Background Music for History Presentations
Movies, Music, and Emotion
Anyone who has watched a movie with sound and then without it knows the incredible difference music and sound effects make. The right score can enhance your sense of place and time, emphasize emotions and character journeys, and add excitement to adventure scenes. You can probably call to mind the main musical themes of your favorite movies — whether they are light adventures like Star Wars or historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia.
The experience of music is subjective, but most people respond in the same way to great musical moments. We would all be thrown if an emotional moment in a film were undermined by an inappropriate choice of music. Think about your favorite show, and how music sets its tone from the outset. Lost did away with a complicated opening score and title sequence, replaced by an eerie, ominous sound effect and an animated but simple title card. It established the show as mysterious, contemporary, with an edge. By contrast, Game of Thrones started with a full-blown, stirring symphonic score (accompanying a complex graphics-heavy title sequence), letting us know that the show would be epic and full of adventure.
Film music fulfills important functions. Scores and soundtracks:
- Set the tone for what's coming
- Unite different times and locales
- Help keep the pace moving
- Underscore emotions, particularly important ones like suspense.
Music and Historical Movies
Historical film scores have an additional task: they must draw viewers into the era they depict. This could be through period-correct instrumentation, like Amadeus, which is beautifully set to selections by its subject, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Amadeus used Mozart's compositions to enhance the drama and dynamics between characters. The music also told the story of Mozart's triumphs and (at least during his life) failures, weaving the score in and out of specific productions.
Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of British diplomat and army officer T.E. Lawrence and his attempts to unite the Arabian tribes. The film's composer, Maurice Jarre, provided a soaring motif that expressed the grandeur of the desert and the scope of Lawrence's life. Jarre changed the tempo and altered the theme's instrumentation to express different moments of Lawrence's life, whether he was frustrated or exhilarated, lost, or found. While the score was more in character with the 1950s, when it was made, than WWI-era, when it was set, its symphonic classical sweep felt perfect for the film's grand visuals.
The right track isn't always the straightforward one. Some historical films have connected with contemporary audiences by using a more modern take on film scoring. The image of British runners on the beach in the rain preparing for the 1924 Paris Olympics in the 1984 film Chariots of Fire is indelibly bound with Vangelis's synthesizer score. Synthesizers in that case were a bold, anachronistic choice. But the score turned out to be the perfect complement to the imagery onscreen. The movie and music are now completely inextricable, one from the other. Some directors, like Tarantino, deliberately use pop music to provide a counterpoint to scenes of violence and mayhem, complicating the film's tone — but still working with it, not against it.
These are all lessons you can apply to your own historical presentation or history documentary. You're looking for music that makes your material accessible, enjoyable, and enhances its sense of authenticity.
When looking for background music for your history presentation, you can be guided by a sense of emotional rightness over pure historical accuracy, but you want to avoid something that throws the audience, feels anachronistic, or just "wrong."
With those points in mind, here are some examples of great historical background music that would work with different eras. They are sourced from an excellent and comprehensive site, Stock Music. All of their tracks are royalty-free and have professionally curated by expert ears to help your presentation sound as polished, immersive, and rich as possible.
The American West
Does your project take place during the Gold Rush? This rollicking piano track conjures up a piano saloon in the Old West and makes you feel like you're pulling up a seat at the bar, as prospectors compare notes on their days' findings. The ragtime swing conjures up the swinging doors of the saloon and puts a smile on your face. If you know the kind of music you're looking for, on Stock Music, you can search tracks by genre (e.g., " Vintage") and emotion or tone (e.g., " happy"). Either of these will lead you to tracks like Abbeville, the perfect background music for your Old West history presentation.
The Go-Go 1980s
Do you have a project about the 1987 Wall Street market crash? This happy, upbeat track conjures up the era of junk bonds, big hair, and enormous shoulder pads. With overtones of the era's biggest pop hits but its own peppy, driving beat, it conjures up the optimism and the obliviousness of the era. It's sonically layered and features piano, brass, synth, organ, drums, bass, and tambourine.
