do the experts do it?
Many of the high end filmmakers understand just how important good music
is when it comes to adding expression & symbolism to their documentaries.
Liberal commentator Michael Moore has produced 4 of the highest grossing
documentaries of all time and his style has become a benchmark of modern
filmmaking. Music choices often include popular songs alongside effectively
chosen extracts from movie scores.
Often the music will be used to bring new energy to the programme, shifting
gear from a whimsical piano aria to pounding Thrash Metal. Or a 1930’s
Music Hall ditty to a Danny Elfman-style fairytale theme. Each of these
styles & genres has something new to add enhancing the narrative in
a number of different ways.
The BBC is World renowned for its documentaries covering a vast range
of subjects from science, politics and nature to sport, travel and the
arts. Their series such as ‘Imagine’, ‘Horizon’
and ‘Blue Planet’ often employ bespoke composers who produce
sync music in a variety of moods that perfectly integrates with the visual
presentation. Huge orchestration may be used for wide dynamic establishing
shots and intimate arrangements for thoughtful pensive moments. The BBC
can guarantee large returns from foreign placement and can afford to budget
accordingly to secure some of the top composers who may be under contract
to produce whole series of documentaries. Or who in some cases will demand
large fees for original composition.
On the big screen, other successful documentaries including ‘Jesus
Camp’, ‘Grizzly Man’, ‘Enron: the smartest guys
in the room’ and Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Supersize Me’,
all utilise a menagerie of music genres to create a rich tapestry of sound
that drives the narrative and helps lead to a deeper understanding of
the subject matter.
However, these music beds are covered by copyright or are very expensive
to produce. So where does this leave the amateur or semi-pro filmmaker
who makes documentary style programming with little or no budget for the
music? Well, there are a number of alternative solutions available to
published works and bespoke composers that will get great results, but
not end up costing the Earth.
Let the music tell the story
First of all, let’s be clear about the role of music in documentary
Essentially its primary role is storytelling. Driving the narrative along
through a variety of moods. Scene setting. Building bridges between interviews,
stock footage or animated sequences. In fact, for the majority of the
programme, the music is playing a secondary role to the voice over. Only
taking centre stage for brief moments before the voice returns to the
Therefore it’s important that your music creates the required mood
within around 4 to 8 bars (perhaps 8 to 10 seconds) as the scene is set
and the narrative prepares for the change of pace. This is not necessarily
the first 4 bars of the composition. You may choose to use a section from
another part of the tune when the instrumentation has built in pitch or
reached a crescendo. Therefore it’s always good to listen through
a track you think may be suitable to make sure you are utilising it to
its full potential.
Make sure it has room to breathe
Of course, because it will often be playing under the voice it is good
to choose music that suits this role. Certain instruments include frequencies
that clash with the human voice whereas others enhance it. A lead instrument
often jars with speech whereas rhythmic passages with no lead instrumentation
will flow along with it. Make sure when the music is added there is still
plenty of space in the sonic spectrum for the voice frequencies and any
other sound design you may be incorporating.
Set the scene
Scene setting is a hugely important task for music. An arid desert looks
10 times as hot and dry if it is accompanied by a sinuous slide guitar
or a remote wailing Harmonica. Night time City Streets may benefit from
the hustling shuffle of an Urban bass loop. Whereas sporting action will
look rougher & tougher with the addition of distorted guitars &
driving, thrashing drumbeats.
Then of course, these ideas are just acceptable triggers and shortcuts
and sometimes, the complete opposite may be more appropriate for what
you need to convey...
Play around with the rules
…In fact, creating a paradox with the music can be an extremely
An argument between a car owner and traffic warden is accompanied by
cartoon-like orchestration, immediately removing any threat. A teenager
tidying his unkempt room could be recorded in fast motion and accompanied
with Ragtime music. A politician who has lost his way whilst attempting
to justify an unfair policy becomes ludicrous if he’s fumbling &
stumbling over a backing track of a forlorn tuba or trombone.
