Create Your Own Movie Soundtracks (Part 2)


In Part 1 of Creating Your Own Movie Soundtracks, we looked at some ways to introduce film scoring to students and discussed places to find quality visual resources such as videos and images.

In this follow-up article, we will discuss the software options for creating the soundtrack itself, the preparation of the visual element of the project, and some tips for approaching the compositional element of the project.

Step 3: Preparing The Visual Element

It is best to download and prepare the video or images for your project before starting to compose the soundtrack. Preparing the video before starting work on the soundtrack is in line with the way real-life composers work. As mentioned in Part 1, a composer will usually wait until the video is edited and reaches ‘locked picture’ status before composing music that will be synchronised exactly to the action on the screen. 

Downloading Videos And Images
Once you have found a suitable video or image, you will need to download it to your hard drive (remember to check the copyright or Creative Commons license first). Some websites make it easy for you to download the file by providing obvious download links or buttons, and there may even be a choice of formats or file sizes.

If you do not see a download button or link, you can usually right-click (control-click on a Mac) on the video itself and choose ‘Save file as’ or similar. Give the file a descriptive name so that it is easy for you and your students to find later on, and then download the video to your hard drive.

Editing The Video
If the video you have found online is too long, it will require some editing. Generally, this editing is best done using video editing software that allows you to shorten the beginning or end of the video, or take out a middle section. Free or low-cost software options for this task include iMovie (Mac), Windows Movie Maker, Pinnacle Studio or Sony Movie Studio (all PC).

Edit the beginning or end of the video if necessary and then add a simple fade-in and fade-out.

What If The Video Already Has A Soundtrack?
There is no need to worry if there is a soundtrack already accompanying the video. Once you import the video into your music sequencing and editing program, the existing soundtrack can be easily removed or muted.

Export And/or Convert The Video
When you have finished editing the video, you will need to export it in a format that can be imported by your music software of choice (more about that below). First check which video file types your music software accepts and then take a look at the export options in your video editing software. If you see a matching format amongst the export options, select it and then export the file.

If you do not see the file type option you want in the export options, it is not the end of the world. There are a number of free online video converters that will convert your existing video to a different file type. Try Zamzar (, Online Video Converter ( or Online Convert (

Step 4: Choosing Software For Film Scoring

Which Music Software Should My Students Use?
The ideal options for middle school students are Garageband (Mac) or Mixcraft (PC) which both allow import of video and images, as well as recording and editing of audio, recording of software (virtual) instruments and the inclusion of a loop library containing provided ‘snippets’ of existing music and sound effects. ACID Music Studio is another option for PC users, but does not offer the same flexibility and features as Mixcraft.

Senior students can also use professional software options such as Logic (Mac) and Pro Tools (Mac or PC), and if you are keen to do a notation-based film scoring project, the best options are Sibelius or Finale.

Step 5: Creating The Soundtrack

Import The Video (Or Images)
Start a new project in your music software and import the video using the menu options. Sometimes you can also drag the video file directly from the Explorer window (PC) or the Finder (Mac).

Delete Or Mute The Existing Soundtrack
When you import a video into a program like GarageBand, Mixcraft or ACID, the audio track will appear on a separate track to the video and you can choose whether to delete or mute it, or leave it in for the students to use. In Sibelius or Finale, the existing soundtrack can be muted by dragging the volume slider in the video preview window all the way to the left.

Identify The Hit Points
One approach to film scoring with students is to have them begin by simply synchronising sound effects with visual events in the video. They can do this by identifying hit points in the video and adding an audio or musical sound effect to each one. Later, they can compose music to bridge each of the hit points and round out their composition.

Open the video preview window, if it is not already showing on the screen, and then play the video by clicking on the ‘Play’ button on the transport bar.

While the video is playing, make a note of times in the video where significant events – such as an explosion, a tree falling, a kiss, star burst or a dog bark – take place. These action points are known as ‘hit points’.

Take a tip from the professionals and write the list of the hit points on a cue sheet – a simple table which includes information about the time of the hit point, what action is taking place, and some ideas for music and sound effects.

Mark Hit Points In The Project

The next step is to mark the hit points (also sometimes known as ‘markers’) in the project itself. To do this, play the project and when you see a significant event take place in the video, stop playback and add a hit point in.

Before you get started with adding hit points though, it is very important to turn off snapping first.  Snapping is a feature that causes loops or recorded audio to ‘snap’ to the beginning of a bar, or to a specific beat. This is highly useful when you are doing a music project since you will nearly always want the music to adhere to bars and beats in a song. However, if you are working on a film scoring project, it is unlikely that you will want snapping enabled, since hit points and sound effects do not conform to bars and beats.

