Music in film is a bit like oxygen in your lungs. You rarely notice it. But without it, things just aren’t quite the same.

We’ve looked before at how you can use music to great effect in advertising. And today, we’re going to explore a few ways filmmakers can put music to work. Specifically, we’ll cover the five use cases Aaron Copland, an accomplished American composer, wrote about in his essay simply titled Film Music.


5 Ways to Use Music in Film

In his article, Copland suggests music in movies can help:

  1. Present a more convincing portrayal of time and space. Pick a music genre that fits your story’s time or setting. This will help suspend disbelief, making your film more compelling. (Think about the type of music you might hear in a western compared to the soundtrack of a horror flick.)
  2. Represent unspoken thoughts of characters or unseen implications of a situation. The anxiety-inducing buildup before an attack in Jaws, the unsettling Darth Vader march each time the villain appears—in these cases, music acts as a cue that something bad is coming. Similarly, music can effectively communicate what a character might be thinking but not saying (e.g., the classic “womp womp” trumpet sound after a bad joke).
  3. Simply fill the background. Sometimes a scene can just feel a little empty. To avoid this, filmmakers often fill gaps in dialog and similar situations with neutral music. This type of music generally isn’t intended to be noticed.
  4. Create a sense of continuity. Music can help connect a series of scenes. Consider the montage, which strings together several seemingly unrelated scenes with a single song.
  5. Build and ultimately end a scene, grand finale-style. Virtually every movie ends with an epic score. This music helps provide films with a sense of closure and finality. And, to quote Copland, “I never saw or heard of a picture that ended in silence.”

Here those five use cases are again, in a nice, shareable infographic:

Aaron Copland's 5 Ways to Use Music in Movies

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Over to You

Did reading this post remind you of creative ways you’ve seen filmmakers use music? Do you have a favorite film soundtrack?

Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below.