How to visualize your music
I am not in the league of Taylor Swift (eh, obviously), with a team of professional choreographers, dancers, musicians, cinematographers, designers, etc. etc., who can – as she puts it – “tell the stories” of her songs through video. Her music videos, like those of other best-selling musicians, are works of art; beautifully designed, produced and professionally productized and distributed. You can buy them because they are worth money. They win awards. In these videos, true “music videos”, the producers achieve what is quite mind-bogglingly difficult, namely to synchronize the dancers, and the singer, and the band’s movements, with the tempo, beat and rhythm of the song.
In case you never thought of that: consider one of the most famous music videos ever made, Take On Me by A-ha (1985). The success of the song itself was boosted by its wide exposure on MTV – which was then the be-all of music videos channels. Director Steve Barron’s video featured the band in a live-action, pencil-sketch animation sequence. The technique that was used is pencil-sketch animation and live-action combined, called rotoscoping. The live-action footage is traced using a frame-by-frame process to give the characters realistic movements. Approximately 3,000 frames were rotoscoped, which took 16 weeks to complete.
The music video was a critical and commercial success. I still love it. It won six awards and was nominated for two others at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards. In addition to an incalculably high view count from heavy rotation it received on MTV when it was originally released (as well as other music television channels), the music video has received more than 1.5 billion views on YouTube to date, and has received a 4K video restoration with more than 9.2 million likes to date.
The catch with the whole thing is that the live action movements are perfectly synched to the song – particularly in the very hook-heavy refrain. Well, that’s what real money and real fame will get you.
There are classic music videos, which contains footage of the music performance and is synched with the audio of the song (lip-synched or not), and this may contain narrative or story-telling footage, which can be in just about any style and have any degree of complexity. It can be a few scenes or shots, or a whole story with beginning, middle and end.
The music video of “Clint Eastwood” by the virtual band Gorillaz, contains animated sequences with the characters developed by artist Jamie Hewlett. The entire video is animated, since the band is represented by these avatars.
Visual Videos and Lyric Videos for Poor folk
So, what’s a starving artist to do, when you have to make a video of your song? Poor Boys and Families Who Go to Graceland, like Paul Simon sings, don’t have the moolah to make these works of art.
The key word here is “POOR”. I needed to make something appropriate and visually appealing without spending any money.
I looked into this, and discovered two things. You can make two types of videos using commercial platforms: 1) a lyric video, and 2) a music visualization video.
A lyric video is a video containing clips of scenes that may or may not fit the tone, subject and theme of your song, and shows the words of the lyrics as subtitles, which may or may not be synched to the actual parts of the song, depending on how good you are at it.
A lyric video supposes that you have lyrics with your music. A lyric video in which the subtitled text does not tie in with the audio is a bit stupid, in my opinion. I mean, the idea is that the audio is an expression of the words, and vice versa. Also, if they don’t mesh, the listener can’t sing along. So the visuals have to match the feeling and meaning of the words, and also the other way around, You have a slow movement, your visuals have to slow down. You have an upbeat part, the visuals have to match. The dancers, if you have them, have to move in time to the beat. The singer’s lips have to match the words, as least for the phonemes, so that their lips are closed on words starting with p’s and open on words with long vowels.
Well, they do if you want to make anything meaningful. Otherwise, why bother?
Visualization / Visualizer video
But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that either it is beyond your skills level to do that, or your music has no lyrics – it’s instrumental. What now?
You can then make what some platforms call a visualization video, or visual video (I hate that term visual video – a video is visual by definition so the term is an oxymoron – ugh) or a music visualizer video. Also ugh.
To make these types of videos, you can download clips of a few seconds long of sunrises or people or dancers – whatever your song is about really – and those clips and generally royalty-free, but unfortunately sometimes they are not very good. Wonky camera work and ugliness and all.
You can then stick together all the clips in one video, either on the online platform which hosts the video clip library, or by using desktop software like iMovie, or even a free compilation and editing app like media.io.
You need two resources: 1 for the clips and pics and whatnot, and another to design it and put it together.
- Pexels (free to download, royalty-free video and photo source – my standard go-to)
- iMovie (my standard program to use for video production)
- Biteable.com (subscription-based, not meant for music videos per se, but easy to use and has a ton of clips and templates)
- specterr.com (to create a video with styled graphics and audio only, no video clip library)
- renderforest (music visualizations – has most of the functionality)
- RotorVideos (dedicated music video creation – big video clip base you can use. Can also be used to make album or song artwork. Pretty good.)
- StoryBlocks (video clip repository)
- BusyBoxx (video clip repository)
Pros and cons
I think that the clips are free on some platforms for a few reasons: 1) those platforms are usually aggregators of various audio or video collections, which are also free. 2) The video clip creators get “remunerated” by the promotion and distribution offered by the platforms. It’s usually a Freemium model: if you want the really high-quality, exclusive stuff, you have to pay up. Then, the videographers and photographers get a cut. So chances are that those clips that are first up when you do a search, will be seen in many other people’s videos.
Then, once you’ve stuck them together (compiled them, a few seconds at a time), you can attach your audio track, export it as a movie file. And there you have some sort of video.
The problem is that well, without words, or any actual interpretation or expression of your music, it’s pretty pointless. In fact I’ve been told people mostly make those because then they can post it on FaceBook, YouTube or Instagram, etc., social platforms which do not allow you to just post audio files. For that you have to go someplace like SoundCloud or Spotify. So you post this video and people can just close their eyes and listen to it. All that effort though, for nothing…
This is why the videos on this site are not called LYRIC videos, but LYRICAL videos. “Lyrical” in relation to literature, art, or music, means to express the creator’s emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way. Synonyms for lyrical are songlike, melodic, musical, expressive, poetic and emotional. This means that the video or visual component of the project matches the audio in artistic expression, as far as possible.
Another reason I prefer the term “lyrical”, is that many of my albums have literature or art as a theme, for instance “Painting Music”, or are based on poetry I’ve written.
So, in the videos I’ve made, I designed the video to match the content or the subject of the song; the tone and mood (literally, the “colour”); the style and genre (techno, pop, or world); the arrangement (intro, verses, refrains, bridges, transitions, outros, etc.) and – most importantly – the tempo and the beat. The dancers had to fit, the singers had to fit as well.
Consider that many songs are based on 4 beats to a bar. In a 4/4 time signature, there are four beats per measure and the quarter note receives one beat. A whole note takes up one entire measure in 4/4 time. There are actual apps that will calculate a length of a song based on the beats. Using such a calculation shows that a song of just under 3 minutes, at 120 bpm, can have 80 bars = 20 phrases of 4 bars. Four bars contains 16 beats in 4/4 time. So 80 bars are 1280 beats to which the movements in your video have to be synchronized.
That’s a lot of beats.
I gave up doing it to that level of precision. I tried to more or less align the video to the tempo overall and arrangements, and in places, the rhythm.
What you see, in these lyrical videos, are the lyrical expression of my songs, as good as I could get them. I used iMovie and each one took weeks. The editing, in milliseconds, took days. Apart from some clips, usually of dancers and singers, that I pulled off Pexels, I created my own clips from my own graphics, using all those handy tricks with colourization, effects and timing that iMovie has. At one point I thought to install Final Cut Pro and use that, but that’s seriously complicated stuff for pro users which I’m not. I tried out various apps to animate graphics, without knowing anything about animation, and usually they sucked. I am not, after all, a teenager obsessed with anime.
Therefore I refuse to call these things visualization videos or lyric videos. I invented a new term and I’m sticking with it. I’m sure someone else has come to this conclusion as well, but from my point of view, the term fits. And if it fits, I sits.