Composing Music for TV and Radio Commercials: An Introduction

If you are a studio owner or session musician chances are you’ve already worked with commercials. Yet so many times we come into a new production only to think "How can I achieve all these goals the client hopes to achieve in such a small window of time?". Big brand commercials are often instantly recognizable from the music which drives the setting. Crafting a piece of music around a production can make or break the entire commercial. From my experience as a musician for over 10 years and working with audio for publicity and marketing for the past 3 years creating music with a purpose can be challenging. Getting it right can be the difference between impressing a client and losing future contracts.

Thankfully a with a little planning and focus making music for commercials becomes smooth and methodical. Over the years I’ve come to devise a simple 5 step method to crafting music for almost any commercial. The process can be summed up into to 5 phases: Briefing, Research, Brainstorming, Production and Post-Production.

The Briefing Phase

When you first come across a commercial production your client will most likely have thought about mostly everything in the production. Thus, it is in the Briefing phase where you need to identify the needs of your client. The mood and feeling, the kind of music, the imagery in the video component (if a TV ad), the voice-over actor and the reaction they expect to see from their public. What is the purpose of the commercial? Are we trying to sell a new product or service? Are we trying to divulge a brand or an idea? What is it we are trying to achieve?

Often times they will have already prepared some samples of music that sounds like what they have in their head. These are important reference materials for us as music composers. The client will have many expectations of you and a lot of times it won’t be clear what element in those samples best demonstrates whats best for the production. Collective brainstorming with the client and the reference material proposed is important to understand and identify all the elements that satisfy what the client is thinking. It is also at this time where you should propose any of your own reference materials.

Being briefed properly is essential to getting things right with less revisions (and thus less of your and your clients’ expensive time).

The Research Phase:

After a proper briefing its time to get back the studio and have a careful listen to all the reference material brought up in the Briefing meeting. Use this time to identify all interesting elements in the Reference Material. Are there any rhythmic elements that can drive the mood? Are there interesting melodic patterns we can inspire ourselves on? What elements work with the video (if there is one)? What elements don’t work?

Taking apart the reference material gives us rough building blocks to craft our own piece of music. Don’t forget to consider any sonic branding when there is one. Think about how to integrate it into the song structure and into the mood. Also consider whether it is a strong element or a more discrete one. Sketch out the song structure, determining key, tempo, instrumentation and rhythmic components.

Composing for commercials is largely free-form and genre-free. What drives the mood is the only constraint and experimenting with various ideas before committing to one is a must. Its important to remember that we are working with a constrained timeframe and we will often have tight deadlines. Experiment with various things but remember to keep the foundation simple. Do not clutter the music with too many elements as you will often have other audio elements that will clash with the music. Recording sketches of your idea can save you a lot of time later on.

The Production Phase:

The production phase starts with laying down the basic rhythmic foundation. Because often we will be working with a short time frame, with only 30 seconds or so, our song will often consist of a few repetitions of a short chord progression resolving on the I chord at the end. Thus getting a good, solid loop which works for most of the song is vital as it will be the foundation for setting the mood. Keeping it simple is more often than not the way to go as the base will have to cut through the mix and be heard even after other sonic elements are added (like the voiceover and sound effects).

At key moments we can add flair to draw attention to important information or tension building. "Remember that cool melody line you heard in the reference material? Let’s do something like it when the car we are trying to sell first shows up". Hinting at the a sonic brand melody is a very interesting and subtle way to do this and works well in many situations. Once all punctuating elements are placed have a full listen and see if you missed anything.

Add any ear candy you see fit, being careful not to over produce. When you think you are done mix the song into a more manageable stereo or 5.1 stem and listen to any elements that may clash with the voice over or sound effects. Make any necessary changes and send to the client for a listen.

The Post-Production Phase:

The post production phase consists mainly of conforming to changes and client requests. If you have done your homework right you probably won’t need to do a complete new track. There are bound to be changes however and identifying what the client wants changed is important. Often times a client will listen to the track and find one thing he doesn’t like or that needs more grandeur and will express his or herself as if they didn’t like the track at all. Go with your gut and make the changes you feel are necessary to achieve what you believe is what the client wants. Music is very subjective and small changes can go a long way into pleasing or not your public. Remember that it is not about what you like or dislike, it is about what works or not for the project.

In the end, composing is a very free form art. There are many valid approaches and you should always use what works best for you but following a set process can speed up the process and allow you to meet your deadlines. Marketers can be a tough crowd but pleasing them is often pleasing the end customer as well, and as such being methodical about your creations can go a long way to your success.

Be creative and don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Your client will thank you.

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