How to Choose the Right Music for Your Video

Motion pictures, videos, many stage performances, even churches, all use music to create involvement, provoke emotion, develop community, and as such will essentially provide a cohesive and memorable flow to the project, topic, or performance.

The trend to using pop music and hit songs in motion pictures notwithstanding, the single most important element to a film can indeed be its “main theme” or score.

Children and adults of the Star Wars generation know John Williams’ Star Wars theme, the Darth Vader theme, and virtually every sound cue in each of the Star Wars movies.

Williams’ music became just as iconic in the Superman movies, ET, and more. Alan Silvestri’s themes and cues for “Back to the Future” transferred into three films worth of excitement and emotion.

Some of the most extraordinary film music was created by Bernard Herrmann, who, I daresay, despite my reverence for Orson Welles, provided the real emotional force behind Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Thirty years later he did the same for The Twilight Zone and, just before his death, Taxi Driver.

On TV, the impact is more limited, but music can still reach iconic status—albeit usually with lyrics and with a limitation to the beginning and end of the show. Examples: “I’ll Be There for You,” the Friends theme; the Rockford Files theme; LA Law; Law and Order; the Family Guy theme; All in the Family; the Sopranos. 

And Paul Schaefer’s Late Night theme (reinterpreted nicely for the Late Show) helped define late-night television for nearly 30 years. Today, Jon Batiste’s New Orleans sound perfectly compliments Stephen Colbert’s version of the Late Show.

Chances are very good that you will not be commissioning or creating original music for your project.

The good news, however, is many resources are available to help you “score” your project, and score your project you must.

To be blunt, I prefer orchestral music to Top 40 music for scoring a video. (The exception is a key love song or personal favorite of the honoree.) Pop music has baggage. The singer, the lyrics, the personal associations that come with pop music are undeniable, and they have nothing to do with Jen and Greg, Uncle Al, your parents, or the retiring Mr. Quigley from accounting. This is their story, and we want the audience to think about them, not Jennifer Aniston. The exceptions that prove the rule: the song that played at an honoree’s wedding; a team fight song, patriotic music, a song that perfectly summarizes the chronological point in the video, such as “For What It’s Worth” for a Vietnam war sequence.

Library music—orchestral music—supports the story, directs emotions, but does not take over the story.

Let’s take a look at a typical life story, just for argument’s sake. What kind of music is appropriate? In this case, the subject is an 80 year old.

Introduction: a sequence of the ancestors of the honoree

—warm, nostalgic, early 20th-century sound

Sequence of the birth of honoree and various pictures with parents as a baby and young child

—childlike or nursery rhyme-type sounding music; perhaps featuring toy piano, or other nursery rhyme-type sounds

Subject is growing up

—grade school through high school music, such as 40’s,50s, 60s, 70s— whatever was the pop sound of the time. Here you might use one of their favorite songs as a punch line.

College life, or late teen years

—something a little more raucous and “cool”

Employment years

—use something more industrial and progressive


—music shifts to more romantic sound


—music fades to couple’s favorite song

Wrap up and reprise

—restate a theme you used earlier in the show, or find a finale “stand-alone” theme that is stately, impressive, important, and, most importantly, when tied with the visuals, creates a very emotional feel

Your mileage may vary. There are lots of ways to tell a story. Add interviews, start with the ending, insert humorous videos from their families’ collections, etc. But the main lesson here is to use use music appropriate for the segment. There are plenty of music libraries out there, but one I recommend for variety and decent pricing is TUNEPOCKET. Go to their site for pricing as low as $8.25 /mo for unlimited downloads.

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