Whether it’s background, foreground, diegetic, or non-diegetic, when you’re making a film or video, music is extremely important, and finding the right music is even more important. Of course, there are times when you know the audio track you want to use before you even get started, but many times, the music creation and/or searching comes after production has ended.
Most editors I know will scroll through or listen to dozens, or even hundreds, of potential tracks (literally for hours) until they find the right one for the video’s mood and tone. So, let’s talk about some of the things to do when you’re looking for music, to help you find the best track for your project as efficiently as possible.
Determine Your Tone and Mood
You can create a mood with your soundtrack, but the opposite is also true. The mood and tone of your piece can determine what kind of music you should use in your video. A comedy sketch doesn’t really work with a tense, dramatic piece, nor does a dark thriller work with a silly slapstick piece of music.
And while your subject matter may affect the tone, don’t forget that the camera, your lens choice and focal length, the composition, and the dialogue choices all affect the tone and mood as well, and the music should reflect that. Shaky camera angles with high shutter speed equal high energy in most cases, for example. Try imagining this scene with some soft jazz and see how it wouldn’t make sense:
If you’re not sure of your tone or mood, plug in something familiar to you or use a scratch track and see how it feels (more on this later).
Research Similar Projects
You don’t always have/need to do this, but you can use your favorite movies, television shows, or whatever soundtrack inspires you as a starting point if you’re still wondering what type of music to use. If you love a certain song or artist, go through their library and see if something matches what you’re looking for.
*Tip: Remember that unless you’re planning on licensing a copyrighted song from an artist/musician, you may have legal trouble when you upload any copyrighted material online, especially if you’re trying to monetize your video (more on this later, as well).
Use a Scratch Track
These temporary tracks or similar-sounding pieces of music can be plugged in to a project to give you a sense of how it sounds in your video. Regardless of when you do this step, you should have your first-choice track plus a few alternates ready, just in case you don’t like the way your first choice integrates. Also, even though it’s a temporary track, it should still be one you’re mostly happy with, so try not to settle.
Once you’ve gotten to the point where you’re ready to start searching, you have a few options: licensing royalty-free music, licensing a copyrighted piece of music, paying a composer to make the music, or recording/composing something yourself.
Licensing a copyrighted song
This is typically (much) more expensive than the other options and there are many things that affect usage and cost, such as how long it will run, in what medium you’re using it, and your own budget. However, on the plus side, you can get exactly the song you want, and, truthfully, there’s a good chance people will like your work more with a well-known track. Wayne’s World‘s iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene took Queen back to No. 1 on the charts years after the song’s original release, and introduced a whole new generation to the amazingness of the band. It also made that scene go down in history as one of the most memorable music moments on film.
Paying a composer
This can also be expensive, especially if you’re making an entire feature-length film. Even the trailer music is expensive for big productions. I once met the guy who wrote the trailer music for Looper and he said he made $60,000 for that song(!). This is an extreme example, of course, so don’t let that scare you. On the flip side, I paid $500 for an original sound-alike song that was around 3:30 long with a two-week turnaround and a few extra edits.
The point is that you can definitely find producers/artists for an original track or soundtrack for any budget by using a site like hitrecord or scoreascore, or you can use production-related sites like Mandy.com, ProductionHub, or even craigslist to find someone. If you have any musician friends, see if they want to expand their catalog and write you some music.
Just make sure to be very clear on your budget and what you’re looking for in tone, melody, and so on, so that the artist has as much information as possible and neither of you waste any time.
Recording/composing something yourself
You could also join Robert Rodriguez, Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood, Trey Parker, John Carpenter, and many other filmmakers by doing the music yourself. If you play an instrument, you can lay down your original music track(s), master them, then put them in your piece. If you don’t play an instrument, there are so many tools out there these days that it may not even matter as long as you take the time learn some software.
Free software like GarageBand or Audacity is great for starting out, but there are certainly more professional tools, like Pro Tools, Logic, Reason, Acid, Fruity Loops, and more. Most of these have free trials you can demo, but the full versions cost anywhere from one hundred to several hundred dollars, so keep your budget in mind when you’re looking to get your soundtrack going.
There are also apps for your smartphone or iPad that allow you to create songs. Gorillaz even made an album on an iPad, even. Just be sure to do some research on what apps will work best for your needs.
Buying a royalty-free music track
There are lots and lots of great music options available right here in the Pond5 music collection, but there are many overarching principles that work for searching almost any library.
● Most musicians title, categorize, and keyword their songs with the mood, the instrument(s), the genre, and the speed/tempo in mind. You should make your searches in the same way. Instead of searching with more broad terms like “rock song” or “upbeat guitar,” type in “happy upbeat southern rock guitar” to get better results.
● If your video is going to be edited to the rhythm/beat of the music, you should be searching for tracks that have strong, definitive beats, cymbal crashes, or notes that make it easy for you to cut to. Put the softer, quieter portions of your video over the softer, quieter sections of your song, and do the same for louder sections. If you don’t have ups and downs in your project, you may not necessarily need a song with breaks or breakdowns or anything, so keep the song structure in mind. Loops are also widely available that can just be put end-to-end without much extra editing, but can get boring if they’re too repetitive.
● Chances are your video isn’t the exact same length as the piece of music you’ve chosen and you’ll need to duplicate a chorus or remove a bridge here or there to make it fit. This is normal, but the key is to keep this in mind when choosing the music. A song may change its melody or time signature a lot, or it may not have any repeating sections, so it may sound off if you edit two sections together that aren’t a normal structure or chord progression.
*Tip: A basic trick is isolating the track on the timeline and tapping your finger or foot to the beat with your eyes closed to make sure the edit blends together as seamlessly as possible. Then listen back to the entire video’s audio with the track and see if it’s noticeable.
There is one more option, which is to search for some free public-domain songs for use in your project. The advantages are that they’re free, they can be very well-known songs, and they’re easy to obtain. However, because of these same reasons, they can be overused, and their actual recorded quality can be suspect. You also don’t get any variations of the music either, so what you see is what you get.
Whichever route you choose, make sure you do the best you can, because in the end, sound is at least half of the audience’s viewing experience. Good luck in your music search!
Do you have any other tips for finding great music? Tell us below!