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The Ins & Outs
of Writing Movie MUSIC!

by Leonard Wolf

I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a while, because Filmmaking has become ubiquitous. In fact, I bet filmmaking is becoming humanity’s Number One hobby, as the entry-level cost has just about hit ZERO.

Leonard WolfI have recently acquired a new phone that shoots 4K video, has 128 gigs of memory, cost me no money down, and I lowered my phone bill in the process. But I’m surprised that many filmmakers still don’t have easy access to the mysteries of the world of music.

That subject came up again yesterday at a Film-Com board meeting. So herein I will take up the task of discussing many aspects that occur to me. Not everything mind you, but I’ll try to hit some highlights. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me with more questions.  (Photo Portrait of Leonard Wolf)

Remember, according to George Lucas, “The sound and music are 50% of the entertainment in a movie!”

The Why....

I remember seeing an interview with the FBI agents who were the inspiration for the movie Silence of the Lambs. When asked how they felt about the movie, they said it scared the crap out of them. The interviewer was surprised and asked how they, who had already lived the story,could be afraid. The agents responded that their investigation actually moved very slowly, and they didn't have that scary music signaling something bad was about to happen!

That's why music is such an important tool in the filmmakers arsenal. It can foreshadow, enhance, or change the intensity of any context including emotional, time or place, lifestyle and more. It can quickly say a lot about a character or situation without interrupting the flow.

“Music begins where words end.” Goethe said.

Music can easily accomplish an abstraction too. For example, make your historical drama contemporary with contemporary music. Make your violent scene more arty and cerebral with a meditative revelry. The possibilities are endless.

I love a Quincy Jones quote I once heard; to paraphrase it, "When I hear music, I see pictures, in my head and when I see pictures, I hear music in my head." I have long felt that way.

So I’d like to help you make the most of music in your film. Please do not fear music or music makers. Be willing to turn it up and make spaces where you can turn it up. It's the spoonful of sugar that often helps the medicine go down, and get your message to enter with it on a subliminal level.

The Legal....

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and have not even played one on TV. I did audition for The Firm, but I digress. If you are serious about making a film you should have a lawyer to rely on and consult about the legal ramifications of your film. The same goes for composers and songwriters.  I’m just giving some basics here, as I understand them.

The Legal....Even in this day and age when I think people should know better, I see, and more often than you’d think, people using music when they do not have the right to it. To me there is no good reason for doing this. There are many composers, musicians and songwriters at every price point including free available to help you.

Visual productions need two distinct licenses to use a piece of music, though both licenses can be covered in one document. 1) A Sync License comes from the copyright owner of the composition as permission to use the intellectual property of the music synchronized to your visuals. 2) A Master Use License covers the use of a specific recorded performance of a piece of music. If you want to release a soundtrack album, you need to address that also.

The difference is that if an actor in your movie is singing the song, you only need the sync license from the publisher/copyright holder. That actors performance should be covered in your actor’s agreement with them. But if you use a recording from a band or artist, you will need permission (a master use license) to use that recording from the owners of that recording. And there can be additional fees and permissions for the talent on that recording, that may need to be covered.

The fame and popularity of an artist along with various legal complications can make licensing costs for an actual hit song quite high. It’s always advisable for indie or new artists to cover hit songs when they go in the studio to record their own original material, because even major movies will sometimes seek out and use those covers instead of the hit for this reason. Or because they want a different style or sound more appropriate to the movie’s vibe.

Sometimes, however, you can get free usage rights based on a worthy cause. I contacted John Fogarty when I was asked to produce a bluegrass version of his tune “Centerfield”, to use in a fund raising film for the Nashville Sounds. I thought he might ask a reasonable fee, but I was pleasantly surprised when he donated the sync rights for free,  because he loves baseball and wanted to help!

Another option is library music and believe it or not, libraries also have contracts. If you use more than a few cuts, you could likely be spending enough to get original music written. Most composers have their own libraries, too. You might be able to get “source cues” (music that appears in a scene as if on a radio or emanating from a bar, for instance), and/or other pieces from your composer’s library.

And Creative Commons is a newer form of simple, inexpensive or free licensing you may want to explore, as either a music creator or a filmmaker. Also, many music publishers will allow a lower priced Festival License for even a hit song, as long as you are only showing it at Film Festivals. If you get distribution outside the festival circuit, you may not be able to afford to continue using that “hit.”

There is a lot more that can be discussed about these legal issues and you can find examples of these licenses online.

One last, but very important point I would like to make to filmmakers for now, is that you do not need to make the creation of original music a work for hire, and own the copyright on original music created for your production. A license can grant you all the rights you need without tying up the composer’s creation forever, and that’s where good legal counsel can assure you the rights you need!

The How....

“Music bypasses the brain and go straight to the heart. I wish my life had more of it” - Dick Cavett

How do you get music into your production? There are many paths.

The first path is with the writer. Stephen King is well known for opening a chapter in a book with a quote from a song, and scoring his book at the outset like this. Some folks listen to music when they write. Director writer Cameron Crow has said he likes to create a musical score for a scene before he shoots, and then shoot to the music. Sometimes a song becomes part of the story, as much as a song can become a part of our lives.

