Do I need music for my project? 

Most media uses music.  How much, and how big the music is involved really depends on what your story is about.  Music can add emotion, sentimentality, reference, location, era, transitions, and overall storytelling above and beyond the visual information and dialogue.  Watch any movie without music, and you will get a big shock!  Music is the last thing that many filmmakers deal with but can be 50% of the audience's experience. 

How much does music cost, and what percentage of a film budget should go to music? 

Music budgets can be anywhere from $0-$1M, and 1 to 10% of the film's budget, historically. 

How can I keep the music budget down? 

1)  Rather than buying the music outright, you can license music, either individual tracks, or the entire score itself.  If you are a very large production company, that has a music publishing entity, it can be typical to hire the composer  (WFH - Work for hire).  The composer will retain the writer's portion of backend royalties, while the film production/publisher with own the recordings of the music.  (Note:  The production company doesn't pay royalties, the television networks, and theatres (outside the USA) pay  through a PRO (BMI, ASCAP and many others around the world).  If you have the budget, and anticipate an "iconic score", like "Star Wars", it does make sense to buy the music completely, because it is part of the brand of the project.  On the other hand, a lot of a score really may not work for other projects, but the publishing royalty income can help the composer a great deal.  Composers generally have their own publishing entity and can collect it when it is available.  The license can be "perpetual" (forever), so you  always have that music in your project. 

2)  Keeping your musical expectations reasonable can also control your music budget.  Composers can create anything from a full orchestral score, either performed by a live orchestra ($$$) or virtually created, electronically.  Your composer may not only be the creator of the score, but also may be the performer.  The composer can add a few live instruments to an electronic score, and really improve the quality of the performance.  The audiences ears tend to go to a “live” instrument.  Adding a solo violin on top of a sampled orchestra can be extremely effective.  You may not need an entire orchestra.  Solo piano can be a wonderful underscore for a dramatic scene.  Modern sampled pianos are very well recorded and can give you an extremely intimate quality. 

Using a variety of popular music tracks is also a way to create a reference to the period.  Modern composers may be able compose music in various styles and eras.  In the end, though, it may take time away from the bigger part of the score.  You can license individual tracks from music libraries. 

A modern electronic/synthesizer score (only "electronic" sounding instruments that are not trying to imitate acoustic instruments) may be easier to create.   Electronic music scores can be tremendous, and ideal for many genres, like sci-fi, thrillers, experimental films, and intense dramas. 

How much music is in a film? 

The score can vary, but typically films can have 50% music underneath.  Except for silent films, music rarely runs end-to-end in a film.   "Underscore" is what runs through the film, and can also be mixed under the sound FX, dialogue and ambient sounds.  The main title themes can be developed throughout the score.  That takes a great deal of skill. 

How do I decide what kind of music to use? 

Try different types of music under the scene. Many composers have a library of tracks you can "temp" to try out.  You cannot use these tracks unless you license them.  Otherwise, look for similar films and scenes.  Music can also go against the scene.  "Straight scored music", like a "straight man" in a comedy, can be the same type of music as if it were a drama or action film.  Mel Brooks always hired excellent composers that wrote authentic music of that period, era, or style the film was spoofing.  "Airplane" is an excellent example of a straight score.  Going the other way, or creating comedic music for a serious scene can create a dark-comedic element.  There really are no rules.  Most important is to work with the composer to find the right tone for the film.  What is the music intended to tell the audience? 

What’s the difference of a film composer vs. live music composer, band, musician, or songwriter? 

Anyone can theoretically make music for a film, and composers can be great songwriters, too.  What makes a score-composer different, is their ability to "synch" or synchronize the music to the picture.  That takes skill, tech, equipment and chutzpah! 

Does music make a film more real or imaginary? 

If music is the ONLY audio in a scene, the scene becomes more imagined and out-of-reality.  If music is underscored along with dialogue and ambient sounds, it augments the imaginary aspect of a film.  Without music, reality may to be clearer.  This is not 100% true, but somewhat a guideline.  "Diegetic music" is a fancy name for music that the characters are aware of, in their own universe.  Music from a radio, a live group, etc. are examples of diegetic music.  Diegetic music tends to create a more realistic world for the audience.  "Non-diegetic" music is emotional score-storytelling.  This is music that only the audience hears. 

How do I find a composer for my project? 

You can find composers through film festivals, film-networking, composer organizations, groups on social media, etc. 

Do composers have agents? 

The most active and expensive composers do.  An agent is only involved if the composer is active enough to generate a commission.  Most independent composers work directly with filmmakers, directors, editors, music-supervisors, and producers. 

Should I work with a local composer? 

Local can have it's advantages.  You can meet with the composer to have a "spotting session", where you go through the film “scene-by-scene”.   You can easily keep in touch, watch and listen to the progress of the score, and be more active in the entire process.  It is possible through technology, to hire a composer anywhere, and successfully work with them.  A composer can send the audio and sample video as they are composing, as long as you give the composer the video (ideally "locked").  Most composers, nowadays, are used to working remotely. 

How do I pick a composer? 

Consider budget, experience, style, genre, flexibility, temperament, etc.  Are they experienced at scoring?  Do they have a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to record the score, synced to picture?  Do you like them?  Do they like you?  Basically, this is a collaboration.  You will have to have a good working relationship for at least a few months, and usually a lot longer. 

Is experience important?  

