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Arts & Entertainment

The Power of Music

Ken Burns

Lesson time 15:01 min

Learn how Ken uses music as a powerful storytelling tool in order to add layers of narrative depth and spark emotions in his audiences.

Ken Burns
Teaches Documentary Filmmaking
The 5-time Emmy Award winner teaches how he navigates research and uses audio and visual storytelling methods to bring history to life.
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Traditionally, music-- which is a hugely powerful force in anything, in life. It's probably the quickest art form. It is. It gets in there like mainlining heroin. It's like two notes and you're there, and something's being felt. Traditionally, in film production, with the exception of some temporary tracks that you might use during editing, music is an afterthought. Music is something that you add to the existing film once it's more or less done, where you hope-- you hope it will amplify emotions that are there, that you've created. And it is very much about amplification. But that, to me, always felt a little artificial, that something as powerful as music should take some kind of secondary-- or at least, some step that came in at the end. We sort of felt that music, because of its centrality and its power, ought to be recorded first. So it has been our process from the very, very beginning to record music either before we start editing or very early in the editing process, so that the music itself is one of the directors of the film, rather than something that's added as an afterthought. And rather than have something scored-- which is, you know, once you've locked the picture, a score is kind of a mathematical term. It's got to be exactly 53 seconds and 20 frames till this hit. We would rather record music that we're drawn to emotionally, that we think fits a variety of needs, record many different versions of it, and permit the music to dictate-- in many cases-- the pace and rhythm as we develop those scenes. So sometimes we might actually shorten a sentence of narration or lengthen a sentence of narration, if that's appropriate, to-- to meet a phrase of music that's ending. It's the exact opposite of scoring. It's baking in this. It's not the icing on the cake. It's the fudge. [MUSIC PLAYING] The power of music is so great that we can actually use recurring themes of music to build a kind of emotional structure, and give more force to the narrative arc that we're trying to-- to create. One can think of David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," when those five or six notes-- da, da, da, da, da, da, da-- I mean, he plays it, in a three-hour film, 250 times. I mean, I'm sitting here with editors sometimes and I'll say, well, use that. And they go, well, I've already used it. I say, so? You know, there's something-- it's like an establishing shot. But it's an establishing shot in your heart. You're not seeing it. You're feeling something. And so what happens is as you begin to work with these beds of music, that might be 50 different versions of 50 different songs-- think of the mathematical possibilities. What happens is you begin to gravitate, using a particular theme at a particular kind of moment. And when you do that, then it becomes not incumbent upon you, but it becomes a possibility to use that music again at another moment that's similar in feeling. Or you find out that a character has such a force that their en...

The drama of truth

Since its 2017 debut, Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War has enthralled over 39 million viewers by painting an intimate and revealing portrait of history. In this online film class, learn how Ken captivates audiences with his ability to distill vast research and complex truths into compelling narratives. From first treatment to final edit, Ken teaches his documentary filmmaking techniques that “wake the dead” to bring their stories to life.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

Very informative class from a master documentarian!

So much going on here. I like the balance between presenting truth with stills and then utilizing motion for the emotional context.

Thank you, Ken, from the bottom of my heart, assuring me that I can.

I appreciate the insight given into Ken Burns's process an approach to documentary filmmaking. It provides me with some new things to think about and provides some validation for choices I have made in my own films.


Leonardo Z.

Hi guys, film composer here. When you need music, just call me :)

Mary S.

At this stage in his class I revisited The Vietnam War documentary. I have watched this many times, and each time I learn more about that era that I spent my teenager years. This time I am seeing it in a whole new perspective. Just the first episode with the opening hook of the sound of the helicopter before any footage is shown is powerful. It brought back many memories of that time. I understand now why he used the rewinding of the film at the beginning to get back to the start of the conflict. I am watching the documentary not only for the content but a much better understanding of why it initially captured my interest and made me watch it many times over. This is such a wonderful class. I am not a film maker but have been an avid fan of film since I was a little girl. I am gaining much knowledge from his insight into the process.

Phil N.

When I perform slide shows with live musicians I state humbly that mine are background pictures to the music rather than the usual "background music" connotation.

Phil N.

The haunting violin music used in The Civil War stuck in my head, it was so perfectly merged with the imagery. Years after I saw the 1990 documentary series (once the internet came along) I googled to find out what it was. I downloaded 2 versions onto my iTunes playlist, the original string version and one on harmonica. Ironically, now, nearly 30 years later, my son Luke, 19, is an accomplished fiddler and plays the Ashokan Farewell. The power of music with still images cannot be overstated. Ken Burns has made it the bread and butter of his success and taken it to a new level with his Ken Burns Effect movement. It is a shame that copyright restrictions get in the way of using popular songs without paying exorbitant fees, however, this pushes us to discover unknown works by other artists. I recall a presentation I heard by MediaStorm in the 1990's American journalism circle which was strict about NOT using music in documentaries. The ethical opinion of the time was that it sways your emotions to what the producer wants, rather than what the images and storytelling would do on their own merit. Music had no place in the film unless it was playing on the car radio while you were shooting the scenery out the window. But I subscribe to Ken Burns' philosophy of sometimes breaking your own rules. We have heard Ken talk about his journalistic ethics, saying he would never ask an interviewee to repeat what they just said, and he refrains from using re-enactments to portray historical events. So why is music permitted? I guess it's that fine line between journalism and artistry, which I can accept.

RJane @.

Today, we have unlimited source of music soundtrack or background. We have Epidemic Sound, Soundstripe and Artlist.

Tess G.

Music sets the emotional tone for your story. Without as much attention to the music as the footage, you are doing a disservice to your film. Ken Burns is so articulate and has a magical way with words and verbal storytelling. I’m so enjoying his class!


I get that feeling of the musics power when I see The Godfather, Titanic and some episodes of The Sopranos and The Newsroom.


This lesson, I get. I have seem films that were saved by the music and I don't mean musicals. I love the soundtrack of the Bond film "The World Is Not Enough" and "Zefirrelli's Romeo and Juliet". Film scores, for me, are the equivalent of pop classical music.

john K.

A short series of notes or a melodic snippet is called a "leitmotif". Richard Wagner used them with great success

Jyrki M.

I can very loud and clear share the thoughts which Bob mentiond earlier. This lesson basically cleared my thoughts of a begining of my very first documentary and how to use music in it. Brilliant Ken!