You're not doomed to making these mistakes. Consider these filmmaking tips and tricks for beginners (filmmaking 101 and beyond).
Music is an extremely dangerous device in your film, and can make or break a film very quickly, depending on how it's used. Poor use of music can make your film sound very cheesy, and disconnect the audience from the experience. Great use of music, however, can pull your audience in, seamlessly, and make them feel what you want them to.
The problem is that a lot of filmmakers are making the same common mistakes time and time again when it comes to film music. Like all mistakes, you're probably so close to the film that you can't get a fresh outlook on what's actually going on. Of course there are no official "rules" when it comes to the art of a film-making, but I hope my "rules" or beginner filmmaking 101 tips, can give you something to think about.
Let's take a look at these 6 common mistakes, as well as filmmaking tips and tricks for beginners (and advanced!) on how to avoid them.
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The obvious (or not so obvious) mistake of distracting music is when the music unintentionally competes for attention, rather than providing a natural reaction to the scene. Take, for instance, a dialog-heavy scene that has music playing a high pitched melody behind it; You've most likely made the mistake of distracting music. You've probably heard the dialog a hundred times by now, and it's clear to you... But how can we concentrate on the dialog if you're beating us over the head with an attention-grabbing melody?
What about the speed of the music? The music may be too quick, and therefore distracting, for the scene you're placing it behind. Depending on speed/tempo, the music can draw attention to itself.
Lastly, even with the best fitting music in place - is it too loud? Of course you want the audience feeling the music, but it doesn't always come across as intended when the volume is too loud. These concepts can be applied to any scene, not just dialog.
So how do you avoid this mistake? First, realize that your first choice of music might not be the best choice of music. Simply try different kinds of music. Try something with a soft melody, something without a melody, a mixture of the two, etc... Second, try to slow or speed up the music, just as a test. What speed does the music work best at? Lastly, it may be obvious, but play around with the volume. Wider shots typically call for louder music, and close ups for softer music.
Try these few tweaks in order to get the least distracting mix possible! You may find that after tweaking these few things, going back your initial music placement may now feel wrong!
Music intensity can refer to how powerful or subtle the music is. Film music needs to be a clear and concise as possible in order to get the point across. Thus, having music that's too intense, or too soft, at the wrong time can make your scene confusing and unbalanced.
Imagine a scene where the detective opens a door for the first time, and looks for clues to solve a murder. At this point, if you're going with something intense, rhythmic or a 500 piece orchestra, your audience may think something important has happened. On the flip-side, if the detective has discovered a story-altering clue that tells us who the murderer is, and the music is too subtle, what we're hearing may tell us that the scene isn't important. Always remember that music intensity is a signal. This signal tells the audience how important what we're seeing on screen actually is.
Correct this mistake by trying different intensities of music. A very good way to balance a scene is to do what's called the "build-up method". Start slow and subtle, and as things in the scene become more important, pick up the intensity to signal along. If your music is starting too intense at the wrong time, or too subtle at the wrong time, it's time to tweak things until they feel just right. And, if all else fails, and the music just wont sit right, it's time to think about the next common mistake...
Music can, and often does, start and end at the wrong time! Imagine a romantic scene of two lovers meeting each other for the first time - If you choose start "romantic music" at the very beginning of the scene, or even when they first make eye-contact, it can feel too forced or confusing. Is the music telling us they are in love already? Or, why are they in love so quickly just after making eye contact for the first time? Was this supposed to be a comedy, instead?.
What about a funeral scene where the music gets very sad and suddenly stops when someone begins to make a speech? The audience may wonder if the sad part is over. Did the funeral somehow get happier? Clear starting and ending points are paramount when in regards to making very clear statements.
Correct this mistake by trying a few different start and end points. You might think the music works very well by timing it at one point, but you'll be very surprised at how the scene works when you shift the music around, and suddenly find clearer statements. I also recommend what I call my golden rule: Music should be reactive, not proactive. This means you try timing the music to play after the audience already feels what the music is about to say.
You've heard the saying, "Too much of a good thing is a bad thing." If you have the perfect music which hits all the necessary points correctly, but you make the mistake of adding music in too many places, your overall film statement will be much weaker. Music, much like you and I, needs to breathe! No matter how great, music always loses effectiveness when over-played.
Films that have non-stop music, drown the audience with constant preaching which feels forced. This kind of film becomes a sermon that tells them how they should feel, instead of simply letting them enjoy and feel the film for themselves.
Ask yourself these questions, "Have I overplayed my hand with the music?", "Is there enough contrast between scenes?" Some of the best scenes in cinema have been made by removing music, rather than adding music! "Less is more" can be applied here. Silence is a huge tool that should be used to create very high contrasting moments in your film.
Not only are musical themes are a great way to connect your scenes, they're also great to use with reoccurring ideas in your film. If you don't already know, themes are simply pieces of music that re-play from time to time within the film. Not only do themes connect ideas and scenes, they make your film memorable.
Music that repeats itself signals importance, and idea definition. When the brain hears a piece of music repeat itself, it begins making connections to previous parts in the film where the same music was heard. This process helps with overall clarity and cohesion within a story.
Unfortunately, themes are all too often ignored, or used improperly. The common mistake is not having any music that repeats itself, or failling to share a theme between scenes which are clearly connected. Re-use of a theme can also make your job much easier, as you don't have to look for new music or ideas!
My recommendation is to first make a list of all your scenes in a spreadsheet. Then, write down the film plots or ideas behind each scene. For example, "Main murder mystery unfolding", or "Romance between Joe and Jane". This will give you a very zoomed out look of your project and you'll be able to see where all the connections are made. Now you can place the same musical themes in each of these scenes. This process can also help spot scenes which are disconnected from the movie entirely. Always remember, every scene can, in theory, have a theme, and it's your job to connect the dots!
Musical genre is probably the hardest, and most pivotal part to get right. Does your musical genre actually fit the film you're making? If you choose the wrong musical genre, your music simply wont work.
Take, for instance, a period film about World War 2 in the 1930s - If you're using rock guitars to define your film, your audience may feel completely out of place. How about a Sci-Fi film that showcases advanced high tech human technology, which takes place 100 years in the future? Would classical music fit this film? I would argue that classical music would immediately put your audience in the wrong time period.
I know what you're thinking... I said this was the hardest part to get right, but this doesn't sound hard at all. It's common sense isn't it? In some ways yes, but the danger lies within the fact that movies have multiple sub-genres within them, and the music of each has genre has differing instrumentations, and time period associations.
If your film is a mix of a western and a robot sci-fi - What kind of music would you use? Would you use epic hybrid music, or western music with guitars? Would you mix the two? If so, how would you do it without breaking the film's cohesion? Do you come up with a new style all together?
I recommend watching at least 3 other high-budget films similar to what you're making, and mixing their genre ideas! I call this, 'reference hunting'. And, after choosing the right genres, also ask yourself how well tailored the instruments are.
Yes, you can get extremely specific with the musical instruments. Think about how the instruments fit the time period and culture of your film. For example, should an acoustic guitar be in your film? What does an acoustic guitar immediately bring to mind? (pop music, or commercial advertisements perhaps?) What about a harmonica? If your film is a noir film or western, harmonica might be a great choice! Always be thinking of what the genre and musical instruments are conveying.
As a filmmaker, you need to be extra cautious with how your music is used. Using distracting, poorly timed, non-thematic or simply too much music can kill your film. I hope I've given you some ideas on how you can experiment to get things to sit just right for your project!
If this helped, feel free to return the favor by sharing it around the web!
David Fesliyan is an independent music composer who's been involved with music and film for over 13 years.