Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Victoria Lucia

How to Use Music in a Screenplay

Use Music in a Screenplay

Sometimes, the perfect music just makes a movie. Yet, we've all heard the same "don't write specific songs into your script" rule. So, what gives? Some rules are meant to be broken. All writers have moments where they can imagine the perfect song lyrics playing during one of their scenes. So why not write it in? When you see music-heavy movies do well, like "Baby Driver," written by Edgar Wright, or Amazon's "Cinderella," written by Kay Cannon, you can't help but want to get in on the action! So, stick around! Today, I'm talking all about how to use music in a traditional screenplay.

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Why are writers cautioned against using music in scripts?

The main concerns with writing music into a script boil down to two things: the copyright holder and the cost. How will you ever secure the use of that famous song? There's no way you'll be able to afford it! People who make these arguments are missing the point of writing a specific song into a script. It's not to fight tooth and nail for the song's inclusion in the actual movie. You write a song into a screenplay for a splash of personality and pizazz! Your script is trying to engage the reader in a way that's interesting and relatable. Sometimes mentioning a song in relation to a certain scene can make all the difference and have a reader go, "Oh cool! I can picture that!" If writing a song into your script can enhance the tone and atmosphere, making it a more interesting read, I say why not do it!

With that said …

Music cues should probably be used sparingly in a spec script. You want to save them up for moments that really count! You want the addition of a piece of music in your movie script to enhance your story. Utilize music that tells us something about the characters. Try to pick a song that has meaning to the location a scene is set in. Or try for a song that enhances the comedy of the situation with its song lyrics. For interesting and often hilarious music choices, check out Netflix's "Umbrella Academy," created by Gerard Way (especially season 2 episode 7, which features excellent use of a Backstreet Boy's song.)

Musicals are different from musical movies

Some movies rely heavily on music to create the feel, tone, and atmosphere of a movie; think Wright's "Baby Driver." Then there are musicals where some or all of the dialogue is sung, and the songs are wrapped up in the plot in an intrinsic way, more like a prolonged music video. Think "The Sound of Music," written by Ernest Lehman, or "Moulin Rouge," written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. So, when looking to incorporate music into your screenplay, you should ask yourself what type of musical movie you're trying to make.

Be forewarned that musicals are notoriously difficult to get made in Hollywood because they're expensive, niche, and generally just very difficult to get right. The musicals that do get made tend to be animated features based on pre-existing source material, or the writers are just incredibly lucky!

There are multiple ways to format songs when writing a screenplay for a musical. Check out the following musical scripts to see how those writers approach song formatting.

  • La La Land, written by Damien Chazelle, with music by Justin Hurwitz 

  • Beauty and The Beast, written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice

How do I write a specific song into a screenplay?

To format a piece of music into a movie script, you write it as a music cue. On a new line, write-

Script Snippet - Music Cue

MUSIC CUE:

Follow that up with the song title and artist's name. So, it looks like-

Script Snippet - Music Cue

MUSIC CUE: "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" by Whitney Houston

Then write whatever action is going on while the song plays and end the sequence with-

Script Snippet - Music Cue

END MUSIC CUE

All in all, a scene with a music cue should look like this-

Script Snippet - Music Cue

INT. BAR - NIGHT

Sasha sweeps up.

MUSIC CUE: "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" by Whitney Houston

As the song plays, Sasha finds herself dancing with her broom.

END MUSIC CUE

Hopefully, this blog was able to shed some light on how to use music in a screenplay. Maybe you're even inspired to try using a song in your next script! Just remember, music should be used to enhance key moments, so choose your songs and your moments wisely. Happy writing!

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