When is it ok to use music in a news video?

When I was first learning video storytelling, and when I was first teaching it to my co-workers, I would have told you it is never a good idea to use music in your news video. I was a stickler for natural sound, and adding music is fraught with ethical and legal issues that are better avoided. Both of these are still true for me, but I have softened my stance somewhat for some types of videos. My rule used to be only include music that was part of the natural sound and relevant to the story. This piece about a composer and a high school choir made use of music in a natural sound context.

I think the reason so many people want to include music when they are learning video storytelling is that musical scores are so ubiquitous in the film and television that we watch. A movie scene without its score can seem dry, as evidenced by this scene from Star Wars that someone removed the musical score from.

Music sets the tone for movie scenes, even when you don’t notice that it’s there. In fact, the type of music used can completely change our perception of the scene we are watching. A YouTube user added three different musical scores to a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean, giving it three completely different feels.

You could see how this could be a problem in a journalistic context. Heavy-handed use of music in a journalistic piece risks adding a mood that wasn’t there, or telling the viewers how they should feel instead of allowing them to experience the story on their own. Copyright is the other reason to avoid adding a musical soundtrack. There is no rule of fair use that allows you to use a certain amount of a song. Musical compositions and recordings are copyrighted materials, and you need to pay the rights holder for the right to use them.

I still think that for straightforward news pieces, like the kind of video you would see on a television newscast, you should avoid adding music. But for more feature-type pieces, I’ve been taking more inspiration from documentaries and from radio storytelling like This American Life. The video at the top was shot in about an hour, with an interview and a few drawings done just for me. We had almost no natural sound, so I wanted some subtle music to add some pace and feel. I used a track from some friends of the reporter who were nice enough to let us use it for free. This, I feel, is the best way around the issue of copyright: find a musician you know or who is local to you and work out an agreement. This also avoids another issue that I see from time to time with royalty-free music.

There are many royalty-free music sources out there, the easiest of which is the folder of music that comes installed with Apple software like GarageBand or SoundTrack Pro. If you work with these enough, you will start to notice them in PowerPoint presentations, low-budget advertisements, and other online videos. A composer named Kevin McLeod has a great royalty-free music site, but I’ve even started to recognize some of his pieces in multiple places around the web.

The best option, in my opinion, is to find someone who can compose a simple musical score for you. There are lots of musical hobbyists out there, and there is probably even someone in your own newsroom who plays the guitar or piano. Rick Koster, The Day’s arts writer, used to be a bass player in a band, and he has played acoustic guitar to score several of my video projects. Below are two longer historical pieces that were based mostly on interviews, with no natural sound footage.

The most recent piece was a story about migrating swallows that blended poetry and music.

Adding music means a significant increase in production time, so you need to make sure that the end result will be worth it. If you’re going to use a royalty-free piece, it can mean hours looking for the right piece. If someone is going to compose a piece for you, they need the time to see your video and compose something, and then you need to record it. Music also adds another layer of complexity to the sound mixing process. The great thing about the online publishing space is it allows for more creativity in storytelling, including the use of music. Creators just need to make good choices in selecting music, because a bad selection will stand out as heavy-handed, and can be worse than no music at all.

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