CLARITY IS KEY. You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what it is that you want in the first place.

What story do you want to tell? How do you want to feel?

I made a really useful little pdf, a guide to helping directors get really clear when they brief* their music composers.

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It includes all the practical, useful, simple questions I always try to get answers to from any brief I receive, for any kind of media – film, theatre, television, animation, games, library music…

I work with the same people a lot (Red Star, Third Angel, Slung Low), which is pretty awesome mostly because they’re all groups of brilliant, creative, interesting people to work with. Part of the brilliance and awesomeness is that we’ve developed a shorthand for talking about music and the briefing process has become sooo much easier, simpler and quicker over the years.

I really want to make the briefing process this easy, simple and quick for people who’ve never done it before because, sometimes, with new directors for example, it can feel a bit… awkward. It’s not fair and completely unnecessary for media-makers to feel this way.

Here’s the problem: How do you describe music when you have no knowledge of musical terms and descriptions?

There’s always that moment where the director actually apologises for not knowing musical terms, and I have to reassure them that (a) there’s no need for apologies and (b) there’s really absolutely no reason to feel bad about it. I have to repress a certain Northern turn of phrase: “don’t be daft,” (most commonly used in these parts by my Dad) as I’ve found it not to be the most… sympathetic. But the point still stands. It’s nice for you if you know some music stuff, music is the best thing ever, obvs… but you don’t need to know any technical terms to get the right music for the job.

This fear of having to brief a composer when you think (erroneously) you don’t know what you’re talking about might cause a lot of you media-makers to shy away from the whole process of working with a composer in the first place – and obviously that’s the last thing I want. In fact, you do know what you’re talking about. We all do. Music is primarily an emotional language; the best way to describe it is obvious…

Here’s the solution: You describe music in terms of story. Emotion, tone, purpose, journey. How do you want to feel?

By the time you get to hiring a composer these ideas will (or should) be crystal clear to you. Clear as day. Clear as a bell (ding!).

This is as true for people with some musical training as well as those with none – in fact, more so for the former. Musical terms can be ambiguous. When you think you’re hearing pizzicato it might actually be staccato (I know, right, the horror). Then you’re mired in the mud of technicalities and misunderstanding rather than the actual job of telling and selling the story.

‘Build to a crescendo’ is another fun phrase I see sometimes (a ‘crescendo’ is a build – read: build to a build). But I won’t be facetious – I know what the people who say this actually mean, so no harm, no foul. Understanding another’s turn of phrase comes from working regularly with a person; my guidelines will leapfrog that early learning phase and get to a clear and precise brief, first time, every time.

I’m coming at this briefing process from a really selfish position: I want the process of getting music onto the film or the play or the game to be thoroughly enjoyable, for everyone concerned (tbh mostly it’s all about me having fun but, hey, if everyone else has fun too then it’s win-win! Yay!). Yes, it can be tres hard work; yes it can be challenging. If anything, it should be – that’s, ironically, often where the joy comes from. It does for me anyway.

See a problem, think deep, work hard, experiment widely (and wildly!), persist, find a solution, dopamine hit. Whammo.

The long and short: follow these trusted guidelines, and any frustration that might pop up is completely avoidable. If there’s any uncertainty in the brief, it needs to be teased out and a decision made to fall one way or another.

A single, clear vision

Furthermore, this process is even more important when there’s more than one decision-maker inputting their opinions on the music. Execs, funders, producers… all have a valid interest in the project and want it to be the best it can be. Nonetheless, the director or editor is usually the single point of contact for me, and it’s their responsibility to collate all the other input into a clear opening brief, and then do the same with subsequent feedback. If I find that other people want to feedback to me directly, I’ll still take all points raised back to my line manager – director, editor, or whoever – embracing these same principles. Clarity and consensus on these first and next steps is key.

If the director is really struggling for an answer and can’t decide, I’ll say which option I’ll work on first (usually the one I think tells the story most effectively as I understand it) and get agreement before I go ahead.

Of course, there’s always room for changing your mind if something isn’t working for you. Human beings are magnificently fallable and born experimenters (that’s half the fun), and the best creative ideas can come from trying out a brand new angle. But when something doesn’t gel as hoped, you must be absolutely crystal clear on what wasn’t working before and what new direction you’re now going to head off in.

I cannot overstate how important this procedure is. It always comes back to these same core questions:

What story do you want to tell? How do you want to feel?

Click here download my guide How To Brief A Composer. I also want to hear your experiences with briefing composers or anyone else in these arty/media industries – I’d LOVE to hear it from the other side. What can composers and other creatives do to make you commissioner-clients happier with the process? Please go ahead and email me here.


I’m soon to embark on a long (and ridiculously exciting, but I’m trying to reign it in ’til I’ve signed on the dotted line, you know how it is, fat lady and everything) project and will have limited time to work on other projects, however it’s far more likely I’ll be able to judge whether I can reasonably fit it in if you’ve considered all the questions in the guide!


*if you’ve got this far you’ve probably worked out what a brief is if you didn’t already know – it’s a document that outlines what one person expects another person to make or do in the course of their work. ‘To brief’ is to deliver that message, in written or spoken form.


My charity track The Key has raised £38 so far! You can still buy this mp3, from the Third Angel show The Department of Distractions and donate money to two brilliant charities that help homeless people – Crisis and Emmaus.


Photo: Flickr

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