Writing Songs for Film & TV

My Song Coach

Movie SlateThousands of songs are used in TV shows, films, and commercials each year. For every song that’s placed, many are auditioned – often hundreds – but only one is chosen. And you want that song to be yours.

The song that will get the job is the one that enhances the emotion and memorability of the scene for the viewers. Is a character discovering real love for the first time? The song needs to evoke that feeling of innocence, yearning, and wonder for the audience. Is the film set in a small town in the 1950s? The song needs to make us feel that we’ve traveled back to another time and place.  And the right song can bring the whole thing to life!

With that in mind, it may seem a little strange that most of the songs that are placed in film and TV are written and recorded first, then pitched to these projects. Many of these songs are part of a CD released by an independent artist or band – that’s right, they’re not signed to mainstream record labels and publishers.

While these songs were being written and recorded, there was no way to know how they might eventually be used in a film or TV show. So, if you don’t know how your song will be used, how can you craft it to increase your chances of a placement?  Well, let’s just say that some songs work better than others. Here are a few tips that will help you write a song that will work for dozens of scenes.

Keep Your Lyric Universal

Music users in the film and TV market often say they’re looking for songs with “universal lyrics.” But just what does that mean?

A universal lyric is…

  • A lyric that a large number of people can identify with or relate to.
  • A lyric that will not conflict with the specific content of a scene.

A good lyric for film and TV is universal enough to allow the song to be used in a variety of scenes while still maintaining integrity, originality, and focus.

Of course, no song will work for every scene but some themes and situations occur more frequently than others – falling in love, breaking up, or overcoming adversity, for example. If you choose one of these, you’re more likely to be successful. Watch a few TV episodes and look for common themes. Chances are you’re already using some of them in your songs.

Imagery, emotional detail, and a fresh approach to your theme will all add muscle to a universal lyric, making it more appealing to film and TV. On the other hand, too many specific physical details, like place names, proper names, and dates, will limit the uses because they may conflict with the details in the scene itself. If your song is called “I Love You, Sheila” it could be confusing to viewers if there’s no character named Sheila in the scene.

Learn more about adding images and emotion to your lyric.

Express Mood & Energy in your music

Filmmakers have always used instrumental music to communicate mood, energy, and atmosphere to the audience, from soaring love themes to the high anxiety of a fast-paced action cue. As songs have grown in popularity with viewers, they’re being used to replace some of that instrumental music. A song that works well for film and TV is one that, like an instrumental cue, uses melody, chords, pace, and rhythm to evoke a single mood or energy level.

If you’ve written an uptempo song about a wild party or a slow song about lost love, you’re already using tempo (pace) and rhythm to express energy or mood. Songwriters often do this instinctively, but you can hone that ability for the film and TV market, making your music even more expressive and useable. Like a film composer, you can choose a tempo and groove that physically express the energy level you want, then back it up with chords melody, and lyrics.

Watch a few scenes with instrumental accompaniment. You’ll hear it under almost any emotional scene. Notice how the composer evokes feelings. Is it a slow pace with a  long smooth melody line? Or is it a fast, choppy piece? Minor or major? Try writing a song using some of those melodic tools to create an emotional feel.

Do you know how to rewrite your melody and make it unforgettable? Find out.

Make an Instrumental Mix

While you’re arranging and recording your song, you’re creating something more, something that can provide many additional pitching opportunities for you and earn extra income. It’s a “song bed,” also known as a track-only mix, instrumental mix, or TV mix. Your song’s instrumental track, minus the vocal, is a stand-alone piece of music that can be in scenes, commercials, promo spots, and trailers.

Television uses millions of pieces of instrumental background music, or “cues,” each year. While feature films have a music budget that allows instrumental music to be written expressly for a scene, many television shows and networks rely on music libraries to fill their needs. These music users need everything from powerhouse Rock instrumentals to intimate, solo piano pieces. The track you created to accompany your song can be edited, rearranged, stripped down, and remixed to fill the needs of this market.

Once you have your song bed, you can create instrumental cues of different lengths, add or mute instruments to vary the texture and dynamics, or replace the lead vocal with an instrument.

Study the market

Notice what works and what doesn’t by watching shows that use a lot of songs, like Grey’s Anatomy, 90210, Hart of Dixie, The Vampire Diaries, or Pretty Little Liars. Try playing one of your own songs under a scene or two. Does it add to the emotional depth or energy of the scene? If not, then write a new song that you think would work.

Music Libraries pitch songs to film and TV shows and they’re interested in songs that will work for these uses. You can submit your demo to many music libraries through TAXI.com. Some Music Libraries, like 5 Alarm Music will accept submissions online. (Click on the link and scroll down to “Submissions” for instructions.) you don’t need to be an established artist or have lots of fans. They just want good songs that will work.

by Robin Frederick

Robin's books at Amazon.comThis post is based on my songwriting books: Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting, Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV, Study the Hits, and The 30-Minute Songwriter. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.

Reprints of this article by permission.

Author: Robin Frederick

Robin Frederick is the author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. She has written and produced more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records and Executive Producer of 60 albums. Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.