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  • Writer's pictureFilipe Leitão

7 Essential Tips for Scoring Documentaries

Have you ever imagined creating music that brings the stories told in documentaries to life? Composing music for documentaries is a fascinating art full of nuances, and I would like to invite you to dive deep into this exciting world. It is essential to consider various elements that influence the cinematic experience. Here are some important ideas to consider:

1. Understand the Documentary

Before you start composing, it is essential to understand the story and message of the documentary. This will help you choose the right musical elements to complement the narrative.

2. Define the Tone and Style

Determine the emotional tone you want to convey and choose a musical style that suits the theme and target audience of the documentary. Suppose you are working on a documentary about overcoming personal challenges. In that case, you can convey a sense of hope and inspiration using the Dorian mode. A combination of piano, strings, and percussion, with textures and melodies that start softly and gradually intensify to reflect the emotional journey of the characters, can resonate with an audience seeking motivating and exciting stories.

3. Create a Sound Identity

Developing musical themes or recurring motifs throughout the documentary is a powerful strategy to create a sense of unity and musical identity. These themes can be associated with specific characters, recurring emotions, or key moments in the narrative, helping to unify the viewer's auditory experience. The cohesion provided by these recurring musical themes can contribute to the unique identity of your documentary, helping to differentiate it and make it memorable to the audience.

4. Support the Narrative

To ensure that the score complements and reinforces the visual narrative, it is essential to balance the music with other sound elements of the documentary, such as interviewees' voices and ambient sounds. Here are some strategies to achieve this balance:

  • Proper Mixing: Adjust the volume of the music so that it does not overpower the dialogues or ambient sounds. The music should be present but should not distract the viewer from the essential elements of the story.

  • Strategic Moments: Carefully select the moments when the music enters and exits. It should be used to highlight the dramatic points of the narrative without competing with the scene's important sounds.

  • Use of Musical Pauses: In some scenes, it is effective to allow the visual narrative to stand out without music. This can help create tension or emphasize a crucial moment in the story.

  • Integration with Ambient Sounds: The music can be integrated with ambient sounds to create a more cohesive and immersive sound experience. For example, you can use instruments that mimic natural sounds to create a stronger connection between the music and the depicted environment.


5. Use Appropriate Instrumentation

Choose instruments that complement the documentary's theme. Imagine a documentary about marine life, exploring the beauty and diversity of the oceans. In this case, instruments such as violins, harps, and flutes may be suitable choices, as they can evoke feelings of serenity and fluidity without overwhelming the visuals.

6. Stay Attuned to the Scene's Rhythm

Music plays a crucial role in maintaining the rhythm and narrative flow of a documentary. It should be carefully synchronized with the visual editing to create a cohesive and engaging experience for the viewer. It is essential to consider the rhythm of the scenes and the overall pace of the documentary. Music can be used to speed up the rhythm in more active scenes or create a calmer and more contemplative atmosphere in more reflective moments.

7. Focus on the Story

Avoid compositions that overshadow the story being told. The music should be a subtle support that complements and enriches the visual narrative without stealing the spotlight. It should be like an invisible sound thread that guides the emotions and atmosphere of the documentary without excessively drawing attention to itself.


Guilherme Senff's Creative Process in a Documentary about the Ocean

Recently, I had the pleasure of closely following the creative process of a talented Brazilian student, Guilherme Senff, in scoring a documentary about the ocean. Guilherme shared with me the challenges and choices he faced when creating the music that would bring the production's images to life.

Guilherme Senff
Guilherme Senff

Guilherme described the challenge of scoring as transforming a blank page into a story, using sound storytelling to narrate the scenes. He compared the choice of instruments to choosing words in a book, emphasizing that the right instruments are essential to make the scene more interesting and immersive for the viewer.

Just as in a book where the choice of words influences the reader's desire to continue reading and 'dive' deeper into the narrative, the choice of instruments in a soundtrack is essential to make the scene even more interesting for the viewer. For this project, I chose to use acoustic and minimalist instruments.

He explained that although the use of acoustic instruments predominated, he also used artificial sounds created by synthesizers in the first scenes to simulate something mysterious and unknown, as part of the universe that the ocean represents.

Guilherme described how the documentary's score develops throughout the scenes, changing from a mysterious tone to something magical, reflecting the essence of the ocean and the lives that inhabit it.

After the opening and title of the documentary, I opted for something much simpler and more minimalist, where I simulated particle sounds with a piano, just to complement the sounds of nature. Then you hear a subtle female voice to evoke the subtlety and delicacy of the water and its waves, added to a few string instruments.

Watch the documentary below:



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