Why reference music is so vital to getting you the right sound


I compose for a living, so my days are chuck-full of music. But I’ve always enjoyed a good challenge, so in my spare time, I take part in music competitions from time to time. They can be a great way of trying out new genres and doing stuff for the fun of it. And of course, winning is never a bad thing either!


But one recent competition really hammered home why references are critical in getting the sound you’re after.


In the design brief for the competition, the client outlined what they wanted and gave the following keywords for what the project – and thus, the music – was going to be like:


“Stylish, laid-back, cool, beautiful, funny, seductive, chill, modern, gripping, possibly a little provocative, adventurous, brave, trendy and spellbinding.”


That’s quite a handful!


There were more than 600 entries in the competition, with many composers struggling to meet the client’s requirements.


And the end result: Around 500 out of the 600 entries were deemed not to fit the brief.


That’s a lot of composing going to waste, and ultimately, it can be frustrating for both composers and the client: The composers end up doing tracks that are going nowhere, and the client has to spend countless hours listening to irrelevant music.


Not optimal for anyone, to say the least.


But what is the problem with giving keywords for the kind of music you’re after?


Well, there are two issues here:


1. Your Stylish Is Not My Stylish

There’s a saying that talking about music is like dancing about architecture, and there’s definitely a truth to that.


Music is an abstract concept, and your idea of, say, stylish may differ wildly from my idea of what’s stylish. Your definition of what’s stylish or what’s.. well, anything! – is the result of your past experiences, your personal preferences, your cultural influences, and so much more.


That’s not to say that there aren’t tracks out there that most would describe as ’stylish’ – it’s just not that clear-cut.


And if you’re not used to talking about music, it gets even harder to capture a certain feel in words.



2. Less Really IS More

If keywords were unclear enough to begin with, once you start adding and combining more keywords, it gets even more complicated.


Imagine if I asked you to find a great, stylish, modern, trendy, yet funny jazz track. I would then go do the same.


What do you think the chances of us picking the same track would be? I guess it could happen that we miraculously found the same one, but the odds are certainly against it. We may even find tracks that are markedly different in style.


That’s essentially what’s happening when you’re asking a composer to create a track for you, based on keywords alone. Chances that you and the composer are on the same page are slim, especially if you haven’t worked together before.


That’s not to say that keywords are completely useless. They can be a good guideline for what you’re after, as long as you keep them at a reasonable level and you really think about them before you jot them down.


Also: Do they make sense as a whole? Ie. does ‘stylish, cool, funny, adventurous’ even make sense? It might, given the context – but do give it some thought.



So if keywords are such a tricky tool for finding the music you’re after, how DO you go about it then? Here’s what I’d suggest:


1. Talk to your composer

Say you’re launching a new project and you want to some music that blows the socks off your target audience.


The music should be modern, cool and, well, a bit edgy. Start out by talking to your composer, outline what you’re after and ask him or her to find some music examples of this. And, importantly, you should do the same.


Perhaps you’ve heard a track in an ad that really had a cool, modern sound to it. Or you went to an event where they had this really great music playing. Or maybe your competitor is doing something with music that just blows you away. Maybe you’ve even heard a royalty-free music track that fits the bill, but you want something original and custom for your project.
Gather as many examples as you can, and narrow them down to just one, or two or three tracks.


And, as mentioned, keywords are not necessarily to be avoided at all costs. Just find a few, fitting ones, and don’t let them be your only reference.


Then present your selected examples (perhaps just one, but no more than two or three) and a few keywords to the composer – and listen to the composer’s suggestions as well.


2. Keep an open mind

Just as making that product you’re launching is a specialist skill, so is finding the right music. So keep an open mind to what the composer is presenting to you.


If you’re finding it tricky to find some good examples of what you want, don’t despair. Ask your composer for examples instead and use these for narrowing down what you’re after.


3. Try it out

One way of determining what’s right for your project is simply playing the track along with your visuals, if you have any. It may turn out that the track you – or the composer – really thought would be amazing for your project just doesn’t work when used with the visuals.


If so, it’s time to scrap it – and celebrate! Why? Because you’ve just excluded a track without wasting valuable time and money having the composer create something that just wouldn’t work.


4. Don’t go for sound-alikes

The biggest danger with using examples is that you end up falling in love with your example tracks. This is called temp love, and is indeed a sneaky thing. And if you fall under the spell of temp love, nothing but your example track is really going to cut it.


How do you avoid that? Think of the example tracks as just that: Examples. They demonstrate the direction you want the music to go in, but let the composer work from that and do his or her own interpretation and take.


Also try to avoid using the temp tracks too much during the creative or editing process. If you’re sure the example track fits (by trying it out as described in step 3), ask the composer to do a somewhat similar-sounding draft track for you to use during this phase instead.


Of course, sometimes you DO want a sound-alike. Just make sure you clearly communicate to the composer what you’re looking for and how the examples should be used.




In the competition example from the beginning of this post, I don’t blame the client for the guidance (or lack of proper guidance) at all. Giving directions on a project where you’re not really sure what you want IS tricky.


I think the issue with the specific competition was that the contest site did not help the client find REFERENCES that gave an idea of what the client wanted.

And it quite clearly shows that if the design brief is not properly put together and thought through before even a single note is composed, things could get time-consuming, expensive and perhaps even frustrating for both clients and composers.



But if you follow the steps above, you’ll stand a much greater chance of getting music for your project that’s spot-on, on time and – hopefully – will leave your target audience cheering.


Good luck with your project! And if you need help finding or having the right music created for your project, do get in touch.

Posted by Asbjoern on October 4, 2012 - Contact

Category Music for commercials Tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , Comments Off

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