Soundtrack music guidelines are subjective and subconscious. It’s hard to articulate exactly how and why they use music in a given moment. It’s more about judgment than rules.
The best tool is intuition and emotion. Feel what the storyteller is communicating.
A video episode has two types of music: a theme song and a score. The theme sets the emotional tone — it should be memorable.
The score is the music played mid-episode. Or as an interlude between segments — or under voiceover for dramatic effect. Continuous atmospheric sound in the right key is “thrumming.” It should be the opposite of memorable. It guides the emotional story arc of the story or bridges listeners from one topic to the next.
Music is punctuation. Music signals what’s ahead and illuminates what came previous. It acts as a transition from one scene to another. Or emphasizes a particularly emotional line of dialogue.
You can get legal music tracks either for free – or for a reasonable monthly subscription.
When selecting tracks, think about the time and place. Where is this story taking place? What individuals are present? From whose perspective are we hearing the story? What era are we in? If there are specific associated instruments or sounds, start with those details.
Make sure the music is cohesive, and doesn’t get in the way of the dialogue.
Cohesion may mean all tracks use acoustic instruments. Or they all have a computer-generated MIDI feel. Do the musical choices sound like they fit together?
Music can distract from the voiceover. Lead instruments like violins, trumpets, and vocals compete with voice frequencies. That makes it hard for a listener to focus.
What if a track fits your perfect moment, but instrumentation interferes with dialogue? An easy fix is using a stem.
Stems are the individual instrument tracks in a piece of music. You might have one for the bass, one for the drums, another for the piano chords, and a final one for the melody.
The magic of stems is you can mix and match them to produce a sonic texture. This creates a custom composition. Stems are easy to get or make. Many royalty-free music platforms provide the individual stems for each selection.
If a music track is too busy for the voiceover, use a few stems beneath it and leave out the melody. You can create a composed soundtrack where themes keep coming back in different ways. Use stems from the same track in different combinations at different points.
Creative use of stems make one piece of music into a surprising variety of tones and moods.
Stem converter links:
Because music is powerful, you can overdo it if you’re not careful.
Other music suggestions:
Some moments need listener attention. At a pivotal story scene or statement that changes everything, leave the music out.
Add variety to long stretches of narrative. Music is especially effective at signaling segues and breaks in the story.
Place music at the end of a pivotal scene. Music elevates a story’s climax and get the listener’s heart racing. When a dramatic or intense scene ends, wait a few beats before the music comes in. The listener then processes what they heard.
How do you know you’re overdoing it? Get a friend to listen through your episode and tell you where the music works and where it doesn’t. Fesh ears are the best ears. Have a cooling period before publishing.