a performer with a goofy smile leaping backwards with the words how to choose the right music for dance

How to Choose the Right Music for Dance

Almost any choreographer will tell you that finding the right music for dance is the hardest part. Unless you have the great fortune to work with a composer or are creating for a specific song, finding that exact piece of music that matches your concept can be maddening. It used to be something I dreaded. However, I’ve sort of figured out some tricks that make it much easier. I’m here to share this in the hopes that it makes someone’s life a bit less stressful!

Just to note at the beginning, I rarely choreograph for specific songs. This is kind of the mainstream way of approaching contemporary dance these days. Most of the stuff you see on TV or tik tok is tailored for the song and the choreography is more or less a movement translation of the lyrics. I’m not particularly interested in doing translations or interpretations – nothing against it, just not my thing. Rather, I start with a concept or narrative first. Then I try to find the music that will help me tell that story.

We’ll start with how I find and curate a library of music to use when I need. I’ll also talk about edits and a note about working with composers, in case you have the good fortune to do so!

What kind of music do you need?

One of the first things you need to decide before you go looking for music for dance is if you are going to deal with copyright issue or not. If you are making something for youtube, there are supposedly tricks to do like changing the pitch. These don’t always work and it can make the audio sound very poor and distorted. Many countries have regulations, and if you’re performing for theaters, festivals, or competitions, they almost always require that you have secured the permission to use the song of your choice. Some countries, like Pakistan, don’t have robust copyright laws for live performance. However, if you want to share clips or highlights on social media it can become a problem.

I started out using whatever music I felt like.

After starting to produce more content for youtube during the pandemic, I’ve moved almost exclusively into copyright free. If you are patient and willing to trawl through the youtube audio library and other sources, you can find a lot of interesting tracks. I also met a composer through mutual connections whose music I adore, and am often able to get permission just by emailing. Getting permissions for more popular tracks is definitely possible, and I know people do it. It’s just, I don’t usually want to take the time and effort to go through the process.

This works well for me because I prefer not to work with music that has lyrics. Lyrics are distracting and overpowering – the movement always loses out as the audience will focus on the lyrics. That’s a personal preference, though; you may feel otherwise.

These two things – copyright status and lyrical or not – are the two most important decisions to make and will greatly affect where you look. For me, I try for copyright free and instrumental.

What makes music ‘good’ for dance

But what exactly am I looking for when I’m choosing music for dance? Oftentimes when I’m browsing through the youtube audio library I don’t have a project in mind, I’m just searching for ‘dance-worthy’ tracks.

As a start, I usually filter out songs less than three minutes as I find it hard to develop a story in less than three minutes. In any case I often use two to three tracks, either in full or in part, for one piece. Every now and then I find something that I really like which is short, but it can be difficult to incorporate.

After that, the first thing I look for is some kind of musical texture. Straight up electronic tracks all sound the same to me, sorry to say. They’re usually more about the beat than the emotional quality. I want something that has layers and depth and conveys some sort of emotion.

The second thing I look for is musical progression.

This could be a shift in melody, a key change, a rhythm change, a tempo change, etc. I like music that progresses or evolves in some way, because it allows the story to do the same. A track which is the same melody repeated for four minutes gets difficult to use in a story. This is also why I don’t use popular songs, by the way. Also, choreographing your favorite song is a good way to ruin it because you hear it again and again! It’s just that popular songs don’t usually progress.

If I find a piece three minutes or above which has texture and progression, I save it. Over time, I’ve built up a library of interesting pieces of music that I can use in various places. I basically match whatever emotion or texture I need for the story. I do often edit them to fit with the story structure, though not always. Sometimes I find a bit of one that’s really interesting and blend it in somewhere.

Finding music for dance is pretty much as simple as that! Sometimes, though, we are blessed to work with composers, and that’s another strategy…

How to tell a composer what kind of music you need

Right, so there are definitely multiple schools of thought here. Some choreographers provide tempo, number of measures, and exact counts (that’s looking at you, ballet people). I’m sure that’s fine, but for me, I tend to think that if I’m working with a music professional, I’d like to know what they have to bring to the table.

For me it’s a bit similar to the process of finding music above. I start with the general texture and progression that I’m looking for. I try to explain to them first how the music should feel. It’s usually good to have references, but you also don’t want to get too stuck on your references because whatever they create will be very different – and that’s okay! I usually make sure that there is room for back and forth editing and feedback in our agreement, as it often takes a bit of time to find the sound that we both agree on.

I don’t tell the composer what instruments to use or the rhythm structure.

It’s really just the texture and the overall progression. This could be something like, it should start slowly and with a lot of heavy and sustained notes but move to a lighter, freer texture by the end. I tell them the target duration. And that’s it! Then I let them create.

I’ve worked with composers for two main projects. Both times I was surprised by what they came back with. It wasn’t exactly what I had in my head, but if it was that, then I’d be the composer and I’m definitely not. I tried once to use software to create my own track, and it was…well, let’s just call it simplistic and move on. Both times, though, I used the tracks as they had been created, and they worked perfectly.

That’s the hardest part about working with composers, to be honest. As choreographers we get this grand idea in our heads that it will look and sound “just so.” But you can’t send that vision to another person’s mind. At the end of the day I’ve always found that if I get over myself a bit, I always find that the composter has brought something new and valuable to the table.

5, 6, 7, 8 — and go!

Choosing music for dance doesn’t have to be a scary thing. You do need to spend some time understanding your style and needs, and create a library to work with. Remember, when it comes to copyrighted songs, the best practice is, get permission or don’t use it. There’s a lot of copyright free music out there, and if you can get permission, it makes everything better.

I hope this helps a bit, and good luck!