How to Make a Great Low-Budget Soundtrack for Your Film

film scoring orchestra motion picture soundtrack
Some films don't need music, and that's part of their aesthetic. But just imagine the "Blue Danube Waltz" docking sequence from 2001 without sound and you'll see what I mean. Music can take a film and make it more than the sum of its parts.

And even in the days of so-called "silent" films, the silence was just a lack of dialogue and sound effects, not a lack of music: piano and other musical accompaniment was a staple of the theatrical viewing experience, with live music helping bring the movies to life. 

But acquiring the rights to songs can be expensive, as well as confusing: There are publishing companies who administer the rights for various songs (basically, making sure the artist and songwriters and record companies and etcetera all get their filthy lucre), and if you go this route, it can mean acquiring at least two different licenses for your movie. According to ASCAP (one of the big two publishers, with the other being B.M.I.), one of those licenses, the "synchronization license," grants you, as filmmaker,

The right to synchronize a song or a piece of music with your visual image. It must be obtained from the copyright owner of the music, which is usually the publisher.

A handy way to find out who the owner of a particular song can be found on ASCAP's website

Then there's the master license, which will grant you,

The right to use a recorded piece of music in a media project, often a film, TV show, commercial or some other visual creation, though the license does extend to audio projects as well. A master license is obtained from the person who owns the recording (in other words, owns the master). Often master licenses are obtained from record labels.

Now, to a super-indie filmmaker, these all might seem like niceties, i.e., the sort of thing that big budget-movies might have to worry about, but not a small fry production. To which I would respond, yes, that's a good point, but today, in the age of the YouTube, even wedding videographers are getting sued for using music to which they had not acquired the proper license.

For an idea of just how deep this goes, for decades, "Happy Birthday to You", one of the most recognized songs in the world, was held under the copyright of Warner/Chappell which collected royalties whenever the song was used in any sort of media context. Even Hoop Dreams filmmaker Steve James had to pay $5,000 to use the song in his ground-breaking 1994 documentary, telling the L.A. Times, " It was quite expensive for us at that time and with our budget. And we only used it for 9 seconds." Back in September, however, a Federal Judge ruled that Warner/Chappell, who had been administering the song since 1988 (and pulling in up to $2M/year in royalties from the song), had never had the rights to collect any money on the song.

happy birthday song sheet music no film school

So, without the hundreds of thousands of dollars it can cost to license some famous songs, what's an indy filmmaker to do? Well, here are some options for adding music to your movie that won't break the bank (some are even free!): 

Write Your Own Score 

If you're musically inclined, or have a minimalist soundtrack, or just want to play with some sound design, then Apple's $199 Logic Pro X is a great value considering what you get: over 10G of MIDI sounds, samples and loops (all free and clear), as well as the ability to record your own music using an audio interface, or sample and manipulate any sound you want. Plus, you can score your film from within the program, watching the picture as you work. Speaking from experience, it's a really incredible program, and here's a video to get you started:

Use Social Media to Connect with Musicians

Sean Baker, director of the acclaimed Tangerine (a film shot on the iPhone 5), told Indiewire that he originally intended for his film to be "a return to Dogme 95," the (in)famous and somewhat tongue-in-cheek cinematic 'Vow of Chastity' written by Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg; the manifesto called for such self-imposed limitations as lack of props, artificial lighting, and, especially, music. But while editing his film, Baker became entranced by the sounds of two DJs from Newark whom he eventually found through a roundabout path on the music site Soundcloud, where musicians can post high-quality copies of their songs for streaming or downloading. According to Baker:

SoundCloud is such a great tool for independent filmmakers. There are so many high-quality tracks and most of the artists are unsigned. As long as the track is original, with no samples, you don't have to go through music supervisors or labels and can negotiate directly with the musician.

You don't need an account (though they're free, unless you are a musician who wants to post over a certain amount of music) to look around, search by keyword, and see what interests you. Then, it's a matter of sending the musician a message (for which you do need an account), and seeing where it goes from there. 

Movie Music Score Sheet
via Pyragraph.comCredit: Sheet of Music

Turnkey Solutions

There are sites, such as Orchard Music, Jingle Punks, and Pump Audio (Getty Image's music division) that exist to put filmmakers in touch with musicians and low-cost options for their film and television productions. This article from IFP is a great reference and should prove helpful as you head down the road to your movie's completion. 

