Should You Reference a Specific Song in Your Screenplay?

by Ken Miyamoto on April 13, 2020

One of the most common screenwriting questions screenwriters ask is, "Should you reference a specific song in your screenplay?"

It's tempting. You're the screenwriter and creator of this world. The movie is playing in your head over and over. Particular visuals inspire you. You're homaging various movies and character types.

Because music is such a vital element to cinema, you hear certain musical themes playing within your mind during the scenes you are creating. And sometimes you find that perfect song for the specific moment.

Should you reference it within the screenplay?

The quick and easy answer is, "No. You shouldn't." 

But let's delve into why you shouldn't. Here we feature three reasons why you shouldn't reference specific songs within your screenplays.

1. What If the Reader Doesn't Know the Song?

It's one of the most annoying things that script readers come across — a reference to a specific song that they've never heard. Or maybe they recognize the title, but they can't place the melody. Perhaps they know the melody but can't remember the lyrics.

Is that the experience you want the script reader to have when they read your script? Is it worth the risk of stopping the momentum of the read — even for just a moment?

Referencing a song is telling whoever is reading your script that the specific song choice is vital enough to the story that it needs to be specifically named and referenced. And when that happens, the script reader stops everything and tries to make the connection to understand the reference.

If they get it, great (not really, see below), but if they don't, you've brought the momentum of the read to a halt. And when that happens, it's as if someone has interrupted the movie they've been watching.

Imagine being in a theater, and the movie suddenly stops. The lights of the theater turn on. Commotion and confusion ensue. And then when the lights go back down, and the movie comes back on, it takes some time to get back into the story. You've been dislodged from the momentum of what you were watching.

That's what it's like when a specific song is referenced in a screenplay as you're reading it.

2. What If the Studio Doesn't Have the Rights to the Song?

Well, the good news is that if your script has gotten to the stage where the studio is saying, "Hey, we can't use that song because Universal has the rights," you've likely already sold or optioned it.

The point we're trying to make isn't about the possibility that this song reference is going to halt the sale, option, or production of your script. That's not going to happen.

The point is that referencing a particular song is a waste of time because it's all going to come down to what the studio has access to on their end. Most of the major studios are signed with particular record labels. Some even have their own labels. So they're going to want to save themselves a lot of money by using songs they own. And they're going to want to make a lot of money by selling the soundtracks or downloads.

If you're using lyrics within your dialogue, you're also at risk of copyright infringement. Those are the song writer's words. They own the rights. And if they've signed them over, the record label owns them. If the studio doesn't own the record label or hasn't paid for the usage of the lyrics, they would be committing copyright infringement.

You want to use your time wisely as a screenwriter. The problem is that many novice screenwriters waste time trying to come up with great soundtracks and outstanding song references.

It's okay to use music for your writing experience.

Read ScreenCraft's How to Use Music to Write Better Screenplays!

But don't waste valuable thought, time, and effort including specific song references within your screenplays.

3. What if the Music Supervisor or Director Doesn't Agree with Your Choice?

Maybe the studio has the rights — or perhaps they're willing to pay for them. However, the music supervisor of the film disagrees with your choice. Or the song doesn't align with the style that the director is going for.

Film is a collaborative medium. Screenwriting is only part of the creative process. When you're done with the script — whether it's been purchased or you've been assigned to write it — it's time to hand the reins to others.

It's not your job to pick the songs for the soundtrack.

Read ScreenCraft's What You Are NOT Responsible for as a Screenwriter!

So What's the Alternative?

It's tempting to reference specific songs. We get it. You want to convey a particular tone, atmosphere, or mood. But you can accomplish that being less specific.

Instead of insisting that a specific song be used or imagined...

Amy walks down the street with confidence as One Way's Cutie Pie plays.

... choose a different way to communicate what you're trying to convey.

Amy walks down the street with confidence as R&B/Soul music plays loudly, matching her confidant attitude.

Or save yourself, and the script reader, time by doing your job as a screenwriter and communicating the visual. And then let the studio, music supervisor, and director do theirs by deciding which song or music, if any, should accompany her confident walk.

Amy walks down the street with confidence.

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.  He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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