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Music Supervision

How To Match Music To Picture

The Role of the Music Supervisor in Film, Television, and Advertising.

by Andrew Ingkavet

As films, television and advertising have started to use more pre-existing songs and scores, a new role has risen; that of the Music Supervisor. He or she is the one that will help “supervise” how the music matches to the visuals, make creative suggestions, work out the legal agreements and fees with the artists, publishers and record labels and sometimes even hire and direct the original score composer.  Now that’s a lot of work!   In this article, I’ll address a bit of history and the creative aspect of the Music Supervisor.

Music has been used to help tell stories since the beginning of time.  Theater, opera, plays, minstrels, nursery rhymes all use music to help convey a story.   Music that is written to tell a story is often called programmatic music.  In classical music, there are several examples of this including operas, ballets and symphonic pieces.

As films embraced sound (the talking pictures!) the lone pianist improvising to the screen was replaced with a recorded soundtrack.  Music was written to go along with the story usually with a lot of singing (the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals!) and then more underscored pieces.  As filmmaking matured and advanced, and audiences became more visually literate to the new medium, the use of sound also matured.  Sound design was added further manipulating the viewers senses and adding to the believability of the story.  Walter Murch was the first person credited as a Sound Designer for his work with Francis Ford Coppola’s earliest films including The Conversation, The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now.

And then in the 1970’s, filmmakers like Martin Scorsese began to use popular songs to underscore their films.  He used tracks from Motown, The Rolling Stones, and others to convey a gritty sense of realism and contemporary life.  His films were of the moment as they featured music of the moment.  However, with any use of audio in a film (or television, or advertisement) the story needs to come first.  If the audience is noticing the song more than the story, it’s probably not a good choice of music as you lose the audience and the story-telling momentum.
Today, the Music Supervisor is the person that partners with the Director of the film (television program, advertisement, website, etc) to make creative choices and match music to image.

Here’s a few basic approaches a music supervisor uses to find the perfect piece for your project.

Foreground vs Background?
Does the music need to be upfront and noticed or would it be more effective to the storytelling to be subtle or invisible?

What is the Emotion You Want The Audience To Feel?
Ways that emotion can be conveyed are in the use of speed (tempo), density (texture), harmony (major, minor), color (texture, palette), movement (stepwise or leaping), rhythm  (smooth, syncopated, jagged, punctuated with silence?) contour of the melodic line, key changes, etc.

Time and Place
Is there a specificity in the story for time period (current, future, turn-of-the-century, etc) and/or is there a geographic location.  For instance, if your film is set in 19th century Russia, it may not be wise to use the latest track from your favorite emo band (or you may like that juxtaposition!)  Ethnic-flavors in an orchestral soundtrack often lend believability to the story – think Black Hawk Down by Hans Zimmer which featured local instruments of the Middle East.

Is the main character good or evil?  Should we know this?  Music can tell us much about a character through choices of key, color, shading, etc.

Who is your Audience?
If your intended audience is teenagers, you may want to use musical choices that reflect their current listening habits.  This resonance leads to believing the story and may also lead to another revenue source with an official soundtrack.

These approaches are what a Music Supervisor uses to creatively address the music needs of the project.  The legal and financial aspect of clearing the chosen songs or scores are the subject of another article.

About The Author – Andrew Ingkavet is a Composer, Producer and Music Supervisor.  He is the founder and “Head Monk” of 300 Monks, an audio agency which offers custom songs/scores, music licensing and supervision to filmmakers, advertisers and producers.

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