Bespoke Music for Documentary

“There is nothing so powerful as truth, and often nothing so strange.” – Daniel Webster

The thing I love about documentaries is that they are about something real.  They might be about something I’d never really considered, but now I’m transported into someone elses life and can understand their view in depth.  Or, they might give me a deeper understanding of something I’m already aware of.  Either way, my view of the world is broadened just a little wider.

by Jakob owens

Photo Credit: Jakob Owens



As with any type of filmmaking, you are telling a story.  You are thinking about the characters you are filming, what points do you want to get across, what sequence will it be in?  All these things are also considered by the composer and should be reflected in the music.


Music – What Works

I tend to think about the music in two ways:
  • A Time or Place
  • A Feeling or Mood
Guitar on patterned blankets Junior Pereira

Photo Credit: Junior Pereira

Time or place:    For example, your documentary might be about a particular time period and place.  The obvious thing to do is look for the styles of music that were popular – for example, in WWI it was the Romantic Style (1780 – 1910 e.g. Elgar)  You might also have some source music which you have permission to use, you can ask your composer to write something, or find a suitable music library track.


Feeling or mood: You don’t have to tie yourself to strict time periods or places with your music – you can just use them as little tasters throughout.  You can think about the mood of a certain scene and have music which underpins what you’re trying to say to the audience.  Music can also give pace to a scene you feel is a little slow, punctuate a change of place or scenery, and give your whole production a cohesive sound.

Less is More

Depending on the style of the documentary, a simple approach to the score can often work well.  If it’s following a story about someone’s life for example, you don’t need a big, all-guns-blazing orchestral score.  Something simple and understated just to give the right undertone can be all you need at times.

“I just want something ticking along here which is ambiguous.”

How I Work

Something I think comes up a lot, is that filmmakers think they need to talk to their composer in musical terms, and they’re worried that they don’t know the ‘correct’ term to use.  Well, I can say with a lot of certainty – NO composer is expecting you to do that.  What we want from you is a mood, a feeling.  You can say to a composer – I want something soft and unobtrusive, but with a bit of pace.  Or – I want a sense of urgency here.  I want you to bring out the sadness here, or the joy.  I want it to feel like there is a sense of hope.  I just want something ticking along here which is ambiguous.

You can also use temp tracks to show a composer what you mean.  But that is exactly what they should be: temporary.  Use them as a way to show what mood you are looking for, not something to tie down the composer with.  And if there are things you don’t like about the temp track, say that too.  The more information the better!

by alexey-ruban

Photo Credit – Alexey Ruban


My workflow generally looks like this:

  • Discuss the score with you and any ideas you already have for the music.  Look at any temp tracks you have used and discuss cue timings, moods and instrumentation.  It’s great when this discussion happens early in the filmmaking process, as I can give some ideas right off the bat (which you may not have thought of!) but often I am given a finished edit to start of with.
  • Depending on the timescale, I like to write a few short samples to check I have understood exactly what you wanted.  If it’s not quite right I can then go back and change anything you’re not happy with, before I carry on with the rest of the score.  (sometimes with tight deadlines, this is not possible and the score is written all the way through before any changes are made).
  • I think it’s fair to say that any composer worth their salt will change their score over and over until the director is happy.  However, if we’ve worked out what is needed in the first place, and I have understood you deeply enough, the result is usually that less changes are needed later on.  I want to get in your mind, on your wavelength, I want to understand what you’re looking for right from the start.

If you’re interested in seeing some of my work for documentaries, please visit my website, and here’s a taster playlist:

Documentary playlist:

Further Reading:


A great article on how to make a captivating documentary:

4 Ways Documentary Filmmaking Can Capture Real-Life Drama

Using music which is ‘score’, music which is from a source onscreen and music which is somewhere inbetween:
Diegetic Music, Non-Diegetic Music, and “Source Scoring”

WIRED: A list of the best documentaries available to stream:

Wired: 29 of the best documentaries you can stream right now



About clairecomposer

Professional composer for screen - TV, Documentary, Cinema, Live, Corporate, Web.
This entry was posted in Composition, Film, Media, Music, Music, Media, TV, Film, Video Production, Composition, TV and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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