A vintage silver microphone sits atop a movie script with musical notes floating around it against a black background.

Do You Put Music in a Screenplay? Everything You Need to Know in 2024

Music is a powerful storytelling tool in films. A fitting soundtrack enhances the mood, escalates tension, and engages viewers on an emotional level. Many iconic movie moments are made more memorable with the right background score or song choice.

But when it comes to writing the screenplay, how do you include music? Should a script specify musical cues, or licensed songs, or leave it open for the director? Here’s what screenwriters need to know about featuring music in scripts.

The Purpose of Music in Movies

Before deciding when and how to incorporate music notes, it helps to understand the narrative function of movie music. While music adds layers of emotional subtext, it serves several key purposes:

Sets the Mood and Tone

The most obvious role of a soundtrack is to establish the atmosphere. Music creates vibes ranging from uplifting and romantic to brooding and suspenseful. The tone-setting power of an instrumental score or upbeat pop song is widely used in films.

A moody piano melody in a drama immediately conveys melancholy. A tense, muted beat builds nerve-wracking suspense in a thriller.

Fast tropical music shifts us into a free-spirited mood in a beach vacation setting. Music becomes shorthand for feelings that provide context.

Evokes Emotions

While the script conveys emotion through action and dialogue, music brings it viscerally to the viewer. Sad orchestral strains amplify grief and loss.

Motivational training montages get our adrenaline pumping with energetic rhythmic beats. Romantic songs underscore passionate moments. Music strikes direct emotional triggers.

Establishes Time Period

The music style also sets the historical context. Swing jazz transports us to the Roaring Twenties. Psychedelic guitar riffs are the soundtrack of the 60s counterculture. The techno synth pop defines the 80s vibe. Period songs also prompt nostalgia for bygone eras.

Links Scenes

Music acts as a bridge between scenes, especially montages compressing time and action. A consistent music theme or recognizable melody binds dispersed scenes into a coherent sequence rather than abrupt jumps.

Provides Insight Into Characters

Music also offers clues into the characters’ personalities and internal states. A brooding anti-hero may favor dark heavy metal bands. Cheerful morning music conveys someone’s optimism. A character’s Spotify playlist offers insights about their tastes.

All these functions allow music to heighten the cinematic experience. Let’s look at examples of impactful music moments from famous films.

Examples of Effective Movie Music

The chilling theme from Jaws (1975) instantly evokes shark attack dread.

The thumping Violin Scene in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) plays without dialogue but swells with hope.

The opening Singin’ in the Rain song sets a joyful, upbeat tone in the classic musical.

The heavy synth beat underscores the action in Beverly Hills Cop’s (1984) energetic chase scene.

Chariots of Fire’s (1981) slow-motion opening piano melody captures the agony and triumph of ambition.

These examples demonstrate how a well-chosen music motif elevates cinematic storytelling. But how does a screenwriter integrate similar music notes into the script?

When to Include Music in Screenplays

Writers certainly don’t need to specify every single background score note. But strategically placed music cues can convey important information and dynamics. Here are appropriate occasions to highlight music in scripts:

Important Scenes and Transitions

Music often punctuates impactful story moments – emotional reunions, tragic deaths, tender first kisses. Identifying apt emotional underscores for pivotal scenes gives the director a sense of the intended mood.

Equally, transitions between disparate scenes or time jumps benefit from musical links. A melodic motif flowing under a montage helps stitch together diverse settings and eras into a coherent whole.

Moments of Tension, Action, or Heightened Emotion

Thrillers and action sequences use music to dial up suspense and kinetic energy. Horror movies leverage dissonant scores to amplify jump scares or a sense of dread.

Melancholic music conveys heartbreak in emotional dramatic turns. Highlighting the music needs for these scenes helps execute them appropriately.

Scenes Where Music Plays a Role in Storytelling

Sometimes a scene may feature music diegetically as part of the action – a band performance, a karaoke night, or someone composing a tune.

