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Score! How to Use Background Music in Your Videos

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A score is music used in a film, and is a very powerful filmmaking tool. Music is a strong cue to your viewer: with music you can stir an emotion, enhance a mood, heighten action, or ratchet up the suspense. There is no right or wrong way to use music, but there is a time and a place for when you use it, and not all music is created equal. In this tutorial you'll learn how to choose and use background music in your videos.

Types of Background Music

There are several different purposes for a score. Depending on your film you might select to use one type but not another. You might even choose in the end not to use a score at all!

Keep in mind that, depending on your video, not using music can be as just as powerful as a using it. The trick with music is to use it judiciously: have a plan and pick your moments. Don't let the process of creating a score overwhelm the scene and put your video out of balance. Ideally, your score will feel natural to the viewer, subtly enhancing their experience without being cloying, annoying, or even really noticed at all.

Emotion Evoking

Doesn’t matter what you’re feeling; there is a musical score for it. If you’re angry you can use music to emphasize anger. If you’re happy, perhaps something light and wonderful. Or maybe both: upbeat music in an otherwise angry scene can create an upsetting cognitive dissonance in the viewer, and maybe that's just what you want. There are endless subtleties to emotion-evoking music.

The purpose of emotion-evoking is to create a subconscious reaction in the viewer. Music adds a layer of complexity to what is happening on screen, pointing to subtext, interior motivations, or feelings. Emotion-evoking music creates a space for the viewer to empathize with your characters more deeply.

Scene Setting

The setting of your video is a specific place and you'd like to establish a sense of that place for the viewer. While your establishing shot can create a sense of physical space, the music establishes a particular cultural or social space.

Perhaps you have a long-shot of a busy city like New York or Toronto. A mellow jazz tune would create a certain vibe, a punk song another, and a techno beat another completely different one altogether. The situation might be the same, but music changes the context substantially.

Whether the music is dramatic or relaxed is also a cue. The tempo, volume, and quality of the music can hint to the viewer what is about to happen next.

Filler and Bridge

Sometimes you get to editing your project and the footage hasn't exactly turned out as successfully as you'd hoped. Not ideal, but the reality of working with media made out in the word is that things do not always go according to plan. Music can help you solve these problems.

Filler music can be a bit random. It’s not specific and doesn’t necessarily have to add anything to a scene or evoke any type of emotion, but it does let you do some creative editing and fill in gaps.

For example, you might have planned on some key action happening but instead what you got was unfortunately a little boring and not very visual but still important to the story. Maybe you have some B-roll. Instead of leaving the video to play quiet you can add some music to give a better flow to the film. This kind of editing shows up pretty frequently in reality television programs.

Musical Montage

Who can forget a good musical montage?! These are one of my favourite things to watch in movies.The montage shows a visual story on screen, usually one that compresses a series of actions or events, while the music plays.

Be careful what music you choose and for what kind of montage. Let’s say there is a person going through a dramatic makeover, you might want to do something fun. But maybe there’s a sad series of events that happen, you would want to use something more low-key in that instance.

1. Brainstorm

Using music in your video isn't so hard! If you're having fun putting the music together, that's a good sign.

Just like brainstorming for creating a film, it’s important to brainstorm types of music you might want to use for your scene. Go through your scenes and write down the emotions that come to mind as you think about each one. You’ll have a better idea what kind of music you want to use and what to use it for.

2. Choose a Song

Once you’ve brainstormed, you’ll have an idea what type of song to use, so pick the song you want! But remember: there are laws on copyright.

You can probably get away with using small bits of music scraped off the internet, but I don't recommend using music you don't have permission for. For one, it puts your project at risk if you're caught out. Second, it's breaking copyright (yes, even small segments of music) and you could be sued for royalties. That's not a headache you want, at all.

Finding just the right music from the infinite pool of songs online is possible, but it's also very time consuming. Working from a music library is generally a better bet because, depending on your source, each track is higher quality. Stock audio services sometimes have versions and variations on a song: different instrumentation, with singing or without, smooth tails (ending bits of a song), or alternate takes. All of these things come in handy when you're building a score.

Critical listening and matching audio to video are skills you can practice, but there's also a measure of synchronicity to choosing music that can't be easily described. Often the track you end up using is not the one you first imagined, but you use it because it just works. Above all, though, trust your instincts.

Suggested Sources

YouTube has a whole database of Creative Commons music that you can use, and they recently added 1,000 more tracks to their audio library. Some tracks are great, some are so-so. Each track has specific requirements, from noting the creator in the video's description to limitations on commercial use, so read the usage notes closely.

There are other good sources of free-to-use music, too: https://musopen.org/ and http://dig.ccmixter.org/ are two that we've used in the past here at Tuts+. Like YouTube, quality varies.

The track we used in this tutorial is from our Envato sister site, Audiojungle, a royalty-free audio library. AudioJungle is a pay resource. Like most things in life, you get what you pay for: AudioJungle's new Music Kits provide all the goodies I mentioned above, like variations in instrumentation, choices of intros, bridges, and endings, and pre-packaged edits of each song for a variety of uses. The "Warm Summer" kit is AudioJungle's free-file of the month in October.

Extra assets, like those provided by AudioJungle or similar stock services, can make working with music much easier. This is especially valuable with complex scores or fast deadlines where the need for flexibility and speed are paramount.

If you have time, a free (but possibly more limited) resource is great. If you're looking to get into scoring video in a serious way, or to offer it as a service, it's wise to have a few reliable paid resources at your disposal. In the long run you're better off training your ear from a smaller set of tracks to start. Build up a pool of resources you can be confident about and you'll gain a deeper understanding of how to match music and action in your video.

3. Fade In, Fade Out, Control Volume

When you have figured all of this out, adding music to your video is easy: just click, drag, and drop onto a free audio track on your timeline.

When you initially add music it is going to be in one standard volume. If you don’t want the song to start and stop abruptly you'll need to add a fade in and a fade out. In Final Cut Pro, Option-click (or press Option-K) at the point in the timeline where you want to add a Keyframe. You'll need at least four: one at the start, one at the end, and one each a little bit from each end. Drag the points at start and end down to create the fade-in and fade-out.

When you’ve done this you also will want to lower the overall volume of your audio so that it doesn’t over-power the footage. With your cursor, grab the level line and drag up or down to adjust. You can also add more keyframes to adjust certain portions of the audio up or down depending on your needs.

Always DIY With Others When You Can

Adding music is a strong choice, and editing a score is a special talent. Of all the many skills it takes to make a video, ask yourself: is this something you want to do on your own? Timing is important, and so tricky. The right music at the wrong time could completely change the meaning of the scene. A bad score can undermine an otherwise great production. 

If you can work with someone who has experience with scoring video it's a good investment to get their help. Maybe they come on board at the end to fine-tune your work. At the very least, try to have someone who has an experienced musical ear listen to your work before you finalize your video.

Even with help, as the filmmaker it’s ultimately your choice how sound will work with your images. Remember, let it flow; let it make sense to you. How do you feel when you watch the video? Does the music enhance the scene? If not, let it go. When it comes to making your score, less is more, but don't be afraid to go for it when the sound is right.

Credits

The thumbnail photograph of mixer is by Carl Berkeley, used under CC BY-ND 2.0 (image cropped and resized).

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