If you create videos on a regular basis, you’ve no doubt discovered the importance of a great soundtrack. Usually more than anything else, the music you use will be what either sells the video on an emotional level or causes it to fall flat.
The visuals are- of course- extremely important. But music has a way of connecting with your audience on a deeper level, often in ways that they don’t even realize. And the more tightly the soundtrack is integrated with high-quality visuals, the more powerful and memorable the piece will be.
So how do you cohesively integrate sound and image?
1. Music First
When I first began making videos I more often than not treated the soundtrack as an afterthought. I would develop an idea, create the visuals, animate them or edit the piece together, and only then after I was ‘finished’ would I start thinking about music.
This of course meant that the soundtrack was essentially force-fit onto the video I had already created, with widely varying results. And by that I mean the videos ranged from bad to meh.
Eventually I came to realize that I was probably going about this whole enterprise backwards; instead of treating the soundtrack as an afterthought, I should begin the piece with the soundtrack in mind.
This shift in process had an immediate effect on the quality of my videos, and as I began to more intentionally incorporate music into the process from the beginning, the more cohesive and polished my videos became.
There are significant advantages to beginning with the soundtrack in mind. Firstly, the choice of music will set the mood and flavor of your piece, which will affect your editing or animating decisions (a lot more on this later). It will also force you to think through timing, how you get from point A to point B. It can also give you predefined limits on length.
I have come to treat the soundtrack now as the most important piece of the video puzzle, since it sets the tone for everything else. While I will still develop the idea and often create the visuals before out of necessity, when I get down to the business of making the video I want to make sure I have a soundtrack nailed down and one that will capture everything I want to viewer to think and feel and experience.
And since music can make this happen on a subconscious level, it takes a lot of hard work away from the whole process and allows the visuals to do what they are best at.
I will often select 2-3 top choices and edit them to around the length of video that I know I will need. And while this probably annoys my co-workers in the next room, I will usually crank up the music and listen to each for quite a long time with my eyes closed, listening for the dynamics and transitions, trying to discover points of interest and ways to have the visuals interact.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Music is as important to your video as the visuals, so make sure you intentionally carve out enough time to find the right track. It is something that will immediately make or break your video, so don’t skimp on this portion of the process.[/pullquote]
2. Be Moody
Music is great at setting moods, and is so much better at this than the visuals that if you don’t get it right you can end up selling the entirely wrong mood in spite of yourself.
Imagine the classic Tim Burton movie The Nightmare Before Christmas. It has a kind of creepy-quirky feel to it overall, both in the visuals and in the sound effects and music. Now imagine if the music was was replaced with the music from something like Winnie-the-Pooh. It would not matter how good the visuals were; the wrong music would completely undermine the mood, and everything would feel off. You would not get the sense of creepy-quirky; it would just feel disjointed and you would immediately wonder what was wrong. In fact, the normal suspension of disbelief that the movie is supposed to evoke would be completely dismantled, all because of a change in soundtrack.
The videos you create, while probably of a smaller scope, all operate on a similar principle. It is vitally important that you make the visuals and the music coalesce. You may think your video is about communicating information or something along those lines, but you would be wrong. Your video is about conveying a feeling, to grab the viewer on an emotional level that allows them to then be receptive to the information.
Setting the right mood with music helps to remove barriers from the viewing experience, by weaving the piece into a seamless whole. Just like a Winnie-the-Pooh soundtrack with The Nightmare Before Christmas would be a tough sell, so the wrong soundtrack with your piece will immediately raise barriers with your viewers, even if they don’t realize it. The video will feel off, and it’s a feeling that is tough to shake or overcome, no matter how compelling the visuals.
As I create my videos, I try to think of what sort of mood the visuals I have created convey. It’s often more a question of nuance, since some visual styles immediately lend themselves to certain musical moods, or at least immediately discount others.
