Screenwriters have long been cautioned to avoid writing music of any kind into their screenplays. There are pragmatic reasons: you don’t want to assume you’ll have the money to clear certain rights. Also, isn’t it the director or the music supervisor’s job and not that of the screenwriter?
Let’s go deeper and explore why you might or might not want to soundtrack your reader’s experience with songs.
Why Songs In Your Screenplay?
By now you must know that every rule of screenwriting can and has been broken by many successful writers. In this case, why is it important for you to describe the soundscape of your story?
What if a specific song is a plot point or a source of bonding between your characters? Or what your film is centered on musicians or the music industry? Wouldn’t it be essential for you to specify certain songs or types of music throughout?
There are plenty of rich reasons for specifying the music in a film. After all, what says more about a character than the kind of music they listen to? This goes beyond telling us that a moody teen listens to alt-rock. Imagine not specifying in the script for American Psycho that Patrick Bateman listens to “Walking on Sunshine” on his way to work.
How Waves Wove Songs Into Its Screenplay
One script that not so much broke this rule as it did completely throw it out the window is the 2019 film Waves by Trey Edward Shults.
Right off the bat, the script has no less than over twenty specific song cues: from billboard charters by Kanye West and Frank Ocean to lesser-known tracks by Animal Collective and Colin Stetson. Waves was written by a writer-director who knew his film was about to be financed by A24, but that did not guarantee they would have the money for any of the tracks in what was essentially a spec screenplay.
Shults did not do this to simply flex his music taste: it was part of the formula of the film. He envisioned it as a musical without singing. It is a coming-of-age film that tied to the music teenagers listen to with their headphones all day. The music was in the DNA of the script, much like Baby Driver by Edgar Wright or Dazed and Confused by Richard Linklater.
There is a commonality between those three films: all three writer-directors had already made at least one successful film prior. If you are writing your screenplay for spec, you’re not going to want to lay style on too thick. However, it does make a big difference in how you imagine your story. Does it rely heavily on ambient noise and quiet tension? Or does it flow to the sound of instrumentation and beautiful melodies to be created by a composer later? There is nothing stopping you from describing these beats if it makes economic sense within your script.
At the end of the day, if your desire with writing in music in your screenplay is to enhance the emotion and experience of reading your script, go for it! Isn’t that the purpose of every screenwriting tool? The confidence of your vision is your most important quality as a storyteller. Don’t half-ass it! Truly weave it into the rhythms of your script.