The bigger the budget, the greater the risk.  Music can be 50% of your project.  Would you hire a cinematographer or actor with no experience?  You might, but it may yield unintended results.  Great director-composer collaborations have been the key to outstanding productions.  Study Hitchcock/Herrmann, Spielberg/Williams, Burton/Elfman.  They can work on projects together for decades. 

Does a composer work alone? 

Generally, yes, although, composers do work with music supervisors, other musicians, engineers (mix and master), sheet-music prep, orchestra managers, conductors, etc.  Look at the credits of a big-budget movie and see all of the people involved in the musical side of a film.  There can be 100's.  The composer will probably have connections to many of them.  Ironically, composing can be a very solitary job.  It takes a tremendous amount of self-control, motivation, organization (keeping track of tracks, revisions, notes, personnel, etc.), and skill.  A composer needs to understand the language of music, and how to discuss it with filmmakers that don’t necessarily understand it. 

How much would an orchestra cost? 

The budget depends on the size of the score (short vs,  feature), the size of the orchestra (chamber vs. full size), and whether it is all-orchestral, or hybrid (with electronic elements).  Orchestras can be engaged around the world for a few $1000s, to $100,000 or more.  Remote orchestral recording is now available at a very reduced cost, using shared sessions around the world.  The composer can monitor the recording, as well.  A very large-budget film could spend $1M on music alone.  Part of the fee is the composers, and part is the realization of the score (orchestral performance and recording), not to mention the mixing of the score, itself, and the sound-mixing of the music with dialogue, sound FX, ambient soundscape, etc. 

What are the steps to working with a composer? 

1)  Meet with a composer.  Talk about style, genre, era, budget, etc.  This can happen before a film has been shot.  Having a composer on-set can add another level of involvement for the composer to feel the emotions of the scene. 

2)  Have a "spotting session" where you go through the film, and figure out where and why music should be added.  "Hit-points" are places where the music needs to sync-up with the action or dialogue in the film.  Marking these points on your video file can help the composer understand your film.  A suspenseful build-up ending in an explosion is an example.  Keep in mind, the music can be a sound effect, itself. 

3)  Allow enough time for the composer to finish writing and realizing (performing) the score.  This can be days, weeks and months. 

4)  If possible, have a budget for the composer to mix the music professionally.  The composer can send all of the individual "stems" to the studio, and they can perfectly mix them.   Then the sound editor can add the music to the sound-design, dialogue, etc.  Composers can do a pretty-good job on their own, but a professional post-audio facility can really add another level to the mix.  Mixing 5.1 surround sound is an art in itself, especially if the music has to mix with other audio elements.  The sound of a film can be very different in a theatre, than on TV.  Check your film out in a nearby theatre if possible.  Funny things can happen when you send theaters a DCP (Digital Cinema Package).  Incorrectly mixed audio can really get in the way of a film presentation.  Film festivals and especially distribution may have their own audio requirements that you will need. Make sure your film is ready for the market.  Get help! 

5)  Pay the composer a reasonable fee.  Make sure the fee covers enough revisions, and the time it takes to do the score.  It can take a dozen or more tries at a scene to get the right result for you project.  Every minute of music can take an hour or a lot more time, to compose and perform.  Stay in touch with the composer throughout the process, and let them know if there are issues. 

Whatever happens, don't forget to invite them to the wrap-party, and premiere!  They can be a tremendous part of your films promotion.  A related soundtrack can be released (the composer can do this, too, if they own the publishing). 


Terms involved in film music: 

Arranger:  Arranges music for musicians. 

Audio Post Production Studio: Recording studio that can sync all audio elements to film. 

Composer:  In charge of creating the main score (underscore, themes, etc.) for a film. 

Dialogue editor:  mixes & synchronizes the dialogue with the film. 

DAW:  "Digital Audio Workstation”.  This is the software composers use to create music and synchronize it with a film.  Logic (Apple), Pro-Tools, Cubase, Reaper, are currently popular. 

Engineer:  Records live music, and mixes music during various stages of music recording. 

Foley:  Sound effects (walking, closing a door, etc.) to add a realistic feel to the scene.  Can be necessary, if you have to remove the dialogue due to other undesirable (or un-cleared) sounds during shooting. 

Hit-Points:  Moments in the film where the music needs to be synchronized. 

Music Contractor:  Hires the orchestra. 

Music Editor:  Mixes & synchronizes the music with the film.  (not necessarily the Sound Editor). 

Music Library:  Audio library including 1000’s to 100K’s if tracks of all kinds or licensing in a film. 

Music Prep:  Gets music ready for the orchestra. 

Music Supervisor: The music supervisor finds music for a film (can include composer, songs, incidental music, source music, etc.) 

Orchestrator: Takes the composers music and creates a full score to be played by a live orchestra. 

Stems:  Elements of the musical score.  These are individual tracks from the musical mix.  They can be one instrument, or more typically, a group of instruments (Strings, Brass, Winds, Percussion, etc.).  Having individual elements help create a better mix for the film. 

Sound editor:  Mixes & synchronizes the dialogue, soundscape, Foley, and SFX with the film.


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Ed Hartman

Ed Hartman, Soundtrack: The Blind Side. Ed Hartman scores percussive, orchestral, jazz, pop, rock, Latin, world and electronic music. Ed's music has been heard on television (HBO, NBC, ABC, CBS, MTV, Discovery, Green, TLC, WE, Travel, Women, Animal Planet, MSNBC) and in feature films, shorts commercials, documentaries and even a planetarium.