Other times music inspires a character to spontaneously sing or dance. Pointing out such usages in the script provides context.

Provide General Descriptions But Avoid Being Overly Prescriptive

When writing music cues, give a general sense of genre, mood, and tempo rather than detailed scoring instructions. For example, note “an upbeat funky pop song plays” rather than specifying precise notes.

Likewise, avoid being overly specific with song names unless it’s absolutely crucial to the story – let the music supervisor handle song licensing. The director can interpret the description and select the best fit.

With these guidelines in mind, how do you format music cues?

How to Describe Music in Screenplays

Follow standard scriptwriting conventions when denoting musical interludes:

Identify Source of Music

Every music note should mention where it emanates from – source examples include:

  • RADIO – music playing on a car stereo.
  • RECORD PLAYER – a vinyl record spinning in the room.
  • LIVE BAND – performers seen playing instruments on-screen.
  • TV SHOW/MOVIE – fictional or real soundtrack playing on a television set.
  • SINGING/HUMMING – characters vocalizing melodies.
  • ORIGINAL SCORE – soundtrack added in post-production.

Describing the source provides context while directing focus on relevant actions and visuals unfolding on-screen.

Describe Genre, Mood, and Tempo

Include descriptors about music style, emotional tone, and pacing. For example:

  • A smooth, romantic jazz song plays…
  • An upbeat, energetic rock anthem blares…
  • Dark, ominous orchestral music builds…

Again, give broad impressions rather than nitty-gritty details.

Use Descriptive Terms

Rather than naming obscure genres, use descriptive terms that convey a tangible sense of the music. Some examples:

  • Cheerful, optimistic
  • Somber, melancholic
  • Nerve-wracking, tense
  • Inspiring, uplifting
  • Playful, whimsical
  • Haunting, eerie

Such descriptors succinctly establish the intended mood.

Specify Song Titles If Crucial to the Story

Unless a recognizable hit song is utterly integral to the plot, avoid calling out exact song names or artists. Clearance issues may nix the song, disappointing audiences familiar with it. Stick to loose descriptions that give creative flexibility later.

Format Music Notes Correctly and Consistently

Follow script writing standards for formatting musical interludes:

  • ALL CAPS – Music notes should be in all capital letters
  • Bracketed – Enclose scene descriptions in [ ] brackets
  • Indented – Indent music cues under character names/Dialogue
  • Consistent placement – Music notes generally occur above the action described.

Putting it together in a sample script page:

CHARLIE (shouting over blaring radio) Turn down that crappy music!

[An energetic HIP-HOP SONG echoes from a passing car.]

Getting the format right improves script readability. Now let’s examine how to handle copyrighted songs versus original scores.

Music Cues vs Licensed Songs

Screenwriters have two main options for incorporating music:

Original music cues – Instrumental music commissioned for the film’s soundtrack.

Licensed songs – Popular prerecorded songs from known artists.

Let’s compare how these work:

Original Cues

  • Composed specifically to fit the scene’s emotional needs
  • Helps create a cohesive musical arc for the film
  • Avoids licensing hurdles of popular songs
  • Less expensive than licensing recognizable hits
  • Allows customizing music to the storyline
  • Easier to coordinate timing with scene edits
  • Unknown music lacks familiar emotional shorthand

Licensed Songs

  • Leverages nostalgia/associations with popular songs
  • Can be costly depending on song rights
  • Risk of clearance issues or denials
  • May not perfectly fit the scene length/action
  • Promotional value from featuring hot artists
  • Can date the film if music trends change

Both cue scoring and song licensing have pros and cons for storytelling and budget. In general, original cues allow greater creative control while songs bring pre-established familiarity.

Let’s examine how films effectively blend both approaches:

Top Gun (1986) created a bestselling original soundtrack. But it also featured Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” as a recurring romantic pop anthem.

Similarly, Titanic’s (1997) sweeping instrumental score painted the epic tragedy. But Celine Dion’s chart-topping hit “My Heart Will Go On” amplified its emotional impact.