These humorous juxtapositions rely on a shared knowledge of musical triggers
between the filmmaker and his audience and can add exciting contradictions
to a variety of scenes.
Choose from a variety of styles
What styles & genres to use relies heavily on subject matter. Travel
shows may cherry pick their soundtracks from the indigenous music of the
country in question. Established art may use classical music and modern
art may have a more experimental approach.
Science & technology programmes often rely on futuristic synthesised
Then, of course there are examples of when directors have chosen to bend
these guidelines in search of new and evocative ways of filmmaking. In
the documentary ‘Web 3.0’ whose subject matter is firmly set
in the science & technology genre, we hear an accompaniment of Eastern
European folk music complete with accordions and violins. Somehow it fits
perfectly with imagery of state of the art internet environments &
row after row of giant air-cooled servers. Just by the very nature of
being its polar opposite.
The documentary ‘Bush Family Fortunes’ also utilises a variety
of styles and genres. From the opening scene’s ‘Dallas’
theme music, to Hip Hop, laid back jazz, Soul, Gospel & Blues. Not
styles that you would associate with former president George Bush, but
each enhancing the narrative. Each playing a particular role & bringing
the truth of the storytelling to the forefront.
let Restrictions limit your imagination
Using published music and recognised songs is not a feasible option for
amateur & semi-pro film making, as this can prove to be hideously
expensive and extremely time consuming to administer. It’s a subject
that has been addressed before in these other articles ‘Cue the
Music’ and ‘Choosing Music for a Short Film’. Although
collection agencies, publishers and artists are beginning to sort out
the issues involved, it is still best to steer clear of published music.
So what can we use in place of recognisable songs? How can we tap in
to the collective consciousness of our audience without playing them Lady
Gaga, Led Zeppelin or Coldplay?
Find Alternatives to published works
Thankfully these days there are plenty of alternatives to using copyrighted
Many buyout music sites offer royalty free alternatives and sound-alikes
that offer a similar evocative feel to famous well known songs and instrumentation.
But sometimes the choice can be over whelming. To help decide on what
to use, in the privacy of your studio, you could try using a temporary
track by a well known artist. Check whether it works well with the visuals
and then remove it. Next, use some advanced search terms on a buyout music
site to find something royalty free that has a similar feel & groove.
As an example, let’s say your temp track is a feelgood uptempo
Motown song which has been used to illustrate action footage of a volleyball
event at a beach resort. In this case, using an advance search engine
you could enter searches such as ‘feelgood / happy / joyful / positive
/ R’n’B / Pop’ and prominent instruments like ‘vocals/songs
At Shockwave-Sound.Com, these focused search terms may lead you to a
long list of tracks including the likes of Dan
Gautreau’s ‘Shake it’. This track would be a perfect
feelgood, uptempo alternative to your Motown original. So with these intelligent
advanced search options it’s now becoming ever easier to find viable
alternative music that will perfectly convey the essence of your original
Finishing your project
Current trends show that the marriage of music and visuals has never
been more exciting. The excellent ‘Exit through the Gift Shop’
documentary by recluse graffiti artist, Banksy utilises a hugely diverse
number of tracks from underground dubstep & new wave punk to Latin
jazz & French café music. All providing their own unique qualities
without interfering with the storytelling process. Other documentaries
with interesting innovative soundtracks include ‘Capturing the Friedmans’,
‘Man on Wire’ and ‘Spellbound’.
All these examples show that choosing the right music and soundbeds for
your documentary project can be extremely satisfying and an enjoyable
part of the film making process.
I hope in some way that this article inspires your choices, fires your
imagination and offers one or two tips and a little guidance towards making
the job a little easier in the future. Finger’s crossed that you’re
musical choices will help put you on the way to producing a smash hit,
award winning documentary in years to come!
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Simon Power has produced over 50 short documentaries on the subjects
of technology & music.
He composes music for film, TV and web media as Elliot