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Are You Spending Too Long Choosing The Wrong Music?
Are You Spending Too Long Choosing The Wrong Music?

By: Bob Good

As a composer, earning a fair proportion of my crust from library music, it’s important for me to know how you as an editor or video producer go about choosing the perfect piece of music for your project.

Some of what I've found during my research is pretty obvious. Of course. But, delving into the When? Why? What? and so on has taught me a thing or two ...


It scares me sometimes, how late some people start to sort out their music.

Music is the most powerful way to create a connection with your audience. Whether it’s there to drive a video forward, to set a scene, to create a mood or whatever, its role in your production should be thought about right from the beginning. By all means change it as your project evolves, let it evolve with you, but let it be your driver, as it will the audience’s, not an afterthought. To put it another way, music can make your production. Leaving your choices too late can, and likely will, break it.

That’s all very well, and I guess that answers the question “When?”, but how to choose the right piece? After all, there are hundreds of libraries out there, with thousands of composers and millions of tracks. And new tracks are being produced as you read this. Let me suggest five other areas to consider. They may or may not apply to you, depending on your role and requirements, so find the best bits!

Where From? - Sourcing Your Music

There are two choices here for pre-existing tracks: Commercial Music or Library Music.

Commercial music (i.e. written and produced for sale to the general public) has two big advantages:

1 - you’ve already heard it

2 - there’s so many choices!

Library music (i.e. stock music written and designed expressly for productions) also has two big advantages:

1 - Appropriateness - it’s likely been written to set a mood, keep out of the way of dialogue and be adaptable with the use of devices such as stems and alternative versions. Also, it’s more likely to have the sort of structural elements you’re looking for, such as an appropriate length and a defined ending.

2 - Time/Cost - licensing it is easy, most likely cheaper and instant.

Why? - Emotions

Time to think about what the music is there to do, and I think this is all about emotions.
Whether it’s setting a scene, exciting your audience, enhancing a narrative, making your viewers laugh or your customers feel warm and fuzzy, or any of the many reasons music adds to your project, it’s all about emotions. Some people spend useful time writing down a list of feelings and moods they want to create, to use as keywords when searching for music.

“Music Fit” can be a tricky task, but, as well as mood and emotion, tempo is one of the properties of music which play an important part in psychological perception, and therefore the attitude your viewer has towards your project. Consider the information density of your project, and the relationship that has with the music. Studies suggest that the processing power of the viewer is increased when there’s a good match between the musical tempo and the information density.

Who For? - Know Your Demographic

Knowing who your target audience is is another key element. This may sound obvious, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to assume you yourself are typical of your demographic. Genre is a factor here, but I’m not just talking genre. A target demographic of 15 to 17 year olds, for example, is probably going to need a track which is positive, with pace and energy, probably with swagger and cool as well, regardless of the music genre. Again, a list of keywords can help with searching.

An audience with the attention span of young children is going to need music which changes direction every few bars. And that gets me on to structure, an equally important element. For a TV documentary, for example, typically aimed at adults, you want your music to set the scene, bubble away for a while, come to a hit point, bubble away again and come to a definite ending.

Where To - Background vs. Foreground

It’s always worth considering where you see the music sitting. We all know that the music in an action scene can sit further forward than that underscoring some intimate dialogue, but are there any tips to help achieve the right balance when you want to set it back a bit? I think there are.

Are you underscoring dialogue, or producing a TV factual, for example? Research has found that there’s decreased cognition when the frequencies of the music overlap with that of speech (especially narration or voiceover). Typically these frequencies are in the 85Hz to 250Hz range, similar to that of an alto singing voice. Music which doesn’t use these frequencies at all would sound very strange, very harsh, but their effects can be mitigated by choosing pieces where notes within these frequencies have reduced attack, or, bizarrely enough, are part of repeated chords. This latter trick is in two parts. The chords mean that the effect of individual notes is masked, and the repetition is all to do with our ‘fight or flight” response - we’re programmed to notice new things, a sudden movement or a new sound for example, and it follows that if that sound is repeated then soon we notice it less.

Other vocal sounds (even whistling, which is out of the danger range), will compete with the human voice. Best avoid those annoying ukulele and whistling tracks, then, if a voiceover is involved!

What Works? - Unique Selling Point

As someone who strives to produce unique audio, I’m in danger of getting on my soapbox here! Some libraries and composers thrive on producing vast masses of cheaply-produced music. But why? Do they think you want your production to sound cheap?

I would always advocate using tracks recorded by real musicians using real instruments, if only for the extra emotion a skilled craftsman can bring. I’ve begun watching far too much TV than is good for me. I can recognize which sample sounds were used to produce which tracks. There’s no doubt that some of the high-end sample sounds do sound fantastic, but ultimately, digital versions of acoustic instruments cannot replicate the real thing, and will in the end give a production a cheap and dated feel. And there are, as previously stated, so many libraries with so many tracks available, that there’s no need to compromise on quality.

After all, you are the creative type. The very nature of your job is creating. You might want it to have the cheap feel of the production company down the road. Or you might want something unique to set it off.

The curated libraries all know their content and will be happy to make suggestions if you want more ideas. And there’s nothing wrong with experimenting, as long as you’ve allowed yourself the time. Many good libraries operate a “Try Before You Buy” scheme, whereby you can download a track and play with it to see how it works within your project. That’s invaluable, in my book.

Whatever decisions you make, bear in mind the needs of your audience. It can take time to find the right piece of music, but that time is well worth spending.

© Bob Good 2018

Bob Good is a UK composer with around 250 tracks available exclusively on half a dozen libraries. He has a traditional approach to composition, is eclectic in genre, and always uses real (talented!) musicians, not only for ethical reasons but also in the pursuit of providing unique audio.

Bob’s recent library placements include BBC’s Masterchef, Autumn Watch, The One Show, Absolute Genius with Dick and Dom, James Martin Home Comforts, Growing Up In Scotland, Channel 4’s A Place In The Sun, Discovery’s British Treasure, American Gold, MTV Lebanon’s Al Hayba, France 3's Au Fil De La Durance, Canal Vie’s Ex Au Defi, Finnish Film’s Spandex Sapiens and many more.


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