Theme Music

Theme Music: A Guide for Filmmakers & Content Creators

What is theme music?

Theme music is a piece of music that is memorable that can be a powerful standalone piece of music, often played on intro’s, outro’s and key scenes in a film, video game, play or other piece of content. Theme music often becomes the key piece of music associated with a film, which stands out from the background. 

Theme music is an important tool for filmmakers, yet, it is often overlooked. Many see it as an expensive indulgence or something for the “Hollywood folk”.

When used correctly, it can transform your indie film and capture the imagination of your audience. When used wrongly, it can be a disaster and an annoyance to your audience.

To get the most out of your musical film score, it is important to learn the fundamentals about what theme music is and how best to use it in your content.

Why is theme music important?

When it comes to music in film, music is a tool to help tell your story.

Different tools have different functions and background music and theme music have two very different functions when producing a film and telling a story.

People often think of theme music as the signature song of the film. Think of your main “Star Wars” theme music or “Indiana Jones” theme music or “Harry Potter” theme music. The list is endless…

Yes, it is often played at the intro, outro and everywhere else in a film, but it is so much more than just a catchy tune and can take any production to new heights.

It is a very valuable tool that is often overlooked by indie filmmakers. Theme music is seen as some expensive, “Hollywood thing”, however, if used correctly, theme music can bring any film to life.

You don’t need a massive budget or commissioned composer – you just need the right tune, used correctly.

Download Link to Music Licensing Checklist for Filmmakers

How do you pick great theme music for your film?

The instinct for so many filmmakers is to rush out and start googling “big film score” and hunt down epic orchestral pieces but this is not necessarily the best approach.

Here is a great search tip to get you on the right track to finding the perfect theme music:

1 – Get an image of your main character in action.

2 – Find a song you like, look at your main characters image and decide if they “fit”. Does the “attitude” of the song fit the “attitude” of your character?

Look at the picture of your character and listen to the song. Do they match? If your main character was a musician, is this the instrument and melody they would perform or jam along to?

If the answer is yes to the above, then you have a clear connection between your main character and the theme song. This is what you want. Your main character and theme music should align.

Again, think of the classic movie themes like “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones” and “Back to the Future”. The classic theme music for each of these movies align beautifully with the main character. 

What you should be looking for in great theme music?

Choosing your theme music is hard because, well, most theme music is great. It is designed by us humble composers to grab your attention and get you listening.

If you are not commissioning your theme music you will probably be trawling through libraries of stock music sites getting overwhelmed.

This is a mind numbing task so try to keep focused.

Always have the image of your main character in mind. Listen to the main melody of the theme music. Does it match your main character?  Ask yourself – “does this melody represent my main character when they are truly being themselves”.

Forget how much you love the music, always think about the connection between the theme music and your main character. This is what you need to look for.

How to sync theme music in your film?

So lets assume you have picked your theme music, congratulations!

Next, we need to look at syncing the music to use it to the best effect.

Many new filmmakers just play theme music everywhere; intro, outro, action shots, no action shots….this will completely lose the impact of the music.

Syncing theme music can be very tricky and is an art form, but I can show you a shortcut to get you up and running quickly.

One of the keys to syncing theme music is to use “theme variations” and only allow the main theme music to play when your main character is in shot.

Let’s look at the classic theme music & film “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” as an example.

Obviously, for copyright reasons I can’t post bits of the film on here, so I have linked to the official Paramount Trailer hosted by YouTube Movies as an example. This is re-posted purely for educational purposes.

Watch the trailer below and note that the famous “Indiana Jones” theme music melody is only played when Indiana is in shot and in a moment of great triumph, action and success.

It is not played continuously. If it was, it would not be such a loved melody!

©Paramount International – “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”.

The rest of the trailer has different variations of the main music theme. Low evil horns for the bad guys, horn stabs for the action shots etc; all variations of the main theme music, but not the classic “Indiana Jones” melody.

The classic “Indiana Jones” melody is reserved for shots of Indiana in moments of glory or action.

The entire film is produced like this, with Indiana Jones, the bad guy, the little boy (Short Round) and the love interest, all having different melodies that play when they are in shot. The music is constantly reinforcing their character and story line.

One of my favorite music scores of all time is the famous “rail cart chase scene” in the Temple of Doom. As the camera shots jump from Indiana, to love interest (Willie Scott), to evil guy, to Short Round, the music jumps effortless and changes theme instantly. It is shamelessly obvious but gloriously effective.

Again, you will notice that the main “Indiana Jones” theme music melody that we all know is reserved for shots of Indiana only.

Where to find original theme music for your film?

Stock music libraries that offer good theme music which sounds original and unique can be very difficult to find.

This is because mainstream stock music libraries deliberately keep music bland and generic. This is not an insult to the stock libraries – theme music does not sell very well as it is harder to sync and is very dependent on musical taste, therefore, it is not a favorite for stock music libraries as it is harder to sell to the general public.

Finding a composer is a better approach. Composers, like myself, are not looking to satisfy the masses so you can find music with strong theme music melodies on my site.

Alternately, you could search through sites such as Soundcloud and find an independent composer.

If you are going to do this, ensure you check out my music licencing checklist, to ensure you licence the music correctly:

Download Link to Music Licensing Checklist for Filmmakers

Final Thoughts…

Remember, theme music is not just for the big Hollywood blockbusters, it is an important tool to help reinforce the story line of a character.

It is more important that the music is suited to your main character and story than for the music to be some amazing epic tune or top ten hit.

Use your theme music wisely and do not overbear your audience with the tune. Play it only when your main character is in shot and this will subliminally communicate your characters emotions and intent to the audience.

Avoid trawling through stock music libraries when looking for theme music as this music is often designed to be generic background music. Look for something original and unique from an independent composer such as LouiseByrneMusic or SoundCloud.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as a guide only for educational and informational purposes. It is not legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters.

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