Image courtesy Theradiocitylotrconcert.com

Image courtesy Theradiocitylotrconcert.com

Everyone has a relationship to music, whether they consider themselves music fans, musical prodigies, or tone deaf. You may remember a childhood lullaby, learning the piano, your wedding song, or the Folger’s jingle, or you may ride the subway every day, religiously listening to your iPod. You may use it to drown out noise at work or at home. This, actually, is how music first made its way into film: to drown out the horrible noise movie projectors made.

Ubiquitous in our lives, yet somehow a common afterthought in video productions, music is a key player in enriching a film, episode or ad. When I spoke about music as a branding tool at SXSW this year, I was told by dozens of filmmakers that they saved music for the last minute, they didn’t budget for it (or didn’t know what to budget for it), or they just plain didn’t think they needed it. Um, have you ever watched a horror film without the score? Not so scary. A family drama with out the music? Not so dramatic. A sitcom without a theme song, a commercial without a jingle? You get my drift.

The gist? Music is an accessible and easy-to-use tool (I’ll get to that later) that will increase your production value by tenfold. Here’s why.

1) Memorability. Smell is the number one memory sense. Hearing is number two. Vision, number three. To skimp on music is really missing out on a huge opportunity to add a whole new level of recognizability to your brand/video/project. When someone remembers a song, or the feeling of a song, that memory invokes familiarity which leads to consistency and trust, which ends up as consumer/viewer loyalty. Which of course turns into views, purchasing products, sharing links, etc etc.

Memory –> Familiarity –> Consumer Loyalty –> Views/$$/Sharing



The human being likes stability and predictability. If you have an animated logo, it should have music. If you have a commercial, a title sequence, anything, it should have music. And while an entire film score may not be something that can be distinctly remembered, like the 3 notes of the NBC ads, the feeling that the score and film evoked is something that will last.

2) Messaging. Having music (and I mean custom music, not a random track an intern found in a huge library that you plopped into a cut) sends a message to your viewers that says “I took the time and money to make this the best product/film possible.” It states “I care about you, our product, our image, our process and I take pride in my work, and will do it right. I know every aspect of this is important and you can count on us to not skimp on anything.” If I heard those words from a filmmaker, without even seeing the trailer, I’d go see it.

3) Emotion. There’s no question about it. Music can emotionally manipulate a listener (in a good way). As a composer, I like to say I am manipulative. (My husband would agree with this for different reasons, though. He still can’t figure out how I got him to make the bed every morning.) My emotional manipulation has intention, and that is to enhance the film and the experience it gives a viewer.

Directors must be responsible for having their viewers’ emotions in their hands. Taking care to have a composer design the music to emphasize moments, characters, story arcs, and create tension, anticipate drama, drop out for comedic lines, and tie together themes will leave the viewer feeling more complete. Plus you save the viewer a lot of work during the film. When you have the dark ominous strings under a character, chances are he’s up to no good. You can use music to tell that, rather than have to write in “ooh, he’s up to no good” into your script.

4) Ease. Having music in your project is much easier than a lot of folks think. You don’t need to “speak” music. You merely need to tell the composer what you want the viewer to feel. If you tell a composer you want strings then drums, you are limiting them. Instead, use emotion and energy terms, like “I want to start out poignant and reflective then build energy.” This may or may not be done with strings and drums but at least the composer knows what the intended outcome should be. 

Here’s a slimmed-down breakdown of the process of working with me as your composer:
You get a project and call me to discuss 1) timeline 2) budget 3) creative direction. This is where you tell me what you want your viewers/clients/consumers to feel. Any music direction or references like links to YouTube videos of examples of pieces you liked or didn’t like are also helpful. If it’s a film, we’ll have a spotting session where we watch it together and chat about it.

-You send me a cut, usually as a web file.
-I write music and send it back to you as a movie to watch.
-You provide constructive feedback.
-I finalize music (maybe over 2 or 3 more rounds of revisions) and send final audio file with the invoice.
-You process invoice and we all go on to win Clios, Webbies and Oscars.

Regarding budget, the general rule of thumb is that approximately 10% of your overall budget should go to sound. If you plan on having a great soundtrack to your film, budget a little more for licensing fees (the money you pay bands or artists to use their song in your film). The 10% will include fees for the music supervisor, the composer, the sound editor, and the final mixer. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by a small budget to call up a composer and have a conversation about it. My fees are always negotiable depending on a number of factors including the possibility of future collaborations, timeline, and the length of the video.

My final note about the importance of music in films is that it generates a real magical connection between creators. It really is remarkable and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, call me and we’ll do a film together. Getting the perfect score is all about communication between the creative teams. It’s a fine art that requires being upfront about vision, timeline, budget, revisions, and feedback. It requires patience, respect for each other’s art form and talent, and commitment to an extraordinary end result. And when you see what it can do for your film, you’ve just deepened your own relationship to music.

Watch Cheryl’s composing reels here.