It’s often an afterthought but music should be at the forefront of the creative process

BBDO Beijing last month launched a music studio in the heart of its creative department. In this guest post, the agency’s chief creative officer Arthur Tsang suggests music is often an afterthought of the creative process when it should really be a central and integral part of the conversation.

Whether you know it or not, you love music. We all do.

Or more to the point, music and sound has played an influential role in your life since you were very young, a foetus even.

It has shaped your emotions and created associations with feelings so strong that we can instantly understand what playfulness sounds like in a Mozart composition, or danger sounds like with the imminent arrival of Jaws.

Even if we’re hearing a piece of music or sound for the very first time, we all seem to have a shared response to it, presumably owing to our deep neurological associations with like-sounds. Even if it’s music we do not like, we still react to it emotionally.

Unlike our eyes, our ears have been open since before birth and we can’t shut them. Hearing is the most pervasive, always-on sense we have. And so perhaps it becomes second-nature to link what we hear with what we feel and think.

Sound triggers reactions; music triggers memories. Memories that are surprisingly robust.

When we launched our in-house music studio at BBDO Beijing, I conducted a simple experiment among our audience.

I challenged them to be a kind of human Shazam. I played the first two bars of John Williams’ Imperial March from the Star Wars soundtrack using a kazoo and through tinny little speakers. Unsurprisingly almost everyone identified it, even before the first two bars were up. That’s two bars of a 76 bar score – less than three per cent of an entire piece of work, and recreated using entirely different instruments. And still everyone knew it.

Next, I showed three per cent (by area) of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and then… silence, until one very confident art director blurted it out, that is! One of the most recognisable paintings of all time, and it took someone who’s job involves knowing about art to recognise it from three per cent.

Music’s ability to form these kinds of robust memories in the collective mind naturally lead it to being one of the dominant markers of our popular culture.

Because of this, music and sound design should be one of the most important aspects of communications. And yet according to research by Radiocentre in the UK, less than 17 per cent of brands have any form of audio guidelines.

As all good creatives do, we know the process and path to completing a piece of work. We spend days and weeks pouring over the brief for big, media neutral ideas, and then we learn to bring them to life by visualising those ideas on boards and mock ups.

We have long discussions with our clients on layout, story, details on the board; and then we speak to production houses and directors who give us treatments, and we go back and forth on minuscule details like the colour of shoes or the length of an actor’s hair.

Only after the footage is finalised, when we get to the edit, the editor or director says he or she has found a piece of reference music to cut it to.

Music is almost the last thing to be discussed! It’s often an afterthought, placed out of convenience or simply because it works with the cut. That’s not to say it doesn’t work well sometimes, but very rarely is it deliberate.

Maybe it’s because creative teams still come from writer or art backgrounds. Maybe it’s because music in its nature is so subjective that no one is prepared to have conversations or make decisions about music up front.

The subjectivity of music is what makes it so powerful – every person is at the centre of their own experience of music – but also why it’s so difficult to talk about it. Most people are so unsure about their tastes and the tastes of others that usually music is agreed based on “I’ll know it when I hear it.”

If we recognise its importance in our communications, shouldn’t we be making music a central and integral part of the creative process? We should be educating clients and agency on its potential and building confidence in music choices.

It’s why we’ve built a music studio in-house, right in the middle of the creative department, and we’ve been involving musicians as early as the ideation stage.

The benefits are already becoming clear, with some of our most successful work being driven by the music quite deliberately – notably our Dove Chocolate mini-musical Rhythm of her Heart and our recent Mars Petcare Lonely Chinese New Year campaign.

We believe that exploring and focusing on our collective love of music can only be a good thing for creativity.


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