Part 4: Using Licenced or Orchestrated Music

It would very ignorant to simply say that music is an afterthought to be completed in editing. Some of cinema’s most memorable scenes are based around pre-existent songs or orchestrated music. It is important to recognise the effectiveness of music to enhance the emotional impact at the scene.

Many filmmakers have to work around a limited budget/scope for music. Using copyrighted material is expensive, but so is hiring an orchestra. Royalty free music is a godsend when starting off; the same tricks apply though.

As with every cinematic technique, what works for one may not work for another. So put some thought into how you are going to do it. Here are some examples of unique uses of licenced and orchestrated music in Hollywood movies.

Licenced Music

Editing a sequence to the rhythmic beats of established songs can make a film moment much more memorable and impactful. Look at Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” in the movie Shallow Grave—they work very well together to create a sardonic ending to a comically dark movie.

This video belongs to Polygram Entertainment. All rights reserved.

In Apocalypse Now, the lyrics of “The End” by The Doors are excised as the main character is killing Colonel Kurtz. All sound is drowned out and the use of the music alone creates a very distinctive scene.

This video belongs to United Artists. All rights reserved.

Many films use music as signifiers of time and genre. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is the one of the main representations of the 1960s in movies. If you are going to use licensed songs, you should be careful though (and not just of copyright laws).

Overexposure can turn to cliché and a song loses its strength and originality. Suicide Squad was panned for its unoriginal licenced soundtrack—try and find a unique song or one that clashes tonally with the actions in the scene, such as in An American Werewolf in London.

This video belongs to Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

The ending here is very dramatic, with the likeable main character being killed and his girlfriend crying over his dead body. The scene then abruptly cuts to credits with an upbeat rendition of “Blue Moon”. This works because your emotion goes from horror to laughter in a second because of how surreal and unexpected this is. This is a great example of a director breaking the rules to play with the audience.

No Music, Just Sound

It is also important to know when not to use music. For example, the shootouts in Heat and Taxi Driver feel very gritty and realistic as the lack of music allows us to hone in on the sound of the action itself. Once again, this is a case of playing with your audience—do not use music where they are expecting it.

This video belongs to Warner Bros. All rights reserved.

(Go to 4:18. Or just watch it all, it’s a fantastic scene.)

Original Music

On the flip side, it is hard to imagine some scenes without music. The theme in the last scene of The Long Good Friday compliments the superb facial expressions of Bob Hoskins, from shock, to anger, to acceptance. Without music, it would just be 2 minutes of a man in the back seat of a car.

This video belongs to HandMade Films. All rights reserved.


Or perhaps you want to get a sense of epicness and scope …

This video belongs to United Artists. All rights reserved.


.. or triumph and victory …

 This video belongs to United Artists. All rights reserved.


In Conclusion …

Of course, there are hundreds of further examples but you get the idea. If you want to use either licenced music or orchestrated, the most important thing is to be original and be different.

I am going to end this article with one of my favourite uses of music from one of my favourite movies, Once Upon a Time in America. If none of the other examples convince you that music is more than background noise to propel the action, sit back and watch this.  Don’t forget the tissues.

This video belongs to Warner Bros. All rights reserved.


Are there movie soundtracks that stand out in your mind? Let us know in the comments below.

Also, be sure to check out the other articles in our five part series on filmmaking:

Part 1 — Cinematic History: How Silent Film Changed Hollywood

Part 2 — Storytelling: Twisting the Plot

Part 3 — The Voice: The Voice and Narration

Part 5 — The Camera: The Camera as a Character

5 thoughts on “Part 4: Using Licenced or Orchestrated Music

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