After These Messages:

The Yang of GCU:

Musical Style Shapes Brand Message 


n.b. This post refers to a commercial spot for Grand Canyon University that I cannot find online. I have seen it several times in the San Diego market over the course of Dec. 2015 through Jan. 2016. The music is the same basic composition as GCU’s “Find Your Purpose” spot, but in an arrangement for marching band instruments. An image of a marching band is also prominently featured during the first few seconds of the commercial. If anyone has a link to this video, please pass it along.

It’s that time of year again when high school seniors across the nation are looking at schools and sending out applications to their favored institutions of higher learning. While elite-level universities like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton generally don’t have to advertise (I did once spy some Harvard extension ads on a Boston bus) many other schools do. Almost all use print brochures and, recently, some have even begun to advertise on television.

Pedagogy 101

A good college professor will tell you that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but I think I’ve stumbled upon one:

Why would a college use marching band music in their commercial?

Because marching bands are college. College is marching bands. Marching bands signify academics because high school and college are just about the only places you find them.[1] This on-the-nose association between higher education and a style of music—the complete obviousness of it—is why Grand Canyon University’s recent commercial is so effective.  (more…)


Happy Diwali

Hello Everybody,

Although it’s been too long since my last post, I thought that I’d drop in and share some music I made this weekend in honor of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. I’ve only learned about Diwali over the past couple of years, but the images I’ve seen have been inspiring and beautiful.

The music is American ambient/EDM that relies heavily on South Asian sound elements. You can listen to it on Soundcloud.

More information on Diwali can be found throughout the internet, including wikipedia.

ATM Addendum:

The Axis of Awesome is Awesome

In our analysis of the Prudential commercial, we saw that its musical success depended on a divide between its changing musical surface and its unchanging musical “structure.” This brief addendum will, as promised, try to educate non-musicians about what musical structure means. However, I’ll not be the one educating you.

Rather than using a lot of complicated words to describe something that we experience very easily in sound, I’ll turn the microphone over to some people who’ve explained it far better than I could: The Axis of Awesome.

This video is, as Mr. Trump might say, tremendous, it really nails so many good things.

Here’s a bit of my own elaboration:

Most of the music we hear is based in large part on the harmonic and melodic principles that developed in European art and folk musics over the course of the 1300 year period from approximately 600-1900. As we practice it today, this music most often features a primary melody that is supported by a series of chords and is in a key. Literally, a chord is a group of multiple notes but, beyond that, chords serve as the blueprint for what will sound ‘good’ or ‘normal’ at a particular moment. Generally, a composer will change the chord every few seconds in order to make an identifiable series of chords. This series of chords is known as a chord progression.

Keys, chords, and melody build upon each other. The chord, more or less, determines what notes and what orderings of notes are useable in the melody. The key, among other things, determines what chords can be used and what orderings of chords are useable. So, restating from the ground up, the key of the music tells the composer what chords and chord progressions are available. Then, the chords and chord progressions inform what choices of notes will work in the melody.

What’s marvelous about this, truly marvelous, is—like grammar in language—that a relatively limited number of possible keys and chord progressions allows for an effectively infinite amount of musical expression—limitless melodies and textures, songs beyond number. The Axis of Awesome video illustrates this in a way that almost everybody can hear. It takes a single chord progression (i.e. a single musical background structure) and shows the wide variety of songs (i.e. different musical surfaces) that can be built upon it. Just in case you aren’t sure, the chords are being played by the piano

I hope you found the video and my small of bit of explanation to be helpful. The important takeaways, imo, are that a piece of music simultaneously operates on multiple levels and that the same (or very similar) structures can produce an infinite variety of musical surfaces.

After These Messages:

An Optimistic Solution

Musical Structure and Brand Values in Prudential’s “Optimism”



In my last post, we talked about the idea of contrast in music and the problems it creates for composers in advertising. Today, we’ll investigate Prudential’s “Optimism.” This spot successfully solves the technical problems associated with musical contrast while also presenting a virtually perfect marriage between musical form and brand storytelling.

Quick review of the problems

As we saw last time, most music works by generating and managing different kinds of contrast. In advertising music, however, employing contrast creates a number of specific difficulties. Composing music without contrast might, at first, seem like an obvious solution to the problem. Unfortunately, research in music cognition suggests that music which is overly repetitious or monotonous can adversely affect a listener and might even engender negative feelings towards the advertisement. At the end of the post, we were left in quite a creative pickle!