Quentin Tarantino’s films like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs featured both originally composed background scores as well as cleverly integrated pop songs from various eras. This layered nostalgic hits like “Jungle Boogie” and “Let’s Stay Together” with tense riff-driven cues.

Martin Scorsese’s use of the piano “Layla” in Goodfellas remains inextricable from the film’s rise-and-fall gangster narrative.

Wes Anderson’s quirky indie films contain handpicked soundtracks with lesser-known 60s rock gems that perfectly match the director’s playful aesthetics.

When original compositions and curated song lists blend seamlessly, they create holistic audio experiences that become timeless.

Should You Put Music Notes in Your Script?

If music strongly impacts your storytelling, setting vital moods and moments, it merits mention in the screenplay. Used judiciously, cues provide helpful emotional and rhythmic context for directors.

However, avoid micro-managing the soundtrack unless dealing with vital source music or known anthems. Keep references brief, letting the professionals handle detailed scoring.

The script simply sets the stage – the music lighting arises in post-production.

With streaming and digital music access, future films can also tap into wider song catalogs if desired adaptations require fresher options.

Remember, a great script resonates even as a read. If lyrics or melodies are utterly intrinsic, quote a few lines to convey the impact. But focus on writing a compelling narrative first.

Let the music accentuate the action, not overpower it. Use cues to gently pluck the heartstrings, not dictate each note. When complementary elements align, the on-screen magic follows.

The audience, lost in the soaring soundtrack and unfolding drama, won’t read the script. But they’ll feel it come alive through the fusion of sight, sound and story.


Music is a powerful cinematic tool. While initially low-fi, scripts hint at future auditory richness. The right chords strike deep emotional chords.

With strategic music notes, screenwriters paint broad tonal brushstrokes. Savvy scoring and song choices later fill in finer nuances. But it all starts with words on the page.

So include musical ties, but avoid over-orchestrating. Trust the process, and let the melodies materialize. Your script provides the sheet music – others will bring the instruments.

Soon that striking soundtrack will lift your vision off the page and into ears everywhere. So slide in those music notes, and prepare for the show to begin!

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you mention music in a screenplay?

Yes, it’s recommended to mention music in a screenplay when it plays an important role in setting the mood, evoking emotion, elevating tension, or progressing the story. Strategic music cues guide the director and enhance the narrative.

Why do we need music in screenplay?

Music in screenplays helps convey characters’ internal states, establish time periods, link disparate scenes, underscore emotional arcs, build suspense, and amplify pivotal moments. It adds layers of meaning through its emotive power.

Do you include sound in a script?

Yes, sound effects and ambient sounds that are notable or impact the story should be included in scripts. Sound descriptions set the expected tone and atmosphere for readers.

How do you write music in the background of a script?

To write background music, add a bracketed all-caps note before the action stating the music source and describing its style/mood, e.g. [A gentle PIANO MELODY plays in the distance]. Keep the description concise.

Where do you put music in a screenplay?

Music notes typically go above the action they accompany, indented under the character names. Establish the source first, then describe the mood/genre and let the scene unfold alongside the music.

Can screenwriter choose music?

It’s best for screenwriters to just indicate the musical vibe needed rather than naming specific songs. Music supervisors will handle licensing and song choices. Exceptions can be made for vital songs that strongly advance the plot.

Should I write a play or screenplay?

This depends on your story and medium preferences. Plays suit intimate live performance. Screenplays reach wider audiences via film distribution but require extensive collaboration. Choose based on narrative needs.

Why do movies include music in the scenes?

Music creates immersive emotional experiences for movie viewers. It establishes moods, escalates tension, conveys inner meaning, builds momentum, links scenes, and layers in subtext that dialog and action alone can’t achieve.

Should you write beat in a screenplay?

Beat refers to a pause in dialog or shift in action. Beat descriptions like short/long pauses or dramatic beats are useful in scripts to dictate timing and intent to actors. But use beats sparingly so they remain impactful.

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