How Music Supervisors Set the Mood

Published on in Miscellaneous

by Jessica Nin


Randy Thornton, CEO & President of Warner/Chappell Production Music 

John Houlihan: Music Supervisor, “Training Day,” “Austin Powers,” “Vegas”; VP, Guild of Music Supervisors  
Jeff Lusk Music Supervisor and Sound Designer, Warner/Chappell Production Music 
Alexandra Patsavas Chop Shop, Music Supervisor, “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Mad Men,” “The Carrie Diaries”
Edwina Travis-Chin Music Director, APM Music 

Session Description:

So many successful films and television shows feature memorable music that strikes the perfect balance between what is seen on the screen and what is felt by the viewer. From haunting ballads to hard-driving rock and roll, much of this is accomplished through a mix of both production music and original scores. Leading music supervisors know how to work with both. In this panel of industry executives and working music supervisors, learn how the pros determine the best approach to achieving the desired mood for a film. Produced in partnership with the Production Music Association (PMA) and the Guild of Music Supervisors.

Moderator: What is the craziest music search request you have received?

- AP: I do a lot of period pieces where they want cheap music from that time period e.g. Carnivale (late 30s) Mad Men, Water for Elephants…

- EC: German punk rock band hitting iron pipes. 

- JL: Baroque Swan music 

- JH: It’s a creative business search to get the rights— like a detective uncovering all kinds of legal complexities. 

What is a Music supervisor?

- AP: Producer that deals with all music aspects (whether it’s a happy birthday song, Led Zeppelin track in montage, etc.) We act as an air traffic controller for any time that music hits the production

- EC: Our company is like the Music Supervisor to the Music Supervisors. (APM Music)

- JL: When working with a Music Supervisor, we tend to get more detailed / accurate description. Client might say, “we need something that sounds orange here.” You need to translate…get to the root of what they need. Whereas Music Supervisors typically have an idea of where they want to go. 

- AP: We sit on the creative collection team with the director. What is the director trying to get across in each scene? New scores, familiar songs? Lot of creative conversations… how can we speak intelligently about sound, which is such a visceral topic? Music Supervisor has to synthesize and give examples. 

- JH: For example, “soulful” is a broad team. 

- AP: Right, it’s all very personal. Director most likely has point of view of what he wants

- JH: I still think directors are most responsive to music he heard when he first got laid. 

- JL: Music takes you back, makes a connection in minds eye to past experiences and memories.

- AP: My clients are the creative for TV, films, but we (Chop Shop Music) are an extension of that, Music Supervisor is a go-between to two worlds that don’t always understand each other. (Film/TV and Music industry) 

- JH: Producer and director hate each other sometimes, won’t sit in room together by the end and sometimes have to work on parallel tracks trying to finish. Film editors are a strong force, spent lifetime to protect the piece. But you can’t piss off director, the film studio (Paramount or who ever), or the film editor who may recommend you one day. You really just can’t make enemies, so you can have the most opportunities to get hired again. 

What do clients do that is most challenging?

- EC: Someone who changes their mind. My personal philosophy is that I need to try and make the same film as everyone else. If they don’t have a clear idea, I need to get them to articulate with nuggets of information you can hang hat on and interpret. 

- JL: I like to include a ‘wild card’ track that is out of realm as well as their playlist. Sometimes they pick it and you save the day. 

- JH: They have to have a trust  - we have zero time to waste. I loves honesty with music houses who say, “we can’t do it- great, appreciate it. I’ll use you again.” Don’t give us 20 irrelevant things. 

- AP: Shoot schedules are so quick, especially in TV. More time in features, but never seems like enough time. Sometimes they tell you at 10 that they want options at 3 pm. As supervisor, you don’t want to send something that doesn’t work. We do call you a lot , every day probably. Quick turnarounds, feeling of urgency to help sort it out with the clients. 

True Confessions- worst disaster in career?

- AP: most involve a rights disaster since you need clear, ‘airable’ music. Calling Germany at 3 am to sign off on a paper they don’t really understand - those parts are definitely the most difficult. Artist may have opinion on violence, or not want to be part of project. 

