Music Supervision :: The Art of Creating Iconic TV Moments

How music supervisors create iconic TV moments

Music Supervision was just recognized by the Emmys for the first time ever. Here’s how it works.

Music Supervision :: Creating Iconic TV Moments
Reese Witherspoon on HBO’s Big Little Lies, whose music supervisor Susan Jacobs recently won the first-ever Emmy for Music Supervision. HBO

When Susan Jacobs took home the first-ever Outstanding Music Supervision Emmy Award at the Creative Arts Emmys last year for her work on the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies, her win represented not only a triumph for the veteran TV music supervisor but a major milestone for an industry that has been instrumental in shaping some of television’s most memorable scenes.

Whether it was Sia’s “Breathe Me” on Six Feet Under,or “Zou Bisou Bisou” on Mad Men,or that infamous OC scene with Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” a well-placed song can amplify the emotional intensity and resonance of a moment, elevating it to fame.

And while a flawless pairing of scene and soundtrack can feel perfectly serendipitous, these moments are almost always the result of someone poring through thousands of tracks and spending hours working with the show’s creative team to find exactly the right tune, to say nothing of securing permission to use it. That’s the job of the music supervisor, in a nutshell.

But while other aspects of TV production that are just as important to storytelling — including costume design, makeup, and music composition — have been recognized by the Emmys and other awards bodies for years, this essential component of television is only now starting to receive accolades on the same level.

Outstanding Music Supervision

2017 marked the first time the Emmys have had an Outstanding Music Supervision category.  In addition to Jacobs, the inaugural Emmy class included Kerri Drootin and Zach Cowie for Master of None; Thomas Golubić for Better Call Saul; Manish Raval, Jonathan Leahy, and Tom Wolfe for Girls; and Nora Felder for Stranger Things, And while there could only be one victor. the moment was celebrated all across the tight-knit music supervision industry.

This was a major step in finally receiving attention outside of their community. The world now recognizes the crucial role music supervisors play in crafting the mood of the most pivotal TV moments.

(Also notable: Unlike the other music-related Emmy categories, like Outstanding Music Composition or Outstanding Music Direction — where the 2017 nominees were nearly all male — the Outstanding Music Supervision category boasted a much more gender-diverse slate, with several women nominees and a woman winner.)

The rise of peak TV has spurred an interest in and recognition for the job. There are now more websites than ever devoted to exploring the use of music on TV. Still, there’s a lot that people don’t know about how it works.

So to get a better sense of what music supervision entails, I spoke to many of the most distinguished names in the industry. We spoke about how their work has evolved, the ins and outs of what they do. And more importantly, why they think their field is finally starting to be seen as the vital creative endeavour.

What is music supervision?

Put simply, music supervision is the job of sourcing the songs that make up the soundtrack of a TV show or movie. In addition to actually choosing the music, supervisors are responsible for “clearing” each song. They liaise with publishers and copyright holders to obtain permission to license it so that it can be used legally.

TV writers themselves will occasionally build a scene around a specific song, like for The Office’s cringeworthy “Life Is a Highway” road trip montage. For the most part, a music supervisor works with a show’s producers and writers to come up with song choices. The best track will fit scenes, illustrate the emotions of characters, and help create the desired atmosphere.

Maggie Phillips, is the supervisor on three different FX series — FargoLegion, and Snowfall. She says one of the most important aspects of music supervision is the ability to occupy a character’s state of mind. In doing so, supervisors craft an appropriate musical palette by relying on a heightened sense of empathy.

“You have to be very empathetic to do this. You have to be able to put yourself in all these characters’ lives and feel what they’re feeling,” said Phillips. “You’re listening for a bunch of different people. Now that would probably be quite challenging if you don’t have a lot of empathy. That’s why I know I’m good at my job — I used to be empathetic to a fault.”

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