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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Le Roux

Using Classical Music in Film – What You Need to Know

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

Classical music can be an excellent addition to a film project. Not only is it steeped in tradition, but there can also be aural recognition from the audience which will help tie the story together and further engage.

Filmmakers can also use classical music diegetically in a film. An example of diegetic classical music includes the scene from Shawshank Redemption, where the Sull'Aria duet from The Marriage of Figaro plays over the prison speakers. At the same time, the convicts stand in emotion-filled silence. Beethoven's Ninth symphony has also been used extensively in film, with some famous examples including scenes in Dead Poets Society, Die Hard, and A Clockwork Orange.

A Violinist is opening a violin case.
Musician opening Violin case at Cinemagic Scoring recording session.

When using classical music, you must consider that every piece of recorded music has two types of copyright. One kind of copyright is attributed to the composer of the work. The other is attributed to the owner of the recording of that work. The person who composed the music can also be the person who owns the recording of the music.

Thus, when including classical music, there are two points to check for:

1. Public domain

When work becomes part of the public domain, it is considered as belonging to the people, and as such, you do not need to pay a fee to copy, perform, or distribute the music. Typically, musical works enter the public domain once the copyright has expired on the recording or sheet music, which is about 70 - 75 years after the composer's death.

You need to check who the composer is and how old the composition is. If the work falls into the public domain, you can use it in your projects. More recent classical works will not be a part of the public domain, and as such, to use them in your project, you will need to license them as it is still protected by copyright. Whereas works by Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach all fall under the public domain as they were composed during the Baroque, classical and romantic periods.

2. Who owns the recording?

If a piece is part of the public domain, anyone can use it for rerecording, live performances, and other forms. However, the person who records the classical piece will own the copyright to that recording.

At the heart of it – no one owns classical works in the public domain, but somebody can possess the rights to a recording and arrangement of such a work. You will need to acquire a license to use a specific recording of a classical piece.

Sometimes you can find recordings of classical pieces that form a part of the public domain or have been released with a creative commons license. A creative commons license allows one to use music for free legally. Creative commons license still has some rights attached to it, and you will need to check that the particular use you intend for the music is ok.

A French horn player peforms a composers music during a cinemagic recording session
French Horn Player during Cinemagic Scoring recording session

Here are three ways to include classical music in your films:

1. Record the specific classical composition yourself

With this method, you can hire studio musicians to record a specific public domain work, and then you will own the rights to that recording. Click here to learn more about how to book an orchestra to record.

2. Production music libraries

Some production music libraries have entire sections devoted to classical music, which you can use royalty-free.

3. Hire a composer to compose in a specific classical style

Many film composers are classically trained and, as such, will be able to create original compositions that are classical-sounding, which will perfectly suit your film or project.

If you are interested in recording music for your film or project, get in touch with Cinemagic Scoring by completing our booking form.

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