How integral is the role of a music supervisor in film & TV ?

Cast your eye down the standard credits list for a film or TV show, and chances are you will come across a listing for a ‘music supervisor’. It may seem like a casual, fleeting thing, but the presence of such a supervisor on a film or TV show invariably points towards the complex tapestry of music used in the production. So, what does a music supervisor do?

Words by Sean Wilson

Cast your eye down the standard credits list for a film or TV show, and chances are you will come across a listing for a ‘music supervisor’. It may seem like a casual, fleeting thing, but the presence of such a supervisor on a film or TV show invariably points towards the complex tapestry of music used in the production.

So, what does a music supervisor do? A film or TV composer will craft an original score, usually non-diegetic in nature, it is the music supervisor’s job to weave existing source music and songs around the composer’s original material. This involves a complex, demanding process of obtaining clearance rights, and clear collaboration with the key creatives is vital.

“A music supervisor curates the musical sound of the show,” explains Brienne Rose, the Emmy-nominated music supervisor for Natasha Lyonne series Russian Doll, and the Lily Collins Netflix series Emily in Paris. “The primary job is to oversee any musical aspects of the series or film. Typically we collaborate with the creator or showrunner, or the director, to establish the core musical sound of the show, build lists of songs for various scenes, and work with the creators to decide what moments call for music."

“We usually work closely with the composer on the original music, producing and managing any on-camera musical moments. There is also the negotiating and licensing of all music, as well as managing the music budget from start to finish.  We also handle many other details like spotting sessions, file delivery, and mix notes, cue sheets... It's a long and varied list.

“[Emily in Paris creator] Darren Starr knew he wanted a cool and collected sound for the show, something that represented both Emily’s perspective as the young American and the quintessentially French sound of Paris itself. So the aim was to strike that balance that had elements of an outsider’s perspective and the this-sound-only-happens-here musical tradition of Paris.

“The core of our soundtrack is very cool up-and-coming French bands; sounds and artists that match Emily’s position as the up-and-comer in her workplace with her fresh perspective and juxtaposing that against a city steeped in culture and history. We paired that sound with some undeniably classic French pieces, and vintage 1960s French elements that round out the voice of Paris itself.”

Randall Poster served as the music supervisor on the critically acclaimed Netflix drama The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya Taylor-Joy. He has also collaborated with quirk-meister Wes Anderson on the likes of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Concurring with Brienne Rose, Poster explains that “music supervisors help directors imagine, and then execute, a music strategy for a particular film or TV show”.

Poster says he moved into the industry out of a desire “to work with the best filmmakers in the world”. He cites the influence of George Lucas’s nostalgic 1973 drama American Graffiti, saying it’s a prime example of the power of tracked-in source music. “It helped set time and place and introduced a new generation to period music,” he elaborates.

Zach Cowie "I pick every song; I work with the composer, and I become the middle person between the director and the composer to help craft the score."

As one might imagine, the logistics of music supervision will vacillate wildly from project to project. This is down to filmmaking proclivities and the specific aesthetics of the film or television show in question. Zach Cowie has supervised the tapestry of music on the likes of Emmy-nominated Aziz Ansari comedy Master of None and he says the role of music supervisor “shows itself case by case”.

Cowie has also worked on the acclaimed drama Judas and the Black Messiah, which resulted in H.E.R.’s Oscar-winning anthem of empowerment Fight For You, and Jane Austen adaptation Emma, starring Anya Taylor-Joy. “On some shows and movies that I work on, I do everything,” he continues. “I pick every song; I work with the composer, and I become the middle person between the director and the composer to help craft the score.

“On some films and TV shows where the director is particularly musical, sometimes they’ll go straight to the composer and do that work themselves. On a show like Master of None, I do everything that’s musical. In the most recent season, we chose not to have a composer. Had we chosen a composer, I likely would have been in the studio for the whole of that recording. Some supervisors just clear the shit that writers put into the script, or the directors or producers choose. It’s a very malleable position. But I only work on stuff where I can pick most of the music.”

Alexandra Patsavas has won plaudits for fashioning a varied tapestry of music in projects such as the noughties-defining drama The O.C., created by Josh Schwartz, whose title sequence is graced with the indie rock strains of Phantom Planet staple California. She has also worked on the hit show Gossip Girl (also headed up by Schwartz) and the blockbusting Twilight franchise. Her work on the hugely successful medical drama Grey’s Anatomy, meanwhile, helped propel Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars to astronomical levels of success.

“In my opinion,” Patsavas says, “a music supervisor is one of the key creative roles on any series or film. That includes the cinematographer, the production designer, the composer, or someone else entirely. We’re all working together as a team to carry out the showrunner’s vision for the project.

“Specifically as a music supervisor, it’s about having that conversation early. The earlier the better, probably as soon as there is an outline or a script for the production. We have a conversation about what the music is. Is it highlighted? Is it going to be source-heavy or score-heavy? What is the balance? When does the scene play dry? When is it score? When is it score into source? We really talk about what the personality of the music is, and how it can contribute to the storytelling.”

“Source music comes together in a host of different ways,” explains Patsavas. “Sometimes it’s scripted. Other times it’s attached to the picture and the deal surrounding that particular song needs to be made before the cameras roll because it’s plot-pertinent. Sometimes I’ll send in several ideas before the right one seems to stick.”

