Writing Music and Songs for Film and Television
Firstly, let’s get some sync to moving picture terminology out of the way. See also part one before you go through with this article. There are some grey areas where they will crossover, but for a general guide:
A ‘Cue’, ‘Sync’, ‘Placement’ or ‘Spot’ are pretty much the same thing. A piece of music or a song used alongside some kind of visual image.
A ‘Trailer’ is a short film, to promote a feature film, TV show or episode.
A ‘Theme’ (fairly obviously) is the main musical theme to a film or television show. This could be at the beginning, middle, end, or all three. Sometimes variations on the theme will crop up at various intervals also.
A ‘Place–Holder’ is what film or TV shows in the edit stage is using as a temporary ‘sync’. This is usually because there’s some kind of problem with using the ‘Place-Holder’, such as copyright clearance.
‘Under–Score’ or ‘Score’ refers to where the music is there to enhance and create the desired emotion. The music itself isn’t actually part of the scene (for example, a battle scene with a big orchestral crescendo). An entire film score can be over an hour of music.
A ‘Music Bed’ is similar to Under-Score, but is usually much less intrusive. For example, simple beats or loops used behind a News Bulletin. It is there to kind of ‘fill the gaps’.
A ‘Montage’ is usually a series of film clips or scenes, which demonstrate the development of a story over time. Or to re-cap or reflect on the whole of a TV episode towards the end. It’s a very popular and powerful film-maker’s tool which almost always requires that perfect sync. It’s often used in sports shows to sum-up the story of the season, or in a ‘still-to-come’ segment.
‘Source Music’ is music used in a scene where the music is actually part of the scene. This could be, for example, music in a club or bar scene, where the music is actually supposed to be playing through the club sound system or a jukebox, or coming from a radio in a café or car stereo. Sometimes the action actually interacts with the source music (see John Candy’s scene in ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ for a classic placement of Ray Charles ‘Mess Around’).
What Music Works for Sync to Moving Picture and Why?
Music, Film and Television is Art. The use of music and songs in Film and Television is part of that artistic process. It can absolutely make a scene come alive, and it usually does in the right hands, but it can also destroy a scene. The reason why a particular piece works and another might not may be because of many factors, and sometimes there’s just no explanation.
Turn down the sound on your TV or computer and do some channel surfing while you play your music alongside the muted pictures. This is a great way to instantly see your music being placed! If you play an instrument, try to capture the mood of a scene on the fly. Even play along with the existing sound if you want to interact with the dialog etc. Another great experiment, if you have the necessary technology, is to make your own montage of simple clips from your phone, and write a piece of music to sync to it in your DAW (some DAWs allow you to import a movie which will run along with your timeline).
Put simply, a great sync is where the music perfectly maximises the desired emotional impact of the scene. This might be suspense, sadness, happiness, aggression, or whatever. If the lead character in a film is holding his or her newborn baby for the first time, Marilyn Manson probably won’t work. You get my meaning…
A placement can also set the time of a scene. A brilliant example of this is the Robert Zemeckis film ‘Forrest Gump’. The song placements are classic rock and pop, which each instantly identify the point in time of the storyline, since the songs are so well known and also resonate with the audience, many of whom would have lived through those points in history.
Film, TV and Trailers use a completely mixed bag of syncs these days. Music supervisors are constantly on the look-out for the ‘next big thing’ or a really ‘cool’ band or act that they can use, and are therefore part of the artist’s career-launch or discovery (this is not in a self-serving way, but simply for the love of new music and the ‘cool factor’ of being part of its discovery).
Trailers have become a major part of TV also. Sky Atlantic is a great example, where they will advertise a new series with a trailer as bombastic or with similar production values as a major Hollywood film trailer. Both music and songs can work for trailers, depending on the film or TV show. Sports show trailers often like to go with high adrenaline rock or ‘hybrid’ orchestral rock pieces with lots of impact, for example. Some film trailers will save the big orchestra for the final part, using maybe a couple of songs for introduction. There are no rules about what music should be used, since this is art after-all, but some obvious guidelines apply.
General Guidelines for Writing Instrumentals for Sync to Moving Picture
TV ‘cues’ usually refer to instrumentals. Here’s some tips.
Stick to one single emotion. If the scene requires a sudden change of emotion in the music, the Film-maker will use two different pieces of music usually. The chances that you will perfectly hit the required emotional change they need with your music, is extremely remote.
Gradually build on your single ‘theme’ to add or take away elements within the music.
It’s generally a good idea to stay away from a soloing instrument, such as a guitar. You might have some tasty lead guitar chops, but if you’re soloing, then your music is demanding too much attention from the viewer. Film-makers will see this as a distraction from the dialogue. Keep your licks to more rhythmic stuff – the viewers won’t care if you can shred.
Make it authentic sounding. Industry professionals will always spot a poorly executed, out of time, out of tune, or ‘midi’ sounding piece of music. They simply will never use it. Orchestral samples need to be convincing in terms of sound and arrangement, as do all other instruments. If you can play real instruments well and record them well, that is the best option. Sometimes, simply overdubbing a string section with a few live violins can help. Always use references to A/B compare your music to. If you’re putting together a bluesy rock piece, do an A/B test with Stevie Ray Vaughan, for example, for tone and mix.
