Cutting to the Emotional Beat of the Music

I often lament the fact that I am not a “musical person”. I can’t play any instruments and I definitely can’t sing. However, after so many years cutting to music I have found a way to understand music on my own terms.

I believe that as an editor it is just as important to feel music as it is to understand the theory.

Lots of practice doing cut-downs of music tracks has taught me about beats and counting and bars, even if I can’t read music or play an instrument.

But I believe that it is just as important to cut to the emotional beat of the music as it is to cut to the actual beat. When the music is quiet and reflective, the pictures should be slower paced to support the mood. When the pace picks up and the music crescendos, the story should reflect this too. Even little sounds and flourishes in the music can be enhanced by shot choice. A sweeping sound is great for a transitional moment. A drum break or drum roll works great for a quick, sharp cuts. A musical punctuation can be married with a strong gesture in the action.


Like a good story, a good music track should have a beginning, a middle and an end. This doesn’t all have to come from the same track. You might choose one track for an introduction, another couple of tracks to underscore the emotional turning points in the story and another one to tie up the loose ends at the end.

As a corporate video editor, I edit a lot of stories for insurance companies. While each story is unique – they all follow a formula. You meet the people, you find out about a tragedy that affected their life and then you breathe a sigh of relief at the end when you find out that they had insurance. Music choice is paramount as it is the emotional backbone of the story. With only a few minutes to span the arc from tragedy to redemption, music does most of the storytelling work.


When selecting tracks for an edit, it’s always best to start with instinct. If choosing production music I will listen to as many tracks as possible. Usually I only need to listen to the first few seconds. If it doesn’t grab me straight away, I move on. In the beginning I’m looking for emotional authenticity. If it feels fake or contrived or cheesy – it’s out. If I feel like a track is worth a chance, I skip ahead to a few key moments. I always look at the waveform of the track and needle drop to the big moments – I want to see if there’s any emotional power in them. While I’m there I’ll listen to the ending too. Most production music tracks wrap up nicely, but some just fade out. I prefer a proper ending – usually there is a perfect moment built in for a logo resolve.


I keep going like this until I have stockpiled more tracks than I need. Sometimes there’s a clear favourite, but mostly I decide once I have the music in my edit, because my opinion will often change after I hear the track along with voice over or sync sound. Or with montage edits, the energy of a track can seem different when combined with images and footage.

If I am cutting interviews, I will always choose my selects without any background music, as I want to concentrate on the story and content first. But if I am cutting a montage, I will always find a track to lay under my rushes when I am choosing selects. The pace, energy and mood of the music will help me choose which shots work. If I am cutting a fast paced, upbeat montage then I need fast paced, up beat music with my footage so I can get into the rhythm of it.


The emotional beat of the music is the part that makes you feel without thinking. Most of the work that I do is about communicating a business message or selling a product. That is the rational, quantifiable purpose of the video. But the part that makes an impression is the emotional impact it has – the way it makes the viewer feel. Cutting to the emotional beat of the music makes messages more powerful and memorable.


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