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. 

Contrast In Music
How is advertising music different from other kinds of music? The most basic tenet of advertising is that an ad must communicate a single-minded proposition (SMP). On the other hand, most music is built around some kind of contrast between multiple ideas. In the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven, for example, an assertive, bombastic first theme is usually followed by a mellow, sinuous second theme. The 80s power ballad almost always contrasts soft, acoustic sections with loud, electric ones. The pop song in general is a form built around contrast. Verses contrast with choruses and the contrast between them is itself contrasted by a bridge section (something like a guitar solo or a guest rap). Contrast is a big deal.

The fact that contrast is so essential to the Euro-American ideal of music presents a very particular problem for music in advertising. Advertising, as the art of the SMP, doesn’t really do contrast. Even the classic “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” campaign – a series of advertisements expressly created to present a contrast—does so by keeping every other element of the ad, from the set design to the camera work, completely minimal.

 So how, then, can music, an art form built around contrast, function within advertising—an art form explicitly centered on the single minded presentation of a particular idea? Thankfully, this isn’t as daunting as it might sound at first. There are some real world limitations within television advertising that make it easier for music to accommodate itself to the form.

  1. Time Frame: Television advertisements are usually short. Given a 30-second timeframe, the listener has less chance to become bored or restless from monotonous music.
  2. Background Focus: The music is almost never the main point of attention in a television advertisement. Audience attention is directed mainly towards the words and pictures. Less is required of the music because it doesn’t have to captivate a listener all by itself.

Alright then, problem solved. Since there isn’t enough time for an audience to get bored by the music that they aren’t listening to in the first place, one would assume that it’s all cherries on top. Just go online, find a free 2 or 4 bar loop that is suitably peppy or mellow for your needs and loop it for 30-seconds. BAM! You’ve saved a ton of money on the production budget. Right?

Very, very wrong. Even though musical contrast isn’t required in order to hold a listener’s attention, simple repetition is an unsuitable solution to the problem of music in advertising. Music that consistently repeats risks alienating the audience due to the psychological effects it can engender in a listener. The consequences of these effects are so serious that they can derail an entire project regardless of how good the rest of the creative content might be.

Gray Music
If you stop for a moment and listen closely to the sounds around you, you’ll probably hear several layers of ambient noise (air conditioning, computer fans, fluorescent lights, etc.) that you didn’t notice before you consciously made the effort to listen. In the same way that one stops hearing a continuously operating washing machine or refrigerator, listeners will stop paying attention to music that repeats without contrast. Grammy award winning composer Steve Mackey refers to this listening phenomenon as ‘graying out.’ I refer to music that does this as ‘gray music.’

Gray music, like our air conditioner, instigates unconscious physiological responses that reduce the amount of viewer attention left over for our commercial. It actively suppresses the audience’s senses and dulls their perceptions at exactly the moment when we want them to be most open to our messaging. It is wholly antithetical to goals of advertising and therefore is wholly unacceptable as a creative practice.

The A.A.F. (Annoying As Heck) Effect
If overly repetitious music doesn’t cause the listener to gray out, it runs the risk of antagonizing him. While Prince is clear that there is “Joy in Repetition,” noted music cognition expert David Huron is equally right that listeners who consciously perceive musical repetition tend to derive less satisfaction from it. Or, as Matt Lohr of JazzTimes said in conversation “ ‘unvaried repetition’ is a phrase that describes most of my least favorite songs.”

Overly repetitious music ultimately equals less viewer pleasure and less available mental space. Cognitive research like Prof. Huron’s shows that listening to music is, in some very real senses, an exercise in pattern matching. Furthermore, listeners will generally derive the most pleasure from music when they can subconsciously perceive the music’s patterns but cannot fully comprehend those patterns on a conscious level. Music that is too overtly repetitive, therefore, is egregious to the cause of advertising because it misdirects the viewer’s focus towards things that are best left to the subconscious. Any conscious attention paid to musical pattern recognition represents not only a decrease in audience pleasure but, more importantly, an obstruction to the audience’s ability to internalize the ad’s single minded proposition.

Next time on 12-Tone Telephone
What a pickle! Music with normal levels of contrast would be both distracting and counterproductive but, without contrast, the audience will either start to ignore the verbal/visual content or, worse, get aggravated. How do composers respond to the challenges put forth by advertising and create all of the great sounding music we hear in our favorite spots? Is there a set of common premises underlying the musical practice of contemporary television advertising? I’ll try to answer those questions next time, right after these messages.

[1] I did, however, just have a great idea for a Nike/Carpenters spot. Wieden+Kennedy, feel free to reach out.


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