with camera angles, specific lenses, the lighting of the scene, the dialogue, or the actors’ movements — everything, really, is meant to convey meaning. And nowhere, it could be argued, does that meaning come across more than with the music choice during a scene.

Sure, we remember specific quotes and/or physical actions by the actors, but we can all hum a few bars from Jurassic Park, The Lord of The Rings movies, or The Social Network. And then there’s directors’ use of popular (or obscure) songs in their work. “Sister Christian” in this Boogie Nights scene, “I Got You Babe” in Groundhog Day, and “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” in Beetlejuice are all great examples of scenes that perfectly utilize a song.

These are all very different songs and films, but they do many of the same things to create a mood and tone. Here are some of those things and why they work. Keep these in mind when selecting music for your next project.


1. Match the Aural Tone to the Visual Tone

This is probably the most fundamental part to the addition of music. You pick a song or composition that reflects the intended tone of the visuals. A slow-moving Milky Way timelapse video doesn’t really work with death metal, nor does a slow atmospheric song work with a monster truck rally tilt-shift video.

It’s not just the melody or beat of the song that’s conveying the message, either. It can be the lyrics (if the song has lyrics). Sad lyrics with an upbeat melody still may not work with an upbeat video, because the lyrics are too contrasted. The same goes for slower songs with happy lyrics. Make sure the whole piece fits with what you want to get across.

Take Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” It’s an iconic song, and one that has been used in numerous movies, TV shows, and yes, memes. But since it’s a slower, more somber song with serious lyrics, it’s used to denote a sad turn, especially the opening riff. That said, it’s been used in comedies, dramas, and action movies, because it still gives that tonal shift with those opening notes.

Here’s a supercut of all the more notable examples I could find (starting with the original, The Graduate), where “The Sound of Silence” kicks in and we get serious — especially if the characters have made a huge mistake.


2. Do the Exact Opposite and Don’t Match on Purpose

On the flip side, filmmakers will use an “inappropriate” song or composition in order to convey chaos in a calm scene, or calmness in a chaotic scene. A lot of times this is used to comedic effect, like in the movie Dirty Work, when Chris Farley’s character wants a great fight song, but chooses… well, you’ll have to click and see.

An example of calmness in a chaotic situation would be from Finding Dory, for the ending where the truck leaps off the cliff and the entire movie slows down as “What a Wonderful World” starts playing. It gives us a sense of humanity (I know they’re fish) as all hell is breaking loose. (SPOILERS!)


3. Utilize Both Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Music

Diegetic music is music that is happening from a source within the world of the film. In the Groundhog Day clip linked above, the alarm clock is an example of diegetic music. It’s coming from a prop inside the film’s world. Non-diegetic music is music that’s added outside of the story space. This is basically any music bed or score that you add for the emotional tone or mood.

When we hear diegetic music, we don’t have the same reaction as non-diegetic music in many ways. We understand that it is affecting the characters in the story, (which can in turn affect us as viewers), but it doesn’t have as much oomph, because there is the reality barrier that we’re behind, experiencing the music from the outside. However, if the diegetic music turns into non-diegetic music, we instantly feel immersed in the story and will be affected directly by the music.

Take this scene from Tommy Boy (not sure why two Chris Farley movies are in my examples, but hey, I guess I’m showing my age). Watch the music go from diegetic on the radio in the car, to non-diegetic, and back again. You’ll notice the difference when it’s on the car; it’s a different feeling from when it switches to the outside world in the film (there’s a cut in there to cut out the brief intermission between singing).


4. Emphasize the Important Moments

Sports movies are notorious for the huge swelling songs that bring on a rush of emotions. When you bring on such an epic and swelling piece of music, it’s really hard not to have a huge effect on the viewer — so keep that in mind if you want it to be more subtle — but overall, you can utilize an epic score to really hone in on the emotion you want to convey. Watch the last at-bat for Roy Hobson (Robert Redford) in The Natural and try not to get goosebumps. (SPOILERS, technically. But come on, if you haven’t seen it already, just watch it.)

The music builds up, hitting viewers right in the heart and tugging on the strings until they’ve got chills and are cataloguing this moment as one of the greatest they’ve ever seen. Never be afraid to be epic — just make sure it fits. An epic score to a video about chopping veggies isn’t really going to do much.

To see just how important a score is, check out this video of E.T. The Extraterrestrial (SPOILERS again, but seriously, watch E.T.) without the epic ending score by John Williams.


5. Transplant Viewers to a Time and Location

If you only heard a movie playing in the other room and there was some Huey Lewis and The News or Michael Jackson music in the scene, you’d know this movie was most likely set in the 1980s. Similarly, if you heard a score that was mainly sitar music, you’d know you were probably watching something set in India.

Filmmakers can hone in on specific dates and time periods just by using certain music. Different generations can experience these styles differently, of course, but the bottom line is that they create a very detailed tapestry for when and where a narrative takes place, and can plant viewers right there to experience the same feelings from that time period — like, you know, the 1970s/80s disco era.

There are a few caveats to this rule, however. As with most “rules” of filmmaking, they can be broken. Anachronistic musical choices have been used by many filmmakers over the years. Sofia Coppola used modern post-punk music in Marie Antoinette; A Knight’s Tale features classic rock songs from Queen and AC/DC; Baz Luhrmann used all kinds of modern songs from artists like Nirvana and U2 in medleys and musical numbers for Moulin Rouge; and Quentin Tarantino used songs from Rick Ross and John Legend for Django Unchained.

It can be very jarring and very strange, but it can also blend seamlessly into the mood, characters, and plot to give a great juxtaposition of music and visuals. Tread lightly here, because many people hate this, but also because it’s tough to pull off if you don’t nail it.

6. Make the Music Fill the Void

Sometimes the music choices are intentionally meant to be minimal, as to not distract from the on-screen action. This is the case with a lot of documentary or interview-driven videos, where you want a simple music bed for ambience, but it can also be the case even in huge blockbuster films. Take this video essay by the folks at the supremely entertaining Every Frame a Painting YouTube channel. They dive deep into why we don’t remember any music from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There’s nothing wrong with having a simple, unremarkable track on your piece; just make sure you choose one that fits with the subject matter.

7. Drop the Music If You Have To

Leaving music or a score out of a certain part of your video or film can be just as impactful as music itself. As with everything, it’s all about the moment in which you choose to utilize the technique. Dramatic moments playing out in real time with natural sounds can be a powerful psychological tool to show the brutality and reality of a given situation. It can add tension and suspense if there’s no background sound and the audience is just waiting for something to happen. The majority of Cast Away has zero music, and it’s still compelling to watch.

If a scene is lacking something as you’re watching it, try throwing in a track and see if that helps, but don’t be afraid to leave it be for a more intense experience. (This scene from Django Unchained is very violent, so fair warning if you click).

Music can be one of the most vital additions to your project, or it can simply be background filler. It can enhance your story and become an iconic part of the video or film, or you can leave it out and keep its effects minimal and understated. The key is how you use it, and how well you can understand the effects and techniques that give you the best chance of nailing it the next time you’re thinking about adding music.

If you’re already thinking about what to use for your next project, explore the Pond5 music library now, where you’ll find hundreds of thousands of tracks (and sound effects!) that can help you create any emotion or experience you’re looking for.

Top image: Conductor Performing on Stage in Theater by caiapond5