That chill up your spine, the hunger for adventure, a warmth reminiscent of new love… if a promo or trailer has sparked any emotion in you, it’s very likely music had a role in that. Whether overt or indirect, music’s value is in its ability to create an instant connection to feeling.
It’s behind that unsettling and strangely majestic vibe of the most recent “Joker” trailer, heightening the chill factor with every note, or the exalted-to-another-plane feeling you get as you watch HBO’s teaser for “Momentum Generation,” where you could almost be the one caught up in the endorphin high.
When music truly works in promotion, it connects viscerally with the viewer, emotionally investing them in the content. That is its only role, which is why music is such a powerful part of the video. Sometimes it’s as straight forward as “I really like that song; I’m going to have to check that out,” but more often it’s subtle, resonating somewhere on the peripheral with quiet confidence.
A promo or trailer may have the slickest look and copy, but music is what makes it feel, something that becomes even more important when the product, visuals or copy is less than stellar. This is when the perfect track serves to encourage the spot, taking on the real heavy lifting to elevate something that is ho-hum. In advertising, toilet paper as a product is hardly fun or cute, but you can bet that 99 percent of the music in toilet paper commercials is.
Yes, music can be a power player in promotion, which makes finding the right track such a crucial task for marketers, and one that’s so often challenging, as that perfect fit rarely just pops into your head. Add the sheer volume of music to choose from – hundreds of albums and library releases weekly – and the task becomes downright daunting.
As a music supervisor who’s had the unique opportunity of straddling the client-vendor line over the years, I know full well the work involved in that back-and-forth dance with editors and producers. From deciphering creative briefs and searching tracks to undergoing rounds of pitching and feedback, the quest to sync music and video often requires the skills of a hyper-organized librarian on steroids.
So how does one find perfect track? For me, it’s a bit of an art form that really relies on five core guidelines:
- Tempo – This is often the most important part to get right, especially if it is called out. The energy the client wants to convey is what helps sell a story or product… or help support an emotion. And how the tempo feels is more important than the technical beats per minute (BPM). While BPM is certainly a guideline, kick drums hitting on every beat or a repeated one-eighth piano note can make a track feel faster.
- Context – What is happening in the scene during the spot? If the characters are badass and dancing, the music should feel edgy, cool and rhythmic to allow those moves. If it’s a slightly humorous moment, think about music that plays to that. A more sophisticated brand asking for rock calls for rock music that feels luxurious, with synth elements, perhaps, or a propulsive slow bass. If the spot is trying to sell a fun experience, lyrics about complicated love will be wrong, no matter how perfect the music sounds, as people do listen to the words. The contextual use of the music is extremely important – it requires you to imagine whether the track will actually work in the specific scenario.
- Attitude – One of the most common words appearing in creative briefs is “attitude.” Whether it’s used to describe a particular scene or the music being requested itself, a drill-down to what that really means is essential. If a client describes a scene where a woman and her girlfriends are going out on the town “with attitude,” I might interpret that as a sassy, carefree, in-your-face spirit that probably has some swagger to it too. If they ask for a song that’s “cool, with attitude and edge, like a cross between the Stones and Black Keys,” you know that’s a guitar-based track that feels a bit dark and propulsive, but what does attitude mean here? Mick Jagger’s vocals can have a lot of defiant attitude, but not so much Dan from the Black Keys. A guitar can be played with attitude too… dirty and loose, tight and edgy or even punk guitars have attitude. But because the references are what they are, we know to look for the gritty, distorted loose guitar style with a confrontational tease or I-don’t-care feel in the vocals. Attitude is equal parts confidence and defiance.
- Emotion – If the brief doesn’t include attitude, then what is the emotion? If they tell you, your job is to translate what those words mean to music, and maybe circle back to Context (above) to help inform the process even more. If you are provided a reference, zero in on how that track achieves the emotion… how melody and instrumentation help deliver this. Then go forth and find your version of that emotion in your search.
- Intuition – This is as equally important in the process as tapping your experience or knowledge to do any of the four guidelines above. It’s that gut call that allows you to transcend vagueness or go against the grain in finding a true fit. When a creative brief uses generic words like “cool” or “light,” for example, you have to rely on your gut to guide you as best as you can. And, sometimes, even if a track checks all the boxes, but something just feels off about it next to the visual (or perhaps not right for the brand), instinct is a game-saver that tells you to toss it out.
In the end, finding the right track is about honing in on what the music needs to achieve in order to move an audience into action, whether that be tuning in, making a purchase or anything else. It’s an imperfect, often-subjective art form, but a process that can make a world of difference when your viewers are the ones with chills up their spines.
Julia Trainor is music supervisor at Alibi Music.