DISCLOSURE: AS AN AMAZON ASSOCIATE I EARN FROM QUALIFYING PURCHASES.
THIS POST MAY CONTAIN AFFILIATE LINKS, MEANING, AT NO ADDITIONAL COST TO YOU, I EARN FROM QUALIFYING PURCHASES. AFFILIATE LINKS ARE MARKED WITH #ad. "I" IN THIS CASE MEANS THE OWNER OF FILMDAFT.COM. PLEASE READ THE FULL DISCLOSURE FOR MORE INFO.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a huge fan of film soundtracks. From The Dark Knight to Harry Potter, from Star Wars to The Godfather, great scores in film can stand on their own and bring to mind the epic, emotional, intense, or action-packed moments they accompanied when you first watched a film.
Doubtless you have favorite tracks from the films you like, and you may be wondering, ‘How do I get great music for my short film?’
There are three main options for developing a great score for your short film. If you have a budget, then hiring a dedicated composer can get you tailor-made music shaped by your direction to fit your film. If a composer is out of your price range but you’ve got some money to spend, there are platforms like Filmstro or Premium Beat that upload editable compositions which you can then tweak to your pleasure. Finally, if the budget is completely spent or you didn’t have one to begin with, royalty-free music from sites like YouTube’s Audio Library or Incompetech provide free music with the stipulation of crediting the creators.
Without further ado, let’s get into more detail below!
Why is Music Important?
On its own, music has transportive and evocative qualities. Used in the right way in film, it can work in tandem with your scenes to elicit the emotional response you want out of your audience. As such, the score is a hugely important part of your film.
Too many first-time or early directors find themselves lost when the time comes to develop music for their short film. They pore over every detail from pre-production to production, oftentimes raising a budget to last them through these two steps. But when post-production rolls around, they realize they haven’t thought about the music at all and don’t know where to start.
The truth is, you should be thinking about the score from the very beginning of your project. I don’t mean that you have to be composing melodies in your head when you should be focusing on the production of your film, but you should have an idea about genre and tone—what feelings you’re trying to evoke with the music in any given part of your film.
Doing this will help you avoid aimless searching brought about by a lack of preparation upon picture lock of your edit.
Hire a Composer
This is your best, most collaborative option if you’ve got the budget to pay for one. There are many great independent composers out there looking for shorts to work on to expand their portfolios.
But where to find them?
As always, film-related Facebook groups are your friend here. Chances are that you’ll find, if not a composer, then someone who knows of one. Don’t stop there. Talk to your friends involved in the arts as well, see if they know someone they can vouch for.
Once you’ve gotten yourself a handy crop of candidates, send them all a test scene from the most recent cut of your film. Give them a little direction: what are you trying to convey in this scene, how do you want it to feel etc. and let them compose you a quick piece for it.
Most composers will be happy to do this. They want to give you a sense of what they can do within the confines of your direction.
Once you’ve got your test scores, then it’s time to choose who you think hit the mark closest to what you were going for. After you’ve narrowed it down, then it’s off to the races.
Working with the Composer
Your composer will give you the opportunity to really control how your score comes into being. Likely as not, you’ll sit down to discuss the themes, mood, tone, and objectives of each scene and the short film as a whole.
Your composer will want to hash out exactly where and when you’re expecting music to play. Usually they’ll want specifics: Time Code A to Time Code B for each spot that requires music.
You’ll also want to identify points of interest within the scenes that will serve to highlight character or story moments with the score. These are commonly manifested as stingers, crescendos and decrescendos, or a marked change in rhythm or melody.
Then it just becomes a dialogue of back-and-forth. The composer will submit rough compositions to you, you’ll give notes, they’ll return with changes, and on and on. Eventually, they’ll have refined the piece to (hopefully) exactly what you’re looking for.
Composers won’t usually work for credit, though; they’ve got to eat, and you’re going to have to pay them. On my short films, I’ve been lucky enough to get a “friend” rate from a composer buddy of mine, but most experienced composers will charge anywhere in the ballpark of $500-$1000 for their services.
Don’t let this discourage you. If your short film is 10-20 minutes long and your budget is small to match, don’t be afraid to negotiate. Be upfront about how much you have to spend. Some composers, especially fresh talent looking to expand their portfolios, will be open to working out a flexible rate that satisfies both of you.
