MBPT Spotlight: Note By Note—Creating the Perfect Underscore Music Adds Value to Commercials

Underscore music for commercials has been part of my professional life for years, and I have been very fortunate to work on major campaigns for Coca-Cola, Citgo, Kohler, Masterlock and many others. I also get to write longer-format compositions for film and TV.

When I was starting out, I kept the commercial side of my music career a bit of a secret. Other musicians thought of commercial work as selling out, or worse, as a lower form of art. I stopped thinking that way a long time ago. I love this part of my career, and it has taught me much.

Writing music for advertisements can be wonderfully challenging, and it tests all the different aspects of making a living as a musician. As a buyer, having a custom piece of music for your spot (as opposed to a library cue that has been used many times over) can elevate your brand and really make your messaging stand out.

In terms of my process, working with advertising executives to create what turns out to be mini pieces of art, the first step is to meet with my clients—advertising agencies, marketing executives and producers—to learn what their goals are, who the target audience is and the spot’s end-uses.

My commercial clients often have a very good idea of what they are looking for in a track. Other times, I have to listen very closely to their descriptions and read between the lines. 

After scribbling down a list of descriptives—the list often includes words or phrases such as “poignant,” “rockin’,” “in your face,” “frail,” “heart wrenching” and/or “driving”—I usually have a very good idea where to start.  

When producers and execs talk with me, I often find them trying very hard to “speak” my language. I try to do the same. I have a marketing degree, so for me, the industry terms are already pretty familiar. Any musician unversed in the “vernacular” would be wise to take the time to learn the basic language of advertising. 

It is hard to overstate the importance of communication. I want the people who hire me to understand that I am here to help solve any problems, to add a unique and critical part to this campaign, and that I will do it in a timely and professional manner. I am here to make you look good!

As an advertiser, or content buyer, I hope that you take the time to learn a little about my work, my strengths and abilities, and you are able to tell me what you need. What is the budget for music? What is the timetable for demos and for completion? Where, when and for how long will my music be used? Who retains ownership of these tracks?

If you require certain instrumentation (live strings for example) realize that it takes time for the composer to write, arrange, record and mix. Give us enough time to do the job perfectly. The earlier on in the production process these conversations take place, the smoother you can expect everything to go. Also, a contract can be a great tool to start with. When everything is spelled out, then both parties know exactly what to expect.

I take all this information, the footage, script, list of buzzwords, and any other tidbits I can glean and imagine an instrumental palette. This could literally be anything. In the past I’ve used metal pots on a track. Sometimes you just instinctively know what it’s going to be. 

Maybe strings, classical, chamber or perhaps piano. I get to do a lot of piano, and often start there. Sometimes it’s modern pop, alternative or rock. Loud, soft, pretty, funky, really funky, it doesn’t matter. I give them what they ask for, and what serves the spot the most. That is the job: Elevating the picture and selling the message. 

I always look at the TV spot as a mini movie with chances to rise and fall, and chances for space and crescendo. In my film and long-format work, there is more time to develop themes, and chances to use different instrumentation, tempos, transitions and modulations.

When you have more time on your side, so to speak, you have more opportunities to build ideas. When you only have 30-60 seconds to make a statement, you need to be economical with your musical choices. A commercial composer is forced to get right to the point. I love the challenge of trying to create an emotional response in that short amount of time.

A commercial composer is not here to show off his chops or to promote world peace. I am here to create the emotions that are called for, with the proper instrumentation, and to communicate that to the audience, whomever that may be. 

These days, commercial music is used in more mediums than ever before, such as TV, radio, in-store videos, blogs and all over the Web. My tracks need to hold up seamlessly in all of these different situations. Everything needs to sound just as good on smartphone speakers as it does in a home theater with surround sound.

To that end, I use real instruments and real players as often as possible, but I often have to do everything myself. The tools my colleagues and I have at our disposal are truly amazing. Creating great sounding music with virtual instruments is a challenge of its own. Whether real or virtual, sampled or acoustic, I always strive for a great performance that communicates whatever emotion I’m after. 

Getting the Picture

I usually compose right to picture, often starting with a rough cut that is an incomplete edit with the main shots in place. Once I have a track ready for review, I’ll connect with my client for some feedback. That may be as easy as sending an audio file, or bouncing my music to the picture and posting it online for them to grab and take a peek at. 

Changes and revisions are the norm, but making the client happy and defining their brand musically are the most important things. Ego must always take a back seat to the work. Sometimes we get it perfect on the first pass, other times we go back to the drawing board. Once the track is finished, I throw a final mix, send it off to the production house or editor, and it goes out into the world.

After all these years, I still get a thrill hearing my music come through my TV speakers, and the commercials I’ve done over the years have helped to hone every facet of myself as an artist.

It’s not just about putting the parts down and composing. I’ve become an engineer, programmer, producer, critical listener and synthesist, and have amassed a nice body of work along the way.

My tips for any composers reading this? As a commercial musician, the most important thing is making your producers and clients happy. Always be professional and easy to work with, and it doesn’t hurt to be a little fun! If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to showcase your abilities as a composer, producer and musician all while doing what you love: Creating a track that fits perfectly with the picture. 

Traband is a multi-instrumentalist, film and TV composer and singer/songwriter. In addition to creating music underscoring documentaries and adventure films, he has written and performed music for commercials for many U.S. brands. He recently released his sixth album and has performed across the country with his band. You can view his commercial reel here.