While cinema is known for being a primarily visual medium, there is no doubt how much of an impact music can have on a film. Some of the most iconic scenes in history are remembered with a song attached. Sometimes the music choices are left to a director far after the screenplay is written.
However, other times music is baked into the screenplay itself and how a scene may operate. In this article, you’ll learn when and how to write music into a screenplay so that you can create unforgettable scenes through music.
Table of Contents
How to Write a Song Playing in a Script
Just like most screenplay formatting techniques, there is more than one way to write music into a screenplay as long as you are clear to the reader with what is being communicated and consistent with your formatting techniques.
Step 1: Use Clear Action Description
First, create a new line of action description in your script. You can do this by clicking the “Action” icon on the top toolbar or simply starting a new line with no character name.
Step 2: Use “MUSIC CUE:”
Next, in all capitalized letters, write: “MUSIC CUE:” to indicate that music will be playing in this scene. This clearly signals to the reader that music is an integral part of the scene.
Step 3: Specify the Song and Artist
Lastly, write the name of the song in quotation marks followed by the name of the artist. This gives the reader specific information about the music that should be used in the scene.
Here’s an example of how this looks in your script:
INT. COFFEE SHOP - DAY
The cafe is bustling with customers.
MUSIC CUE: "Smooth Operator"by Sade Sarah sits at a corner table, sipping her latte.
This is one of the most straightforward ways to write music into a script. But before you jump into using this technique to write music in every scene of your screenplay, it’s incredibly important to first understand when it is necessary to write music into a script in the first place.
Using Music Cues in a Screenplay
Only Write Music if It’s Essential
There are various reasons as to why it might not be a good idea to write music into your screenplay. Most of them are for logistical reasons. You may run into potential legal issues if you plan to copyright your script.
It can be a nightmare for producers depending on the cost to use the song. It can make your script harder to sell because the use of music immediately drives up production costs.
And possibly the biggest reason not to write music cues in a screenplay is that it is ultimately the director’s decision and can either interfere with the director’s vision or could be cut out altogether.
To find out whether or not writing music in a script is absolutely essential, it is helpful to take a look at a few examples that have proved the necessity of music in the script. Also, note that different methods used to write music into these scripts are just as effective.
Check out these places where you can submit your script.
Music Cues in Screenplay Examples
Auteurism in “Baby Driver”
When writer and director Edgar Wright sent copies of the “Baby Driver” screenplay to actors, he attached a thumb drive with the music of the script to it. This is because an auteur filmmaker like Wright has a very precise vision of the film he is trying to create.
Compare the opening segment of the script with the actual opening scene, and you’ll notice the incredible precision in execution by Edgar Wright. This is a perfect example of an auteurist vision coming to life and proves the necessity of denoting the music in the actual script.
Thematic Resonance in “Joker”
The song “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra is used more than just one time throughout the “Joker” screenplay. In fact, not only is the song used thematically, but the lyric “That’s life” is actually used as Murray Franklin’s sign-off catchphrase.
So, including the song in the screenplay itself was very important thematically. The song is used at the end of the film to create a sense of closure as well as to underscore the theme of Arthur turning his life into a cynical, dark comedy rather than a tragedy.
From script to screen, this scene does change a little by having Arthur sing a few lines of the song. This creative decision proves how necessary the song was in tying together the theme of the film.
Script and Libretto Formatting
In musical theater, your work is divided into two essential parts: the script and the libretto.
The Script: This is the structural core of your musical, containing all the traditional elements you’d find in a play or screenplay. It sets the stage, introduces characters, and outlines the plot.
The Libretto: Often referred to as “the book” of a musical, the libretto is where the lyrics and spoken dialogue reside. It’s the heart of your musical, conveying emotions and the musical text that brings your production to life.
For more detailed guidance on formatting your musical script and libretto, check out our comprehensive article on “How to Write a Musical Script Like the Professionals.” It covers everything you need to know to craft a captivating musical.
Remember, in the world of musical theater, the script and libretto work hand in hand to create a truly magical experience for your audience.