You’re a songwriter. You’ve got dozens of songs that you’ve written and recorded. Maybe you wrote them for yourself hoping to perform them one day. Maybe you wrote them to pitch to other artists. Either way, these songs have been sitting around for some time now and you want to do SOMETHING with them – ANYTHING. So, you think to yourself “Maybe I can get this song placed on a film or television show.”
Stop! Erase that thought now! It’s probably not going to happen. Why? Because you didn’t write the song for film/tv and you probably don’t know the rules about writing for that medium.
Yep! Sorry to say, film/tv has it’s own rules. A lot of people think that it’s just the collecting place for songs that can’t find a home anywhere else but that’s totally not the case. Many of the songs you hear on your favorite shows,were written by a songwriter like myself who has studied the rules of writing for film/tv. So, what are these rules? That’s what I’m going to share with you in this article.
First, let me give a huge shout out to Karen Marie Mason who gave me the idea to write this article.
Second, let me give you some background on who I am.
About two years ago I decided to focus on writing for tv/film. I knew a few people who were successfully getting regular placements on big tv shows. After talking with them, it seemed like obtaining placements for myself was definitely a reasonable goal.
Step one: I joined TAXI – the A&R organization. I had some experience dealing with them so I knew they were legit. Plus, many of the successful composers I knew with tv/film placements got their start with TAXI.
The first year as a member was quite eye-opening. I considered myself a good writer, but I learned a whole lot about making my songs stronger. By year two my songs were landing in the hands of some really reputable film/tv publishers. Then, in year three, my songs started appearing in a number of highly watched shows. By the end of 2015, my music had been included in Revenge (ABC), Chicago Fire (NBC), Shameless (Showtime), The Fosters (ABC Family), Dash Dolls and MTV’s Tru Life.
One of the critical things I learned in that first year was the difference between songs that an artist will sing and songs that are synced to the screen.
With a recording artist, it is important that the song tells a complete story. You’re relying on your lyrics, melody and the artist’s vocal delivery to move the listener emotionally. Doing this requires as many descriptive and emotional details as you can fit in a 3:20 song.
Writing for screen is a totally different. In this case, the screen is already telling a story – the actors, the background setting and the dialog are all working together to give the listener an experience. Music is often needed to accentuate or add to the story that’s being told. However, it can’t conflict or take away or tell a different story from the one that’s already on the screen.
While descriptive details are quite helpful in artist songs, in songs for the screen, too many details can be conflicting.
For example, say you’ve got a great song about heartbreak. Awesome, there are lots of film scenes that could use an emotional heartbreak song. But if your opening line is “She left me on a Monday” well suddenly your song only works for shows where the breakup actually occurred on a Monday.
Or, let’s say it’s a scene where two lovers realize that they can’t be without one another and they start running through the country field towards each other. As they embrace in the middle, your song “You were made for me” comes on. Perfect. But then in the 2nd verse, when you say “You’re the prettiest girl in NY city and your red dress caught my eye” everything is ruined. Why? Because this scene isn’t shot in a city and the main actress is actually wearing a white dress.
See where I’m going? For film, LESS details are needed, not more. This leaves room for the screen to tell the rest of the story.
So, am I saying that songs for tv/film needs to be simplistic and basic and devoid of any substance? Not at all! Quite the contrary. For where songs for screen lack descriptive detail, they fill that space with tons and tons of “EMOTIONAL DETAILS”.
So, if I’m writing for screen, I may not include descriptions of locations or clothing or physical features. Instead, I can really dig deeper into the true emotion of the song. If it’s a heartbreak song, there’s lots that I can say about the physical pain I feel about the relationship being over. I can describe my eyes which no longer function because they can’t see anyone but you. I can describe the stomach pains I feel from not being able to eat. I can describe the long nights laying awake, staring at the ceiling (but I don’t describe the ceiling) wondering where I went wrong and thinking about what I should have done differently.
Interestingly, writing for film and tv has actually made my songs for artists even stronger – because I have learned to write songs with nothing but emotional detail. Being able to add that emotion to artist songs has made them that much more compelling.
So, there you have it. If you want to write for tv & film, you have to learn to write with lots of emotional detail.
If you would like to learn more, an excellent resource is a book by Robin Frederick called “Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV”. You can find it on Amazon.
If you’d like to get access to the rest of this series where I discuss how to get your music on television and film, sign up for my newsletter by clicking on this link
Again, I want to thank Karen Marie Mason for the idea to write this blog. Karen is full of amazing marketing and branding ideas for musicians. She shares a lot of these ideas on the Artist Launch group on Facebook which she founded. If you’re a musician or recording artist looking for ways to thrive in today’s music industry, check out the Artist Launch group at the following link.