Some Stuff I’ve Learned Writing Music for Advertising: References, Briefs, and Conference Calls

A spiral bound notebook with handwritten notes next to a digital keyboard

In my previous post I tried to present an overview of the different strategies we use when thinking about music in advertising and marketing media. Being able to look at an underscoring assignment through the lens of theory is a huge head start to writing a piece of music that gets chosen and aired. Yet most clients I’ve worked with don’t have this vocabulary, nor do they often have any vocabulary about the building blocks of music.

So how do we communicate?

References (or “temp score” or “needle-drops”) are pretty much the starting point for about 75% of the conversations I have about the creative direction for a project. By references, I mean existing music sent over with the note “something like this.” They can be sent on their own, or mixed into a piece of video as a placeholder. References can be legally dangerous, creatively soul-crushing, and in some cases red herrings. Yet in the age of YouTube, they have only become more entrenched as creative shorthand for non-musicians working with composers, bolstered by the technical ease of pasting a few links into an email.

I have to imagine that it’s empowering to paste those links in. And in many cases, as a composer, it is a relief to have a concrete starting point to the conversation. Sometimes, following a creative call that seems vague, we even pull our own references to send back to the client to see if we understood the conversation correctly. As a communication tool, they’re invaluable. But not all references lead to great work on their own.


A big red flag appears when only one piece is referenced. That often foretells a bad case of “demo love.” That’s industry lingo for a track that the client can’t get past. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten less judgmental about demo love. When a piece of music is placed against a piece of film, even if it’s not right from a practical or strategic standpoint, a powerful connection is made, and in the minds of those stakeholders that have seen it, nothing else may sound right because it clashes with their expectations, which have been created in that first moment. The mistake editors often make, in the interest of demonstrating their cut, is placing a piece of music that is clearly unattainable. It sets up an irreversible path leading to disappointment, and the composer is usually the one to absorb the brunt of the angst this creates. Often a client who is unaware of demo love as a phenomenon will be convinced that a composer is simply not capable of “nailing it” on an original track. It’s an unfair fight.

The other big red flag is when a client has actually approached the rights holder(s) for one or more of the reference tracks sent over. I’m no lawyer or expert in copyright law, but thanks to common sense and the wise counsel of my Executive Producer Jason, I’ve learned over the years to be very wary of this situation because it establishes an “intent” to infringe, and puts the project on the radar of that artist’s management. When we know someone’s been contacted, we need to take an overly cautious approach to what we will write and subsequently warrant to be original work. Female singer? We’ll use male. Major? We’ll go minor. 4/4 time signature? We’ll do 6/8. No one wants a lawsuit, even if the musicology doesn’t support it. The world of advertising music is littered with lawsuits, so much so that some agencies have, as a matter of corporate policy, prohibited sending rough cuts of spots with reference music placed.

A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.
A screen shot of an actual work session showing the waveforms for the reference track and voiceover. The actual music track is currently blank.


Moving past those obvious pitfalls, there is so much to learn from references beyond the music itself. How many tracks are sent—three or twenty-three? How wide or narrow is the focus when it comes to genre, mood, energy, and instrumentation? What language is used by clients to describe the references—“we love these and they’re perfect” versus “we haven’t really found a home run but this is the general territory”? Listening carefully and parsing each word at this stage can avert huge misunderstandings. When a number of ideas are sent from multiple stakeholders, stepping back and reading the politics of a situation can be critical. Who’s going to drive the project forward and be the loudest voice in the room: The creative team? Their client, the brand manager? The director or video editor? I can think of a…