While not every movie requires music, and in indie cinema, more than any other, all bets are off when it comes to the aesthetic direction you want to take, there's no denying that a great song, paired with a great image, can really push a scene or sequence over the top. 

I'll close with another Kubrick movie, because the director was incredibly innovative in his use of music. The Bronx native was one of the first directors to forgo what he saw as unnecessary and inferior (to his ears) original scores, in favor of already written (and usually public domain!) classical compositions, of which there was no shortage. And it certainly didn't hurt that in 2001's followup, A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell's anti-hero protagonist was so obsessed with Beethoven, to the point where the music itself becomes a plot device (and his work on that film with composer Wendy Carlos was revolutionary in its marriage of synthesizers and classical composers).  

So if you need one, don't be afraid to go out there and search for your song (or write one)! Odds are there's one waiting for you.

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Your Comment


Nice article - though Garageband is much better bang for your back than Logic, especially for low-budget projects or for someone starting out. It is extremely powerful for what it is, and comes free with every mac. Logic can open up Garageband project files once you choose to upgrade, so you're not hamstrung by starting out in GB first.

I highly recommend checking out Garageband and Beyond for tutorials on getting the most out of it: - Llewyn has some amazing tips on getting pro sounds out of relatively cheap gear.

Having composed the music for all my short films, the biggest issue for me still is mixing and mastering. You need training and proper gear to do it right and have your mix sound good on various speaker systems. For anything beyond low budget projects, I think it's totally worth the $$ hiring a professional who spent time and money learning the craft and purchasing the gear. Of course, it helps being a musician as well!

Check out my latest, music done 100% in Garageband: and the separate soundtrack on Soundcloud:

December 31, 2015 at 11:22AM

Jon du Toit
Writer / Director

As a side note here - Happened on your FiIm "Short End" .
Very very Nice. Thank you.
As a long time musician,engineer, composer,etc - have you ever tried Reason ? Very Good. And then record it all in Pro Tools. Although Avid is now wearing out their welcome with their new Subscription Tactics. Another nice & very cheap one is Mixcraft Pro 7.
Keep on a Keepin' on with the fine Films.

April 24, 2016 at 1:38PM


Why no love for SonicFire Pro? As a non-musician I find it easier than Garageband or Logic. Once you buy the track you can re-use it over and over in myriad different ways.

December 31, 2015 at 12:11PM

Geoffrey Baker
Multimedia Producer

ASCAP and BMI are not publishers. They are PROs (performance-rights organizations).

The difference: Publishers are members of ASCAP. ASCAP collects royalties and distributes those royalties to Artist members and to Publisher members.

A third "significant" PRO usually included in this type of conversation is SESAC.

You should consider correcting this: "According to ASCAP (one of the big two publishers, with the other being B.M.I.)" to something like this:

"According to ASCAP (one of the three big performance-rights organizations, with the others being B.M.I. and SESAC)"

December 31, 2015 at 1:45PM, Edited December 31, 1:45PM

Nathan Carlton
Record Label Owner, Music Producer, Video, Editing

You should definitely check Filmstro out:

Looks like a promising solution for certain scenarios and it's also affordable. Also, it's a breeze to work with even when you don't know anything about composing.

December 31, 2015 at 2:27PM

Rise and Shine Films
Production Company

Readers might find this link useful:

December 31, 2015 at 5:37PM

John McIver

Another major source of music is under the Creative Commons licences. Much CC work is CC-BY, which simply requires attribution in the credits. Google can search for CC-tagged material,
Kevin MacLeod's site has 1000's of well tagged CC-BY files of many different genres and styles, from lift music to full on horror.

CC-BY-NC is Non-Commercial, "A commercial use is one primarily intended for commercial advantage or monetary compensation." which I take to allow cost recovery, so anything here might fit some folks bills.

CC-SA is share-alike - only use this if you are willing to share your content as CC.

The only CC to avoid is CC-ND, for "No Derivatives". These works may not be included in other pieces, which is what we are about in creating soundtracks.