The How....
Do you want a composer? There are many organizations, classified ad venues, schools and websites to help you find one. After all, many talented folks are looking for experience and exposure. With fast internet, phone and Skype they can be anywhere, though it’s easier if you both are in time zones not extremely far apart. Just like with filmmaking, the cost of the tools has fallen as their quality has improved. It’s hard to believe that my first 10 megabyte hard drive for my dedicated music workstation cost $10,000 alone.

How do you chose your music person for your project? Personally, I think a really good composer should be versatile. I would say judge more by the quality and versatility of the sound of their reel, than by trying to find the exact sound that you're looking for on their reel.

I read an interview where Hans Zimmer said he took on a movie requiring a big band swing score for half of his normal fee, just because he didn't know anything about big band music. But, he really wanted to learn, and I think that is a typical attitude of genuine film composers. Music has infinite variations and many film music composers love to explore and do new things, and do them well! Part of the first conversation you have with them is to gauge their passion for your project, and as well as their passion to create the style of music needed.

Communication is certainly the key to getting the music you want. Can you think of a memorable film in the same vein as yours? Do you remember the music? If not, go back and check it out. This can offer you a reference point and you can define how similar or different the music is that you would like, directly in relation to this reference point.


“Music is for every single person on the planet.” - Robert Plant

You need to have a great conversation with a potential composer or songwriter to see if you communicate well. You need to be very honest if you don't know a much about music, and that's okay. You can discuss the emotions, reasons, and the feelings that you want to convey. Tell them if possible, whose music you like, or think is appropriate for your story. If that goes well, I'd say give the composer the script or synopsis and ask them to do demo based on all the info you impart to them. Often the themes used in big films start in this way.


Next comes a spotting session where the person in charge of approving music points out the places music is needed, and how it enters and exits. Typically, there are many occasions when you want the music scoring to sneak in or sneak out. This helps keep the viewing experience seamless.

If you as a filmmaker aren't real sure about musical terms, it's best to avoid them. I've worked with some pretty brilliant directors who mangled musical terms and might have sent me off in the wrong direction if I didn't make sure I knew what they meant.

I've been told to put the music in a higher register when they really wanted it faster. I've been told they wanted the music faster when they really wanted more divisions to the beat and not more tempo. For the music maker it can really help to have an instrument in hand when discussing music with the film person. If nothing else, there are free keyboard and guitar apps for your phone.


“Music is the universal language of mankind” - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

ComprehensionSimilarly, it shouldn't be hard to find YouTube or other links to show the composer styles of music or sounds desired. Music libraries also allow you to search for styles and emotions and often even allow for a download of an audio watermarked copy that you can use to illustrate a sound for the producer of your original music. The more info or examples you can show up what you want, the better.

Temp music is is commonly used in editing a film. I find that good video editors have A musical sense and tend to want to edit to music. During the edit they will grab the music they feel appropriate and not worry about whether it can be licensed. This offers a relative point of communication about what the final music ought to be also. You can discuss the good and the bad of where the temp music is or is not working.

There is an inherent danger with temp music though, the scourge of Temp Love! Using a particularly fabulous piece of hard to license music in a very perfect way for the temp can create a very high bar for the original music. So if a composer is brought into the production early they may be able to contribute to the temp music and attract that initial infatuation to their work.


“Music and name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable” - Leonard Bernstein

Again I must admit there is a lot more that can be written about the how of getting music into your production but I will just gloss over one more area here, and that is cost. The production triangle has three sides: cost, speed, and quality. Choose two. If you want a great score and you want it fast, then that will likely cost the most. On the other hand you may be able to get great quality at lower cost if you should give the composer more time.

Another old rule of thumb says 5% of the budget should go to sound and the majority of that can be music. In VFX heavy film that percent could be smaller but most indie films are not VFX driven. As long as I am mentioning sound, it sure is great to have a serious sound man on the shoot. Sometimes music can help mask sound problems in post but more often sound problems can have a negative effect on the score. A great audio post expert is also a great idea in my humble opinion.

Another cost factor is real instrumentation versus digital recreation. If your temp music is the soundtrack from a big movie created with a 90 piece orchestra it will likely sound better than a digital simulation of an orchestra. There are a few things to consider here. How big should the music sound? Do you really need such a big sound? A small group of live musicians well recorded might sound fuller and be more appropriate to a smaller project. Even one ‘live’ player can add to a digital score but please remember it adds time and effort. You can also consider if maybe a simple contemporary palette of sounds is more appropriate to your scene or story.

Another way for your music maker to possibly get paid is from a performance rights organization. This costs the filmmaker nothing other than a little time spent helping track TV and foreign performances which is increasingly handled by computers.

I have one last thought here on cost. Yes there are many free composers these days looking for that experience, credit on IMDB, and exposure. But as my mom always used to say, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. That applies to both everyone’s attitude and also to the idea that even free help would appreciate at least a little for expenses like a fine meal and a bottle of scotch.

There are indeed many paths. The universe is made of music - Anywhere you want to go, music can help take you there.  So enough words ... let the music begin!

Leonard Wolf a thirty year veteran in composing, sound design, audio engineering and mixing for all media. He has won 4 Emmys, many advertising awards, and took top music honors in the Philadelphia Terror Festival for the Lionsgate Feature "Side Sho" for which he also did foley and sound design. In advertising, Wolf's scores have been heard in most every sort of award winning spots.

©2016 Leonard Wolf / Issue 181 - September 2018
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