Stuff I Learned Writing Music for Advertising—Problem Solver, Not Widget Maker

The road to the perfect score for a commercial involves a whole bunch of thinking that hasn’t been done yet. This is why the composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media.

Written By

Ravi Krishnaswami

In my first post, I talked about many of the changes that technology has brought about in my industry and described a world where walls were evaporating. The problem with change, of course, is that it alters the playbook. During the early parts of my career, I benefited from being inside that exclusive world, where a large portion of advertising projects involved composers and original music.

Today, stock music—now more euphemistically called “production” music—is a huge business that leverages the democratization of music production technology, the ease of cloud storage and tag-based searching, and the growing and diverse needs of media creators for inexpensive solutions. If you just need some underscore in a certain genre, maybe with a build and an ending, your track is out there.

Simultaneously, the battered world of music publishers and record labels has been like a scrappy tree that grows sideways towards its one source of light. Not only are artists eager to place a wistful lost-love song underneath a diaper commercial, some of them are even considering the needs of advertisers and TV shows as they write. “Sync-friendly” is a real term in the business now!

So you can have a million options at your fingertips, all cheaper than original music, and you can license almost any song in your iTunes library, if you want the authenticity. Why incur the hassle of hiring a composer to write something from scratch? The answer to that exact question is the first thing I try to teach students I work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

The composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media.

The short answer is that some projects simply need to be written from scratch because of the specificity of the scoring needs or because they are conceptually unique. And while one could perhaps find production or licensed music, the road to the perfect score involves a whole bunch of thinking that hasn’t been done yet. Either way, the composer must become a partner in the creation of the whole piece of media, rather than simply the creator of a commodified piece of music that is used inside it. And the key to becoming that partner is understanding all of the different ways that music can function in a piece of advertising, and then helping to determine what is right for the task at hand. In short, it’s not the “what,” it’s the “why” when it comes to writing original music for advertising. So where do we start?

A Strategic Approach

Why does an ad use music? Television advertising grew out of radio advertising. Early radio advertising started as live sponsored announcements, much like the small segments we still hear on NPR. But as pre-recorded material became available, advertisers seized upon humanity’s most ancient memory technology and began to package messages within neatly crafted songs—jingles—and a medium was born. Look at television and streaming advertising now and it’s harder to find jingles, but they are still there. Think McDonalds’ current jingle, “I’m lovin’ it,” with its series of notes that immediately makes you think of the golden arches when you hear them played or sung. It’s primarily a catchy memory device. Secondarily, there are demographic and emotional reasons for what that melody is, who wrote it, and how it’s often arranged. In my experience, most advertising uses music for multiple reasons. Thankfully, agencies and brands are usually able to prioritize, either consciously in their creative briefs, or unconsciously in that mysterious process of choosing among multiple strong approaches created in the competitive demo phase. Figuring out what the strategy is behind a piece of music is, in my humble opinion, THE skill to develop to be successful doing this.

Here’s my cheat sheet:

1. Branding with Music and Lyrics

Fusing recognizable, unique musical events with a brand is a powerful way to make it stick. Something that is mentioned often by clients (so often that it’s a cliché) is the “other room test.” This is shorthand for saying that the music we write should be so good and so recognizable that if it’s on TV, you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room. Clients also love to ask for something as memorable as the Intel logo.

Functionally, I tend to split this strategy up into two tactics:

Music we write should be so recognizable that you’ll recognize it even if you hear it from another room.

Logo treatments/mnemonics are the musical versions of visual logos: a discrete sequence of notes or sounds, like that beloved Intel logo or the NBC chimes, that identify the brand. Over the years, I have found these are easy to write and hard to sell. They’re easy to write because they are like little puzzles that you have to solve. Most brands want to communicate something within that short moment: an emotion, a cultural space, a sense of modernity or tradition, so once you start trying to address those sub-motivations, it becomes a fun musical game. They are hard to sell, however, because clients often arrive with unrealistic expectations. How could you ever write something as recognizable as the Intel logo without the benefit of drilling it into people’s heads over a number of years?

I’d like to share two sonic logos that I helped create. The first is the ID for cable network American Movie Channel (AMC), and I would describe the approach as sound collage.

The second example is a recent Jell-O campaign that revived their historic melody from the 1950’s.

Jingles, in the traditional sense, are songs with lyrics that mention the brand by name and, through the magic of the lyricists, manage to tell a story or paint a picture of a brand. This tactic seemed to peek in the ‘70s and ‘80s and fall out of favor in the last couple decades, meaning that when they are done well now, they really stand out. I could share something I worked on more recently, but I think this is the perfect time to revisit a melody of my childhood:

2. Storytelling: Scoring the Mini-Film

As early as the ‘60s, advertising creatives realized that film and television were powerful storytelling media, and that perhaps rather than simply telling the audience that a product is great, a brand could present a short, digestible, and entertaining story as a Trojan horse for its message. While the point of the ad is still to sell the product or raise awareness, the job of the composer in this case is to treat it as a condensed film cue, drawing on whatever aesthetic and stylistic influences might be suggested by the story being told and the way it is being told. If the story is artfully conceived, the emotional and narrative inflection points will naturally drive home the message in subtle ways that an announcer or jingle can’t. In my experience, director’s treatments and storyboards are really helpful for understanding what needs to happen and how it needs to happen. For example, when looking at a director’s treatment, I can probably get a sense of whether this would be a Michael Bay action scene or a PT Anderson character study.  Each of these directors would select a distinctively different composer and musical approach.