It is also a good idea to zoom in as far as possible. This will help you see the exact video frame in which the event takes place.

Move the playback line gradually through the video – frame by frame – until see an action point and then press the ‘add hit point’ or ‘add marker’ shortcut in your software program. Repeat for the remaining hit points throughout the video. Some software programs also allow you to rename the hit points so you can easily identify which one is which.

Add Sound Effects
Once the hit points or markers have been added to the project, it is very easy to navigate between each one and line up a sound effect or musical chord.

In programs like GarageBand and Mixcraft, you will find a range of sound effects in the loop library. You may need to teach students to use minimal search terms when looking for sound effects (e.g. use ‘dog’ rather than ‘dog barking’ or ‘crash’ instead of ‘train crash’) to bring up as many options as possible.

It is also good to try to think outside the square. For instance, it is unlikely that a loop library will include the sound of an acorn dropping to the floor, but it may include a ping pong sound that could do quite well. Sometimes you need to spend some time browsing through the sound effects for options and do a lot of listening before finding something useful.

If you cannot find the ideal sound effect, you have a couple of options: create one from scratch (grab a microphone or an iPad, record yourself making the sound effect and then import it into your project) or search for the sound effect online. A warning though: searching online can be very time consuming!

If you are using a notation program, untuned percussion sounds can be an effective substitute for audio sound effects. For instance, a cymbal crash can simulate thunder and lightening and a bass drum can represent a heartbeat.

Do not forget that a well-placed chord is another option for hit points. A dramatic dissonant chord from the brass section – created with virtual instruments in GarageBand and Mixcraft, or notated in Sibelius or Finale – can be just as effective as an audio sound effect.

Adding Music The Quick And Simple Way
With all the hit points taken care of, it is time to add some music.

If you only have a short amount of class time, or you are working with younger students, you can use ready-made music loops from the library in your software program. Students can locate a music loop and drag it into the project, making sure to extend the loop for the length of the video. They can then add some automation such as a fade-in and fade-out.

A second musically-contrasting loop can then be dragged into the project (on to a new track) for the purposes of comparing two styles of music side-by-side and discussing the effect they have on the mood of the video. By muting the second music loop (leaving the first one unmuted) they can play the project back with their first choice. Then, they can mute the first music loop and unmute the second one in order to hear their project played with a completely different style of music.

Adding Music: Older Students
Older students should be encouraged to create their soundtrack from scratch, composing musical phrases to bridge each hit point. Some background work in listening to film score examples is important, so that students can identify compositional techniques that are used to create specific styles of music.

For instance, to create a suspenseful feel, film composers often make use of a musical drone – a long held note – often played by a low instrument. Other suspense techniques include the use of repeated musical motifs and rhythms that get faster and faster (both techniques are used in the opening of the Jaws theme music by John Williams).

Students can easily replicate these techniques by recording virtual instruments in GarageBand or Mixcraft, or by adding the appropriate instrument stave in Sibelius or Finale.

Mixing And Automation

When the soundtrack is finished, the final step is to check the balance of all the tracks. Open the mixer window and play the project through from start to finish, adjusting the volume of tracks if necessary. You want to make sure everything is balanced and can be heard clearly. You can also add automation – volume or panning envelopes – to create varied volume and panning on individual tracks.

Exporting Your Project

Once the film score is complete, it can be exported in a video format so that it can be viewed outside your chosen software program. Look for the export, sharing or rendering options in your software menu.

Creating movie soundtracks can be a fun, engaging and effective activity for middle school students, which allows them to gain an understanding of the effect of music and sound effects on visual imagery. As you have seen through this and the previous article, engaging in Film scoring can encompasses a range of tech skills – including recording audio, recording MIDI, editing and synchronisation – and a range of music skills such as the effective use of tone colour and timbre, and the use of rhythmic and melodic compositional techniques to invoke a mood, place, time or person.

Hopefully you now have a better idea of where to begin so you can get stuck and begin creating amazing projects with students.

 To view Part 1 of this article, simply click here.

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Katie Wardrobe
Katie Wardrobe is a music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music educators. She runs hands-on workshops and online courses through her business Midnight Music and focusses on incorporating technology into the music curriculum. Katie is also the author of the middle school MusicEDU curriculum program Studio Sessions and is currently writing an ebook titled iPad Projects for the Music Classroom.
Katie Wardrobe

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