How To Choose Music For Voice-Over Recordings

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Is music the world’s universal language?
When you select music to go along with a voice-over, whether it be a demo, an audition or something you’re producing for a client, there’s a lot more to consider than what meets the eye!
Discover how music choices can affect the way your work is received by its intended audience with insights from linguist-translator and ethnomusicologist, Rebekah Drew.

What Does Music Mean?

According to the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
While all cultures have their own forms of music, that does not mean that a given piece of music will convey the same message from culture to culture in terms of its meaning and or the feelings and themes the music evokes.
Music does so much more than just sound good in the background. Music touches people deeply, speaks to them on many levels and has cultural significance.

Music Means Different Things To Different People

To give you an example, music that might be considered uplifting, joyful or triumphant in Western culture such as Handel’s Messiah may come across to other cultures as being “crying music,” strange or even uncivilized!
Likewise, if you were to listen to some music from another culture, you may respond to it in terms of what your ears are used to hearing and the cultural norms we have adopted for music in our culture.

At a workshop conducted by Rebekah Drew, we were asked to listen to a music sample from a tribal people in Papua New Guinea. We were not told what the music was about but asked to give our impressions afterward. The music, as described with Western ears, was homophonic, moved in a stepwise fashion, and sung in no particular key with an undulating pitch creating a tightly packed dissonance. Whatever its meaning though, the group sounded unified in purpose.

Some people in our class thought the recording was music for a funeral when in reality, the music being sung communally was actually a hymn of praise. Clearly, music is not the universal language of mankind! Each culture has its own ways of “speaking” when it comes to music and interpretation of its meaning. Just as we have thousands of languages, we can interpret music in a multitude of ways.

Elements That Impact How Someone Might Perceive Music

  • Pitch variation
  • Instrumentation
  • Time signatures (meter)
  • Form (strophic, binary, ternary etc.)
  • Tempo
  • Dynamics
  • Lyrics (if any)
    * Note that if words are present in a piece of music or music bed, they function as another voice that plays a role in the mix.

You need to ask yourself if the people you are providing production services to have the same musical heart language. This may go without saying but you will need to be careful when picking music, and especially sensitive if you are working with people who do not come from the same culture as you.
We are all different, that is for sure!
Communication and communicating well to your target audience is very important.

How Do You Pick Music?

As a voice talent, you’ve likely had to select music for your clients from time to time. I’d love to hear about how you made your choices, especially if you had to consider audiences that were different from your own culture or demographic wise!
Looking forward to hearing from you.
Best wishes,

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