Martin Knust

Dept. of Music and Art: Linnæus University

Library Music: Composition, Compilation, or Copy?

This paper is about mass media audio-visual formats with music. Given the fact that an average mass media consumer in the West spends hours each day watching TV and audio- visual material in the web, playing video games and so on one can take for granted that each mass media consumer is exposed to music through these various media several hours a day. A large share of this music is so-called library music, which is economically attractive for music creators. Music libraries are in use since the 1940s and contain pre-produced music that can be employed quickly in any context. Different from major feature or documentary films in which music and soundtrack are created during the post-production in order to be adjusted to the visual material, these ready-made pieces (or ‘cuts’ as they are called in this branch of the music industry) are combined with visual material, for instance, when producing a TV series, ads, docu-soaps or news videos which are watched on TV or the homepages of the major media distributors on the web. Both layers of these audio-visual formats are thus produced independently from each other, without any common context.
Even though this way of combining music with (moving) images is in use for many decades, some issues of creating music in this manner will be addressed because they touch on general issues that are becoming increasingly relevant for creating music today. There are, among others, these issues which are presented as an argumentative chain:

  1. The composers have no control over the whereabouts of their music. The context in which their music will be employed can be divergent or even contrary to their own ethical convictions.
  2. In order to make the music attractive for as many potential customers as possible, the music has to be as open as possible or, put negatively, empty of any more specific meaning.
  3. Since the average user of library music is normally not a music expert the music’s genre, sound, expression and content has to be easily identifiable. There is no room for innovation but ideal library music displays musical clichés and stereotypes instead.
  4. Many of these clichés and stereotypes derive from music that was and is used for clearly propagandist purposes. Music styles and combinations with images that were employed in dictatorial systems have hibernated virtually unchanged, for instance, in TV and video game music. The question is, whether creating music this way that is per se non-original may be called ‘composition’, ‘compilation’, ‘copy’ or something else.
  5. As background music library music cannot exceed a certain level of complexity but has necessarily to be simple or perhaps even simplistic.
  6. As such, that means as often highly standardized, non-individual music, library music is easy to create and describe analytically and may soon be composed (or compiled) by algorithms. This will affect the future status of being a composer fundamentally.

Key words: mass media music; library music; music in audio-visual contexts; re-evaluating composition


Martin Knust studied musicology, theology and philosophy in Greifswald, Berlin and Dresden. Magister Artium (M.A.) in musicology 2000, grade of a Dr. phil. 2006. Since 2007 appointments and lectureships at the E.-M.-Arndt-University Greifswald, the Technical University in Berlin, the University of Örebro and the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. 2008–2012 Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Stockholm. Since 2013 Senior lecturer in musicology at the Department of Music and Art at the Linnæus University in Växjö, Sweden. Since 2015 member of the research center “Intermedial Studies” at Linnæus University. Guest teacher at academic institutions in Switzerland, Finland, Estonia, Portugal and Kenya. Research specializations: opera and music theatre, north European music (19 th century to today), church music of the 16 th century, the music of Angkor / Cambodia, music in TV news and documentaries.