I always love showing this long-running television commercial for GE, because it feels so much like charming moment in a a Disney or Pixar film.

For a different approach to scoring, here is an Oxfam Public Service Announcement that owes its visual language to the modern psychological thriller.

3. Emotional Response

There’s an imaginary line that most film scores stay behind. Transmitting the emotion of the scene is often the goal, whereas manipulating the viewer through hyperbolic emotional material might seem tacky, over-dramatic, or—even worse—dated. But in thirty seconds, there’s so little time for subtly and craft. And in advertising, manipulation just might be the goal and the music must be a blunt instrument, going directly for the viewer’s emotional gut. While some spots meditate on one feeling, many others take the shape of a problem/solution story: a problem is depicted, the product/service introduced, and voila, problem solved. This is very common in the ubiquitous category of pharmaceutical ads. While the shift from dark to light is certainly scoring, I see this as a unique strategy because it’s common that the client is looking for an emotion that goes beyond what we’re seeing in the story.

This Johnson & Johnson television commercial is a perfect example of creating one emotion, which I will call “heartstrings.” Notice how a feeling of warmth and humanity is created, and then the brand, by simply being there, benefits from that feeling.

This piece, for a large hospital network, is a great example of a subtle but powerful shift from tense to hopeful.

4. Brand Embodiment and Demographic Identification

“Well, I don’t really know about this, but if you tell me this is what the kids are listenin’ to, I’ll sign off on it!”

This is how I remember a senior officer (general?) signing off on my first big TV campaign for the US Army. I got that gig, my very first, primarily because I was 22 years old, going out clubbing, and listening to techno curated by my brother, who was a DJ at the time. I knew just enough about writing music to put down ideas that were closer to what I was listening to than anything they’d heard from other composers. The spot featured an edgy, young voice actor reading a pretty in-your-face call to action, and lots of hyper-saturated shots of technology. This was the late 1990s, during the “dot com” boom, and recruiting numbers were way down. The strategy of the campaign was clear: connect with young Americans and convince them that they could get a free and highly relevant education in technology by signing up. And in order to be heard, the Army felt they needed to break from previous campaigns rooted in proud, militaristic brass/orchestra/chorus, and speak the lingua franca of “the kids,” techno.

Thinking back, sure, there was thought given to creating an emotional feeling (excitement), and there were moments that artfully helped add drama to the story being presented in montage form (like when the music drops out as the skydivers jump from the helicopter). But for my money, the strongest motivating factor for the agency—evident in everything from the video edit, the hyped color correction, and the many rounds of demos of music—was to “rebrand” the Army as young and tech-savvy, and music was perhaps the strongest statement of that in the piece.

The music must be relatable to the intended audience.

I should note that in the last ten years, the most direct route towards doing this musically has been licensing an up-and-coming artist, leveraging the artist’s authenticity and removing any doubt about whether an original demo might be “of the moment.” But in my experience, this strategy is broad, deep, and often subtly superimposed on other strategies, even when it’s not the driving force. Regardless of the story or mood, just imagine a financial spot with a dubstep track or an energy drink spot with a Copland-inspired orchestral anthem! No matter what other strategies are at play, the music must be relatable to the intended audience, and this strategy is omnipresent in modern advertising.

5. Source (i.e. “diagetic music”)

This last strategy is the easiest to spot, but also the rarest. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a few projects requiring source music, and it’s always a fascinating process. Source music, also known as diagetic music, refers to music that exists in the world being portrayed on camera. Street performers and bar bands are a common example. Clock radios are also great examples, though those moments are more often solved by licensing something that might actually be on the radio. My favorite bit of source music is undoubtedly the “cantina” band in Star Wars, particularly because John Williams wrote something that felt alien yet relatable enough to help tell the story of where they were.

As a composer, the process of writing source music takes a completely different creative shape than any other process. To get it right, it’s one part ethnomusicology, one part composing, and one part method acting. You have to understand just what that ensemble would be playing at that moment, in that world, and then you have to pretend to be that composer until the music comes out. This strategy is less likely to mix with others, though it’s easy to imagine scenarios where the type of band portrayed on camera speaks to the audience demographic being targeted, or the emotion created by the piece is central to the scene making sense narratively.

I cannot tell you how much fun it was to work on this Florida Citrus spot, which involved two trips to Miami and Ricky Martin’s drummer. I’ll just leave it at that.

These are the broad strokes, and there are certainly areas like comedy that don’t follow the rules. Next week I’ll be back to talk about the scraps of certainty we start writing with—needledrops, creative briefs, and voice overs.

Still from U.S. Army ad scored by CO-PILOT featuring a group of enlisted men and the caption "Paid for by the U.S. Army"