Don’t Let Your Students Use Music In Their Video Projects

Adding a music track to film used to be a technically strenuous task requiring an optical printer to run a transparent strip alongside your film print. Now, your computer’s stock video editor (iMovie or Windows Movie Maker), VoiceThread, or PhotoStory will import a track from your iTunes library in seconds. Here, again, we have conquered the technical hurdle but we have underestimated the height of this particular creative hurdle.

When you make videos, vodcasts, and montages, you are attempting to create meaning.

You create meaning – whether that’s a thesis or a tone – when you write scripts, cast actors, place cameras, use lights, direct actors, and edit shots. Not one of those creative tasks is value neutral. If you can align each of those creative tasks to your thesis or tone, then music will be redundant at best, distracting at worst, serving only to remind your audience that they are watching a movie.

In our classrooms, when we make movies, we write a sloppy plot outline, a soft script, we act unskillfully, direct unskillfully, edit unskillfully, and then trowel a soundtrack onto our movie to fill the gap between what it is and what we wanted it to be. We wanted something buoyant so we add Louis Armstrong. We wanted to convey menace so we add John William’s soundtrack to Jaws, or the Creative Commons-licensed equivalent. When we let our students use music in their videos, we let them outsource the truly difficult creative work to industry professionals.

Four Illustrative Examples

  1. No Country For Old Men featured smart suspense, fat-free plotting, and some truly terrifying set-pieces, all without the shock chords and shrieking notes that horror schlock has to trowel onto otherwise unscary sequences. The movie was silent.
  2. The Wire and The Shield were, for my money, two of the best dramatic television series of the current millenium. Both of them established complicated characters and rich drama without soundtracks.
  3. I used music in exactly one of my ten dy/av episodes and I blew it. The CC-licensed track I selected was far too ponderous and far too mopey for the footage it was working against.

Harmless Anecdote

I witnessed a montage at ILC 2008 featuring a Frankenstein medley of “Highway to the Danger Zone,” “Ride of the Valkyries,” “Dare You To Move,” “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” “New Soul,” and “Requiem for a Dream,” the lyrics and songs straining to carry the weight which the photos, themselves, couldn’t carry, photos of students unboxing laptops.

Far better there, to play ambient audio of the students excitedly unboxing their laptops or of student testimonials and, beneath that, if absolutely necessary, a track that functions not as an emotional signpost (“hey hey! feel happy! yeah, you!”) but as an emotional lubricant, something pleasant but inexpressive on its own.


If your students can demonstrate that all of their creative decisions from pre-production through editing support their thesis or tone, and they still need music, then let them have at it. Otherwise, you’re letting them off easy and they need to cut Louis Armstrong in on the grade.

BTW: Ken Loach, director, winner of Palmes d’Or:

I think film music that tells you what to think is cheap — the film should do that without that prompting.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Just re-watched dy/av : 010 and can’t decide whether to disagree about the soundtrack – it does sound ponderous, but I remember watching it and thinking it was a superbly appropriate ending for your series. I think I get the tone you were going for – (very) slightly more upbeat, but it still fits in well with the whole series. Either watching it on its own out of context skews the feel, or you’ve put the expectation into my head. Whatever the case, that video definitely needs a soundtrack. How about some Cinematic Orchestra instead of NIN?

    Am now downloading NIN I-IV, thanks for the repost :)
    Unrelated: the search is going well, thanks for the advice.

  2. It makes my brain hurt to think that the teachers who assign these projects consider my surface-scratching here to be excessively analytical.

    Steve, I’d say I hit my intended tone plus or minus 10%. The point, though, is that unless the music is selected or composed with intense alignment to all the other cinematic elements, you’ll hear the dissonance.

  3. I agree at the same time that I think you’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Since the beginning of filmmaking history music has been a part of the telling of the story. It shouldn’t mask poor storytelling but it can augment good storytelling.

  4. Right, so I’m saying that using music in your video project needs to be some kind of privilege instead of an assumed right (simply because technology makes it easy). Students need to a) explain their goal for using music, and b) explain how they have exhausted all other routes to that goal elsewhere in the videomaking process.

  5. I like it when kids use GarageBand and Midis to mix their own beats and create their own loops to use. I think they can create music that can enhance the mood they are trying to create.

  6. Dan,
    Music can also be the star of the show… see “2001: A Space Odyssey” or, more recently the excellently scored/soundtracked “The Thomas Crown Affair”. This is why they have multiple Academy Awards for the audio and music of a motion picture. I think kids need to understand that every technique they use needs to push the “story” along- make it better in some way – whether that is no music at all (like in No Country for Old Men) or with a score that drives the whole vehicle (the aforementioned “2001”). Let’s show students poor examples along side the exemplar in hopes that they “get it”. You should also have them try to tell a story only using video and music, no dialogue at all, and see what results you get.

