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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – The effect of music
January 9, 2017 | Chris Stoltz

If I mentioned the movie Jaws, you could probably hum the music. The same with Rocky. Or Star Wars. And there are countless other classics where you might not be able to hum the theme, but you’d recognize it instantly. The Graduate. The Godfather. James Bond. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In fact, it’s impossible to imagine these movies without their theme. Just take a look at these famous scenes with and without music in Jaws and Psycho.

Music can create a powerful, nuanced emotional state. It can communicate an actor’s feelings in a particular moment, the mood of a scene or the overall movie’s tone. And it does it in a way that’s impossible with any other tools.

For Martin Scorsese, finding just the right music is everything. In the DVD extras of Raging Bull, it was revealed how the director was adamant about using a particular version of the theme song, Cavalleria Rusticana, performed by an Italian orchestra. It was impossible to get, but Scorsese demanded that version. They finally got rights to use it, and Raging Bull went on to become one of the most important films of all time.

In fact, there are many well-known movies where the collaboration between director and composer was essential to making it a classic. It’s impossible to imagine these movies without their music. Steven Spielberg and John Williams (Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones series and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). George Lucas and John Williams (Star Wars). Francis Ford Coppola and Nino Rota (The Godfather). Blake Edwards and Henry Mancini (The Pink Panther). Federico Fellini and Nino Rota (La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria and Amarcord). Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest and Vertigo).

Music can have the same effect in TV commercials. Connecting with consumers is a hard task, and merely tacking on ordinary stock music is a big mistake. You may be thinking, “Oh, we just don’t have the budget.” Guess what? No consumer cares about your budget. They’re either going to pay attention and feel something, or they won’t. Stock music with fake, trite emotion won’t help you.

The best way to really comprehend this is with real examples. We’ve taken some great commercials with great music, and made them, well, let’s just say not so good by using below average music. Here’s a recent spot for Under Armour

... and here’s the same spot with bland stock music:

Here’s a well-known Google spot from 2009, Parisian Love:

Here’s the same spot with bad stock music:

Finally, here’s a moving spot for University of Phoenix:

And here’s the same spot with typical stock music.

The difference between good and subpar music can be dramatic.

It can be hard to make decisions on music options provided to you, especially when music isn’t your field. Here are some questions to ask. Does the music seem appropriate? Usually, a serious commercial shouldn’t have slapstick music. Although, there are times when going against the grain can create an amazing effect. Next, does the music truly make you feel something? It could be poignant, heartbreaking, thrilling, awkwardly funny, anything – as long as you feel something. Play your TV spot with and without music, or turn the volume down. Play your TV spot with two different music tracks. Does the music truly add something, helping make it memorable? Or does it turn your commercial into a dud?

If you do decide to shift money to music, there are two expenses. Whether original or stock music, good music will simply cost more. On the other hand, just because you pay more doesn’t guarantee it will be good. That brings us to the second cost: time required to search for that music. Great music that fits your commercial isn’t just lying around. One has to search through hundreds of tracks to find something that works, something that moves.

No money for better music? Be creative with your scripts and production to reduce production costs. Do you need to shoot five different scenes, or could it be done in one? Or could you shoot several scenes without moving the entire crew? Do you really need five actors? Do you need to shoot at all? Could you use stock footage or make it a graphics-only spot? Do you need the voiceover, or could information be communicated with graphics? There are many ways to reduce production expenses. You just have to work with your agency to consider your options.

Having a commercial that’s on strategy is not enough. You need to invest in good music. Otherwise, prepare for your audience to be underwhelmed. And flipping the channel.

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