Documentary Music

man stands in front of a crowd holding video camera

From music to politics, those that will turn you vegan to the explosion of true crime series over the last few years, documentaries are definitely part of the so-called ‘golden age’ of TV and film-making.

We’ve picked a few of our favourites and offer advice on finding the best music for your documentary.

How to choose the best background music for documentaries

Music can be crucial for setting the scene and creating emotional beats in a documentary. Our top tips for choosing your music are:

  • Is the scene you’re scoring one of high drama or tension? Or is it a quieter moment? Your music search will be simpler if you’ve identified the pace and genre you’re looking for from the start
  • However, bear in mind that if you’ve chosen something very dramatic, it still needs to be subtle enough not to overly distract the viewer from your scene’s dialogue or messages
  • What budget do you have? Don’t get hung up on using a commercial track that you can’t afford (or can’t get the rights to), if you can find something that’s very similar from a music library – Audio Network has a wide variety of documentary background music

Library music for documentaries

A music library gives you far greater options in terms of unique tracks, edits and quality. Libraries have different licensing agreements and price points available, depending on what projects you’re using the music for. Audio Network’s search tools enable you to filter based on musical style, mood or emotion, instrumentation, genres such as action, comedy and docudrama and even by bpm. We also hand-pick playlists every month from our 175,000+-track catalogue to help you to find the documentary music you need, whether it’s for a wildlife documentary, or a documentary about the history of war.

Want some inspiration? Here are some of our most versatile documentary tracks:

Glacial by George Georgia

Gentle Journey by Giovanni Antonio Parricelli

In The Past by Skripture

Race Across The Cook Island by Mark Buys

Himalayas by Jordan Gagne

Plus, our super talented producers are the best in the business - check out:

Noah Sorota

Terry Devine King

Philip Guyler

Paul Mottram

Documentary genres

Whether it’s a documentary short, or a nine-and-a-half-hour epic, a biography of a much-loved artist, or an attempt to change the world and how we interact with it, here’s our pick of the best music, historical and political documentaries.

The Best Music Documentaries

Amy (2015)

Director Asif Kapadia takes a fascinating approach to the life and tragic death of Amy Winehouse. Having previously made the acclaimed ‘Senna’, based on F1 legend Ayrton Senna, Kapadia said his film, ‘tackles lots of things about family and media, fame, addiction, but most importantly, it captures the very heart of what she was about, which is an amazing person and a true musical genius.’

Using home movies, notebooks and live sessions, together with unheard tracks and a blend of unseen and archive footage, Kapadia conducted more than 100 interviews with Winehouse’s friends and family to provide a narrative around her life and show a side of her the public never got to know – it’s by turns funny and heartbreaking. The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, together with the BAFTA for Best Documentary.

Scratch (2001)

The LA Times said that, ‘Scratch does what a fine documentary does best: it extends a warm invitation into an unfamiliar world, then illuminates it fully and allows the larger implications of the journey to sink in unobtrusively’.

Exploring the world of hip hop DJs, from its birth to the invention of scratching and turntablism, everyone from Grand Wizard Theodore (credited as the first to scratch a record) to Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Shadow and DJ Babu explain the genre’s evolution since the 1970s. Including a thrilling collection of performances, whether you’re a newcomer or an aficionado, Doug Pray’s immersive documentary is a brilliant deep dive into spinning and sampling.

20 Feet from Stardom (2013)

‘Millions know their voices, but no one knows their names’. This Oscar-winning documentary finally puts names to the voices, such as Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love, who helped to create some of music’s most iconic tracks, including the Rolling Stones’ ‘Gimme Shelter’ and Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’. In its examination of backing singers, the oral history doubles as a behind-the-scenes expose of life on the sides of the stage, a history lesson covering several generations of success and struggle, and a questioning of whether the music industry marginalises talented women – black women especially.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Malik Bendjelloul’s music documentary focuses on the mystery of Rodriguez, a Detroit-based folk-soul singer-songwriter. Despite the fact he’d never toured there, he became a hero to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, but was unknown at home in the 70s. Surrounded by myth and rumour (according to one story, Rodriguez had set himself on fire on stage), Bendjelloul’s film details the efforts of two of the musician’s South African fans to discover what had become of him.