  7. As a former English teacher, I really like Brett’s suggestion of only video and music with no dialogue. I love the idea of reinforcing the power of nonverbal communication while also teaching visual literacy.

  8. per Mathew’s comments and your response:

    I think you sometimes like to give people the old “bait and switch”, Dan. Your title suggests that using any music in a multimedia project should be banned altogether for inferior use of music in student projects.

    However, by pointing out that students use music in an unskilled and poorly thought out manner almost sounds like a justification for teaching students proper use of music to create a mood or accent a part of their project. Which I’m all for :)

    Between posts like these and your design project are you sure your talents are best spent teaching Math and not Theater or Design?

  9. With any assignment, you should be watching whether students are spending more time on / learning more about the subject matter or the medium being used.

    I think you realized that it’s hard to look beyond bad audio. It’s also hard to look beyond bad video, bad slides, bad presentation skills, and bad handwriting. What happens when students come to a class without even basic skills in these areas, and they’re needed for a project?

  10. I’m sure you’re familiar with but others may not be of the AFI’s website. There’s a wonderful scenario for teachers to work through with students called “Opening a Door”. Students don’t even think about using a computer until they’ve understood the nuances and techniques in creating emotion, ebb and flow and story. It helps them break down the process of shot selection and timing to tell good stories. Music, special fx only come once the story is clearly told without those pieces.

  11. @Ben, fair enough. “Don’t Let Your Students Use Music In Their Video Projects (Unless They Can Positively Justify It From A Standpoint Of Thesis And Tone)” just felt wordy, though.

    @Dean, in general, I’m just a huge fan of tightly constrained projects like AFI’s. If you turn on every technical switch at once, it’s really difficult to isolate one element (let’s say music) and say, “this was the effect of music on my thesis and tone.” Turn off all of the switches except music and composition (no dialogue, let’s say) and the individual effects suddenly become obvious.

    My impression of the edublogosphere is that we’re all so thrilled to have conquered so many technical obstacles to producing and distributing digital video, we have given quality control a short shrift.

  12. Dan,

    What I like most about the AFI piece is that the first 4 lessons of “Door Scene” doesn’t even get to a computer. In camera editing is used to help students focus on telling stories and to move from simply documenting an event. I’m using that with teachers.

    PS. I did enjoy the audio track used in “Mrs. Albert Hannaday” ;)

  13. An example of subtle soundtracking, if ever I saw one.

    But seriously, how many awesome, emotional moments has that show seen? All without a soundtrack.

  14. My impression of the edublogosphere is that we’re all so thrilled to have conquered so many technical obstacles to producing and distributing digital video, we have given quality control a short shrift.

    Isn’t that the same with every new medium that works its way into the curriculum? Audio production sucked when it was first widespread and cheap, and now it’s video’s turn. Powerpoints have arguable always sucked.

    Not that I disagree with your premise, but I’m just happy to see people using the tools available. I think if we’re going to tell people it has to be at a certain level before they’re allowed to participate, we’ll lose a huge potential creative base. Yes, everyone’s first film sucks. Get past that, and once people are comfortable with the tools, then work on the artistry.

  15. Yeah, preach it. I wish that quantity motivated quality (that once people started making movies they would gravitate instinctively to better production) but experience just doesn’t bear out on that one. I mean, if the teachers who assign these projects don’t have the macro- and micro- understanding of the medium (as they do – in theory – of their certified content areas) how will they know where to nudge students. How will they answer a student’s question, “How do I make this better?”

  16. I don’t think one necessarily leads to another, but it’s been my experience that as the technical aspect of things get easier, people tend to experiment with making it better, or more complex, for themselves.

    This is not to say that they won’t be helped by expert advice in the subject area (or even enthusiastic amateur advice), but students will focus on the areas that they want to improve first, whether that’s framing, lighting, sound, colour or whatever.

    FWIW, I did enjoy the dy/av with the music, although I found it, as you said, a little sombre. If you had the chance to choose the track again, what would you pick now?

  17. Limiting the pool to creative commons-licensed tracks? No idea.

    Expanding that pool I imagine I would’ve chosen something like “Remember Me As A Time Of Day” or another track from Explosions in the Sky. No lyrics to interfere with my thesis. Music that functions as emotional lubricant, strengthening your interpretation of the work instead of suggesting its own.