Choosing the right music for your production

Music can be the critical difference in visual storytelling by creating lasting impressions with your audiences.

But journalists face important ethical and production decisions in choosing the right piece of music for their work.

Insightful nuggets in considering the right music for your production. Image: Creative Commons

Whether you are working on a documentary or a TV production, the composer and director need to work closely in identifying where to use the music.

“Music underscores the emotional impact of the production,” says Campbell Easton, Multimedia Manager at frayintermedia.

“A good film or visual storytelling should be able to sell the story even when put on mute; the way in which the picture is arranged should be able to share the narrative without music. Music or sound should be contributing to emotions that are already depicted visually.”

Storytellers producing short inserts can opt not to use music at all. But longer inserts can help keep the storytelling momentum going.

“Music is essential in storytelling. It sets the tone for the production and tells a subliminal story,” says well-known South African composer, songwriter, singer and actor Klaus Louis.

“The music in a particular piece can determine whether a clip is perceived as a drama or comedy,” says Louis.

While most producers receive a standard budget for music, some do not and have to find alternative options. Storytellers can source music from websites such as or youtube audio library where they can find and use sound tracks and free songs for anyone to use. Another option is to make use of music where copyright has lapsed. A negative implication of using free music is that everyone has access - thus reducing the uniqueness of your work.

It is always important to check permission for copyright when sourcing music.

“Besides it being an ethical issue, it is also a legal issue where legal action can be taken against the user,” says renowned multimedia journalist Gus Silber.

“It is similar to intellectual theft or plagiarism. Using someone’s ideas or work as your own is legally wrong and can be punishable before the law,” adds Silber.

The implications of not adhering to copyright laws by crediting the owner includes destroying your reputation, credibility and work. Copyright laws can be accessed on Companies and intellectual property commission and the law itself.

There are also other ethical concerns when using music in storytelling - particularly documentary - and this includes attempting to manipulate emotions.

“Music should ideally never be used as background in a multimedia news story,” cautions Silber.

“News should always be presented as is, without any embellishments, because music is such a powerful manipulator of emotions, and it would interfere with the inherently objective presentation of the story. It would get in the way of the story itself,” he adds.

Where and when to insert music or sound in your story depends on the outcome. The music must be appropriate to the content. If, for example, a speaker is saying something that is sad, the it would be wise to play melancholic music to resonate with the message. The same with any other expected reaction.

Composer Klaus Louis gives the following tips:

The importance of music in a production

o Music played in a piece or production is specifically designed to evoke emotions in the audience;

o The same order follows in films or documentaries. To be able to trigger specific emotions and subliminally control the viewer’s perception of the piece, composers play a certain kind of music or sound at a certain time to narrate the story.

On the criteria for good music selection

o A good composer needs to pay great attention to detail. They are tasked with choosing what the emotion or setting of the scene is to be and write or select according to that;

o There needs to be excellent communication between producer and composer, this is an integral part to get the best possible product and convey the optimal message.

Interested in more? Follow the sources on Twitter at @gussilber, @CampbellEaston and @Klauslouis101

#music #production #copyright #documentary #ethics #multimedia

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