- JH: On the 1st Charlie Angels movie, there was a scene where the S&M teacher got girls memorized, “hot for teacher” song or “pretty woman” by Van Halen would have been perfect. About to get his gardener to help slide it in. Once we finally had it, the trailer had a knock-off band so they pulled “hot for teacher.” and said:  ”don’t ever ask us for a song again!” 

I don’t enjoy clearances, but many times have to do it.  Like the control of it, knowing challenges to get song through. Love getting it for significantly under market value.

- AP: I deal with lots of clearance/ studios issue licenses. I reach out to rights holders, sometimes split master (it’s like a new puzzle for every one). Especially in TV doing them helps a great deal, assured that all pieces are together on Mix today and all cleared.


How do you go about your music searches?

- EC: In searches internally, we have a search engine, but it’s a combination of that and tons of library / memorization, and my personal background. Because I understand the catalog, I might find things you might not have found initially. 

- JL: We use searches and some others as a palette cleanser. I have the passion, since musician background. I employ keywords, but it’s about digging deeper to the tangible. 

- AP: we have our own system in-house. For example, the Carrie Diaries finale (1980s) internal tagging helped us find music that could be from that time period, or sounds like it could have been from there. 

- JH: We use search engines quite a bit. Sometimes I worry because if somebody saw my searches, they think I was like a mental patient because I scoured through like, 900 Dominican Republican songs at 2 a.m. 

How important is the meta data?

- JH: I won’t use data that has meta data that is weak or irrelevant. 

- EC: Need the ability to trust meta data and what kind of mood does that set? How is that piece of music support the production objective?

- AP: We are enhancing the picture, we are paired with the picture (a companion piece for that fan to experience it later), so it can never be taken away from the discussion. Even if meta data matches exactly, unless the piece works, it’s less relevant than finding that perfect thing. Then you have to pitch them to editor / producer  / director while they judge it. 

- JH: Most scenes need help; they are weak, director didn’t get what they want. Sometimes it’s a very specific ‘magical’ song that will crack the code and bring piece to life. 

- AP: Always interesting when you need silence. Interesting choice.

- AP: Production libraries afford a great service

- EC: If they show you something they like, you need to analyze why they liked it: energy, tempo?

- JH: I like sound-alikes in keyword search. 


What would you change about the line of work?

- JH: If I could change anything, I would get healthcare and pension, treated like every other craftsperson. The guy who brings in donuts does, but we don’t. 

- AP: Guild recognition for the craft would be nice. Last 10 years have been become more far-reaching (we have a label now as well) with more producers interested in introducing songs. 

- EC: Love this job. We deal with ad agencies, corporate video, the whole gamut. There needs to be better bridge explaining and educating that process to those types of clients.

- JL:  With ad clients, they are more concerned with visual aspect. Music is almost the last thing considered. And then budget scaled back.

- JH: I disrespect producers when they don’t protect the music producers. They decide mid-production that they want $1 million of music for $100K, they sure don’t do that in middle of production with the camera ops! But they do it to us. 

Those are the features that stand the test of time: the ones who spend the money and time on music. But now it’s people with spreadsheets who make final call unfortunately, and it’s taking away from all that. 

How do you deal with Temp Love?

AP: Echo, that was a great score from American beauty. Bittersweet symphony, groundbreaking legal case on how rights were worked out. It’s almost impossible to clear, but in lots of temps. Those are ones that really speak to directors but we can’t use because of rights issues.

- JH: Mr. Holland’s Opus- that was like nominating someone for supreme court, you can put it out there, but can’t promise or get excited anything.

- JH: Young composers need to find young filmmaker and the director needs to fight for them.  Put your stuff out there, etc. 


Walk away from re-titling. In world of messiness, our entire job is to make things clear and tight. Don’t want 5 people shopping your music. 

Gratis License?

- AP: I don’t believe in the gratis license. We should pay for it, no matter how small amount it is. 

- JH: Yeah, there are a few free libraries that none of us want to support.

images courtesy of: ProductionHUB & Google

ProductionHUB ProductionHUB Logo

Related Blog Posts