Is it okay to refer to a particular song within a spec script? For example, a scene where a character is performing a hammy impersonation of a famous singer/popular song. The tune is relevant to the mood of the scene and a few lines of the lyrics are ideal. Is it acceptable to mention the song and have the character sing a line or two of the lyrics as part of the dialogue?
Is music selection generally considered someone else's department or is it okay for the scriptwriter to make suggestions? What if a scene involves driving in a vehicle with the stereo blasting or the radio on - is that how it should be written? Or could a certain artist/song also be mentioned if it is relevant to the story?
Some would say that it’s best to avoid having musical references in a spec script. This is because of clearance issues (from the music publisher and the author) and whether or not they’ll allow their song or clip to be used. This is more to do with the film’s actual soundtrack than it is about using songs for a specific scene. A lot of scripts will try to impose their own soundtrack into the narrative where they will namecheck and reference twelve to fifteen songs throughout the story. Some writers/producers even go as far as to submit a CD with the accompanying songs with a ‘note to the reader’ to press ‘play’ at certain points in the story. Hate that. Hate it. The CD is never played, I can assure you.
However, it’s perfectly acceptable to reference a song for a particular scene, as long as it’s relevant to the character or the story. The above scenario of someone hamming up a karoke song is an ideal example. By all means, have the character sing whatever you feel is necessary to highlight the mood and subtext, and feel free to quote a couple of lines. Don’t go mad. [Surely] we don’t need to sit through the entire song so just a snippet should be enough. If the film goes into production but you can’t get clearance to use the song, then you have to use a different number.
Occasionally, writers will ‘set the mood’ by referring to a certain type of music, usually in a bar scene, something like: “John Smith enters the bar. It’s a dingy place. Metallica, or someone similar, pounds out from the jukebox.” It gives the reader a general vibe about the scene without giving the production manager and music supervisor a headache about what track to lay down.
Music selection is generally someone else’s department (especially for TV) but it’s fine for scenes to mention which song is blasting from the car stereo, but remember only if the lyrics/mood are important to the character/story. If you don’t need to be specific about a song or band, then just mention what type of music is blasting from the stereo: “Cheesy pop music blares from the radio”. “The deep bass of a cool R&B number pulses through the car”. Whatever.
In my latest script, I have a soundtrack lined up but purely for my own motivation and inspiration. Only one of the songs gets namechecked in the script, and that’s when a character starts singing along to the (pertinent) lyrics from the car radio, and the music plays over the next scene as a neat transition for some visual exposition (at least that’s the intention). Some readers may dislike this approach but it works fine for me because it’s a filmmaking technique you see all the time, so why shouldn’t it be in a script? It’s not telling the director or actor what to do, it’s just describing how you see the action and music combining in the story.
So, yes, it’s okay to reference songs and lyrics, but don’t go overboard. Once or twice is usually enough and/or acceptable. Anything more and you’re suggesting a soundtrack, which may not be appropriate or feasible for the film’s production.