You Don’t Need to be a Musical Prodigy
Don’t worry if you’re not the most musically inclined person. You don’t need to tell them exactly what instruments you want, what time signature, etc. Describing the feelings you’re trying to evoke should be enough.
If you are musical, then by all means get as descriptive as you want. Tell them you want the cellos to come in on beat two of the third measure but before the coda to emphasize the fallibility of your protagonist’s ego, followed by French horns to herald the… you get the idea.
The reason I place composers at the top of the list is that they will give you the most possibilities for scoring a film. The only limit placed on you is the talent of your composer.
These can be good options if you can’t afford a composer’s pay. The two sites I’m going to talk about both offer a measure of control over already-composed pieces, allowing you to use simple methods to alter the components of the music to suit your film. This is pretty cool, so let’s dive in.
Filmstro.com hosts the tagline: “Take control of your soundtrack.” And with three easy elements, it lets you do just that. Filmstro has an ever-expanding library of music broken down in four simple categories: Mood, Film and Video Genre, Music Genre, and Instrumental Palette.
These categories then navigate down into a handful more subcategories, helping you find exactly what you’re looking for. Once you settle on a piece, you are shown three sliders. This is the core of Filmstro’s appeal and ease of use.
The three sliders are labeled Momentum, Depth, and Power. Shifting these left or right will alter the music you are listening to in real time, allowing you to keyframe the track as it progresses to keep the changes you want.
Momentum doesn’t actually change the tempo of the music, but instead introduces or removes instrumental elements to give the suggestion of quickening or slowing pace.
Depth deals with the range of high and low pitch instruments in the piece. All the way left, and it’s all higher pitched instruments, like violins. All the way right, and you get the bassy, low-end instruments. A nice middle ground gives you both.
Power is all about the percussive force behind the track. The further to the right you go, the more drumbeats and driving percussion are going to be introduced. Dialing it all the way left gives you a much quieter, less thumping piece.
And that’s essentially all there is to it.
Filmstro lets you import a clip directly into their app and drag and drop the music you’re trying out. Then it’s up to you to keyframe the three sliders to the levels you’re satisfied with, shifting them as the scene progresses for the changes you’re looking for. Once you’re done, export the audio and drop it into the timeline of your editing platform.
It’s a very simple, intuitive system that nevertheless gives you a decent amount of options and control over the music.
They also provide plug-ins for Premire Pro and Final Cut if too many open windows on your desktop causes you anxiety.
Filmstro has three pricing options: monthly, annually, and a one-off 30-day payment. Annual gives you the best pricing deal, but you pay it all in bulk as a yearly fee.
Within these three options there are three tiers: YouTuber, Pro, and Pro Plus.
YouTuber is the cheapest at $9.99/month and is good for uncommercial videos. So, if you’re not aspiring to sell your short film or get it on a paid streaming platform for viewing, this will work.
Pro clocks in at $24.99/month and is great for commercialized videos you are planning to make some money off of, or that you’re making for a client as part of your business.
Pro Plus is good for just about every commercial enterprise but is priced at a hefty $49.99/month.
You decide what’s right for you.
Like Filmstro, Premium Beat has a large, ever-expanding music library for you to choose from. Unlike Filmstro, Premium Beat charges licensing fees on a per-song basis, but, once you buy it, the song is yours to use in perpetuity, for as many projects as you want (provided it’s not a commercial project, but we’ll get into this more later).
Premium Beat’s library is broken down by genre, mood, duration, beats per minute, artist, and instrument. Most songs come in 15, 30, or 60 second chunks in addition to the actual song duration. You may also download loops of the song up to 6 times in one file.
Some artists upload stems of their work to be included within the realm of the licensing fee, giving you maximum control and the opportunity to change the piece on a project-to-project basis.
Stems are individual threads that together make up the song you’re listening to. Rather than mix down to one file, artists will leave the stems for more editing command. They allow you to enhance or remove individual instruments within the work, providing you with options rather than just one file to be used the same way each time.
Whereas Filmstro is a service, Premium Beat is more of a marketplace for royalty-free (but not cash-free) music.
Premium Beat provides two types of licenses for a relatively simple purchasing experience. The standard license is $59 per song. If you’re making a short film destined first for festivals and then ultimately YouTube or Vimeo, then this license will work for you, for unlimited projects, so long as they are all non-commercial.
