Music to Your Ears

More than once, I have heard agency creatives and producers complain about bad experiences they’ve had developing music for their ads. “We really didn’t know how to communicate what we wanted,” is a phrase I have heard over and over. They know music is a big part of advertising’s success, but they lack confidence in musical communication.

Music is a slippery thing to discuss, and no one likes to sound like an idiot. So, what do you need to know to talk to a composer without embarrassing yourself?

First, you need to know that the definition of music is simply “organized sound.” Even a Japanese taiko drum performance is technically an example of music. Next, you need to familiarize yourself with the basic vocabulary of music, like rhythm, melody and harmony. Here are some other guidelines:

Tip No. 1: Don’t ever tell a composer to leave out the minor chords. We hear this a lot, believe it or not. This is like telling the guy at the paint store to “leave out the black” when he’s mixing your colors. The composer needs every tool at his disposal.

Tip No. 2: Include the composer in the creative process. Telepathy is often the result of shared experiences. The longer you work with someone, the better they will understand you. Once you realize that music is about emotion, you will be able to share your feelings more concisely with the composer. Remember that music is essentially the conduit to emotion, the fast track to our feelings. Music is mood.

In my experience, it seems that directors have no problem talking to composers. Film directors are used to giving simple ideas to actors to get their best performances. This also works well with composers. When we were composing the score to the film The Day Reagan Was Shot, the director, Cyrus Nowrasteh, told us simply that he wanted the music to be the “straight guy”—serious and presidential. Only once did he get very specific, and that was concerning the music at the end of the film. Cyrus wanted a solo instrument to convey Al Haig’s loneliness. We had the clarinet hold the last note after the orchestra had stopped playing. It was very effective.

Tip No. 3: Write a brief for the composer about the music’s job. Find the emotion, and describe it in general terms. What is the purpose of the music in your TV commercial? Is it dramatic underscoring, or is it intended to be entertaining? Can you put into words what you would like the music to do? If not, you are already in trouble. It doesn’t have to be more than two words—adjectives like mysterious or heroic are much more useful to composers than words like quirky or simple.

We once composed music for a videogame that had a very strong female character who liked to dress in leather and shoot machine guns. Jeff Abbott of Leo Burnett gave us two words to describe the music: dark and compelling. We put those words up on the music stand, and they became our mantras.

Tip No. 4: Use scratch tracks only as a last resort. In the search for original music that is custom-scored for a TV commercial, people often like to play other music for composers to explain what they would like to have them compose. These works are often called “scratch tracks.” The problem is, the scratch track is the musical equivalent of a film rip-o-matic.

Your job doesn’t end when the film editor has found a scratch track that makes the edit work. In fact, your job is just beginning. In my experience, it is far better to involve the composer early on and get the thinking process started weeks before the composition is due. An original pre-score can solve problems that arise with the use of temp tracks.

Tip No. 5: Strive toward the previously unimagined solution. Brilliant music can elevate a so-so concept. A brilliant concept can be ruined by so-so music.

It is best to talk to musicians in free-flowing descriptive terms that allow organic creativity—phrases like, “I want the music to be the alter ego of our hero. Create a sound for his conscience,” or even, “I want the music to remind me of an afternoon in St. Mark’s Square in Venice in the year 2048.” A computer company once asked us to make music with the box that its product came in. That unusual request spawned an innovative musical track.

How do you know when the music the composer has sent is right for your ad? If you have decided on the two adjectives that describe what you want to feel when viewing the commercial, it should be easy. If you can turn your head and simply listen to the music track alone and get those feelings, then the music is right.

Talking to a composer is as simple as telling someone how you feel.