Opening the Sundance Festival in 2012, where it won the Special Jury Prize, ‘Searching for Sugarman’ went on to win the Best Documentary Oscar and the documentary BAFTA, together with a mass of other awards.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999)

Director Wim Wenders’ Oscar-nominated documentary brings together music and politics, as the effects of life under Castro in the globally-isolated Cuba are revealed through the story of Ry Cooder recording an album in Havana with the Buena Vista Social Club ensemble. The studio sessions and live performances are intercut with interviews featuring each member in different Havana locations. The success of both the album and the film sparked a revival of interest in traditional Cuban music, and Latin American music in general.

The Best Political Documentaries

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

‘This is really not a political issue, so much as a moral one.’

Former Vice President Al Gore (working with director Davis Guggenheim) lays out the causes, effects and potential solutions to global warming in the documentary that was credited with kick-starting a global environmentalist movement.

The film won Oscars for Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song, Melissa Etheridge’s ‘I Need to Wake Up’, which played over the end credits. The film was scored by Michael Brook, who explained the role of the music in the film: ‘there's a lot of information… it’s a lot to absorb. The director wanted to give people a little break every once in a while.’

The Fog of War (2003)

Using archival footage, US Cabinet conversation recordings and extensive interviews with the then eighty-five year old former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, this Oscar-winner examines his career and comprises eleven lessons on war and international security.

Covering events such as World War II, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film offers an insight into why certain conflicts occur, and the lessons that can be learned from them, whilst trying to understand the difficult ethical questions about governing and power. The film features an original soundtrack that is both lyrical and intense, composed by Philip Glass. 

The Best Historical Documentaries

Shoah (1985)

Taking over a decade to complete, Shoah (the Hebrew word for ‘Annihilation’) is in two parts, with a total run time of nine and a half hours. Legendary film critic Roger Ebert hailed it as, ‘a 550-minute howl of pain and anger in the face of genocide. It is one of the noblest films ever made.’

Director Claude Lanzman directed the exhaustive oral history about the Holocaust without using any archive footage at all. He interviewed Polish survivors, bystanders and, most uneasily, ex-Nazis, whom he had to film secretly. Time Out’s view was that, ‘Yes, this is a monolithic work that requires commitment. It's also a perpetually present-tense reminder that human beings experienced these horrors, that the abyss must be looked into even if we can never truly understand such things, that this atrocity must never fall victim to the memory loss of time.’

I am not your Negro (2016)

‘To be a Negro in this country, and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so it won’t destroy you.’ Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning documentary takes its framework from influential African-American writer James Baldwin’s uncompleted book, ‘Remember this House’, a biography of civil rights activists Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Combined with other pieces of Baldwin’s writing, and archival material Peck examines the black experience in America, from Hollywood stereotypes to Sidney Poitier films, old talk shows to today’s police brutality, challenging the viewer to re-think their ideas on race.

With narration voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, the New York Times described it as, ‘a remedial course in American history, and an advanced seminar in racial politics.’

Find out more about the score, which combines funk, jazz and blues (including Lena Horne, Big Bill Broonzy and James Brown) with chamber music and jazz composed by Alexei Aigui here.

Music for documentaries

Looking for something specific? We have a huge range of genres within our catalogue of over 175,000 tracks.

Epic music

The range and depth of the classical music in our Classical Collection is second to none. The iconic compositions can be used to tell universal, timeless stories in any genre, from history documentaries to politics or nature documentaries.

Each collection of tracks includes a huge variety of edits and cut-downs. We’ve looked at the classical canon through an editor’s eye, to make it easier than ever to incorporate fantastic classical music to score your documentary. Whether you need intense documentary music or happy, soft orchestral music, the Classical Collection has it all.

American  music

The US is home to a huge range of music styles, from the Blues to Nashville-based, pedal steel-infused Country Rock. Go back to the dawn of rock and roll to sample some Rockabilly, or take it up a notch with our Rock choices.

International music

For music from further afield, we have national and international music, as well as a range of tracks featuring specific instruments, from bagpipes to the didgeridoo and the gamelan.

50s documentary music

The 1950s encompass everything from the early Rockabilly days to full-throttle Rock and Roll. Or you could return to the classic days of cool jazz and big band, or some boogie-woogie swing.

70s  music

Travel back to the era of flares and the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War and women’s rights with retro rock, glam rock and funky floor fillers. We have everything you need to set the soundtrack for the 70s.

80s documentary music

The 80s were synonymous with synths – take your pick from uplifting to dark and mysterious.

Try music from our catalogue

Get started with high quality music for your documentary by downloading ten free tracks from our world-class catalogue now.

This was originally published 25/06/2015 and updated on 11/12/2019
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