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Choosing the Perfect Commercial Music

By Michael Holmes | 20th October 2021

Picking a music theme to back a VO in a commercial or other voice project is often treated as an afterthought: with minimal consideration put into its selection. This is a big mistake.    

My fascination with music's role in commercials began at one of Dan O'Day's radio and creative production summits. As a tremendously successful freelance commercial writer, Dan has a wealth of wisdom regarding marketing tools and production music libraries. He asked, "When you and I have a conversation, does one of us say, 'Wait a minute! I need to put on some music first!'?".

Which is a good question, so if we talk without the addition of music, then why must it be present in commercials?

One reason is inertia: everybody does it. They believe it makes commercials more exciting and therefore more effective. This makes sense; music as an accompaniment of advertising has been around as long as mass commercial ads themselves, since the early radio days, with Wheaties setting off the chain reaction in the 1920s.

The Wheaties jingle was first aired over 100 years ago!

A tried and tested technique, using music in commercials can certainly work well, but only if it's used correctly. Music can enhance the impact of a brand. It can act like an afterburner; to increase the force of a message. A musical phrase can significantly assist in making a point and result in it being more memorable.

However, when employing music, you should never let the music track compete with the spoken message. There are far too many commercials where the music gets in the way of the message. There are two technical tricks one can use to reduce or prevent this. 

One technique, improved by modern digital technology, is called ducking. Ducking software automatically turns down or compresses the backing track when it 'hears' the vocal. This is a useful way to control the interplay between audio from multiple channels. There are all sorts of audio ducking software, including Adobe Premiere Pro.

The second technique is to turn down the frequencies in the music that are in the same range as the frequencies in the vocal. This way, you can get the level of the music higher in the mix without interfering with the vocal's understandability. There are online tutorials to show you how to do this. So, why do some music in commercials work and even enhance the messaging, whereas other cases are just filler that gets in the way of the spirit of the content?

Pounding rock is a favourite choice of DJs, but music for commercials is unconcerned with hits, which are played by themselves for their own sake and not composed (or even recorded). There's a difference to enhance sales messages.

On the other hand, production music is written to be used behind a vocal and (usually) doesn't contain elements (like instrumental solos) that sonically interfere with the spoken message.

How to find the right music for a commercial

Music for commercials is based on various factors; essentially, the purpose of the music track is to enhance the promotional goals in various ways. The most obvious choices are to evoke emotions or to entertain the viewer. These can help augment the message or branding of the product/ service.

Music is a language, sharing subtle shadings and nuances of a spoken language. It communicates and reinforces a range of emotions, and, as such, when the music is carefully chosen by someone who knows what they are doing, it can lock a message in one's mind.

Location, Location, Location

The platform choice for your content will dictate the audience, which alters the messaging that will be promoted through the commercial and its music. Matching your commercial to a channel's programming will be vital; you wouldn't be likely to place a makeup ad in the middle of a car programming marathon.

Radio stations quite often choose production music libraries whose feel and style mirror the music they play. The station will have its audience in the forefront of their minds when finding ads, so thinking about your audience should be in your mind when finding music for your commercial.

To do this, one must have access to a music library with thousands of themes. This isn't overkill; finding the suitable theme to boost the focus of the commercial can take a while. Excellent libraries have excellent search engines that aid in finding the right track by coming at it in several ways. And some even encourage the producer to email them, describing in detail what they're looking for the path to accomplish. The company will then suggest a dozen or so tracks to try out.

If your choices are limited, the chances are you'll have to settle for something that sort of does it but not as well as you know it could be done.

How to choose a production music library

Many libraries are known for a specific style of music, one they do well, while others do many styles well. If there's one thing I can say with confidence about production music libraries after working with them since the early '90s, it's that if there were ever an example of 'you get what you pay for,' this is it.

The more a library costs, the more it can afford to use great composers. Their music is so good that the script will almost write itself if you pick the mood and find the track first. 

A library's search engine is just as crucial as its breadth and scope. I have seen inexpensive libraries whose search engines are of scant help in finding tracks, meaning it takes a lot more time to find what you're looking for than if you have a comprehensive engine at your command.

Watch out for dated libraries. Some are digitized from LP's or CD's, and the production value – how 'clean' the tracks sound – isn't nearly as high as libraries created in the last 10-15 years or so. And of course, the music will sound dated, and we can't have that. 

Using a great library makes one's agency or station look genuinely professional and gives it a competitive advantage. Audition 10-15 of them. When you've found what you consider to be a good one, audition some more and see if it retains its #1 position. You don't need to be a trained musician: you have to appreciate music in several styles. Learning more about radio and other media forms can be a good first step.

I can't overstress looking at an excellent library as a necessity. The difference between great music and average music is night and day. A great library's effect on one's work can be astounding!   

Never treat the music in an advertising message or explainer video as an afterthought. Music can tremendously enhance the message and the VO; great music makes messages stand out, and average music typically works against the message and its effectiveness. 

Commercial Voice-Over

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Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes is a writer/producer/voice actor with 30 years of experience.

About Author

Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes is a writer/producer/voice actor with 30 years of experience.

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