You hop in your car, turn on your radio, and that song you love comes blasting through the speakers. You know every single word and start singing at the top of your lungs with complete disregard for other passengers or (if you really love it) other drivers.
This scenario isn’t unique. With pop music, we’re trained to listen for lyrics when we hear a song.
But with movies and other visual mediums, the expectations are different. You don’t usually head to a movie theater for a sing-a-long session of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, you may go an entire film without hearing one word sung throughout it.
On the flip side, however, movies like “Juno” could be full of songs with colorful lyrics.
So how do filmmakers decide when to use lyrics and not? As you already know, picking the right song is a crucial decision in the creative process — this is just another step along the way.
You Should Use Lyrics…
1. To Convey Your Message More Strongly to the Audience
The best use of lyrics is when it enhances the story you’re trying to tell. Anything you can do to add substance to your video in terms of plot is good.
With a commercial, your message might be “Buy Product X!” told through a company jingle.
With a series of “How-To” videos on YouTube, you could use lyrics to add branding to your clips.
With a movie, lyrics embodying a theme of the movie helps audiences become more aware of it.
These are just a few examples of ways lyrics can embolden your video. They can be one of the best tools in your arsenal to strengthen what message you’re trying to get across to your audience.
2. As a Tactic to Provoke an Emotional Response
Emotion and feeling is what drives every video you make. It can be sadness, happiness, lust, greed, whatever — but the audience has to feel something for your video to be effective.
Music heightens these feelings and lyrics can push them even further. With musical melodies, the response is more intuitive as we sense the music and are aware of it, but don’t necessarily focus on it.
With lyrics, however, we are forced to listen, interpret, and reconcile what the words are saying.
Using lyrics at the right time with the right visuals is an easy tactic to provoke the emotional response you want, but be careful as it’s easy to over do it (see below).
3. To Show the Audience Character Traits
When a character listens to a song in a video, it says something about them. Are they a fan of gangster rap or R&B? Do they listen to songs about love or those about sadness? Do they get excited at certain words?
By using lyrics, you give away more information about a character while being subtle.
Think about the scene from Wayne’s World where they sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody — it tells us not only that Wayne and his friends like the song, but they love it enough to learn all the parts and words which tells you they are extremely passionate about music.
Once you understand diegetic and non-diegetic music, you’re able to use lyrics in more ways within a fictional world or outside of it.
You Should Avoid Lyrics…
1. When There is Dialogue in the Scene
Most of the time you hear songs with lyrics playing in a video is over montages, scenes, or moments without dialogue — and there’s a good reason for that.
As a practical consideration, lyrics shouldn’t be played when there is important dialogue in a scene because it has the effect of two conversations going on at the same time.
Exceptions to this rule might include:
- A song with lyrics playing in the background (of a party, etc.)
- When you want the dialogue to be hard to hear as an effect
- When the lyrics are more important than the dialogue being played over
Of course, like any rule, you are free to break it, but make sure you have a good reason to do so.
2. When They Are Too “On the Nose”
I first heard the term “on the nose” from a film professor in college. He had trouble explaining it because it’s a difficult concept to define — but I’ll try anyway.
“On the nose” is when something — lyrics, dialogue, or an action — is so descriptive of the situation that it’s too self-aware. The result is something serious becomes humorous because it’s too perfect.
It just doesn’t feel right.
Often, “on the nose” music is exploited for comedic effect like in Austin Powers when Dr. Evil and Mini-me dance to “Just the Two of Us.” While ” it’s very effective in comedy, it can be very deadly to your video if you’re reaching for a more dramatic mood.
3. When They Don’t Mean Anything
On the other end of the spectrum are lyrics that don’t mean anything at all. You have to tread a fine line between lyrics meaning too much and meaning too little.
You have to expect that — like I said above — the audience will interpret every lyric to be representative of the story or a character. So unless you’re trying to make a statement by putting gangsta rap over a family Thanksgiving scene, then don’t do it!
Simply placing a song you like into a scene because it’s a good jam is not enough justification.
The Past, Present, and Future of Lyrics
Long before humans watched movies, television, or even read books, they listened to storytellers tell them tales of love and war. To add excitement, many of these stories were sung or accompanied by music. These storytellers were called poets and their words, “lyrics.”
Fast forward thousands of years and we’re still telling stories, but in a variety of mediums — music, film, television, books, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and even video games.
But lyrics still live on in a more specified manner. They are the words with which the poets of music tell their story, share their emotions, or take us on a journey.
And it’s up to you, from here on out, to use them to their full advantage, whether as a songwriter yourself or the curator of a creative vision.
[Image above from: eschipul]