10 Ways Music Can Help Tell A Compelling Story In Film

We asked one question and got ten inspiring answers. 

Over the last year, we’ve had the honor to pick the brains of filmmakers and musicians who continuously inspire us in our Field Notes interview series. In celebration of our 50th Field Notes Interview, we’ve combed through and compiled some of our favorite answers to one reoccurring question: How does music help tell a compelling story in film?

Do any of these answers resonate with you? Share your thoughts and comment below.

1. Aaron Tharpe, Filmmaker

Field Notes Interview #22, Feb. 2

“When a film just doesn’t feel right, it comes down directly to the music. It’s often that factor that even helps a filmmaker define their voice. We believe here that sound (and sometimes the lack of) is at least 60-65% of the viewing experience for a film, so it’s a big focus for us. I’d gladly watch a story with great natural audio and a beautiful soundtrack, all filmed on a terrible camera — before I’d want to watch beautiful cinematography set to a terrible soundbed and bad music.”

2. Ryan Booth, Filmmaker

Field Notes Interview #37, Nov. 24

“Music is everything. Think about the most moving, lasting images you have in your mind from the most iconic films ever made. Is there a single moment in your mind that isn’t punctuated by music? I’d bet that there’s not a single one. Music is the thing that takes you there. It’s the vehicle. It can’t be underestimated.”

3. Clayton Worfolk, Cinematographer

Field Notes Interview #32, Nov. 4

“I think that good editing (and good filmmaking) has a lot to do with rhythm: The way a line is delivered, the space between different voices, the degree to which different shots are left to breathe. These things end up contributing greatly to the feeling of a film. Music (and sound design) are crucial elements in helping to establish that rhythm. It’s amazing to see how different scenes, be they montages or dialogue-driven passages, change when put to different music.”

4. Terry Rayment, Filmmaker

Field Notes Interview #2, Sept. 18

“Being cavalier about your music selections is the quickest way to disconnect your audience from the film. The way music serves a film is a fine line between serving the emotional tone on a silver platter and being too ambiguous that the viewer doesn’t know what you’re trying to say. Most of the time, music is more important than the visuals, I believe. Some of my favorite little spots I just open up on Vimeo, hit play, and then close it and listen to the story unfold like it’s a radio show or something.”

5. Meredith Godreau, Musician (Gregory and the Hawk)

Field Notes Interview #26, Feb. 13

“Music is to film almost what body language is to conversation.  It can highlight the subliminal messages, support the heavy feelings, give you the go ahead to cry your eyes out.  It kind of makes the two-dimensional film seem three-dimensional sometimes to me.”

6. Beautiful Eulogy, Marmoset Band

Field Notes Interview #24, Feb. 7

“Music has a way of culminating an emotional undertone to the viewer of a film like no other medium. It has the ability to express multiple emotional characteristics simultaneously, much like our personal lives do, engaging the viewer’s senses on a multitude of levels. We believe music’s main goal in the context of film should be accentuating the object or narrative of the film; living in a harmonious relationship with one another to capture the attention of the audience.”

7. Taylor Clark, Musician (Music You Can Swim To)

Field Notes Interview #43, May 15

“In my opinion, music plays a vital role in how someone emotionally responds to film. Sometimes it’s hard to describe emotions through something visual, but music is a collection of frequencies – something that literally vibrates within us as human beings. We create emotional associations with those frequencies, like melodies or chords. When working side by side with the powerful storytelling of film, a beautiful experience is born.”

8. Dana Shaw, Filmmaker

Field Notes Interview #39, Apr 27

“Sound is 50% of every film or commercial. Music plays with the images on screen.  Mood, tempo, pacing and emotion can all be set with it, and when it feels wrong or off, it’s obvious. Music is subjective. Many people have different opinions on what music brings which emotions.”

9. Zippy Etzel, Filmmaker (Story & Heart)

Field Notes Interview #35, Mar 30

“It’s a storytelling tool, just as important as lens choice, camera movement, lighting, etc. When used properly, it’s almost like it becomes it’s own character in a piece.”

I spent six years as a music supervisor, which led me to a term I call the Goldilocks rule. Meaning you don’t want the music in your piece to be too hot (overbearing and distracting), and you don’t want the music to be too cold (unnoticeable or poorly matched), it’s all about making it “just right”.

10. Dan Riordan, Filmmaker (Gnarly Bay)

Field Notes Interview #31, Mar 2

“Music makes dem bones dance.  It gives life to the skeleton.  It’s Gwyneth Paltrow getting off the bus…it’s absent-minded Edward Norton watching the city being reduced to rubble…its having the time of our lives — getting raised to the ceiling by Swayze, it’s Stallone getting chased by a Benz in the snow.  Haha…I could go all day…but the point is that music elevates the story with a curated emotion…and should never be underestimated.”


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