How to best use library music for your film – top 8 pitfalls to avoid

Library music is a great resource for filmmakers.

I am a huge fan of Audio Network with their simple and hugely cost effective pricing. I used them first (and extensively) on my Oscar shortlisted film ‘Gone Fishing’ (though not all music was Audio Network, but ALL was library music).

However, one down side of library music is that by virtue of the music coming from different composers, different instruments, different recording environments etc., the soundtrack can feel a tad fragmented. And of course, it’s not composed to picture, so it’s never a perfect fit. Or can it be?

So how so you get your library music sourced soundtracks to feel cohesive? Having ‘music-edited’ lots of drama now, I have figured out certain tricks to get the most out of library music.

Avoid a temp score
If you have made the choice to use library music and to not work with a composer, avoid creating a ‘Temp Score’ in the edit. The Temp Score is a temporary music soundtrack made up of music from other movies. It is used to guide the composer as to what the team is looking for. It’s also the part where directors fall in love with music they can never use. Just go straight to the library music, if that’s the choice you have made, and avoid the toys being thrown out of the pram by directors.

Choose just one track
Give yourself permission to spend time finding the right sound, feel, tempo and style of music. Explore and experiment with styles you might never have thought of using. Once you settle on a core track, use this as your guide. Then check out what others tracks the composer of your chosen track has done, or music in the same genre or feel. Try and stay with tracks that feel like they belong together. You are creating a whole soundtrack that needs consistency, not just a patchwork of scenes that individually work.

Use the different mixes and versions
On some sites like AudioNetwork you can select different mixes and arrangements. This is incredibly useful as you can have many different recordings of the same music with different arrangements that may suit different dramatic needs.

Don’t be afraid of repeating music
Using a track more than once can be very powerful. Audiences want to recognise the music, otherwise it can become like some kind of abstract sound that acts more like an atmosphere than a consistent and recognisable character in your film. And make no mistake, music is a very powerful character in your story.

Use less music
Almost every film I have ever seen has too much music. Most scenes will be improved with music, but if ALL scenes have music, it will lose its impact. Less is more. Don’t allow insecurity to drive you to put too much music in your final edit.

Don’t get too dramatic
Short films in particular are usually exercises in minimalism. Accordingly, overly dramatic or bombastic music may make you feel more confident about a scene, but it usually feels out of place to new viewers. Don’t be afraid of using more minimalistic tracks and dial down the big orchestra feel.

Watch for the key
Placing two tracks very close together that are recorded in different keys can sound jarring. Some sites list the ‘key’ in which a track is recorded so that you can look for consistency if you need to mix tracks together or use in close proximity.

Keep looking
Music libraries have a LOT of stuff and much of it can be pretty dire. Certainly most will be inappropriate for your story. And you can only tell if it will work by firsat listening to it, and second, auditioning it in the edit. It’s a slog, but when you nail it, you will be glad you invested the time.

Bottom line. Use less music, use more minimal music, keep it thematic, repeat but never to the point of it being repetitive and keep looking until you find what you need.

I also posted about using music in your films…

Top ten soundtrack, score and music mistakes made by filmmakers

Nine ways to create a world class sound mix for your film

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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4 Responses to How to best use library music for your film – top 8 pitfalls to avoid

  1. Guy Rowland March 14, 2015 at 4:10 pm #

    If a filmmaker chooses to go down the road of library music, this is very good advice, Chris. I’ve used library myself on projects in the past with some great success (and to be fair some frustrations too).

    I think you did it about as well as can be done on Gone Fishing. That said, I think there are good reasons why (almost) every movie out there does use a composer – think of the great scores you love which are the soul of the movie, or the classic director / composer alliances like Speilberg / Williams, Nolan / Zimmer. Pick the right composer and they can be your storytelling ally, bringing something over and above what you might have come up with, and tooling it with finesse.

    Composers needn’t be out reach. While many of my fellow-composers get very excitable about working for free / little, my view is that if its true microbudget and everyone else is working for free, I don’t have a problem with it – just treat the person well as a non-negotiable minimum. Also using library usually isn’t free either, so a modest budget for music should be allowed for anyway – even a little can help.

    There are thousands of composers out there with the same drive and passion that you have if you’re a filmmaker. Check out their showreels and cvs, just as you would an actor or a DP.

  2. Chris March 14, 2015 at 6:14 pm #

    Guy it would be great to hear some of your music? Where can we hear it?

  3. Claire G April 5, 2015 at 7:28 pm #

    Thank You for sharing these nice tips. For anyone who is considering using copyrighted music in their film, I would strongly recommend buying a great book from Michael Donaldson called Clearance & Copyright. (
    Absolutely everything you need to know about how to legally obtain clearance for using copyrighted material. It also clears up a lot of common myths about what you can and can’t use in your production. Really fantastic resource.

  4. Chris April 17, 2015 at 4:51 pm #

    Thanks @Claire, thats a very handy tip and resource as so many fall foul of the music use in their films

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