Give the Film-maker easy ‘edit points’. This is where the music stops, starts, changes, etc. Don’t fade in, or fade out, or have enormous reverb tails hanging over to the next section of music. If your music is 2 minutes long, but they need 25 seconds, give them plenty of places in the music where they can chop away until they have what they need. Most competent editors will be able to edit your music without a problem as long as everything is nice and tight.
Make sure it is ‘Broadcast Quality’. This doesn’t just mean that you’ve compressed the life out of your music, and brick-wall limited it! It means the overall quality of the performance, recording and mix needs to be of a high standard. If your acoustic guitar is, for example, very badly played, recorded or mixed, so it sounds very nasal or harsh, this will be a major problem. Again, use A/B comparisons with similar music to find where you might be going wrong. If your music is supposed to sound ‘lo-fi’ and grungy or ‘swampy slide guitar’ style, there is still a limit to what can be deemed as ‘broadcast quality’.
Try to find what your ‘niche’ is (you may have a few or just one). For instance, I’d say that my best genres are Rock/Pop, Acoustic/Celtic Folk and Orchestral. That’s not to say that I can’t do EDM, Reggae, Soul, or Metal, but I know that I’m wasting my time trying to compete with others who are far better than I am at these genres. Play to your strengths. You may even surprise yourself and realise that you’ve been in the wrong genre all this time!
Some General Guidelines for Writing Songs for Sync to Moving Picture
Many of the previous tips regarding instrumentals also apply here, obviously, but here’s some songwriting tips for sync. We’ll presume that your song has actual lyrics, and not just the odd ‘hey’, for example.
You might be thinking:
‘Who cares what the lyrics are about? If my song is just playing in the background of a bar scene, does it matter?’
You may be right about the fact that by the time your song is placed in the film quietly in the background, and some of the characters are talking over it, no-one will hear the lyrics properly. BUT, getting the song placed in the first place means your song has to COMPETE. It has to be the best option for the person choosing the music. Lyrics will count. If the main difference between yours and someone else’s song is that their lyrics are better, but apart from that, they both work perfectly for the scene, yours will lose the contest.
So what makes lyrics ‘better’? In most other ways that your songs are performed apart from sync, there is often no answer. Lyrics can be very personal to the writer. Sometimes completely non-sense lyrics make great songs. In the sync world, though, there are some things to bear in mind.
Your lyrics should be ‘Universal’. This basically means that they are non-specific, but people can still relate. For example, if you mention a person’s name, a place, a time, a brand, you’ve immediately made the song specific and non-universal. If your song is about growing up in the 1940s Alabama, it won’t work for a film about Scottish Steelworkers and their families. A song about hard work and loving, supportive relationships could work brilliantly, however. In fact, that same song could work for a film about working in the field in 1940s Alabama, just the same, making it ‘Universal’.
‘Show, Don’t Tell’. This should be every songwriter’s mantra. Use imagery to paint a picture. Don’t just say ‘I’m upset’ or ‘I’m in love’. Describe how it feels in a way that shows the listener how it REALLY feels, instead of just telling them. Most people know what love feels like, so try to explain it in a new way, if that’s what your song is about.
Avoid profanity (swearing). There will be times when films require a song with X-Rated lyrics. These are the ‘pool party’ type scenes, with crude hip-hop source music, where the vibe of the scene is definitely on the rude/crude side. This is pretty rare, though, and it is such a specific requirement that the music supervisor will already have an existing song in mind. Generally, profanity in your lyrics will be an instant rejection for most uses. It just isn’t worth the extra work to get a ‘clean’ edit or any other special allowances made.
‘Don’t Bore Us – Get To The Chorus !!’. This is good advice for general songwriting these days, especially for Pop, but it’s very important for sync. There’s no need for 8 bar intros, double verses, long pre-choruses, etc. The traditional song structure doesn’t apply. Get to the ‘hooks’ that grab the music supervisor quickly. Your song will be auditioned against the visuals, or they will already have a very clear idea of the emotion needed, and your song will need to make an impact quickly. If it doesn’t grab the music supervisor or film maker within 15 seconds, it will be either immediately rejected or, at best, fast-forwarded for another quick listen to a more ‘interesting’ looking dynamic part (by viewing the song’s waveform in ‘Soundcloud’, for example). Your song has to IMMEDIATELY draw-in the listener and demand that they hear it.
Watch as much TV and Film as you can handle, but concentrate on the kind of music being used, and try to work out why. This is the best way to get educated. Sometimes it’s obvious why certain music or songs were used, and sometimes not. Personally, I’m irritated the obvious syncs used in, for example, house renovation type TV shows, but this is the ‘not-so-artistic’ end of the scale, where a TV show is edited in a day and the production company has a blanket license to use music. There are, however, countless inspired music choices in the world of film and TV, and in some cases some serious effort has gone into not only choosing the syncs, but also obtaining clearance and negotiating fees.
Watch, but more importantly, Listen (and learn), folks!
Gary White is an Independent Music Producer, Composer and Songwriter 1994-present. He plays guitar, bass, keys, drums, whistle, banjo.
For the ‘Techies’, I use Protools, Studio One 3, Logic Pro X, and Cubase 8 – depending on the client’s preferences, Studio One 3 being my ‘go-to’ DAW.