The Incredible Power Of Music

Music is perhaps the most powerful weapon in our arsenal for emotional storytelling.
Of all the components which comprise a great commercial or web video, from poetic writing to breathtaking cinematography to flawless performances by actors, music has the greatest potential for influencing our emotions.

Researchers tell us that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. They say, “Our physical responses to music are rooted in the brain and the way it processes information. There’s evidence that we are born with brain structures that allow us to experience music both emotionally and physically. And today many scientists are convinced that there is a biology of music, a hardwired capacity for musical appreciation and expression.”

Filmmakers have known this for years and have used music to evoke whatever mood or feeling they want to convey. Likewise advertisers have used it, sometimes masterfully. In many cases, the music actually makes the TV commercial.

But most advertisers have failed to exploit its true potential. Perhaps because of simply bad taste in music or more likely a result of too many cooks in the kitchen.

Aside from the creative team, which initially chooses a music track, there are at least a half-dozen other people who weigh in on the matter. And each has their own music tastes. In the end, it’s generally reduced to the least common denominator—a track nobody loves but nobody hates.

This shouldn’t be.

Without a doubt, music tastes are subjective. But there are people who seem to have a better ear than most when it comes to finding the perfect track. In the same way there are great DJ’s and not-so-great DJ’s.

Smart ad agencies and film producers hire skilled music supervisors/producers. These are people who have a very eclectic ear and a knack for finding a fresh, rare, and/or unused tracks with a great melody and hook, irrespective of genre. They listen to a lot of music and are generally well connected to the music industry.

A good example of how this formula is applied is at TBWA Media Arts Lab in Los Angeles, which creates all the advertising for Apple. They almost always have great music in their commercials, and it’s almost always fresh, new or pre-released music. They rarely ever use classics.

Using fresh, new music has given Apple and other brands the additional advantage of helping to make their brands feel fresh and new. Whereas agencies that typically use familiar music automatically infuse their ads with a sense of staleness. The exception being a song that is remixed or re-performed.

Often there’s a debate about whether the high cost of licensing a music track is worth it. The answer is, it depends on the song. A great track can add incredible stopping power and is definitely worth it.

To illustrate the power of music, we’ve compiled 22 TV commercials and/or web videos that succeed in exploiting it’s true potential.

1. Schweppes - Water Balloons
This commercial uses super high-speed film and a beautiful music track by Cinematic Orchestra and Patrick Watson. The music has an anthemic quality to it, with vocals and music building to a crescendo. It’s reminiscent of Phillip Glass, helping to drive a sense of awe and wonder.

2. Mercedes - Presence
This commercial is dark and mysterious, with music to match. The impending bass strumming quiets the room and then is accompanied by mournful strings, creating an atmospheric sound to match the visuals, which are stunningly beautiful. At first glance, it appears to be a trailer to a new film with Josh Brolin, then it’s revealed to be a spot for Mercedes.

3. Casey Neistat - My Birthday Video
This video by Casey Neistat is an inspiring piece. It’s mostly a time-lapse video of Casey’s holding his hand up to the camera, showing a countdown until his birthday. In some places we see him reliving moments from his youth by juxtaposing video of him from childhood. We get a sense of a person’s whole life and the music helps a lot. The track is Dull To Pause by Junior Boys, which has a very childlike and infectious melody, joined by an emotional, almost sorrowful vocal. It really helps make the video.

4. Apple - iPod Nano Video
This TV spot featuring the first iPod Nano video is about as simple as it gets. We see a stack of iPod Nanos being removed one-by-one, while a music video plays on screen. It’s a catchy music track called “1,2,3,4” by Feist, a little know music artist. After this TV spot aired, Feist was suddenly on everyone’s radar and record sales soared. This is a common outcome for bands who’s music appears in Apple ads. It’s a wonder that bands don’t pay Apple to get their music in the spots, instead of the other way around.

5. Guinness - Swim Black
This spot was produced nearly ten years ago and uses the classic track, Mambo No. 5 by Perez Prado. Even though the track isn’t fresh and new, it succeeds because it’s not mainstream and therefore has no baggage. The celebratory feel of the music and visuals together make for a really fun spot. One of our all-time favorites.

6. The Social Network - Trailer
This movie trailer uses a boys choir version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” which is both beautiful and haunting. The opening is most compelling with close-up images of people’s photos and Facebook posts. The music works because it’s an obscure rendition of a classic Radiohead song and because we just don’t hear this kind of music in a movie trailer. This instantly makes it stand out.

7. Honda - Mix
This spot uses a music track composed by J. Ralph, a world-class music composer. It shows the outcome of various things mixed together, then reveals them to be metaphors for the new Civic Hybrid. The track has an incredible melodic piano hook—just seven notes—that leaves you wanting to hear the rest of the song. It really elevates the spot, infusing emotion, despite the stark, clinical imagery.

8. Ikea - Lamp
This famous TV commercial, filmed by Spike Jonze, features an old desk lamp that is thrown out by its owner. We simply see the woman carrying it out to the curb with the trash. But we feel something for this inanimate object because it’s filmed in a way that evokes a sense of humanity in the lamp, and because it’s accompanied by very cinematic and emotional music. It comes together perfectly and is one of the more memorable TV commercials in recent memory.

9. Nike - I Can
This Nike spot was produced many years ago, but the music track still has great emotive power. It’s set to Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve, which is one of the more anthemic rock tracks of the last decade. The word is, The Verve experienced a revival in record sales after this TV commercial aired nationwide in the US. Which proves that commercials can be a powerful vehicle for driving interest in little known or under-appreciated bands.

