3 Things You Must Know about Composing Background Music

Feb 28, 2023Music Production

At first glance, background music compliments the visuals, surrounding environment, or other visual information. If the purpose of your music is to be background noise, then a large number of nuances as well as a bright and memorable melody are not required since this can distract from the main subject. Background music can be compared to wallpaper, where additional decorations can be perceived as blots. Creating background music is a special skill and the approach here can be very different from writing music for movies, and even more so for songwriting. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Create an emotional picture

Unlike music for films in which there is a story – background music should create a general emotional picture. This means that the actual musical composition may be minimal throughout the event or video. For example, Georg Philipp Telemann and Joseph Haydn periodically wrote custom-made dinner music for notable people. The background music’s purpose was to create a comfortable atmosphere for eating with minimal volume fluctuations and other noticeable events as to not interfere with the process.

Match the musical style with the task

It’s very important to navigate through completely different musical styles in order to choose the best one for a particular task. However, different situations are possible here. For example, as in the previous case, if classical chamber music is used, it is unlikely that it will be perceived as “dining music” these days. Rather, it will be suitable for a video showing interiors of palaces, fountains, classical architecture, etc. Another example is music for the news stations. In this case, it’s extremely important not to distract the audience from any information. At the same time, certain principles have already been developed for this type of background music: it should be pulsating, concise and non–intrusive.

Another example is music for tutorial videos. The principle of “not too much” remains relevant, but the mood should be more neutral, and the style should be chosen depending on the topic of the video. It makes no sense to spend a lot of time on musical nuances, especially if the music is supposed to be used with VO (voice over) tracks. The general nature of the sound is much more important, as well as the general mood that arises due to the musical background, whether it`s businesslike, relaxed, intriguing or something else. The same can be said about background music for retail spaces, such as supermarkets, entertainment centers, cafeterias or spas. As in the previous examples, the style of music should correspond to the place where it is used, the characteristics of the audience, the purpose of the visit, and, in some cases, age characteristics because special music is needed in children’s institutions.

You may be thinking, if background music should be so inconspicuous, unmemorable and devoid of individuality, maybe its value is overestimated, and there is no point in spending time and money on it at all? This is not the case, because here we are dealing with a more veiled impact of music on the audience or on an individual. For example, there was a time when I actually went into a supermarket and heard background music playing, so I listened intently to how the music harmonically fit with the interior of the store, and as a result, I made several unplanned purchases. It turns out that the smooth jazz background music was appropriate and successfully fulfilled its main purpose – increasing the income of the company.

Can the author’s individual style manifest itself in the background music? Of course, yes, despite all of its listed properties. Even though in some cases the background track may be a single dragging note, this may affect the perception of the entire product, especially if we are talking about a video or a performance. French composer Eric Satie, who lived in the first half of the 20th century, is considered the founder of the so-called “furniture music” genre.

This genre did not imply a traditional concert format where the audience purposefully listened to a piece of music from beginning to end, but rather immersion in the musical atmosphere. The composer sometimes demanded from listeners who came to the concert to not sit in one place, but walk, talk, and not pay attention to the nuances. In a remark to one of his works, Sati wrote: “Repeat 840 times”. It was clearly about the background music, and even the very name of the genre “furniture music” suggests that music in this case is like an interior item. Of course, many did not accept such a radical innovation, but nevertheless Sati’s work gave a huge impetus to the further development of this genre, and the philosophy of later trends, such as elevator music, muzak and others, come from Sati’s furniture music, which cannot be confused with anything else. At the same time, it can very delicately and unobtrusively fill some chamber space. So authors should not be afraid of losing their individuality, they just need to choose expressive means very precisely, and use them in a minimal amount.

Listen to background music from other composers

One more important and useful thing, that is recommended for beginner composers – listen to the background music from other composers, analyze it, but do not plagiarize it. When you come to a particular room where background music is playing, pay attention to what style it is, how appropriate it is for the situation, and if another style is more appropriate from your point of view. There is also another way – even just watching some events on the street, in nature or somewhere else, try to imagine what kind of music can be used there. After a few weeks or months of practice, you’ll have a large stock of musical ideas for different situations in your head so that at the right moment, you can take the right idea into work. Always remember that background music can be anywhere, such as the clouds or wind blowing in the trees, while at the same time being hardly noticeable. 

Film Composer Alex Melodic - Profile Picture

Alex Melodic

Alex is a film and media composer with over 20 years of experience composing music for television, theatre and advertisement.

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