Banish the Lazy Soundtrack, Part 1

Adverbs make for lazy language. But did you know that it’s possible to make lazy music choices as a video editor?

I wrote before about the importance of choosing music that best reflects and amplifies the emotion of the video you’re cutting. We all nod our heads in agreement, yet what does that theory actually mean in practice? In this two-part series, we will discuss how to choose music that will amp up your edits.

Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it is lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys--to woo women-- and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.

~ Dead Poet’s Society, 1989.

Now first, a confession: I used to make lazy music choices in my editing. For years, I selected one music track for each short video I cut. It worked, yes. Even if I tried using two or more tracks in my cuts, it still felt awkward. I couldn’t quite figure out how to make the music work for my edits. I only recently unlocked the power of music. And it has transformed my editing. Here’s how you can transform yours.

I promise, you don’t have to be a music theory major to understand this. Much of music is instinctive, and we will rely on this as we go on.

The first part of the answer lies in understanding the real purpose of music in a video. Successful video editing is only half of what we see. Mute, then watch Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’ll understand what I mean. The clues that tell us how to comprehend what we see are received by our ears. And many of these clues lie in the particular notes and phrases of the musical scoring. In this post, we’re going to first focus on how music feels and how those feelings help--or hurt--our finished videos.

The first thing to pay attention to is the instruments used in a piece of music. Each instrument in the orchestra portrays emotions. Some instruments, like the violin, are more versatile than say, the oboe. But play an oboe the right way, and it can underscore the uncomfortable, comedic subtext of a seemingly perfect Thanksgiving meal with the in-laws.

The instruments used in a piece helps the audience make assumptions about what they’re seeing. Take for example 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith. A husband and wife, both undercover spies for opposite organizations, discover the identity of each other and take to a shoot-out. They completely destroy their home in the process.

Check out the fight scene in the house. At one point, the characters are tip-toeing around the hallways. The music is quiet, with only a light chime and drum rhythm keeping time and pace. But how do we know we shouldn’t be terrified of what happens next? The key instrument in the music is the chime. It’s bright, almost like a Christmas jingle bell. If what we were seeing was something frightening, we’d hear shimmering violin strings. Instead, the merry sound of the chime instead indicates mayhem and excitement.

Video Editor Takeaway: When selecting music, listen for instruments that help reflect what you want the audience to feel about what they’re seeing. Avoid instruments that compete with the mood you want.

Tempo is another emotional indicator. Let’s consider the music from the 2013 film Philomena. This movie is a drama about a woman searching for her long-lost son. Played by Judi Dench, the title character has been looking for her son for fifty years. She is curious and hopeful, but also worried and anxious. Does her son remember her? Will she ever find him? Does he love her after all this time? The incredible feeling of longing experienced by the title character is amplified in the score featuring slow and steady piano and string compositions. Had the music in Philomena been arranged any quicker, the film would feel pensive and restless. The title character would seem impatient. And the long-carried pain of the character would appear as bitterness, making it difficult for us to believe her choices at the end of the film.

Video Editor Takeaway: Music tempo can either rush or hinder an audience through your video. Be sure the tempo matches the mood and emotion you want to bring out with your video edits.

Another essential element are the dynamics within the music. Dynamics have to do with how the piece of music rise and falls in intensity. Some music is soft. Some music is loud. Some music has softer parts and louder parts, or it ends with a big finish. Other music has the same level of intensity for the whole piece and it never changes.

How are dynamics used in video editing? Take a look at the opening scenes of 2009’s reboot of Star Trek. The starship is attacked and destroyed by the film’s main bad guy. As the ship falls to pieces, the music soars with both a sense of future greatness and of present finality. Why? The captain is going down with the ship, while his newborn son survives in an escape pod. We hear the quiet as the captain rejoices in his son’s birth. And then we hear the music crescendo as the captain rams his ship into the attacker. The crescendo tells us that this moment is important, and gives us the emotional thrust to push forward in the film.

Video Editor Takeaway: Dynamic changes give the us the ability to turn the volume up or down on the emotions our audience feels. Control where the dynamics are in your edit, and you control when the emotional volume changes.

We instinctively hear all these parts when we’re listening to music in any setting. We feel the emotions of each piece as we listen. Combined with video, the effect results in our minds applying context to what we’re watching, even without us realizing it. As editors, when we want to take our audience on an emotional journey, we can use these different elements of music to our advantage. Use the sounds of instruments that convey the emotions you want. Pay attention to the tempo and use it to keep the tone of the video. Harness the power of dynamics in the music to underscore important moments and reveals.

The right soundtrack amps up the emotions your audience feels as they watch your videos. Banish lazy music choices from your editing. If the right language can woo women, then the right music can draw your audience anywhere you want them to go.

In the second half of this series, I will explain how to use the scoring process to take advantage of the musical elements we discussed today in your edits.