Using Background Music

Sound | By: indie

Using Background Music To Set The Mood

Say you’ve already assembled a bunch of background music for your film, or you at least have some in mind and know where you want to put it. If you can’t recognize instruments by how they sound, or don’t have much experience in the way of identifying them, here’s a quick breakdown of some of the fundamental elements of organized sound to help you make sure none of your scenes go without just the right background music.

Lyrical or Instrumental?

You can almost always use instrumental background music (ie., music that has no lyrical content) to flesh out a scene. There are only certain instances, however, where lyrical music will work. In cut scenes or montages, for
instance, it is generally acceptable to use pop songs or other lyrical music to fill the space, but in scenes with
dialogue its use may be distracting. We’ll talk more about lyrics and vocal content later; first let’s go over some
of the ways you can identify appropriate sounds for instrumental (non-lyrical) music.


Orchestral music comes in many forms and styles; it’s generally composed by using several different
instruments, or groups of instruments, to create layers of sound. The basic units in a full orchestra are
percussion, strings, brass, and woodwinds. Each can be used in a number of
ways to build tension, soften a moment, or provide an interlude to the action.


This section includes not only ‘toneless’ instruments like drums and shakers, but also xylophones, timpani,
and bells. Percussion instruments usually include anything that is played by being struck with a hand, stick, or
other implement.

Percussion’s main focus is to bring rhythm to a song; it provides a beat and moves the piece along. Music
without percussion is generally classified as ambient because it is more like a presence in the air than a
steadily moving piece of background music. In practice, percussion has a wide array of uses depending on the beat it
produces. It can add a relaxed tone if the beat is swingy or jazzy, while a driving rhythm adds tension.


Violins, cellos, the upright bass, guitars, harps, and even pianos are all stringed instruments. Stringed
instruments use tightly wound cords that vibrate at a certain frequency when strummed, rubbed, or

The strings are the glue that holds a piece together; their presence envelopes a song and add padding to
it. More than any other instrument group, stringed instruments are masters of sustain and
resonance. This means that a note on a stringed instrument can be held for a long time after the
musician has played it. Other groups have instruments like this, but just about every stringed instrument has
this ability without any extra effort on the part of the musician.

Strings can be used in the background or at the forefront of a musical piece, but in either case they are
exceptionally good at building or breaking down tension.


Instruments included in the brass section are trumpets, french horns, tubas, trombones, and coronets.
Sound is produced when the vibration of the instrumentalist’s lips in conjunction with the mouthpiece, funnels
the air through a series of tubes. By using buttons or finger pads to shorten or lengthen these tubes, the musician is able to change the pitch of each note.

Brass instruments are bold and loud, and they can add strength and presence to a song. Whether it’s a
rousing, triumphant piece or a quiet and flowing melody, brass instruments are used to convey confidence,
fortitude, and resilience.


Woodwinds provide a smooth, flowing texture to an orchestral arrangement. They include the clarinet, oboe, saxophone, piccolo, and flute. A woodwind makes sound when the musician blows through it, either causing a reed to vibrate or a seal of air to form across a properly aligned hole in the instrument.

The audible quality created by woodwind instruments can be deep and sombre or light and flitting. Either way, they tend to be warm and fluid.

Instrumentation and Orchestral Music

Knowing how these four instrument groups work together, you can start to get a feel for what kinds of things you should be looking for when assembling your background music. When was the last time you watched a horror movie that didn’t have lots of creepy woodwinds in the background? Or a war movie with no brass? A comedy without lots of catchy beats and irreverent melody lines?


A person singing is often one of the most recognizable traits of a song. Not only do most humans have a higher capacity for identifying the sound of a human voice than we do an instrument, but so long as we can understand the words they’re also more meaningful and can be easier to remember. The rule for using songs with vocals within your background music is to either place them where there’s no dialogue, or keep the volume very low when you use them in speaking scenes.

Electronic Music

With looping programs, it’s possible to create free background music that isn’t derived from any type of real-life instrument. These programs or other techno, house, or trance music may be the perfect thing for your video or film’s background music, and in these cases just use whatever sounds good.

Be sure to check out my other articles on sound design and effects for more information. There is a ton of information throughout the site that will help you build your familiarity with and mastery of various audio production techniques and methods in addition to just background music.


Comment from Steve Twyning
Time: January 22, 2012, 4:26 pm

Hi Jay. I’m a final year university student currently working on my dissertation, which consists of film score composition and sound design. Your section on background music was very helpful, and I was wondering if you would be willing to send me your full name so I can reference you accordingly? Cheers again.


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