For example, I do a lot of illustration, and sometimes that falls into a flat aesthetic. With this sort of visual style, more epic or dark sounding soundtracks really don’t work, since more often than not this style has more of a bright feel to it. When I start to look at the pieces and think about how I might want to animate, this sort of visual style usually feels best with something upbeat, happy, bouncy, etc.
In fact, it will probably have a ukulele in it.
With other pieces like documentary style interviews, there is often more of an emotional component, and so I want the soundtrack to fit that. I did a video where a woman talked about losing her husband, how she struggled with that, but how she found care and support later on. For this type of piece a happy bouncy track would not only be out of place, but would actually be wildly inappropriate for the subject matter. Instead, I found a piece that had a kind of subdued mood, but ended on a more positive note, even though it still carried a kind of melancholy feel throughout. It ended up being a really powerful piece, both because of the content and the music support.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Music will set the mood for your video, whether you want it to or not, so make sure you choose something that not only fits but also accentuates the overall feel. Try to associate your visual style or the content with an emotion, and use that to help select an appropriate track.[/pullquote]
3. Let the Music Guide You
In my early years of video producing I always found a new project more daunting than it should have been. I felt like I had to conjure up this entire idea from scratch, and then somehow force some kind of creativity onto the screen.
And believe me, many of my early efforts were definitely forced.
But as I came to understand the importance of music to my videos more and more, I realized that I was trying to make my visuals do the heavy lifting that the music was meant to do. (And let’s be honest, I very often failed.) I didn’t yet understand that music not only sets the mood, but can also influence (if not outright dictate) the timing and the flow. There is a lot of overlap and nuance to all these things, but when the music and visuals start clicking together you end up getting something that just works.
As you plan out your video, let your ideas and visuals direct you to where you want to go, but let the music help get you there.
Some video styles and tracks make this easier than others. For example, one of our interns created a short highlight/wrap-up reel of our church’s VBC this past summer. We had him basically take the project from start to finish, and he did a great job with it.
Knowing in advance that it needed to be a quick, upbeat piece that showed a lot of clips in a short period of time, he selected a track that had a great driving feel with lots of edit points. He let the flow of music drive the shots forward, and even did some clever editing in places to really sell the feel of what was going on without having to linger on anything too long.
If you are working on a piece like this, let the beats help you move the video along. It might seem like something obvious, but if you don’t hit those beats (or even the offbeats), something is going to feel off and your piece won’t have as much impact. Listen also for the instrumentation, especially in pieces like this. Sometimes a strong guitar or synth lead can give you edit points that change things up and give a little variety.
Other pieces won’t have as clearly or strongly defined beats or edit points, and usually with a piece like this your visuals are going to probably mimic that feel (or at least they should, if you are using this soundtrack!) Listen for transitions in musical phrasing, which can serve as visual transitions as well.
Also be mindful of dynamics. Some tracks will have what I call a “break-down” in the middle, which is where the dynamics of the piece essentially drop out or become much more low-key. If you have a powerful driving track that does this, this can be a great place to really sell an emotional point of the visuals, since the change in dynamics signals something different, and thus something that causes you to snap back into paying attention. A lot of times this will be followed by a build-up back into the main structure of the piece to close out, which is where you can drive home the messaging of your visuals.
There are of course innumerable other ways that music can guide your piece, but you have to listen for it and learn to do what I call “seeing-in-music.” What I mean is that after enough time really studying a track and all its dynamics and transitions and phrasing and nuances, and after enough experience making videos, you can begin to see how your visuals interact with certain sections of a track. It’s a little hard to describe, but you begin to associate certain movements in your visuals with certain movements in a music track, and begin to perceive relationships between them that- when everything is at its best- feels really organic and almost meant to be.[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Music can be an invaluable way to move your piece towards where you want it to go. Take the time to study the track you are going to use and find ways to let the visuals cohere with your music.[/pullquote]
Successfully incorporating music into your videos is not an easy thing to do, but it is definitely an important thing to do. There is an art to it, which can only be honed by practice. I hope that some of these points will be helpful as you go out there and make awesome things!