Consider banning music!
A good overall sound and effects mix can influence the mood of a scene every bit as much as simply using music. I can think of a number of examples of films where music has been excluded to allow the general sound to take centre stage simply because it tells the story better than music would have done.
The car chase in Bullitt is a very good example of this. Tense music plays while the build up is taking place, but once the seat belts go on the music cuts out and we are left with the equally musical sound of V8 engines and burning rubber.
The opening to Equilibrium is another example, where pure darkness is shown on screen while the surround sound does the job of painting the picture of what is happening.
Films like Saving Private Ryan are a masterclass in detailed soundscape creation and it is absolutely intrinsic to involving the audience in what is happening on screen and making them feel a sense of danger.
How can all of this help people who are not making multi-million Dollar Hollywood blockbusters? One way it can help us is by influencing a change of mindset. Usually video makers will use music as the primary “go to” option to drive the mood of a piece. Instead we should be asking ourselves what type of sound would best serve what we are seeing.
Sometimes that answer will be to use music, but often general and creative sound will suit the purpose better. The idea is to get the music to compliment the general and creative soundscape and vice versa. Both should compliment what is happening on screen. In other words the sound should be just as motivated as the picture. We want to aim to create a synergy between all the components rather than have them fighting against each other.
Doing this takes skill as well as preplanning. You need to be thinking about such things early in the production. A common complaint amongst sound designers on films is that there is no communication with the musical composer resulting in a conflicting mix where the general sound is competing with the music.
Such problems can be eliminated if the use of sound is thought about early in the production cycle and can really help to boost the overall production value of your video or film.