Garageband, which is free on iOS 8+ I think, can do a good job, and if you want 'mood', try SoundPrism

December 31, 2015 at 11:32PM


I can't believe that people are suggesting that filmmakers should write their own score with GarageBand
Find a school of music that has a post grad. Composition for screen course and contact them. The student composers I teach at the RCM in London are more than happy to score a half decent film.

January 1, 2016 at 3:07AM

Howard Davidson
Composer Television and Film

I think there are so many different scenarios playing out here, from people just getting going, with their first 3 minute shorts that are stepping stones to something bigger, to people who have wrestled with a screenplay for a year, and put many hours into pre-production, and shooting. For the early steps, just constructing a soundscape from scratch can be a big step, without trying to work with someone else with very nascent ideas. Further along the scale are certainly people who could someone as competent as an RCM student to work on the project.

That said, is there any kind of online forum to connect up aspiring score-writers with directors? That could be an awesome win-win resource on both sides! It seems that the sound and image sides of film-making have too long been at an arms length, certainly at the lower-end, and that there is more than enough talent and technology around to bridge that gap.

January 2, 2016 at 9:53AM


I agree. There are literally thousands of great composers out there, some of them still in in their teens, others a lot older, who are more than happy to score a half-decent film. When they get a great edit, they can really shine.

January 2, 2016 at 11:06AM

Willem Van den Broeck
Sound Engineer

Find someone who can play an instrument and search public domain music. There are thousands of songs you can get the sheet music free. You could probably find software that converts pdf sheet music to midi notes if you want to try different instruments.

Another suggestion is to try some a cappella music. With a little practice, most people can sing a song reasonably well. It would set you apart from the generic composition crowd.

January 1, 2016 at 7:58PM

Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker

What are your favorite Windows alternatives to Logic? It's a shame that none of them come with the expansive sample library that Logic and Garageband have.

January 2, 2016 at 8:38PM, Edited January 2, 8:38PM


Defining the musicians earning "filthy lucre" is offensive and stupid. Musicians as film makers and plumbers are workers and they do a job when they wrote music and perform it. The few last generation of wannabe film makers, corrupted by internet and the tale that the music is that shit that you find on line for free, are alway trying to save on the music not thinking about the fact that a soundtrack composer work MUST be paid."Filthy lucre" is when a film maker or producer is exploiting musicians (but not only) and making a profit out of it. Saving on the music when everybody else is paid is a disgusting habit. Also doing the music with loops out of Logic or Garage Band is like making a movie with film footage collected for free on the internet or best case scenario bought from those sites selling it. And also doesn't give to the movie that plus value that a composer would give working on the scenes one by one.

January 17, 2016 at 10:23PM


I think you misunderstood my use of the phrase, or perhaps I wasn't being clear, though I hoped the tone conveyed that I was being tongue-in-cheek. I am an amateur musician and have the utmost respect for all composers and musicians and think that ASCAP et al. perform a vital service by ensuring that performers and composers are remunerated fairly. I just saw this, so, um, please know no offense was intended. Also I agree with all the above comments about finding a student. And GarageBand is good but Logic has more functionality for filmmakers. Although any DAW can do the job. Good talk.

April 22, 2016 at 12:18AM, Edited April 22, 12:18AM

Justin Morrow

Hi Justin, Soundation is a web based app that is also easy to put together a basic soundtrack with. Also not sure if you are familiar with creative commons sites like Incompetech? That was the site that inspired me to make my own library of music available for film. Best, Dan-O

June 8, 2016 at 8:22PM, Edited June 8, 8:22PM

Dan-O at DanoSongs
Royalty Free Music Producer

We have been using this generator for your paypal money to be generated at and this is so useful that i can get the cash for paypal online here.

July 19, 2017 at 2:45AM


Excellent tips, Justin! We actually just wrote a post (and made a video) on how to make compelling music like John Williams. Hopefully this serves as some inspiration for other filmmakers :-)

December 12, 2017 at 5:16PM, Edited December 12, 5:16PM

Shant Kiraz
Co-founder of StudioBinder

Soundstripe is a service that allows you FULL access to their entire library of music, for only a small monthly fee of $15/month.

You can sort by genre, mood, etc. Perfect for video editing music, no matter what type of project. They’ve even created playlist categories to help you find what you need instantly!

January 9, 2018 at 1:07PM

Ethan Loomis
Videographer, Loomis Video