Many experienced trailer editors will tell you that the single most important choice you can make when creating a trailer is what song to use.
Music is the biggest single contributing factor to making the audience feel your movie. Often, when all is said and done, weeks after seeing it, people won’t remember the specifics of the story they were told in the trailer. But if you do it right, they will remember the tone.
They’ll watch your trailer and think…
Your music will be the biggest influencer of this audience reaction and, as such, should be thoroughly-researched and carefully-considered.
Choosing the Right Song
There are many factors that come in to play when deciding which cue (or cues) to use.
Music Decision Factor #1: Lyrics
The first factor is Lyrics.
One of the easiest and most dynamic ways to use music is by lining up the words of a song with the story and visuals of your movie.
We’ve all seen it. Cheryl Crow sings “Every day is a winding road” and at that same moment the trailer shows a wide aerial shot of a car driving down a road. This is the most intuitive use of music and is extremely powerful.
Using lyrics is also doubly effective if the song is popular and the audience can be expected to know some or most of the words. It’s similar to what we mentioned earlier about the copy message using a slight variation on an existing idiom to piggyback on existing knowledge from the audience.
This is one reason why it is very popular to use a “cover” (or alternate version) of a song during a trailer. You get points for both familiarity and originality at the same time. It’s a win-win!
But not all music has lyrics. Many trailers use purely instrumental songs. This leads us to tone.
Music Decision Factor #2: Tone
The second factor is tone. Music has feeling. Some songs are happy and fun. Others are sad and brooding. Choosing the right tone is key to making the music feel organic to your movie. When done right, it will be like the song you’ve chosen was composed specifically for trailer.
Music Decision Factor #3: Rhythm and Intensity
The last factor is rhythm and intensity.
Trailers have a natural momentum. They generally start slowly and gradually build intensity to a big finish and reveal of the main title. When choosing a music cue it is important to understand this dynamic.
“With rare exception, you almost never want to go from a song with a faster beat to a song with a slower one. This has the effect of downshifting, and making your audience feel like they’ve hit a speed bump.”
Many songs will be perfect when played for 30 seconds but they “don’t go anywhere”. This means they don’t have any increase in intensity. This can make your trailer feel like it’s stuck in second gear. Like it’s not progressing. It can make it feel boring. The solution to this issue is varied.
Sometimes, it can mean you need to choose a different song. Or maybe you will have to pull out your music editing tricks and layer in a bunch of extra drums and cymbals and rises to create an artificial build of your own.
But most of the time, it means you will need to use multiple songs. Many trailers use three or more cues, this is not uncommon.