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Who chooses music for movies and TV shows?

Zach Watson
Zach Watson is the Content Specialist for one royalty-free music and sound effects platform.
Updated on ・5 min read

Music plays a key role in film, television and even modern video games: heavy bass can help convey the atmosphere in a nightclub, frenetic violins can create tension in moments that require disaster, and pop songs can move into a certain era. Music sets the tone for every scene of any project and evokes emotions in the audience, so there is always someone who is called a music supervisor. We will tell you about who this person is and about the intricacies of his work in this article.

 

A music supervisor is not just a person who selects music for a TV series, TV show or movie. To a certain extent, he is a specialist in neuromusicology - a science that studies the influence of music on the human brain, on his hormones and, accordingly, on emotions. Therefore, the key task of a music supervisor is to enhance the stage, and sometimes create emotional resonance only through the music.

 

Music in any content is another very powerful channel of communication with the viewer that can generate empathy. Have you ever noticed that to the music, everything seems more real to you, and to certain events of your life a soundtrack is "attached" that brings you certain emotions and memories, and sometimes even smells - even when you hear this song several years later? ? This is what the music supervisor works with, he makes the scene real for the viewer. Every person whose life is somehow connected with television or show business knows that music and sound in TV shows and movies are 50% of the picture. Sometimes even very poorly filmed and played scenes can be saved by cool music.

The key task of such a specialist is the search for music. Usually, we are talking about a huge amount of different compositions, since one episode of a season can contain more than 20 tracks. His responsibilities also include negotiations with performers, negotiating the terms of the purchase of rights and prices within the budget. In addition to direct meetings with the owners of various music tracks, the music supervisor can visit free stock music to select the right track for a specific program.

 

There are two major difficulties in the work of a music supervisor. First, he needs to get a few big names in the project. And if the show raises controversial topics in society, it's a very difficult task. For example, the music supervisor of the HBO series "Euphoria" Jen Malone, only after receiving consent from Beyoncé for the track Hold Up, was able to attract a number of other iconic performers to the project, such as Madonna and Randy Newman. Here you need to have a lot of social capital and negotiation skills, the ability to tell about your project in such a way that cool people in the industry would like to participate in it.

 

Well, the second is often called "let me smell the coffee." The fact is that sometimes, in order to find music for one scene, you need to listen to more than 20 compositions. Already on the seventh, we begin to forget the accents in the scene, the music gets lost in an orgy in the head and, unfortunately, you cannot "interrupt with the help of coffee" the previous aroma and flair, as, for example, when choosing a perfume. Really cool music supervisors can cut the showrunner's selection down to three songs. And in this case, the creativity of such a complex profession is manifested to the greatest extent, because creativity, according to Robert McKee, is "... the ability to make a choice between the necessary and inappropriate."

 

One of the most interesting aspects in the profession is the need not only to understand music, but also to conduct research on the target audience of the project, and sometimes to study an entire era.

 

For example, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor - music supervisors of my favorite HBO series in recent years and most of David Fincher's works - in the work on the last film directed by Munk, conducted in-depth studies of the USA in the 1930s. ... They studied how people lived in Hollywood then, what kind of music they listened to, what socio-cultural and political attitudes influenced their taste, etc.

 

If we talk about the most successful cases, then, of course, we need to remember Susan Jacobs and her work in Big Little Lies. Remember the opening shots of each episode - how the filigree portrayal of the California nature by director Jean-Marc Vallee was emphasized by the music of Michael Kiwanuka. For this work, Susan received a first-of-its-kind "Emmy" in the music category for music supervising. Of course, we must also mention Randall Poster and his brilliant work in many of Wes Anderson's films. Wes, by the way, doesn't work with composers - only with music supervisors.

 

In summary, to become a music supervisor, you need to have social capital in the music industry, have negotiation skills, develop a lot of listening skills, be able to work on tight deadlines and, of course, have a taste. But there is one more very important quality - this knowledge and feeling of drama. The work of a music supervisor begins with reading the script, and then every time he starts working on the stage, he must ask the showrunner a question: what exactly are we sounding in this scene? Is it the setting, the character, or his inner monologue? Should the music work only in this scene or lead the viewer to the next one, spoil what he sees and feels next, or not? As a result, the music supervisor is one of the authors of the project, just like the scriptwriter, cameraman or director. He, like the screenwriter with the words of the characters or the operator in the visual storytelling, tells the story - but with notes.

Discussion (1)

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ildi profile image
Ildi

This is a really great article, thank you for sharing @zachwatson !

A music supervisor is not just a person who selects music for a TV series, TV show or movie. To a certain extent, he is a specialist in neuromusicology - a science that studies the influence of music on the human brain, on his hormones and, accordingly, on emotions.

Reading this immediately caught my attention. It's interesting that before this article I did not think deeply about who is responsible for all the music that appears in my favorite shows/movies. Would the music supervisor also be responbile for compiling the official soundtrack?

One of the most interesting aspects in the profession is the need not only to understand music, but also to conduct research on the target audience of the project, and sometimes to study an entire era.

This sounds like such a cool job to have! Thinking about studying an entire era reminds me of a Netflix original called The Get Down. I was really sad to see the show get cancelled after the first season. The soundtrack is really dope and after doing a quick search I discovered that Stephanie Diaz-Matos was the music supervisor for the show. By looking up her IMDb profile, I was also able to discover other shows I might be intrested in watching. Looks like Stephanie has been real busy, she also did work on Wu-Tang: An American Saga which is another favorite hip-hop series of mine.

It would be interesting to sit down and interview a music supervisor one of these days. Im curious about the path one would take to become a professional in the field. I don't think I've ever heard someone say "im studying to become a music supervisor".