Funny Background Music
Every genre has its own musical tropes. Horror? Screechy strings and creepy noises are a shortcut to terror. Action films are awash with pounding drums to build the tension. And romantic movies use everything from lush orchestral tracks to chart-dominating pop. So what’s the best way to use funny background music or effects for comedy, slapstick or cartoons?
Top Tips for Using Funny Background Music for Comedy
- Use music to set the tone of each scene
- You can use musical cues as a shortcut – the classic ‘wah wah’ trumpet, swanee whistle or pizzicato strings can all quickly establish, ‘this bit’s funny’. You don’t need to discard clichés completely – just analyse how and why they work, so you can use them in a new way
- But remember: it’s easy to go too ‘big’ with comedy music – make sure you’re letting scenes and jokes speak for themselves
- If a scene or performance is very over-the-top, it may not need any background music – the two elements can end up fighting with each other
- Use contrast – pair serious music with comedy to heighten the effect
- Keep the pace up – especially if you’re using funny background music for YouTube. Comedy shorts use lots of edits, and the right music tempo can help keep things moving.
Looking for inspiration? Here’s five of our favourite tracks for when you need background music for funny videos:
What are the skills you need to create background music for funny moments?
Business Insider spoke to Matt Novack, one of the composers of the cult Netflix hit Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, together with lead composer Craig Wedren (School of Rock, Anchorman, GLOW), about the challenges of composing comedy.
Novack’s view is that, ‘Drama and comedy composing have different challenges. Comedy can be tough because you have to make sure that you’re not stepping on jokes. You’re just supporting the joke and staying out of the way.’ His view is very much that in comedy, the music is largely there just for support.
However, in a series such as ‘Wet Hot’ and in Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the music becomes part of the comedy, through expert parodies. In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s case, over four seasons and more than 100 songs, the writers and performers covered everything from 80s pop (Let’s Generalize About Men) to Nicki Minaj-inspired rap (I Give Good Parent), black and white Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (Settle for Me) and the brilliant Marilyn Monroe homage, The Math of Love Triangles.
As creator Rachel Bloom said, ‘What we’re really doing is writing musical sketches. It’s about finding that intersection of where a musical-sketch idea meets something that could emotionally come out of a character on the show.’ She also revealed that, ‘when we’re stuck, we don’t look for, what are the funny things in the episode that could be a song, but rather, what are the emotional highs and lows that can be a song and be sung at this moment?’
Getting serious about funny music
Composer Theodore Shapiro has scored 50 comedy films over the past two decades, and says, ‘I’m always wanting to write something that’s satisfying on an emotional level.’ Shapiro has worked on everything from the Ghostbusters reboot to Tropic Thunder, Spy and Dodgeball. He says a crucial aspect when you’re scoring a comedy is to make the viewers care about the characters and the action in just the same way that you would with a drama. ‘Comedies often work best when the audience is just simply invested in those movies as stories… even in broader comedies, like Dodgeball. When we played those dodgeball sequences as very, very serious sports sequences ... people became emotionally invested in the story.
Ghostbusters and Bridesmaids director Paul Feig agrees that putting funny music with comedy doesn’t often work as, ‘I find the only way to make things funny is to put funny people in real situations. Because of that, it's very hard to then kind of put a funny score onto it. It’s the difference between somebody telling you a story that's funny, and they just go, “Oh, the weirdest thing happened to me,” and they tell the story, and you crack up. Versus if they go, “I got to tell you the funniest story!” Then immediately you’re kind of back on your heels going, “All right, this better be funny.”’
And it turns out that taking comedy music seriously isn’t a new idea. Charlie Chaplin had learned how music can affect emotions and the plot’s comic impact during his days performing in music hall. In his autobiography, he wrote: ‘I tried to compose elegant and romantic music to frame my comedies in contrast to the Tramp character, for elegant music gave my comedies an emotional dimension.’ He claimed that music arrangers, ‘wanted the music to be funny. But … I wanted the music to be a counterpoint of grave and charm, to express sentiment.’
Chaplin’s film scores showcase a wealth of references – some are direct quotes, some are pastiches – to composers as diverse as Debussy, Brahms, Elgar and Gershwin, and he won an Oscar for best score in 1973 for Limelight.
As Matt Novack points out, writing serious music for comedy can also help composers to make the leap between scoring for comedy and creating music for drama: ‘Comedic actors are often very good at drama when they make the leap. And I think that’s true of composers as well. With comedy, you have to focus so much on not only storyline, but the specific beats of the punchlines and everything. So I think that helps tremendously with scoring drama and sci-fi. It’s helped me develop a sense of storytelling that is so key for not only composers, but anyone that works in film and TV. You have to know how to tell a story.’
