A vintage movie clapperboard with musical staff lines, treble and bass clefs, and notes hand-drawn over the white text spaces.

How to Put Music in a Screenplay: The Essential Guide for Scriptwriting Success

Music is a powerful storytelling tool in filmmaking. An emotional song can instantly set the mood of a scene or highlight a character’s state of mind.

Iconic movie soundtrack moments like the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now or the shower murder in Psycho prove how impactful the right music choices can be.

As a screenwriter, you get to decide when songs, scores, or musical cues should be used to elevate your script. While the director and music supervisors will ultimately create the sonic landscape, your musical notes and suggestions influence the overall tone and atmosphere of the final film. That’s why learning how to add music cues properly in your screenplay format is an essential skill.

This comprehensive guide will teach you everything you need to know about incorporating music directions into your scripts effectively. Follow these tips and you’ll set your writing up for cinematic success.

Why Music Matters in Screenwriting

Before digging into the formatting specifics, it’s important to understand the narrative power of a well-placed music cue. Here are some of the key reasons to pay close attention to the musical language in your onscreen storytelling:

Sets the Emotional Tone

Music elicits powerful emotional responses. The right sad song can immediately evoke heartbreak just as an upbeat rock anthem can convey joy and excitement. Using music is an efficient shortcut to emotionally orient the audience within a scene.

Creates Atmosphere

The musical atmosphere colors the world of the film. A sweeping orchestral score can make a setting feel epic and grandiose. A lonely piano melody helps establish somberness or isolation. Upbeat jazz immediately sets a lively, energetic ambience.

Guides Pacing

Music’s rhythm intrinsically impacts the pacing and edit of scenes. Quick cuts between shots choreographed to uptempo music accelerate the action.

Slow, atmospheric tracks draw out suspense and tension. Audiences won’t just hear but physically feel the tempo you want based on the music selections.

Examples of Iconic Movie Music Moments

To better understand music’s potent emotional and atmospheric power, here are just a few iconic examples:

  • Jaws – The simple, terrifying two-note theme music instantly evoked shark attack dread.
  • Rocky – Bill Conti’s triumphant “Gonna Fly Now” training montage score defined the underdog thriller’s inspirational tone.
  • Titanic – The bittersweet love theme song “My Heart Will Go On” now immediately conjures images of the film’s epic romance and tragedy.
  • Pulp Fiction – Dick Dale’s lively surf rock track “Misirlou” over the opening credits set the quirky crime caper vibe.
  • Star Wars – John Williams’ bombastic sweeping score gave the saga its epic interstellar atmosphere.

When deciding where music can heighten your script’s dramatic impact, consider how the great movie composers have shaped cinematic storytelling.

When to Add Music Notes in Your Script

Now that you appreciate music’s storytelling power, let’s explore specific script situations where cues or notes work best. Though creativity always allows for exceptions, these are some conventional film scoring uses:

Transition Scenes

Short musical bursts help smoothly transition between scenes or time jumps. For example:




Cutting from a sad closing scene to a cheerful opening one? Transition music resets the mood.


Montages are defined by music-driven sequences of short shots to compress time, show progress, etc. Musical cues are essential:


  • John running on a track with a training montage song.
  • Weights lifting sequence with music continuing.
  • Pushups with song reaching climax.

The music matches the arc of the sequence.

Intimate Moments

Songs define tender moments between characters. Diegetic music (from an onscreen source) works well:


John puts on soft music. He and Sarah slow dance cheek to cheek.

This musical interlude reveals their romantic connection.

Action Sequences

Uptempo, energetic scores drive intense action and fighting. E.g.:

John races on horseback, bandits in pursuit.

EXCITING CHASE MUSIC propels the urgent sequence.

The music’s momentum matches the visual thrill ride.

Establishing Locations/Scenes

Signature musical themes or cues instantly establish time period or location:


A LONE HARMONICA plays a melancholy Western melody over sweeping vistas.

The music effortlessly conjures the rustic frontier.

Formatting Music Cues

When you’ve identified ideal spots for music, how do you convey the songs and score notes in proper script format? Follow these steps:

Use “CUE” or “MUSIC IN” to Introduce Songs/Scores

Typing “CUE:” or “MUSIC IN:” in all caps signals the start of a music cue:


John and Sarah sway to a romantic ballad.

This intro provides a clear transition into the music.

Provide Scene-Setting Details

Give suggestions for the cue’s tone, genre, instruments etc:

SUSPENSEFUL STINGER CUE: ominous synth tones build tension.

This sets expectations for the music’s atmospheric purpose.

Specify If Diegetic or Non-Diegetic

Diegetic music comes from an onscreen source while non-diegetic is an underscoring soundtrack. Specify if needed:

radio plays an upbeat swing jazz song diegetically.

This helps the music team know if to match visible musicians.

Include Lyrics If Relevant

Lyrics can reveal character state of mind or emotions. Just don’t overdo it:

The stereo blasts “Lost Without You” highlighting Sarah’s heartbreak.

This shorthand uses song meaning without quoting paragraphs.

All Caps for Artist/Track Names

All capital letters indicate preexisting songs. Original scores don’t need this:

MC HAMMER’S “U CAN’T TOUCH THIS” gets the party started.

This clearly signals to license a known hit, not compose a new cue.

