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The Do's and Don'ts Of Creating A Soundtrack

7Wonder Executive Director Mike Reilly Reveals How To Make A Soundtrack

Someone calling themselves an ‘auteur’ is akin to Donald Trump saying his hair is ‘convincing’: a fanciful notion that bears no relation to reality.

As a director, your DoP makes you look better than you are, your editors make you appear wittier than you are and your production team make you sound far, far smarter than you are.
Which brings us to music, specifically curating your soundtrack. This is the one area you can quell the little yellow-haired Trumpy part of your ego that demands to make a mark on a show. The very fact that I’ve used the phrase ‘curating your soundtrack’ is all you need to know about my id.
Every project I’ve worked on for the past 10 years has started with music. After receiving the brief, I’ll start to build up a playlist. For Billy Connolly’s Tracks Across America, I pulled together a 174- track playlist of possible songs before a single frame had been shot. By the time we’d returned from our first recce, this had swelled to 300, rising to 400 by the end of the shoot. Everything from a 300-piece marching band version of KLF’s Doctorin’ The Tardis to bongo reinterpretations of Russian romantic classics was on the list. Obviously, barely a tenth of these tracks made it into the cut.

The Do's and Don'ts Of Creating A Soundtrack

Mike Reilly - Executive Director


So in a world of streaming music, where do you start? And, more importantly, how do you avoid getting lost in musical dead ends? Here are my more than slightly inflated suggestions. They are by no means rules.

Just because you like it, it doesn’t mean it’s right
I love Bruce Springsteen but I have never got a single track of his to work in a show, and that includes two travelogues around the States. If it doesn’t sound right straight away, it never will.
Unless you’re doing an updated version of Abigail’s Party, don’t use Adele. (That’s right, I’m saying it, Adele is the Demis Roussos of our times.)

Don’t sing what you see 
At some point, you’re going to be cutting a sequence involving cats and someone is going to come in to your edit and say: “You know what you should use there? Squeeze’s Cool For Cats.” Don’t. It’s going to distract the viewer – and trust me, not because they think it’s clever, but because they’ll be thinking: “I haven’t played my Best of Squeeze album in years.”

If you just aren’t into music – get someone on your team who is
TV is full of people who are convinced their taste is better than everyone else’s – use that to your benefit. Just avoid giving that task to the production member who listens to Heart FM or Magic by choice. That’s a bit like opting to have a diet that consists of nothing but candy floss – and that’s a diabetic coma you don’t want to have to deal with when the edit starts.

Put in the time with library music
Library music is a bit like using the tube in rush hour – you just have to endure the unpleasant stuff to get to your destination. If you want your show to sound distinct, you must put in the extra time to listen to a lot of music. There are only so many tracks in the world featuring marimbas or plucking strings and I think we’ve heard them all now. The good news, however, is there is more than just one music library out there and some of them are really good, if you put in the time.

Consider composers 
They are amazing, they can do everything you can’t and they’ll transform a vague direction into a work of art that will eventually make you feel even more useless – because now you can’t even claim that you ‘curated’ the soundtrack to your show.
In the end, like all things where personal taste plays a part, there are no right or wrong answers. Choosing music is a subjective crap shoot.
But if you are working for a channel with a blanket agreement, you have access to a giant toy box of tunes waiting to be played with, so go nuts – be adventurous, contrary and surprising. Just don’t be dull – and avoid Adele.


First published in Broadcast on 14th April 2016.  Written by Mike Reilly.