Music to Your Ears: How to Talk to a Composer without Embarrassing Yourself

By Myers, Elizabeth | ADWEEK, September 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Music to Your Ears: How to Talk to a Composer without Embarrassing Yourself


Myers, Elizabeth, ADWEEK


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? …

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