The standard license also works for revenue-generating films to an extent. Let’s say you’re selling copies of your short at its local theater premiere. The standard license will cover you for up to 1000 units sold. After that, you have to go premium.
The premium license costs considerably more. For $199, you gain access to a song that can be used in marketing and strictly for-profit work. If your film is opening in theaters and selling tickets, or selling more than 1000 copies, or you’re putting it up on Amazon Prime or Netflix, this is the license for you. Hey, if you’ve gotten lucky enough for a deal with Netflix, you’ll probably make that $199 back anyways.
The one downside of the premium license is that, since your project will be making money, the license is valid only for that one project, and nothing else you may have down the line. Making another short film in a year or two and want to use the same song? Better dig out that wallet.
If you’re strapped for cash at the moment but aren’t quite up to using your little brother’s high school garage band screamo records, then it’s time to check out some truly free music sites.
YouTube Audio Library
If you visit https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/music, you’ll find pages and pages of license-free, cost-free, music at your disposal. YouTube made this library for creators who were suffering from silent video due to copyright strikes on their content.
You don’t have to be a YouTuber to take advantage, however. Anyone can download the tracks they want for any outside project, and a great majority of them have no attribution rules, meaning they don’t need any kind of crediting back to the artist. It’s still a nice thing to do, but no one is going to come after you for electing not to.
That’s not a blanket statement, however. A few of the tracks are licensed under Creative Commons and do require some kind of crediting. For tracks marked with the Creative Commons symbol, check the song description on how to properly credit the composer. You can just copy and paste this into your credits.
As an added bonus, they have sound effects too!
To access the YouTube Audio Library, you must have a google account. That’s it.
Composer Kevin MacLeod has for years been running Incompetech, a website dedicated to completely free music. He has a variety of tracks covering a wealth of genres, so there’s a good chance you’ll find what you’re looking for.
Unlike most of YouTube’s Audio Library, Incompetech’s music does fall under the Creative Commons license. What that means is that, while the music doesn’t cost anything to use, you must credit any songs used in your short film.
When clicking on the piece you want, there is a little blurb at the bottom you can copy and paste into your credits to properly recognize Kevin MacLeod and his work.
It’ll look something like this:
Title by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Credit each piece you use individually.
If crediting isn’t your thing, Incompetech also provides standard music licenses that you can pay for through PayPal. One piece is $30, two are $25 each, and three or more are $20 each, so if you’re going to buy, buy in bulk.
ccMixter is a site made up of completely user-contributed content. Artists upload their work in the hopes of getting their names and tracks out into the digital ether, you find said work, you put it into your project, audiences love it and ask about it, you point them to the above artist, and boom, everybody’s happy.
While the search function is less robust than the previous options mentioned above, there is a solid library of work available on ccMixter, and it’s getting bigger all the time.
The caveat, again: ccMixter operates under the Creative Commons license, so the artist needs to be credited if you use their work. It’s only fair.
Your Favorite Artist
Provided they’re not an internationally renowned pop star or Jay-Z, some independent artists might be receptive to letting other indie creatives use their work. If that rapper you follow on SoundCloud or the indie punk band whose Facebook page you like has a way to contact them, it might be worth a shot.
Tell them you’re an indie filmmaker working on a short film and you’re a fan of their work, etc. See if they’d be willing to let you use a song of theirs in your film for free, credit, or a tiny fee.
Make sure you get it in writing before moseying off to the festivals with someone else’s copywritten work.
Let the Tracks Wash Over You
This article by no means lists every single place you can find licensed, royalty-free, or completely free music on the internet, but with the tips and links above, the road ahead of you should be well-stocked with choice musical opportunities for your short film.
The bottom line is, no matter your budgetary restrictions, finding unique, high-quality music to accompany your short film is not impossible.
So, toss your brother’s failed EP back into your box of childhood memories where it belongs and say goodbye to the days where a howling wind on the mic was the closest thing you had to a score.
You’re ready for the real deal. Now, get scoring! Do you have experience with some other royalty-free music websites you can recommend to independent short filmmakers? Drop us a line in the comments below and enlighten us!
If you want to learn more about royalty free music in general and get some additional tips for where you can find free as well as paid royalty free music, I recommend that you read our article Guide: Royalty Free Music For Video. What, Why, Where, How?
About the author
Nikola Stojković is a writer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. His short films have screened at festivals across the USA. When not shooting, he enjoys writing film reviews and playing his accordion, Fortunata.