The Disco 1970s
The name of this track, " Funky Disco Groove," says it all, punctuated by fun vocal heys! and a steady clapping beat. It feels like being in Studio 54 and is a great track if you want to immerse your audience in the blithe, glittery world of 1970s disco and hedonism. It's confident, energetic, and, well, funky.
Homage to Surf Guitar
Speaking of Quentin Tarantino, do you have a project that needs to evoke the mood and instrumentation of guitar gods like Dick Dale? This track is pure listening pleasure, evoking the freedom of surfing and a day at the beach — with the electric guitar and trumpet instrumentation that evokes Spain in the 60s or California in the Tarantinoverse. It evokes the hazy vintage world that existed once upon a time... in Hollywood. It's edgy, happy, and dreamy, and if you want to put your audience in a good mood it's a great choice.
Golden Age Hollywood
20s to 40s has the elegance and grace of a classic track from the eras in its title, at once graceful, rhythmic, and toe-tapping, with the characteristic jazzy sound of the era — a Louis Armstrong-evoking muted trumpet. It brings to mind an era of women in elegant gowns, men in tuxedos, and champagne flutes aplenty. Pearly Whites is a magical, confident track that brings the lightness and emotion of a big studio comedy of the 1940s or 50s to life. It also brings to mind the "come on down!" excitement of a classic game show.
Adventure and Wistfulness
If you want to take your audience on a grand journey filled with danger and hope you might try this medieval-influenced track. Its plucky mandolin and wistful flute give way to more soaring arrangements of strings, before segueing to more contemporary instrumentation.
The Civil War South
This marching fife-and-drums track instantly evokes the bygone age of the Civil War. Both happy and meditative, it conjures up images of sepia images of battlefields, cannon fire, armies marching off to war — and women on the homefront, waiting anxiously for news of their loved ones. Its driving beat conveys a sense of urgency and pathos. Its confident, Romantic tone could express either the pride of patriotism, or its potentially awful consequences, and evokes classic American composers like the "March King" himself, John Philip Sousa.
Stock Music is also home to many wonderful, transporting classical compositions. According to the Victorian Opera site, Rossini was a wildly successful celebrity during his lifetime, his operas and compositions attracting widespread praise and adoration. Rossini's Sonata for Strings in B Flat Major is a beautiful piece of music, jaunty, romantic, and elegant. It's a lighthearted piece that could bring your audience into Europe of the 19th Century, but could just as easily underscore any presentation or video that needed charm or romance. Rossini was famous for his comic operas, and you can feel his light, upbeat touch in this composition.
Far more serious, spiritual and haunting, is Schubert's Ave Maria, with its soaring choral vocals and dreamy, elegant orchestration. It is at once soothing and transporting, giving a rich sense of the eternal. Schubert (1797-1828) was a prolific composer who mastered many different styles, bridging Classical and Romantic composition, and writing music both sacred and secular. Ave Maria, whose original lyrics were derived from a poem by Sir Walter Scott, is considered by many his masterpiece.
The German Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is considered one of the greatest of all composers. According to Classic FM, "next to Beethoven and Mozart, no composer has earned such universal praise as Bach." Bach's concerti, like this one, are noted for their beauty and formal precision. Inspiring and elegant, this track is, simply, happy music. It is also free of vocals, which could be a plus if your presentation has a lot of facts and figures, a way of putting your audience at ease, and making them more receptive to your message.
The right historical music can really set your presentation apart. Stock Music has hundreds of tracks that have already been cleared and are without copyright royalties, sorted helpfully by genre, instrumentation, and emotional tone, to help you find the right one for you. If your musical knowledge is more advanced, you can even search via categories like:
In other words, you can be as granular or as emotion-driven as you like, as you look for the perfect historical background music for you — whether that's a funky jam or a sonata. Whatever the case, rest assured that Stock Music has the right background track for your historical presentation, and the means to help you find it.