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Things to Remember When Picking Music for A Documentary Film

Johnathan Paul

Choosing the right music for a documentary film is crucial to its success. Let’s run through some tips on making the right musical choice.

Top image via LucasFilm LTD

Music is a big part of the filmmaking process. Just think back to successful films of the past, and then take a look at their soundtracks. Many times these soundtracks are almost as popular as the film itself. Films like the The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, or Guardians of the Galaxy knew exactly how to use their soundtrack no matter if it was a composed piece of music specifically for the film, or if they were using compositions by other artists.

The key for success in each one of these films is how the director and composer knew exactly when and where to utilize music. This same logic should be applied to documentary film production as well. Music for a documentary can be one of the most powerful emotional tools at a directors disposal. Just like music can guide the emotion queues of the audience in a fictional film, so too can it guide the emotions of a non-fiction documentary audience. The key is how to pick the right music for your narrative. Let’s take at things we need to keep in mind to do just that.

First Determine the Mood or Tone

When selecting music for your documentary film, or when having your composer create a new composition, you must be aware of mood and tone. For an example let’s look below at a scene from the action sports documentary Into the Mind.

Here is a great example of understanding the mood and tone of your film. It begins with a tranquil score to coincide with the sprawling landscape imagery. Then as the mood changed to one of exhilaration, the music makes that change as well. Just remember your music doesn’t always need to be epic, but rather is needs to supplement and aid the mood and tone of your film film.

Video Courtesy of Sherpas Cinema.

Use Music to Enhance Emotion

Studies by Stanford and Oxford University amongst many others have linked human emotion to music. Because of this it is crucial for a filmmaker to utilize music in order to help carry the emotional tone that they may not get from the visuals alone. With documentary films music can carry a lot of emotional weight with it. Because of this a documentary filmmaker should use music as a tool to either amplify the emotions coming from the visuals, or use them to subdue the emotions.

No documentary filmmaker has used music like that of the legendary filmmaker Ron Fricke. In the video below you will see the introduction to his 2011 documentary film Samsarawhich relies only on visuals, location audio, and music. The result is an emotional opening, one that continues throughout the film through the sequences like the man behind the desk, food, military, and Mecca.

Video Courtesy of Holden Boyles.

Don’t Be Afraid of Silence

Take a page from legendary director Martin Scorsese and use silence to your advantage. Silence can has just as much of an effect on your audience as an amazing musical composition. The key to using silence in your film is knowing when and where to introduce it. Just like any other part of the musical composition process, using silence is an art.

To help you better understand that art, and the usage of silence we’ll look Tony Zhou‘s video The Art of Silence. While in the video below you will see it draw on examples from narrative film, understand that the same concepts apply for documentary as well. Because in the end all filmmaking is visual storytelling.

Video Courtesy of Tony Zhou.

Music Can Drive Pace

Another aspect of your film that you need to be mindful of when thinking of music is the tempo, pacing or rhythm of your film. The way in which the film is edited can have a great effect with how the music is perceived. If you utilize music that blends well with the pace of the film, then you’ll be able to garner a much deeper emotional response. For an example of this lets look at the Oscar nominated documentary film Cartel Land. In the scene below we’ll watch as the music builds in tension as the Mexican Police conduct raids on the cartels, this in-turn highlights the dangers and violence of the situation.

Video Courtesy of Movieclips Film Festivals & Indie Films.

Custom Music and Royalty Free Music

Image via Shutterstock

The best thing to finding a composer for your film is to use royalty free music for your documentary project. Here on PremiumBeat you can search for specific styles of music and find a long list of available options.

The key is to understand that music is vital for your documentary film and not impossible to find. Just keep the tips above in mind as you search for music for your next film.

Have any tips for using music in documentary film? Share your tips in the comments below.