The best funny movie soundtracks
This Is Spinal Tap
The classic mockumentary that gave birth to ‘turning it up to 11’ may be over 35 years old, but is still the funniest film ever made about rock and roll. Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) and David St. Hubbard (Michael McKean) are fictional rockers Spinal Tap (‘one of England’s loudest bands’), whose metal/rock music in the film was so popular that Spinal Tap became a semi-real band.
In 2018, Stephen Colbert said that This is Spinal Tap ‘almost single-handedly created a genre’. Mainly improvised dialogue is joined by visual gags (including the iconic miniature Stonehenge stage prop) and songs such as Rock ‘n’ Roll Creation and Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight that, as with Dodgeball’s take on its sports scenes, are taking it all just that bit too seriously. Shamelessly turning the egos and the pompousness of rock and roll up to 11 is what makes it hilarious.
Ghostbusters - 1984 - Elmer Bernstein
Bernstein was the master of showing how dramatic music can accentuate laughs. Rich horns, bouncy piano melodies and eerie, electrical flourishes (courtesy of a then relatively-unknown ‘ondes Martenot’ – essentially the keyboard version of a theremin) give his Ghostbusters score a massive, otherworldly sound. Plus, Bernstein expertly blended strings and woodwind for Dana’s Theme or Western-like horns for the finale accompanying villain Zuul, creating a giddy blend of Hollywood grandeur and smaller moments, as both the film and the soundtrack triumphantly straddle sci-fi, action, comedy and romance.
The Personal History of David Copperfield – 2020 – Christopher Willis
Composer Christopher Willis previously worked with David Copperfield’s director, Armando Iannucci, on Death of Stalin and his TV series Veep. For his reimagining of Dickens’s classic, the director wanted to ‘celebrate all things British’, so Willis got to work researching the styles of British composers including Elgar, Delius, Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten to produce a neo-classical score that covers everything from the early romantic period to 20th Century music.
Willis said that, ‘The film is very bright and luminous, and absolutely full of generosity and joy and the score is the same – not sepia-tinged. There’s a lot of energy, a lot of propulsion and a lot of optimism’ - Filmmaker magazine described it as ‘disarmingly lovely’ and it fits perfectly with the comedy and optimism throughout the film. Willis also said that, in terms of comedy, ‘the film didn’t need me to be weird, the characters are weird already!’ and that he created a lot of the music by ‘layering’ solo violins, solo violas and solo cellos. Go behind the scenes as he and Iannucci talk about their process:
Beetlejuice - 1988
Director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman are one of the most established partnerships in modern movie making – you can’t imagine a Burton film without Elfman’s quirky, instantly recognisable music. As MovieMusick.Us says, for Beetlejuice, ‘Elfman brings absolutely everything at his disposal to the table: a full orchestra featuring a multitude of unexpected instrumental combinations, various assorted choirs, tangos, waltzes, church music, and circus music, all wrapped around at least five recurring themes for the different characters.’
Beetlejuice’s music is as full of twists and shenanigans as the anti-hero himself, with references to Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, Fellini-style oompah brass and Bernard Hermann-esque strings. Throw in two Harry Belafonte tracks for good measure - Day-O and Jump in Line (Shake, Shake Señora) - and you’ve got the perfect combination of supernatural comedy and whacky horror. It was Elfman’s breakout moment as a movie composer (having previously been in a new wave band called Oingo Boingo), and remains an iconic comedy film score. Zany, quirky and madcap, it established Elfman’s signature style, and is a great example of how to create instrumental funny background music
O Brother, Where Art Thou? - 2001
The soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? won three Grammys and is credited with introducing a whole new audience to bluegrass music, selling over eight million copies in its first seven years in the US. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, and featuring artists including Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and Gillian Welch, it’s a heady mix of bluegrass, country, gospel, blues and folk music. The majority of the soundtrack is new music, but a few vintage tracks were also blended in, including Big Rock Candy Mountain from 1928.
The Coen brothers’ Depression-era adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey makes the soundtrack a staple piece of the film; the music was composed and recorded before the film was shot, and the songs actively move the plot along. The traditional song, originally recorded in 1928, I am a Man of Constant Sorrow became a break-out success, in a life-imitating-art move - in the film, the three main characters, as The Soggy Bottom Boys, score a hit with their recording of the song (albeit they’re completely unaware of it.)
This post was originally published 21/08/2015 and updated on 14/02/2019