Why Picture Editors Should Hire Music Editors

For the past many years and current practice, picture editors are being asked to edit and mix dialogue and sound effects including music. Historically union guidelines prohibited picture editors to cut sound and visa-versa. Most often the music editing in this case is temporary (aka temp scoring), and used as a guide for the director, producer, composer and sometimes the editing of the picture itself. Occasionally, music choices by the picture editor will be licensed and married permanently to their project. This is one of the most mysterious skills of the art of music editing; actually composing music through editing.

My first words of advice are, don’t do it!  Hire a music editor.  We all know this is easier said than done because producers and budgets command efficiency and if they can avoid hiring another person and have this work done by the picture editor, they will do it. Even though many agree that to have a music editor would be a great benefit but yet often this is seen as a luxury. Also, many picture editors like to cut music and as I have noticed over my twenty years in the business, many do it quite well.  But let’s turn the table a bit. What if a director asked me to cut their picture?  A preposterous thought, mostly because I would not and could not successfully cut any picture. But none the less something to ponder.

Since picture editors will probably be asked to cut music whether they like it or not, I’d like to share some thoughts about music editing that may be useful.

Both picture and music must rely on time to exist, and a musical sensibility for these two art forms is essential in order to achieve a successful marriage.  

Both picture and music must rely on time to exist, and a musical sensibility for these two art forms is essential in order to achieve a successful marriage. Choosing the right music can often be more challenging and time consuming than the actual editing.  To ease this process, I use music from other film scores, or at the very least, music that has been originally written to picture.  This allows for that special musical quality of movie music found in no other style of music composition. Select music that fits the temperament of your visuals and story by keeping your choices to a similar style and instrumentation. Instead of jumping around between many different sizes of orchestra or sound pallets, consider limiting your choices to two or three composers with similar styles of writing and sound. If you find the right music that contributes to movie magic, then the editing will fall into place.

Picture editing can be very musical. It often incorporates music sensibilities by utilizing pacing, shaping dialogue and using visual changes or cuts to tell the story. Pacing would certainly pertain to musical tempo and the shape and phrasing of dialogue is akin to the musical melodies and phrasing.

I’m not suggesting to be too literal by way of syncing dialogue lines with a musical line and so forth, but next time you watch a movie with a lyrical or perhaps good orchestral score, pay attention to the shape of the musical phrasing around dialogue. While not always a current composition practice, often the melody and musical phrases are shaped naturally to play in between some dialogue lines as sort of an emotional call and response. This composition approach can also apply to picture changes, cuts, dissolves, and change of location.  In musical terms, here is where the music can change its instrumental and melodic entrances, chords, or pitch modulations to name only a few possibilities.

Another more literal connection between music and film is the tempo or pacing one feels when a character is running or walking. This may seem a bit corny and silly to implement, but you’ll notice this in many films. This should be approached carefully, but can be very effective.

To conclude this first writing, I specifically started with the aesthetics, phrasing, style and composition elements before discussing the technical tips and tricks of cutting. All the technical knowledge won’t do you any good, if one does not have this music to picture sensibility… magic.

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Steven Saltzman is a music editor and author of the book Music Editing: The Art and The Process (www.routledge.com Discount Code - FLR40).