10. VW - Big Day
On paper, this spot would seem ho-hum. A man in a tuxedo races to get to a wedding on time. We are lead to believe he’s the groom but later realize he’s not. Instead, he’s the bride’s true love as the she’s standing at the alter with another man. But, it’s filmed beautifully, the subtile performance are excellent and it has an amazing music track. Again, the music here is a piece composed by J. Ralph. It’s electronic with a nice melody, sampled elements, and a woman’s haunting, operatic voice. It’s hard to imagine this spot being as good with any other track.

11. Great Nights Start With A Phone Call - web video
This web short is about three attractive young women going out for a night on the town, and is reminiscent of a fashion brand film. It has a handheld, first-person feel about it. And it’s cut nicely to an infectious, dance-able music piece, which provides a nice emotional hook to enhance the story.

12. Audi A4 - Life
This commercial uses a super-catchy Nina Simone track, Ain’t Got No (I Got Life). We see various people and scenes, while looking out the window of a car, each person or scene matching the lyrics of the song. This is one of the exceptions to the rule of using fresh, new music tracks as often as possible. Nina Simone has such amazing soulfulness and heart, that it’s irresistible. Plus the song is one of her lesser known works, so it’s not overplayed. It really makes the spot. Literally.

13. VW - Protection
The classic spot, filmed by Jonathan Glazer, is shot entirely in slow-motion. The black and white imagery is breathtakingly beautiful and the vignettes are dramatic. The music, from Requiem by Fauré, is powerful, haunting and makes the scenes more profound. This is a really great use of classical music with sensational impact.

14. Nike - Magnet
This Nike spot focuses on Lance Armstrong riding cross country on a personal journey through various environments. Some moments are poetic, others whimsical. But all of them beautiful. The acoustic guitar and piano driven music helps carry this spot, infusing a sincere, from-the-heart melody, with light touches of vocals, as if a gospel singer is humming quietly. The spot has some nice emotional power. Particularly when we see children with cancer cheering Lance on, and a little boy riding a tiny bicycle, trying to keep up.

15. Levi’s - Go Forth
This spot uses a beautiful orchestral piece entitled Prelude, from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It’s about a small, rundown town in Pennsylvania, that needs to be revitalized. We see people going to work to improve their town, set against the Wagner music, which it builds very slowly with a layering of horns, eventually reaching a crescendo when the tagline “Go Forth” is shown written against the sky. The imagery is shot beautifully and the music is really elevates it.

16. Jaguar - XK06
When this spot launched, it was unlike any car spot on TV. It was criticized by some in the industry for lacking any concept and being more of a mood piece because it used pretentious fashion models and graphic design. But that criticism didn’t change the fact that it was memorable and stood out from other car spots. And music helped play a key role. The infectious track is ‘I Turn My Camera On’ by Spoon.

17. Saturn - Numbers
This spot for Saturn, filmed by Mike Mills, is a great example of a voice-over-less, music-driven spot that makes a simple point... you’re are not treated as a number at Saturn. The spot shows the lifespan of a woman through the years and how her life is reduced to a series of numbers. At the end, she’s greeted by name in the Saturn showroom. A simple yet powerful idea and executive wonderfully. The instrumental music piece has a playful, matter-of-fact-ness to it, then crescendos with a strong piano riff. Great, simple, emotive storytelling.

18. Sony - Cybershot
This anthem spot for Sony Cybershot digital cameras is a low-concept, montage spot, showing people from various walks of life snapping photos. The line is, “Don’t think. Shoot.” It’s filmed beautifully and filled with interesting, quirky or playful scenes. The music track gives it tremendous gravitas, with a track that makes you move.

19. Visa - Running Man
This weird spot for Visa starts out with a naked man running cross-country. We seem him traverse various terrains, getting help along the way (because he has his Visa card). In the end, he shows up just in time for his wedding and you get the idea he was the victim of a terrible prank and had to travel all that way to make it. The music track really carries the story with a driving guitar riff and great melody. It’s a bit hard-edged, which helps counter the expected stodginess of Visa, a financial brand.

20. Australia Tourism - Walkabout
This beautiful (albeit melodramatic) TV commercial shot by Bruce Hunt and Baz Luhrmann is about a corporate executive who’s life is out of whack, with her marriage apparently on the rocks. Suddenly, a ghostlike Aboriginal kid appears and whispers into her ear. Soon after, she’s in Australia, with her marriage mended and her spirits lifted. Yes, it sounds like a cheesy concept on paper, but it’s played well and the cinematic music has a dreamy, epic quality to it. It was composed by Nylon Studios and really elevates the spot.

21. Life in a Day - Trailer
This trailer features a montage of people from around the world and incorporates two different pieces of music. The first is a poignant, Phillip Glass inspired piece. The second is a pretty folk-type melody. You really feel the sense of global humanity and the music joins them together. It really succeeds in evoking some emotion.

22. US Cellular - Bunnies
This TV spot uses a super charming track by male/female duet singers, accompanied by nothing more than a ukulele. The melody is sweet and the vocal harmonizing is sublime. It really succeeds in infusing the spot with a lot of emotion.

23. Bonus: Jack Leroy Tueller
This is a really moving story about how an American soldier in WWII used music to disarm the enemy.

There are many more great commercials, trailers and videos, with great music. Perhaps in the future, I'll compile and post a second volume.


1. NPR.ORG “The Power Of Music To Affect The Brain"

2. The Power Of Music by Elena Mannes