1. Underscore does NOT distract the viewer from the first and foremost importance of the film, or television show, and its elements of plot, emotion, characterization, or visualization. Underscore is NOT composed to be the focal point of the viewer’s attention! The film is the focal point, NOT the music!
2. Underscore does NOT compete with dialogue… EVER!
3. Underscore should NOT BE USED……. unless it is relative, unique and complementary to the scene or the production. No music at all is usually far better than music that is not relevant, is trite, generic or distracting, and does NOT specifically unfold within the same dynamic as plot, mood, action, etc. in the scene that is playing on screen.
4. Underscore is NEVER in the form of a popular song, especially under dialogue, and the viewer should NEVER be asked to decide whether to listen to dialogue… or the lyrics to a song! Film productions, television productions and documentaries are not music videos, and should not be treated as such. Songs are generally used as a focal point for source music – where a song is being played in a scene coming from a specific source – a band in a nightclub, a radio, CD, television etc.; or in musicals, where songs are a part of the narrative…. and sometimes songs are used as elements of ambiance to create a “feeling” within a film (i.e. AMERICAN GRAFFITI, etc., etc.). Songs, especially popular songs, have a life and “identity baggage” of their own outside of the film or TV production, which is many times distracting or confusing to the viewer. So unless composed to be a unique element that unfolds with a situation or timeline, or as basis of a musical theme for the film, there is no cinematic reason for a song in a scene.
5. Underscore is NOT written to be memorable unto itself, or in any way used in a film or television production to distract from the importance of the cinematic moment (or focus). Underscore would NOT exist, or be composed at all except for the film. Even more importantly, underscore should not be there just to take the place of “silence,” act as “background” or “sonic wallpaper”… but rather to specifically add to, and “underscore”, a scene’s impact – with relevant and developed music.
6. The effectiveness, success, or positive qualities of underscore (i.e. whether it is good or bad) should not be judged by, or based on the “kinds” of music, or “style preferences” that each of us know and enjoy – but rather if the notes, instrumental colors, and rhythms played under a scene enhances the scene…. no matter what that “style” of music may happens to be! To quote the great Duke Ellington’s answer when asked what kind of music is the best…. “There are only TWO kinds of music…..good and bad!”