Reader Question: How do you handle songs in a screenplay?

Scott Myers
4 min readJun 14, 2012

Does including the title of a specific recorded song mark you as an amateur?

From Shaula Evans:

How do you handle screenplays where music is an integral element–not “musicals” and not rom-coms with playlists, but movies about bands or singers? E.g., Privilege, The Commitments, Sister Act, etc?

Can you get around annoying readers by writing: The band plays a song LIKE “X”… In which case, how do you indicate how much of the song plays (is that your responsibility as a writer?) to keep the one-minute-per-page ratio accurate?

It’s not lost on me that Privilege was based on a short story, The Commitments on a novel, and Sister Act was pitched by an established screenwriter (Paul Rudnick). Is the answer that music movies don’t work well as spec scripts?

And plinytheelder adds to the question:

What about the case where the music, or more precisely the lyric is being used as a proxy for description in the script, say for example in a love scene or an action sequence (but *not* a simple replay of “Bad to the Bone” at high volume to indicate our character is a badass) ?

How does one choreograph or balance the length of the song snippet versus the action on screen? Should one try to match the timing of the action on screen to the verse/chorus structure of the song?

Is it even important to do that in the script or should one leave that kind of decision to the director?

Let’s start with one of those supposed ‘rules’ of screenwriting: You should not reference specific songs in a script. As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for this bit of conventional wisdom, the third flowing from the first two.

  • A screenwriter does not dictate what music ends up in a movie. Studios have their own music licensing departments who handle all that.
  • You may think it’s a great idea to include “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones in your script, but maybe not when you discover its use would cost the production something like $500,000 in licensing fees.
  • Because of these production-related issues, the conventional wisdom among script readers is when they review a script that has a specific song in it, and especially more than one, their immediate instinct is to think: “Amateur.”

My advice: If you are using a song simply as ambience or to accompany a montage / series of shots, don’t insert a specific song title. Per the latter, most readers will assume there will be music on the soundtrack, so unless you are being ironic [e.g., a character is going through a depressive montage, but for comic reasons you portray it accompanied by an upbeat reggae song], I would avoid referring to the music altogether. Obviously, if there’s a scene where a character is joyously dancing around the living room, then perhaps some description like, “He bounces around in utter delirium cranking a heavy metal song on the stereo.”

There may be occasions where your story absolutely needs a specific song, tied to plot or maybe a theme. If you really believe you have to include that title in your script to tell your story, then you should feel free to do it.

Of course, in the event you are writing a script about a fictional band or bands, then you may include your own lyrics. I co-wrote a script for Tri-Star which took place in one night at a Lollapalooza type of event and we came up with all sorts of outrageous band names, so we included a few snippets of them performing which included lyrics. That was a blast to write. In fact, I just looked up the script and here’s a bit of business between Jill, a teenager and aspiring songwriter, and Dylan, another musician she meets at the event. He listens to her song, then stops her.

She doesn’t understand… he takes the guitar…

It’s like…
“I’m a pale girl,
‘Coz I never go outside my apartment.
I walk down Melrose,
I wear all black and lots of dark lipstick.
‘Coz I’m angry at the world,
Angry at the world,
So angry at the world.
You can nail me to the boards,
It’s pens against the swords,
I only know three damn chords,
I’ll stay angry at the world,
Angry at the world,
So angry at the world.”

If you write your own lyrics, you can include them. Whether you should or not, that’s another question. Do they advance the story? Are they entertaining? Important considerations.

I’m sure readers will have opinions on using songs in scripts. Let’s hear what you have to say. See you in comments!

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