Chapter 18 of 26 from Ken Burns

The Power of Music


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

Topics include: Record Music Early On • An Establishing Shot in Your Heart • Music + Picture = the Holy Ghost • The Power of Period Music • Aim High When Sourcing • Keep an Open Mind • Case Study: Pairing Picture With “Ashokan Farewell”

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

Topics include: Record Music Early On • An Establishing Shot in Your Heart • Music + Picture = the Holy Ghost • The Power of Period Music • Aim High When Sourcing • Keep an Open Mind • Case Study: Pairing Picture With “Ashokan Farewell”

Ken Burns

Ken Burns Teaches Documentary Filmmaking

The 15-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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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. 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.

Ken teaches his unique creative process through case studies of his films, original treatments, voice over scripts, archival documents, and more.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps, assignments, and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Ken will also critique select student work.


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

What I think puts this learning format ahead of all others I have tried, is that I felt like I was having a private conversation with the instructor. I wasnt bogged down in outlines or rules or things to technical info but rather it was like I was in a ski lodge and ran into Ken Burns and sat there for the afternoon discussing his craft. Quite Impressive.

The best class I've taken to date. All in inspiring and informing. Has help me frame my projects well.

A master at his craft. Very nice to get an insight on his passion and generosity as a filmmaker.

This has been by far the best Masterclass that I have taken. The course was so well thought out and was very revealing. It was pitched at a more advanced level than most the other film courses. Ken was incredibly generous in sharing knowledge and insights. He shared treatmentsand techingues, things that are often guarded as secrets by other filmmakers.


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!

Bob S.

I am working on a project on the rainforests. I have composed music for this film and it is an integral part to the project Ken Burns is right when he says the music is the " fudge of the film: Excellent lesson as usual!!

Michael O.

Dude! Music is like mainlining heroin?! Music is an arduous art / craft to be taken seriously by artisans. It is not a mind killing, body polluting, spiritually damaging drug! What the hell!

Meg N.

This is something I had not considered, and Ken Burns gave the why and the how of it, again, wonderfully as he has with so many other topics to date. So much to think about, THANK YOU!!

Shawna B.

Ken continues to drive home the theme that just because that's how others do it, doens't mean you have to. I love the idea to start the music process way earlier in the early draft phase. 1. it gives the composer and/or music supervisor more time to be creative and think about the subject without the rush of a dead line. 2. I think it puts the editor in a certain head space when selecting b-roll and/or images that compliment the music as well. In the end, we are looking for the perfect marriage of images and sound. That's our art form. thx ken!

Mark M.

Great to get the Stock Music sources links as part of the workbook - another great lesson from a Master

Sunny N.

Music is integral. I know that. But what I had not realized before this lesson was that scoring is not integral, as it is after-the-fact. Choosing music before or early in the editing process, and then laying visuals in a bed of music is scoring in reverse. And I get that.


Amen. Words often fail to label or describe an emotion; music is the language of emotion. I sometimes thought it was cheating the script if I edited the narration to fit the music. Maybe. But music knows the proper rhythm for a phrase, it teaches me to listen. And here Ken Burns tells me that he does the same. Whew!

PoojithaReddy G.

1. Early recording is a new idea for me at least which we only does for songs in our film fraternity. His lesson and reasons are convincing to record music early on editing. Would like to try it this way once and see the possibilities. 2. Understanding what BGM or sound score is needed for the story-telling has always been my areas of 'need to improve'. I hope this lesson helps me a bit.

Michael B.

What I really like about Ken's statements, is that he always refers to his work group as "we", much more seldom "I". I also especially agree with the idea of recording as early as possible. And for the fun of it, referring to the previous class with great big crew, I noted that that big crew didn't succeed in controlling the shadow on Mr. Burns' forehead :-D


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...