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Two Types of Music in Films and How to Use Each

The Two Types of Movie Music and How to Use EachCreative Commons License photo credit: vancouverfilmschool

Whether you realized it or not, you’ve sat through two different types of music in all sorts ofmedia. From music videos to commercials to business presentations to Hollywood films, all of them use one or the other type.

Think you know what I’m talking about already? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with instruments or genre. It’s not royalty-free and licensed music either.

No, these two types are much more comprehensive then that.

And you’re going to want to know what they are so you can use music as effectively as possible in your video.

What is Diegetic and Non-Diegetic music?

Film music and movie soundtracks can be described as being either diegetic or non-diegetic — both derived from the literary term “diegesis.”

Determining whether a piece of music is one or the other comes down to the context in which it is used. Can the characters hear it? Does the audience realize that? Or is the song used to increase emotional resonance?

Below we’ll dive deeper into what that means, take a look at a few examples, and I’ll teach you how to use both types in your project.


When film music is referred to as diegetic, it means it comes from within the “narrative sphere” of the story. That is, the music can be heard, played or manipulated by the characters.

Think of how a character might turn on a radio in a car to listen to a song. Or they go to a club where the music is playing way too loud.

Diegetic types of music are important because they are prompted by, and sometimes even effect, the story of your video.

This Heineken commercial even bases its entire premise around the use of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend” as a piece of diegetic music. Here’s another example of diegetic music from Back to the Future…

[youtube video=”S1i5coU-0_Q”]

As you see in the clip above, the music is dictated by the storyline — Marty being on stage with a band — and the characters react to it. It makes them dance and confuses them when Marty get carried away with his guitar solo.

The music is from within the world of the story and has the potential to change that world as well.


When you think of movie soundtracks, you typically don’t imagine diegetic music. Those orchestral pieces you hear during a Hollywood film are songs that are considered to be non-diegetic.

For a piece of music to be non-diegetic, it exists outside of the realm of the characters where they can’t hear it. The music is exclusively for the audience to listen to and is typically used to influence your emotional reaction to a scene.

Here’s another scene from Back to the Future, but this time with non-diegetic music. Instead of the song coming from within the world, it is applied over top of it.

[youtube video=”KPeHFDxKUP4″]

In this clip, the powerful score intensifies the action, but it’s clear that the Marty nor the Libyan rebels are able to hear it — there isn’t any source and the music is too consistently mixed.

But by supplying the audience with music, even though it doesn’t naturally occur in the story, the filmmakers add a tone of danger, accelerate the pacing, and provide an overall greater experience.

How to Use Diegetic Music

So now that you know the difference between the two types of soundtrack music, it’s time to learn how to use each of them seamlessly starting with diegetic (in-story) music.

1. Establish a source within the scene

To make diegetic music work effectively, the first thing you need to do is establish that the music is coming from within the scene. There are many ways you can do this:

  • Show a radio turned on by a character
  • Have a character play an instrument
  • Utilize a setting in which music is common (restaurants, grocery stores, etc.)
  • Have characters react to the song with dancing or singing

As a general rule, if you want to use diegetic music, you will have to plan for it ahead of time since you have to establish a source with the footage.

2. Use sound filters to make it sound appropriate

Once you have settled on the enviroment and the source the music is in, you have to make it believably sound like it’s coming from the source.

For instance, say your character walks into a room, hides a radio under her pillow, then turns on the music. Since the radio would be muffled by the pillow, the music wouldn’t come out crisp and clean.

There are various sound filters you can use to make these effects — some of them automatically. If you aren’t sure how to make it sound believable, recall your own experiences and expectations:

  • If it’s a brand new CD player in the scene, it should sound boisterous and bold.
  • If it’s over the intercom speakers of a hotel, it should sound muted and tinny.
  • If it’s coming from another room in a house, it should sound distant and quiet.

Basically, it has to sound like you’d expect it to sound in real life — sound filters help sell that credibility.

3. Break Free of the Source Appropriately

The last and final step is to either transition your music away from its diegetic source or end it completely. At this point, what you do and how you do it is going to be a stylistic choice.

The answer could be as simple as your character stops playing an instrument and the song ends naturally. Or they arrive at a destination in a car, turn it off, and so the radio — and your song — goes silent.

Alternatively, you could use editing techniques to end a song by fading out or using jump cuts.

How to Use Non-Diegetic Music

Using non-diegetic (out-of-story) music is both easier and harder to do at the same time. Technically, overlaying a song on top of a video is easy, but as a matter of style, choosing the appropriate song and cueing it at the right time is difficult.

Still, music is essential to many movies — perhaps including your own — so having the ability to apply it correctly is invaluable.

1. Provide a cue or transition to it

Music that starts in the middle of a line or randomly within a scene draws too much attention to itself to be effective.

Make sure that you have a smooth transition or cue for it. It could be a dramatic reveal (visually or verbally), a quick scene-change, or as simple as a slow fade in.

For some projects, you will want to introduce music with subtlety, while with others, you’ll choose to jolt the audience by surprising them with a song.

2. Mix it properly within the other audio

Nothing is more frustrating than to watch a movie and not be able to hear what the characters are saying. This isn’t always because of the music, but a soundtrack is one more thing to distract us from listening to dialogue or hearing crucial sound effects.

When you reach the stage of your production where you are mixing the audio, be meticulous about volume levels. You want the music to be loud enough to be heard and enjoyed, but it shouldn’t overtake dialogue (unless it’s an intentional choice).

It helps if you wear headphones when you mix.

3. Know when it’s emotionally appropriate

The convential way of using music in a movie is to have it inform the audience the way they you think they should feel — like a sad piano ballad playing as someone passes on their death bed.

But conventional isn’t always best.

Martin Scorsese, a master of film soundtracks, often uses music in his films that is emotionally opposite of what you’d expect so that the audience is forced to claim an emotion without Scorsese telling them what is right.

Sometimes providing the emotional piano music after the character has died is more powerful.

Transitioning Between the Two

One of the most difficult things to pull off is a transition between diegetic and non-diegetic music. Audio crossfades and slow volume increases or decreases work well for this.

Another technique that has a lot of effect is to suddenly play the music louder. You can also associate the transition with a visual cue — like a door slam or sudden jump cut.

Keep in mind that when you use both types of music at once, you have to be thinking about the audience and the characters’ reactions.

No matter how you approach it, please know that it is definitely a stylistic choice and how you apply it is a creative decision — choose wisely.

How Do You Use Music in Your Films?

In most cases, the choice between diegetic or non-diegetic music will be clear cut, but for style purposes, you may choose to completely ignore the rules — maybe change the song completely.

Now that you know what diegetic/non-diegetic music is, how others use it, and how to use it yourself, I’d love to hear in the comments how you plan on using it.

Will it change how you’ve used music in the past? What are some of your personal techniques to use music effectively? Do you prefer diegetic or non-diegetic use?

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