The Ultimate Filmmaker's Guide to the Movie Score

The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to the Movie Score

Looking for music for your film project? In this guide you will learn what film music is, how it is composed, what license you need to buy, and where you can source a movie score.

Movie scores (or film music) play a crucial role in setting the tone and mood of your film. They can evoke emotions and add depth to your story. An engaging movie score complements the visuals and enhances the viewing experience. Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about movie scores, from the history and evolution of film music to the process of creating a score and the various types of music used in films. We will also provide a list of sites and organizations where you can license or order movie scores.

Short history of movie scores

The history of film music dates back to the silent film era, where live music was performed in theaters to accompany films. As technology advanced, composers began incorporating recorded music into films. The 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of big Hollywood studios, and with it, the introduction of symphonic music in films. That was the beginning of the golden age of film music, where composers such as Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Dimitri Tiomkin created memorable scores for classic films like “Gone with the Wind,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and “High Noon.” So how is a movie score created?

How are movie scores composed?

The process of creating a movie score may seem straight-forward, but it has its intricacies. It begins with the director and composer collaborating on the vision for the film. The composer then creates a demo of the score, which he or she presents to the director for approval. Upon approval, the composer works on orchestrating and recording the score with musicians. The recording process can involve a full symphony orchestra, a smaller ensemble, or just synthesized instruments. Let’s hear this interview with Hans Zimmer, a famous film music composer, to understand this process even better.

Types of film music

Are all movie scores equal? Not necessarily. There are several types of music used in films, each with its own distinct character and purpose. Let’s talk about each of them in brief.

Symphonic score: This is the traditional orchestral music often used in big-budget films and historical dramas. This type of music is characterized by sweeping melodies and powerful orchestrations.

Electronic score: This type of music uses electronic sounds to create a futuristic or modern sound. You can hear such scores in science fiction and action films.

Jazz score: Jazz music is often used in films to create a cool and relaxed atmosphere. You will hear this music in crime dramas and romantic comedies.

World music score: This music incorporates elements from different cultures and countries to create a unique sound. If you see exotic scenes, the background music you hear will fall into this group. This is done to explore cultural themes.

Pop music score: Pop music is used in films to create a contemporary and upbeat atmosphere. It is often featured in teen comedies and romantic films.

What’s a good movie score?

We may sound trivial by saying that, but a good movie score is memorable, it enhances the story, and provides a seamless transition between scenes. A good score also evokes the desired emotions in the viewing audience. Let’s name some memorable movie scores here: “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “The Lord of the Rings.” We bet you can probably play those tunes in your heads when you look at these film titles!

Just see how much is put into a movie score – hear the sound masters out:

Licensing movie scores

There are several ways a filmmaker can license movie scores. We chose these 4 ones that are probably useful for the majority of filmmakers.

Production music libraries: These companies specialize in supplying pre-recorded music for use in film, television, and other creative media. Some popular production music libraries include Audio Network, Epidemic Sound, and Musicbed.

Royalty-free music websites: These websites offer a wide range of music tracks that can be licensed for a one-time fee, without the need to pay ongoing royalties. Some popular royalty-free music websites include Shutterstock Music, Pond5, PremiumBeat.

Music licensing agencies: These companies represent the rights of artists and composers, and help filmmakers secure the rights to use their music in their productions. Some popular music licensing agencies include Music Supervisors, APM Music, and Extreme Music.

Composers and independent artists: As a filmmaker, you can also reach out directly to composers and independent artists to license their music for their productions. This option is often used for unique and customized scores.

There are a couple of things to consider before licensing any music. You must ensure that you have the necessary rights and clearance to use the music in your film. Let’s talk about these below.

License types

If you work with a composer, their fees and licensing should be part of your contract with them. If you plan to license a popular song for your movie, then the licensing steps are different.

To use a popular music track in a movie, you need to get two separate licenses: a mechanical license and a synchronization license.

Mechanical license: This license covers the right to reproduce and distribute the song as part of the movie soundtrack. If it is a song, you need to get this right from the owner of the sound recording (usually the record label). This right granted for a fee and a royalty payment.

Synchronization license: This license covers the right to use the song as part of the movie. You need to get it from the owner of the underlying musical composition (usually the songwriter or music publisher). The filmmaker will negotiate this license separately from the mechanical license. The right is again granted in exchange for a fee and a royalty payment based on the use of the song in the movie.

Since this process may be complex, filmmakers work with music supervisors or licensing agents. This is why indie filmmakers prefer using music from production music libraries or royalty-free music sites, where the licensing component is taken care of by the sites.

How much does a film score cost?

The cost of a film score may be punitive. It can vary greatly depending on several factors, including:

  • The size and budget of the production: Bigger and more expensive productions tend to have more elaborate and sophisticated scores, which can cost more.
  • The experience and reputation of the composer: Established and well-known composers tend to command higher fees, while emerging composers may be more affordable.
  • The type of music required: An orchestral score, for example, can be more expensive than an electronic or pop score, due to the costs of recording with live musicians.
  • The length of the score: A longer score will typically cost more than a shorter score, as it requires more time and resources to create.

