When it comes to briefing a composer, the old line "I don't know what I want but I'll know when I hear it" won't help produce the music you want.

Many music briefings kick off with an apology: "I don't know what I want, but I'll know it when I hear it," is common. As people who attempt to answer such briefs with bespoke tracks, we thought it might be useful to come up with some suggestions that might help the whole process.

Most of you wouldn't let a decorator loose on your new home before choosing the wallpaper textures or paint colours that you prefer. Sure, you might ask for advice and a professional opinion, but without any direction or meaningful dialogue, it is highly unlikely that he or she could choose styles and colours that you'd be comfortable living with. You might want to let the decorator know that the carpets you've ordered are due to be fitted two weeks on Thursday, however, and to check that is a realistic deadline.

So why, then, should briefing a composer to come up with a music track for your new ad be any different? A composer is also a craftsman, skilled at musical executions and capable of working within realistic deadlines, but with no brief, or a useless one, very unlikely to do the job to your satisfaction. Going back to the decorating metaphor: the longer you spend choosing colours and wallpapers and consider how the decoration will interact with other features of your home, and, most importantly, the better that you communicate this information to your decorator, then the more likely it is that you will get what you want.

So, what are the musical equivalent of colours and wallpapers that you should be thinking about? Joe Campbell, a composer and joint founder of Joe & Co, says the most important thing he needs from a brief is: "What is the music supposed to do?"

Music has a unique capacity to communicate emotions and energy, to create a mood or set an ambience, to tell or reinforce a story. The brief should consider questions such as what emotions need to be communicated in the different scenes? How does the plot unfold, and how should the music reflect and reinforce that? It's good to give as much information as possible.

A composer may not be able to pick up exactly what's going on from one or two viewings of a film in a briefing meeting. It's particularly useful to pass on what the important hit points should be - there are often conflicts between what the client wants (eg. loud "ta da" on the pack shot) and what the creatives want (eg. loud "ta da" to punctuate the artful gag) and the composer will use this information to either submit a couple of variations, or attempt a musical way of reconciling the opinions with a piece that works for both parties.

It can be very useful to hear any reference pieces that may have been used as scratch tracks, as Paul Hart, Campbell's creative partner in Joe & Co, says. "It is helpful for me as a composer to know something of the commissioner's likes and dislikes, so that I might know what musical genres to avoid, or indeed, work within."

We believe that the brief can work best as an ongoing dialogue, with input from the composer working in a synergetic feedback loop. Giving the music companies a chance to grow with the project is great. Just having one chance to crack it seems crazy.

We are also fans of the open brief - or at least being given permission to develop at least one direction that might allow a more lateral approach. This is akin to letting the decorator loose on the new house with no restrictions - he may stun you with his skilful artistic choices - or not! Luckily, music isn't as messy as paint, and if you don't like it, you can just bin it and try another track. Composers love the chance to examine a challenge from all angles.

Recently, we had the chance to work on a track for the Jamaica Tourist Board with Mark Fiddes, the executive creative director for DraftFCB. We discussed the briefing process with him and he offered the following insights:

"Because music changes everything, you cannot leave it to chance. First, you have to respect that composers are smart people. As a creative, it's worth showing them what the brand is trying to achieve, even going back to the original creative brief.

Next, allow as much time as possible for musical development, bringing the composers in once scripts are agreed with clients. The earlier you start, the more experimentation you can allow yourself. It is here that a close relationship is essential between creatives and composer.

"You need to be open with your direction. I tend to rely on a scribbled-out 'mind map' of the influences, tonality, coloratura and tempo that I feel will be helpful starters. This allows for a free-flowing exchange of ideas before any distinct direction is followed. Thereafter, you must always be clear with your response to the musical development. If anything sounds wrong, don't sit back hoping it will resolve itself. It won't and the last thing the composer wants is a muddled compromise."

Mark's mind map and the result can be checked out at

The last point is how the brief should be delivered. We tend to get briefed by phone, in face-to-face meetings and, increasingly, by e-mail. All channels are valid and should probably be used in combination.

A written brief is extremely useful as it shows focused thought has been applied to the mission (hopefully) and gives something to refer back to during development. It's easy for composers to get carried away from the core brief on creative whims and a written brief is a good guard against this.

Peter Montgomery, a producer at M&C Saatchi, recently made the point to us that face-to-face meetings with creatives can be extremely useful to elaborate the brief, and tease out directions and thoughts that may have been overlooked, or perhaps considered trivial when they are crucial.

The best music briefs come from hard and clear thought, good communication and as much development time as possible. Yet, even with a great brief, it would be wise to allow for some trial and error. In the words of Igor Stravinsky: "I have learned through my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions."

- Paul Cartledge and Philip Jewson are creative partners at Yellow Boat Music.



  • The job of the music
  • Emotions that need to be communicated
  • How the plot unfolds
  • Important hit points
  • Musical genres the composer should work within
  • An open brief
  • A mind map
  • A written brief as well as a conversation
  • Sufficient time for development
  • Giving music companies a chance to grow with the project.