The Use of Music in Documentaries: Enhancing the Art of Storytelling

Documentaries are a powerful medium for conveying a message or enhancing public awareness on social, cultural, or political issues. They capture real-life events and individuals, and provide a window into different worlds and perspectives. One of the most important elements of a documentary is the music used, which can greatly enhance the emotional impact and narrative structure of the film. In this article, we will explore the use of music in documentaries and how it contributes to the art of storytelling.

Music and Emotion

The use of music in documentaries can evoke a range of emotions in the viewer, from joy and excitement to sadness and contemplation. The right music can create an emotional connection between the viewer and the subject, and help to convey the filmmaker’s intended message. For example, in the critically acclaimed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, composer Jonathan Kirkscey created a score that perfectly captured the warmth and kindness of Mister Rogers, the beloved TV host who taught generations of children about empathy and acceptance. The music helped to reinforce the message of the film, and made the viewer feel a deeper connection to Mister Rogers and his legacy.

Music and Narrative Structure

The use of music in documentaries can also help to create a sense of narrative structure and pacing. By using different types of music to convey different moods or themes, filmmakers can create a cohesive and engaging story that keeps the viewer invested. For example, in the political documentary The 13th, director Ava DuVernay uses a mix of hip-hop, jazz, and classical music to underscore the different stages of the U.S. criminal justice system, from slavery to mass incarceration. The music helps to create a sense of momentum and urgency, and keeps the viewer engaged in the complex and often disturbing subject matter.

Music as a Character

Finally, music can also be used as a character in itself, with its own narrative arc and emotional impact. In the documentary Amy, director Asif Kapadia used Amy Winehouse’s music to tell the story of her life and tragic death. The music became a character in the film, with each song representing a different moment in Winehouse’s life and career. The music helped to create a sense of intimacy and empathy with the troubled singer, and made her story all the more poignant and heartbreaking.


The use of music in documentaries is a powerful tool for enhancing the emotional impact and narrative structure of the film. Whether used to evoke a specific emotion, create a sense of pacing, or act as a character in itself, music can greatly contribute to the art of storytelling. By carefully selecting the right music and working with talented composers and musicians, documentary filmmakers can create a truly unforgettable viewing experience.

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