On average, the cost of a film score can range from a few thousand dollars for a low-budget indie production, to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a major studio production. The exact cost will depend on the specific needs and requirements of the production.

So what’s the alternative to the high cost of licensing popular music? Turn to music libraries which can provide good quality music for a fraction of what a popular song would cost in licensing and royalties.

Best websites to license a movie score

There are several well-reputed online platforms where filmmakers can license movie scores for less:

Musicbed: Musicbed is a premium licensing platform that offers a curated selection of high-quality music from independent artists and composers, with prices starting at around $59 per track.

Epidemic Sound: Epidemic Sound is a subscription-based service that provides access to a large library of music and sound effects. You can license music for your film on this site. Artlist is a subscription-based service that provides access to a large library of music and sound effects. They offer licensing options for film projects.

Shutterstock Music: Shutterstock Music is a licensing platform that offers a wide selection of music tracks and sound effects, with prices starting at around $49 per track.

PremiumBeat: It’s a royalty-free music site that’s part of the Shutterstock family. You can use their Enhanced License ($199 per track), which covers the majority of distribution cases an indie filmmaker may need.

These are just a few examples, and the best platform for licensing a movie score will depend on the specific needs and budget of the production.

Best sites to find a composer for your movie score

If you’re looking to find a composer for your movie score, you might consider the following platforms:

SoundBetter: SoundBetter is a marketplace connecting filmmakers and music industry professionals with top composers and producers for projects such as film scores.

Reedsy: Reedsy is a platform that connects filmmakers with a curated network of talented composers and music producers for projects such as film scores.

Upwork: Upwork is a freelance platform that allows filmmakers to find and hire composers for their film score, as well as other creative professionals.

Mandy: Mandy is a platform that connects filmmakers with professional composers and other creatives in the entertainment industry.

Freelancer: Freelancer is a platform that connects filmmakers with freelance composers, as well as other creatives and professionals, for projects such as film scores.

Before you sing a composer for your film, research each platform and composer, read reviews and portfolios, and communicate your needs and budget before hiring them.

Should you license your film music online?

Well, there are always pros and cons of getting your film scores from a specialized websites vs. working with composers.

Music sites

Pros of licensing movie scores online:

  • Convenience: Online platforms make it easy to find, preview, and license music tracks for your movie from the comfort of your own computer.
  • Selection: Online platforms offer a wide selection of music tracks to choose from, making it easier to find a good score for your film.
  • Cost: Many online platforms offer music tracks at a fraction of the cost of hiring a composer or purchasing a pre-existing score. This makes it an accessible option for independent filmmakers or those with a limited budget.

Cons of licensing movie scores online:

  • Limited customization: While online platforms offer a wide selection of music tracks, you may not be able to find a score that matches the tone or style of your film.
  • Limited control: When licensing a pre-existing score, you are limited to the arrangement and instrumentation that are already present in the track, and may not have the ability to make any changes to the tune.


Pros of working with a composer:

  • Customization: Working with a composer allows you to create a unique and customized score that matches your creative idea.
  • Control: When working with a composer, you have complete control over the arrangement, instrumentation, and sound of the score. This allows you to create a score that truly reflects your vision.
  • Collaboration: Working with a composer allows you to collaborate with a creative professional who can bring new ideas and perspectives to your film.

Cons of working with a composer:

  • Cost: Hiring a composer can be more expensive than licensing a pre-existing score. This may be a huge challenge for indie filmmakers.
  • Time: Working with a composer can also be time-consuming, as you may need to spend time collaborating on the score, providing feedback, and making revisions.

In the end, the decision between licensing a movie score online or working with a composer will depend on your specific needs, budget, and preferences. Weigh the pros and cons of each option before making a decision.

5 best movie scores

Now that we’ve covered the technical part, we’d like to spend some time listening some of the best movie scores out there.

A good movie score can be both orchestral or more futuristic. But what makes them great is how they complement the visual storylines.


Jurassic Park


Once Upon a Time in the West

Black Panther

What is the highest paid song for a movie?

Let’s wrap up with some curious facts. So what’s the highest paid song used in a movie so far? We don’t know about the exact fees and royalties paid to these artists, but these 4 tracks earned millions for these artists. Plus, these tracks helped establish the performers’ careers as we know them today.

  • “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion for Titanic (1997)
  • “Stayin’ Alive” by Bee Gees for Saturday Night Fever (1977)
  • “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor for Rocky III (1982)
  • “Stay” by Rihanna for Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)


What makes a movie score unforgettable? If you got to this part of our story, here is a full documentary featuring the best film music composers: Hans Zimmer, James Cameron, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Trent Reznor, Howard Shore, Rachel Portman, Thomas Newman, Randy Newman, Leonard Maltin, James Horner and Garry Marshall. This elite roster of Hollywood composers give insight into the creative challenges that they face. This documentary contains interviews with dozens of film composers who discuss their craft and the magic of film music. Also explore the making of the most iconic movie scores in history: “James Bond”, “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Titanic,” “The Social Network,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and “Psycho.” It was worth getting to this part, right?

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