Scoring Movies

Do you need music in your movie? I don’t know. Do you need salt and butter with your popcorn?  You can eat it plain. You won’t like that way but you can do it.

The same is true with music in movies. At its best, the intelligent use of a good soundtrack score enhances the emotional experience of the film. At its worst, it annoys the audience. But mostly it provides a companion to the visual experience.

For the indie filmmaker, the big question is being able to get music. When it comes to scoring a movie, there are many issues, both legal and monetary. So let me point out right now that I am neither a lawyer nor a composer. My musical experience is limited to a few years of piano and French horn and it was all so long ago that I have to think hard to remember the difference between D minor and F major. So everything I have to say on this subject has to be viewed as some very subjective and highly idiosyncratic opinions.

The first thing indie filmmakers must concern themselves with are the legal issues of using music in a movie. Ideally, they should consult with a lawyer who deals with copyright law (not somebody’s cousin who does whiplash cases). However, they tend to be expensive. But you can go online and learn about some of the issues involved, beginning with such sites as and Take your time exploring the legal issues. You will be glad you did.

The basic key is clearing the rights for both composer and performers (note to lawyers: yeah, this is an extremely simplified view; see the disclaimer above). This is especially a problematic issue for some very young and inexperienced filmmakers who might still think that they just need to download some tunes and slap them into the movie. No. It doesn’t work that way. Just because you bought the CD doesn’t mean you own the music. Same goes for movies on DVDs. I know a long list of people in academia who are hopelessly confused on this aspect of copyright law. So don’t bother listening to your professors. They are wrong.

To get a better understanding of this, you can go to might also want to check out the Film & TV Music Knowledgebase. I would also suggest checking a site like the Boyenne Law Firm Entertainment Law where you can get some free legal tips. This means spending a lot of time on Google, but it’s worth it.

An alternative is to use royalty-free or some other form of canned music. Personally, I’m not a fan of this approach simply because the material often sounds like Mantovani performing Yanni with the 101 Strings Orchestra. But, to each their own. I would suggest checking out the advice at DIY Filmmaking Sucks and You might also want to explore the possibilities at Creative, which provides material through an attribution share-alike license.

Or you might want to go another route, like finding someone who will do the music for you. Of course this means finding someone who is a composer. At the very least, a musician. OK, at the very least maybe they can whistle or something. If you are real lucky, you may have a buddy who knows what he is doing. If not, you might want to network through the nearest available music department at your nearest university. Music students, especially graduate students, are often looking for projects to use in their academic work. Composing the score for your movie could be a really major plus for them. It could be a big plus for you too, as long as you and the composer can work together. It helps (a lot) if the filmmaker and the composer have a shared sensibility about the aesthetic and emotional structure of the movie.

Of course, you could do it yourself. It’s not really advisable unless you have some sort of musical background and even then…well, don’t you think making the movie is already a handful?  A few people have done this, most notably cult director John Carpenter. His father had been the chairman of the Music Department at Western Kentucky University and Carpenter himself had been in a rock band. Most of his soundtracks tend to be highly rhythmic, pretty simplistic, but extremely driven and outrageously appropriate for such movies as Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween and Escape from New York.

Which also brings up the question of how you might wish to use music in your movie. There are two extreme positions: sparingly or wall-to-wall. In Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece Vivre sa Vie, the soundtrack was done by Michel Legrand. Actually, it was simply a short single track used in fragments as a punctuation to the movie’s 12 scenes as Godard presented his emotionally charged tale with extreme clinical detachment. At the other end of the spectrum, François Truffaut had composer Bernard Herrmann do a full symphonic wall-to-wall score for Fahrenheit 451. The music was to provide an emotional and psychological counter-point to Truffaut’s presentation of a world increasingly devoid of humanity. Since Herrmann was a genius, he successfully created an emotionally stunning soundtrack.

The importance of music to a movie is best demonstrated by the two versions of the opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are all familiar with the opening shot of the Earth and the sun set to the first stirrings of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. The effect is mythic and overwhelming. But there is also the other version of the opening credit as scored by Alex North, who was originally contracted to do the soundtrack. Nice music, but it sounds like the beginning of a Star Trek movie.

So you are going to want music for your film. As an indie filmmaker, you are working cheap. But you want it to be good, especially for the “feel” of your film. There are many approaches available and one of them just might work.

And by the way, my previous suggestion about having someone who can simply whistle was not really a joke. Heck, it worked for Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.