From 30-second adverts to TV documentaries, drama and light entertainment to feature film: pairing music to visuals is a delicate balance.
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With the right orchestration (the instruments) and instrumentation (the arrangement), music doesn’t just accompany the visuals but enriches them, determining tone, period and location. Ultimately music provokes audience reaction. It drives on-screen action, guides scene changes, provides continuity, adds to dramatic and emotional impact and helps with characterisation.
The effect must be immediate. To quote one composer on the recent BBC War & Peace adaptation, music is 'shorthand' in a limited timeframe, condensing the storytelling process. All audio contributes to mood or scene, whether that's diegetic music (when characters or presenters hear sounds or even sing themselves) or music cues – also referred to as background or underscore – and usually added after filming.
To help you successfully match the music to the mood of your scene, here's a quick guide to some of the key factors and techniques to consider.
Orchestration and instrumentation
Music is an incredibly effective way of conveying a sense of atmosphere, time and place. Our brains are hard-wired to pick up instrumental ‘colour’ and associate these cues with period, location and mood. For example, you might associate the harpsichord with the Renaissance era, or the Chinese flute with the East, or the bagpipes with Scotland. Similarly, discordant tones create tension, slow, sweeping strings evoke romance, sneaky marimba and pizzicato strings indicate ’dramedy’, and so on.
This is a crucial element in conveying mood: an editor might match the BPM count of a particular track to dynamic animation or dance, use fast handclaps to communicate movement or employ rhythmic percussion to mirror horses’ hooves.
This profoundly impacts the tone of a scene. Just imagine how the mood would change had the Star Wars theme been played in a major key! A lot less evil-sounding, it turns out. Hear for yourself:
Lyrics v instrumental
When filmmakers use music with vocal content, generic lyrics are often favoured, as are those specifically suited to events and overtly sign-posting action (eg using Pharrell’s Happy to reinforce a character’s joy). Instrumental score is more common, as it’s easier for editors to weave music around dialogue without it clashing or distracting from the action.
Familiarity and repetition
The right score can take on a life beyond its basic function. Think of the unique BRAAAM! sound Hans Zimmer and Zack Hemsey employed in Inception (first heard at 0.07 in the video above then repeated throughout both the film and trailer). It’s a much sought-after motif’for dramatic effect, often synchronised since - including in The Avengers, Prometheus and World War Z. There are thousands of examples of musical repetition used effectively in TV and film, but here are just a few:
The theme from Brief Encounter (Rachmaninov)
Laura Palmer’s Theme in Twin Peaks (Angelo Badalamenti)
Red Right Hand in the BBC's Peaky Blinders (Nick Cave/Arctic Monkeys/PJ Harvey)
SOS in High-Rise (interpretations of the ABBA original by Portishead/Clint Mansell)
Mismatches and incongruities
Increasingly, productions are using known covers or ‘inappropriate’ songs to jolt or surprise audiences, and others are achieving the same effect with unexpected silences. For example, the Coen Brothers, with frequent musical collaborators T-Bone Burnett and Carter Burwell, used Frank Patterson's Danny Boy for a shootout scene in their 1990 film Miller's Crossing. Later, the TV series Fargo – Coen Brothers executive produced – incorporated Lisa Hannigan's version of the same song, to great effect.
Music is invariably the final piece of the jigsaw in visual projects, but the key to successfully matching the music to the scene is a combination of remaining objective and trusting your musical instinct. Good luck!
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