Prudential’s “Optimism” solves the problem of contrast in advertising music via the continuous embellishment of a static structure[1]. In doing this, it manages to create variety without contrast. More importantly, though, “Optimism” uses its solutions to tell its story. Its soundtrack deftly paints a musical portrait of both the advertisement’s specific message and the client’s overall brand values.

While you’ve probably seen it about a hundred times, you can watch it here. What’s great about the particular version that I’ve linked to is that, after the commercial, the video repeats the bulk of the music without the voice over. This will make it easier to listen for the important details. What isn’t great is that there’s a little audio tag at the beginning of the video. Ignore it. It isn’t part of the spot proper, isn’t shown on broadcast television, and is irrelevant to our analysis.


After These Messages:

Music and the Single Minded Proposition

The amazing thing about a great television advertisement (or even a not so great one) is the way that so many different art forms work together in the service of a single, focused act of communication. While music in advertising is almost always subordinate to words and images, it’s still a vital component of that artistic mix. Music helps give a commercial its context by defining a mood and/or creating a sense of place—imagine “Hannah and Her Horse” without those steel drums. Music, as we know, can even directly affect the mental and physical responses of the viewer. There’s a reason you don’t hear The Carpenters in a Nike commercial[1].

Music in Advertising

Being has not been given its due. We believed we had dispensed with granting transphenomenality to the being of the phenomenon because we had discovered the transphenomenality of the being of consciousness.
— Jean-Paul Sartre, from Being and Nothingness

I’m a Mac.
— Justin Long, from I’m a Mac

We understand that music is important to advertising, but do we understand how music works in advertising? When different art forms work together to communicate an advertisement’s single minded proposition, each member of the team must make certain compromises in order to support the others. Despite being great literature, the kind of writing found in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness simply does not and can not work in an advertisement. Likewise, not every approach to making music is going to be viable within the confines of a 30-second spot. Ad music is rarely going to be confused with Beethoven even when it is, in fact, using Beethoven. But what’s required to make great works of music isn’t necessarily the same as what’s required to make music that works great in a commercial.  (more…)

After These Messages:

What’s Thumbtack?
Rhythm and Message in America’s Hottest Spot

Abstract: Thumbtack’s “Do You Know A Muffin Man” distinguishes itself by using an old-fashioned jingle to present its message. While it does an undeniably excellent job at communicating Thumbtack’s brand promise, certain details of the music’s rhythm inhibit Thumbtack’s product identity from being efficiently impressed upon the viewer. In this essay, I will attempt to answer the following questions:  1) Why is it hard to acquire and retain Thumbtack’s identity 2) Is there an easy fix for this problem, and 3) Are there principles embedded in this solution that can be applied to future projects outside of Thumbtack?

Meeting the Muffin Man

As we enter Mid-June of 2015, Thumbtack’s new “Do You Know A Muffin Man” is easily my favorite broadcast advertisment of the moment. Its jaunty music, sympathetic plotlines, and friendly wit all combine to make for an engaging and memorable 30-second spot in which a variety of hapless do-it-yourselfers turn their small tragedies into small triumphs with the help of the professional service providers found through the Thumbtack app.

Based on my experience as a viewer, ‘Muffin Man’ is clearly an attention-grabber that does an excellent job at educating the viewer about Thumbtack’s brand promise. The situations the characters find themselves in are highly amusing yet also highly relatable. I can immediately understand the types of problems in my life that this app will solve. However… after three or four viewings of the spot, I realized that I still had little to no idea of the product identity. That is, I knew there was an app that would fix my lights, my deck, and my life, but I didn’t really know that it was called Thumbtack.

Why is this? After thinking about it, I believe that the reason it was difficult for me to process and retain Thumbtack’s product identity stems from some extremely specific interactions between the words and rhythms of the jingle. Please join me on the other side for a closer inspection of the ad and its music.


The Rush Job

The Rush Job

Something that I’ve always enjoyed while working is the rush that comes from having to work and perform in a high-pressure, short-timeframe situation. Facing (and thriving in) that type of circumstance is, for me, one of the great pleasures (perhaps even best described as a spiritual pleasure) of work.

So exactly what type of scenario am I referring to? I’m speaking of those moments when, in the face of an unexpected deadline[1] or other externally imposed temporal constraint, one has to perform at their highest level in order to produce creative and/or skilled work that is both reflective of their expertise and satisfactory to the work’s recipient. Although I’ve faced this kind of situation many times, the first occasion that I clearly remember is the Friday night, post-movie drink rush at Java Jeff’s coffeehouse where I worked as a barista.[2]