Example Music Cue Formatting

Bringing all this together, here is an example script excerpt using proper musical notation:


Patrons chatter. JOHN, depressed, nurses a beer alone.


John reflects mournfully. A lost soul.

The woeful music externalizes his sadness. Wallowing in self-pity.

MARIAH CAREY’S “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS” suddenly kills the mood. Surprised, John looks up to see…

SARAH smiling, holding a present. John’s face lifts. They kiss.

VICTORIOUS ORCHESTRA MUSIC propels them dancing joyfully!

This scene effectively flows between emotional states via contrasting musical cues. Simple formatting allows readers to “hear” the sequence.

Licensing Considerations

Can you cue Rolling Stones and Beyoncé songs freely? Probably not. Music licensing costs need consideration:

  • Know Production Budget Constraints – Big songs aren’t free. Be realistic about indie budgets unless aiming for studios.
  • Consider Public Domain or Affordable Options – Classical music or affordable stock music can substitute pricey pop songs.
  • Be Flexible for the Director/Music Supervisor – They may adapt your suggestions based on creative or budget needs. It’s collaborative.

The script aims to sell an overall vision. Supervisors can swap your temp music ideas for affordable alternatives that maintain the emotional tone as needed. Show the power of music emotionally, but be flexible on exact songs.

Working With the Music Team

Though you write music cues, composers and supervisors will interpret and implement them. Here are tips for an effective hand-off:

  1. Collaborate With the Composer/Supervisor – Have an open dialogue about your vision for the music. Discuss what styles and themes to convey.
  2. Provide Creative Direction – Articulate the desired mood, tone, and genre for each scene’s music. Your suggestions inform their work.
  3. Be Open to Adaptations – The experts may tweak your cues to work better compositionally. Keep an open mind to new ideas.

Remember, your scripted music notes provide crucial emotional and rhythmic insight, but leave space for further collaboration. The composer needs creative room to fully elevate the musical landscape.


Implementing music intentionally through cues and notes brings immense atmospheric power to your screenwriting. Use this guide’s tips to wield music’s cinematic strength:

  • Understand music’s ability to emotionally orient audiences through iconic scoring examples.
  • Identify transition scenes, montages, action sequences, emotional moments, and other spots where music heightens the drama.
  • Format musical cues clearly using “MUSIC IN”, specifying tone and lyrics as needed.
  • Consider budgetary constraints but think big creatively with the music vision.
  • Collaborate with composers and supervisors to make your vision resonate.
  • Use music as a narrative shortcut to the heart and soul of each scene.
  • Let character themes and instrumental leitmotifs guide the storytelling.
  • Draw inspiration from the great movie soundtracks but find your own voice.
  • Temper expectations but never underestimate music’s impact.

Whether your screenplay ends up having wall-to-wall symphonic scores or just a few perfectly placed songs, make the melodies, tones, and rhythms an inseparable part of the story fabric. Forgo music at your own peril.

When in doubt, heed the advice of composer John Williams: “A score needs to lift up a film, to raise feelings and emotions that are inherent in the images but aren’t necessarily seen.” Let the soundtrack awaken the spirits within every poignant cinematic moment.

If music be the food of scripts, write on! But remember to direct traffic with proper cue formatting and emotionally evocative suggestions.

Your musical map can show readers the scenic route through the most moving and memorable story landscapes. Follow it with courage and creativity.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you add music to a screenplay?

You add music to a screenplay by using cues like “MUSIC IN:” or “CUE:” in all capital letters when you want a song or score to come in. Give details like the tone, tempo, instruments, and song name if using popular music.

How do you add sound to a screenplay?

Add sound details like “distant train horn”, “phone ringing ominously”, or “loud heavy metal music” in parentheticals or scene descriptions where relevant. Don’t overdo it, just key sounds that set the atmosphere.

Should I include music in my script?

It’s highly recommended to include musical cues in your screenplay where appropriate. Music is a huge part of cinematic storytelling, so notes on where songs/scores can heighten the drama or convey emotions help sell the vision.

How to write a music script?

In a script specifically focused on music, you can write more detailed technical directions like notes played, choreography, lighting cues, etc. But in a regular screenplay, keep music descriptions brief focused on emotional tone and genre rather than too many granular details.

Can a screenwriter choose music?

The screenwriter can make strong suggestions for music in cues, but the director and music supervisor will make the final song choices. Write emotionally evocative, atmosphere-setting notes, but don’t get too attached to exact songs without budgeting licensing costs.

How can I use music in my film?

Use music to convey emotion, pace scenes, transition between moments, highlight poignant lyrics, instantly establish time period/location, and draw out moments of dramatic emphasis. Music guides the audience’s reactions. Use it intentionally.

How do you add copyright to a screenplay?

Write (C) or the word copyright before your name on the script’s title page. Also register your script with the U.S. Copyright Office and Writers Guild of America for added protection.

How do you add sound to writing?

In prose writing, you can add key sounds like “howling wind”, “clock ticking”, or “leaves crunching underfoot” to immersive scene descriptions. Don’t overdo it, just very concise auditory details that complement the overall atmosphere.

Who do I pitch my screenplay to?

Start by pitching to managers, agents, producers and development executives. Attend screenwriting contests and workshops to connect with industry members looking for scripts. Pitch to studios/networks once you have relationships or your script starts buzzing.

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