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Key Ingredients for a Successful Music Video

Music videos are an art. Just like a painting, a photograph, or a culinary masterpiece, they require all the elements to be brought together in exactly the right way to create the desired effect. They can be humorous, heart-wrenching, or nostalgic, but the goal is always to evoke an emotional response. A quick sampling of many such efforts on YouTube will show that not all music videos succeed in getting the message across, and some do more than others. What gives a music video the “wow factor”? Here are a few key ingredients involved:

(1) The music must fit the content (and vice versa).
This seems like a “no kidding” statement, but choosing the right music is vital since the music sets both the mood and the pace of the video. One time I was editing two videos of kids doing pretend sword fights. For the first video, I used epic battle music, and it worked perfectly with the timing. When I tried to use the same music for the other video, it just didn’t fit because the pacing in the second video was different, so I ended up using a more exciting music selection which fit.
On the other hand, if you chose the song first and are adding video on top of it (the process I usually use), you will need to make sure the video fits. That brings me to my next point.

(2) The pacing must match.
This is a rule which makes all the difference between a mediocre music video and an astounding one. Have you ever watched a movie where the sound was slightly off and you could hear the words the characters spoke before/after they were actually spoken? Singing in the Rain has a classic example of this: the lady says “No, no, no!” while the gentleman nods and mouths “Yes, yes, yes!” The result is humorous, distracting, and perhaps even irritating.

This principle also applies to a music video; the actions in the video must coincide with the rise and fall of the music. Large or drastic motions/occurrences happen at peaks, and transitions between clips should fall on the beat, not a little before or after. Syncing the audio and video draws the viewers in and helps them to “feel” what they are seeing, much like a good soundtrack does for a movie. (Think of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy movies. Go, Aragorn, go!)

(3) Enhance with effects.
Effects provide the necessary third layer to take this from being a video with music to being a music video. Effects include transitions, literal video and audio effects, titles/text, and bonuses like “voice-overs.”

Know how to use transitions properly. With a calm/sad/nostalgia paced music video, fades are often all that’s needed. In a faster, more exciting music video, you may incorporate more “violent” transitions to fit the mood and pace of the music, being careful that they only enhance and don’t distract from the content. The highest level of dependency on transitions is in a photo slideshow, which, unless it’s very lethargic, will definitely need interesting transitions. The key here is transitions that bring attention to the most important part of the photo first and fit the mood of whatever is going on in the photo (e.g., a picture of someone jumping into a pool could have a splash-type transition).

Video and audio effects should be used deliberately and sparingly. Having all of your clips cycle through the color spectrum will almost never make your video better, but nine times out of ten will distract viewers beyond tolerance. On the other hand, you can use effects like black and white to create a mood or to accentuate part of the video. Blur and picture-in-picture can give the idea of flashbacks. Panning and zooming can create tension or drama, or simply add needed motion (note: pan and zoom are almost mandatory in a photo slideshow, since nothing else is moving). Adjusting the video clips to be slightly fast-mo or slow-mo as needed will help the video fit the music perfectly.

Titles and text will probably only show up for your title and the credits, if at all, but making sure they look sharp and fit the tone of the music video is important. You want to start and end on a positive note.

When I say “voice-overs,” I mean using audio clips which may or may not go with the video to help tell the story. Usually this technique is used when making a music video from a movie or TV show. Assuming you have already muted the video’s original audio, you may choose to have that audio cut in on top of the music at certain parts, or even use different audio for a voice-over effect. In one music video I made based on a TV show, there was one part where I used video clips from other episodes to show what a certain character was thinking, but I used audio from totally different episodes on top of the video to make it look like the character was saying something he wasn’t to better fit the storyline. This technique should be used carefully, but when done right, adds a whole new dimension to the music video.

There may be other elements involved in creating great music videos, but these are ones that in my experience make a big difference. Like artists, music video creators are constantly learning and improving. The productions we make a year from now will most likely be better than the ones we make now, and the stuff of last year may seem embarrassingly bad. But it’s all part of the process — trying new methods, making better music videos, and, most of all, having fun.

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