Even the earliest ‘silent’ films depended heavily on music to add emotion to moving images. The presence of a musical score tells the audience what feelings they are supposed to have: joy, sorrow, tension, exhilaration, impending fear, etc. In fact, many prerecorded musical scores in music libraries are titled and catalogued by their suggested emotional effect.
If this explanation of music’s role is new for you, then experiment a little. View a favorite film or two on videocassette. Pick out a few major scenes, and try viewing them again with the sound off. Instead, play a few music albums in the background as you view the scenes. Notice how each different music selection appears the change the feeling of
As you can see, the presence of music always has some effect on what the audience will perceive about a scene. Depending on the musical selection, this effect may reinforce, contradict, or completely alter the original intent of the picture.
The dramatic source of music under a scene can be either "extraneous" or
"practical". Extraneous means that the score is simply there on the soundtrack
because the filmmaker put it there to accompany the picture. The people in the movie theatre hear it, but the characters in the film do not. Most music in soundtracks falls under this category. In contrast to this, some music is initially explained or motivated by some source on screen, such as a radio playing, a nightclub band, or a character musician. In these instances, the music that the audience hears is also being heard by the
characters on screen!
Sometimes, music can creatively overlap both of these categories, by starting off as extraneous and then being revealed as practical, or vice versa.
Music for a soundtrack can originate one of two ways: canned or original score.
"Canned" music refers to having come from a prerecorded music library. For a
fee, a producer can purchase the rights to use selections of existing music in his or her production. A large number of companies produce volumes of high quality, generic purpose music tracks intended exclusively for this purpose. The music is composed and recorded so as to facilitate "modular" editing to accommodate scene length or climax.
Producers can pay for the music on a "needle drop", screen minute, or blanket
basis. Needle drop refers to buying music based on a per selection, per use, basis. Blanket arrangements permit unlimited usage of the entire library either per entire production or per entire year. In determining their fees, music libraries will also want to know the intended purpose and scope of distribution of the film (theatrical, educational, home video, nationwide broadcast, industrial in-house, etc.). Readers are warned, however, to exercise extreme caution in planning to use consumer music albums (pop, rock, soul, oldie, classical, etc.) as sources of music. Even in cases where the
song itself is in public domain, the particular arrangement and performance are protected under copyright and fair trade laws. If you feel it is absolutely imperative to use a "real" song instead of one from a music library, make certain to obtain permission—in writing, in advance—from the recording company in question! Otherwise, you will discover just how ruthless, greedy, and unsympathetic lawyers and their clients can be.
The other source of music is to have it originally composed and recorded for your
project. This could involve a full scale orchestra, or be as simple as a single musician
overdubbing himself. The process begins with supplying the composer with a videotape copy
of the footage along with instructions from the director or editor.
In the course of composing the music, at some point the composer and editor will create
what is known as a "click track". This is a soundtrack that consists solely of
clicks placed opposite the picture in order to convey cutting rhythm and climax. This
click track serves to guide the composer and, later on, the musicians in keeping
‘beat’ with the film rather than a more arbitrary reference rhythm.
After the music has been composed, the next step is obviously to record it. In the case of an orchestral score, musicians are assembled and arranged in a large recording studio, known as a "scoring stage". There, they view the film on a large screen while
hearing the click track in headphones. Led by the composer, the orchestra performs the selections. The music is recorded on multi-track for later mixdown.
When the score is composed and performed by a single musician, as is more often the case on low budget productions, the individual composer may be responsible for producing the entire musical soundtrack. Employing a portable multi-track recording system in conjunction with video playback, he or she will commonly perform and overdub with keyboards, synthesizers, electronic drums, and perhaps a few acoustic instruments.
As to which form of music is better, it all depends on the situation, budget, and talent pool available. A good canned library will sound better than the results obtained from most "aspiring" young composer/musicians and from many "hack"
orchestral composers. On the other hand, there are many talented composers whose quality and brilliance far surpass the generic accompaniment of even the best music libraries. (Personally, on low budget shows, unless the individual is of known and proven aptitude—I would prefer to go with a canned selection of good quality rather than gamble for excellence and end up with trash.)