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Writing documentary music is a skill with many similarities to writing music for narrative fiction.

But there are also a few differences.

This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Kruk, a composer specialising in documentary music. Michael has written the music for a whole host of projects, including documentaries for the BBC and those narrated by the beloved David Attenborough.

Listen to the full interview here:

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If you want to learn the ins and outs of composing for TV & documentaries, here’s Michael’s book that we talk about in the show:

An Introduction to Writing Music For Television

an introduction to writing music for television - documentary music

And to expand on our conversation, here are my nine top tips for scoring documentaries.

#1 Decide On The Message

Documentaries tell stories. Most documentaries also carry an important message – whether it’s about climate change, suicide, politics, etc.

Before you write a single note, you need to work out what that message is and how you’re going to work with it. And trust me, you have a lot of power to change the message with your music, so don’t take this step lightly. More on that in tip #4…

Make sure you talk in depth with the director (or executive) about what direction they’d like you to go in with your music.

#2 Figure Out The Story, Mood, and Tone

Once you know the overall message of the documentary, now you need to focus on the story.

And how do you do that?

By listening to the voiceover!

Listen to what the narrator is telling you, figure out the story for the scene you’re working on, and decide how to best portray that musically.

At this stage you could also work out the basic arc of your music – what mood or tone will be set at each point? Are there any hit points that you’re aiming for? Where’s the climax of each scene?

#3 Don’t Influence The Audience

Now…this one is a little contentious.

On the one hand, the audience needs to know how to feel. And the music usually tells them that.

But, for some subjects, you also want to let the audience form their own opinions. After all, a good documentary is like good journalism : it aims to simply show the truth.

It’s not propaganda.

Your music should tell the audience how to feel, but not how to think.

[bctt tweet=”Your music should tell the audience how to feel, but not how to think.”]

#4 Foreground / Background Music

For each scene you need to decide the purpose of the music.

I know what you’re thinking : “Jonny…you’ve told us to work out the message, the story, and that we’re not allowed to tell the audience how to think…what other ‘purpose’ could we possibly think about???”

Well, you’ll be pleased to know that I mean this point a little more practically.

You need to work out how much of a focal point each part of your music will be.

Sometimes the onscreen action will be absolutely gripping, or maybe the narrator is giving us some really important information.

At those points, the music needs to be background music.

That means no distracting themes or noises. The music needs to sit behind the story.

At other times, the visuals might be slow, maybe even boring. This is where your music comes to the foreground, and you can help the listener decide how they should be feeling (since the visuals / voiceover might not be doing that for them anymore).

#5 Don’t Necessarily Aim for “Authenticity”

Two words: cultural appropriation.

If you’re scoring a nature documentary set in the Indian wild, the temptation is to go straight for ‘Indian music’…

…the problem is that so many composers have no idea how to create authentic ‘Indian music’. 

It can be a bit like a Subway ‘Sandwich Artist’ attempting to throw together a Baked Alaska (which I’m told is difficult…I’m not a chef though…).

I mean absolutely no offence to Subway ‘Sandwich Artists’ – anyone would struggle to create something with little-to-no training on how to actually create it.

And, as we know, becoming a proficient composer is a huge task in itself – attempting to quickly become proficient in a musical language and culture so far removed from your own in a short period of time is definitely ill-advised.

You risk ending up with a cheap imitation of the genuine article. At worst, what you’re doing might even be construed as offensive.

That said…

…I’m a firm believer in expanding your horizons, and learning as much as you can from as wide a variety of areas as you can. And I don’t encourage ‘playing it safe.’

So the trick is balance.

Play to your strengths, while also learning something new, but don’t pretend to be doing something authentic.

Authentic sounds from cultures other than your own that you can integrate into your own style are great, but don’t force it. And don’t instinctively reach for an ‘exotic’ instrument if it’s not adding anything important to the score.

#6 Don’t Overthink Tempo & Hit Points

People often panic when they have to decide on a tempo. They try to work out formulas that work, or time the length in between each camera edit to try and figure out the exact tempo that the scene is edited to.

Don’t.

Just watch the scene, and feel it. Maybe tap some rhythms out on your desk while watching along, and you’ll quickly find a tempo that sits nicely.

Work out that tempo with a BPM counter, and you’re good to go.

And for ‘hit points’ : don’t stress about them. Documentaries don’t often have ‘hard’ hit points, and it’s certainly not common to hit lots of different points in a scene.

Generally the music builds to one main point. So just focus on getting there – let the rest of the action happen naturally…

…you know…like real life!

#7 Enhance or Contradict The Story

This is a technique that’s common across both narrative fiction and documentary films.

The purpose of film or documentary music is often described as ‘underlining the visuals’.

While that’s true, good film music can also strikethrough the visuals. Contradicting them entirely.

You don’t always have to compliment what the story is telling you. You can find a different angle.

There might be something beautiful happening on screen, but in the grander scheme of things that’s just a small bit of beauty amongst a whole world of darkness.

How would you approach that musically? You can either compliment the beauty on screen, or contrast it by reminding the audience of the darker undertones.

But again : don’t tell them how to think!

#8 Follow The Temp…

Here we go again, the great debate about temp tracks.

The fact of the matter is that a temp track has (usually) been chosen for a reason. It captures the mood that the director wants, and should already match the pace of the visuals.

Use that to your advantage!

You don’t have to copy all of the elements from the temp (in fact, you shouldn’t), but use it as a starting point for discussions with the director. 

What do they like about it? 

The instrumentation? The tempo? The structure?

Figure that out and you’ll save yourself a lot of time!

#9 Use Silence

Documentaries show real life.

And guess what? Real life doesn’t have a soundtrack!

If you want massive impact with a scene, try using silence.

Even for scenes where you wouldn’t expect it.

We all expect silence while the camera is up close watching a snoozing animal, but what about during a fight scene? 

Or during a shootout?

Using silence at those extremely tense moments reminds the audience that this is real life. It’s actually happening. It’s not just made up for a TV show.

That can be seriously powerful.


If TV and documentary music is something you’d like to learn more about, don’t forget to purchase your copy of Michael’s book here: bit.ly/tvmusicbook

an introduction to writing music for television - documentary music

And there you have it, nine tips to help you create amazing documentary music.

Now I want to hear from you : what is your favourite documentary music? 

Personally, I have lots of favourites, but I think one example that captures many of these points well is Alex Heffes‘s score for The Bridge (2006).

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