Recently, Patsavas has been acclaimed for the richly eclectic tapestry of sound in Netflix's hit Bridgerton. The sly and sexy revisionist period drama, based on Julia Quinn’s Regency-era novels, blends enjoyably anachronistic pop covers with Kris Bowers’ lushly enveloping score to singular and spellbinding effect.

“I had permission to think about [Bridgerton] in a witty way,” Patsavas says. “The costumes, the setting, the casting, all of it was so lush. We talked a lot about instrumentals during that first conversation. Classical covers, as well as authentic music from the period. That ultimately resulted in the covers from Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, and Billie Eilish. There was also the use of Bach and Beethoven, Shostakovich, Sufjan Stevens.

“Soon after that conversation, Kris Bowers came on as composer, and he’s really amazing. It was important to [creator] Chris van Dusen, [showrunner] Shonda Rhimes, and [executive producer] Betsy Beers that the source music be seamless with the score. Kris had to do so much of the heavy lifting. He was tasked with making Bridgerton come to life through the music.”

Alexandra Patsavas "With regard to Bridgerton, we needed permission from Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Maroon 5, and others to clear the publishing from these covers."

“The clearance process is important, obviously,” she continues. “With regard to Bridgerton, we needed permission from Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Maroon 5, and others to clear the publishing from these covers. We worked on that quite early to secure approval that would allow us to move forward.”

When asked about the different principles between original non-diegetic score and tracked-in existing music, Patsavas says: “I do think there is an immediacy when the audience hears a song that they recognise. But there’s also something so powerful about an instrumental. There are these beautifully played string quartets, and although you don’t hear the lyrics, you kind of do hear them. They’re big modern pop songs, just presented in a different way.”

The autonomous nature of the music supervisor is another thing that changes from project to project. “Sometimes, I’m in the position of choosing the composer,” explains Zach Cowie. “That’s a very collaborative process. I’m working with the directors, the producers, the writers, and suggesting people who I think would do well with the material.

“Something that’s across-the-board in this job is something called a spotting session. In the olden days, you’d be huddled next to each other in an editing bay and we’re watching through locked cuts of an episode or a movie. It usually involves me, the director, or the showrunners if it’s a TV show. You’re sitting there with the composer, and they usually have a music editor with them, taking notes of this process.

“We watch through a cut of something, and we identify, together, where we think the score needs to exist. When we find those areas, we talk about emotional direction. By that point, most of my source music is already in there. That will maybe start to suggest tone and aesthetic ideas. I do like score and source to exist together. I really like having sound for things, as opposed to throwing shit at the wall.

“Once we identify all those positions, the composer goes off to their studio, sometimes with me there, sometimes with the director there, sometimes by themselves, and they start sketching out bits of music, which gets sent to the editor who then slots them in as something we’re all able to review. Sometimes a composer will hit it in one, and they’ll do a final mix on that particular piece of music.”

“I have a background in music production, so I love doing the mix,” Cowie enthuses. “Some music supervisors choose not to get involved in it. But I love it when there’s a big team with some of us doing the dialogue, some people doing Foley and sound design, and some people doing the source music and the score. Once again, a supervisor can do none of that, or all of that, depending on the musicality of the rest of the creative team. It’s really important to love the people you work with, especially now given that there’s so much content everywhere. You have to find all the joy in the process. Master of None is a project that I just love. On that show, I’m able to weigh in on other creative decisions.

“Another thing that’s worth mentioning: depending on the project, a supervisor can be brought in at different points during the process. Sometimes I get hired after something is shot. Sometimes I get hired when scripts are being generated. For Master of None, I get to be there before they even begin writing, so I can start shaping a sound as it’s being created. That’s so exciting for me.

“Ultimately, my role is to support the creative vision held by my collaborators. It’s never about what I’m listening to personally. The stories trigger something in me, and my ears then become a quality filter. It’s not a case of, ‘I’m listening to this at home, and it should therefore be in this movie.’ It takes a bit of an ego death to pull it off well. When I’m doing my best work, I’m sitting right below a story. I’m not dominating it.”

When it came to sculpting the musical identity of Netflix’s The Crown, music supervisor Sarah Bridge was faced with a host of complex challenges. The most recent season, Sarah explains, “focuses heavily on a young Lady Diana and the vast transitions she went through at a very early age”. In addition, the show allows us to witness “her incredible strength of character grow throughout the season intermixed with visions of her vulnerability, loneliness, and longing to belong”.

“I certainly did a lot of research around Diana’s taste in music and her favourite artists,” Bridge adds. “Working on a period piece is always a fun and explorative journey. We go on an incredibly emotional journey with Diana and sought to score this both with Martin Phipps’ sublime music and songs that felt true to her character.”

Key to the success of The Crown is its specificity, as it moves through singular periods in the richly storied history of Queen Elizabeth II. This allows Bridge to vary up the musical palette of the show to dazzling degrees. “I feel that music in a period drama is incredibly important in transporting the audience to a time and place,” she explains. “Whether that be by connecting to a specific year or in reflecting the social and political climate at the time.

One vision we had from the outset was to feature more commercial music throughout [the most recent season]. It felt like a natural progression as we step into the 1980s and the younger generation of the Royal Family begin to take centre stage.

Sarah Bridge "I feel that music in a period drama is incredibly important in transporting the audience to a time and place."

“This is exemplified with the introduction of notably more pop songs throughout the series, especially within Diana’s world. We featured music as both an escape and comfort to Diana throughout the show.

“Another example of conveying the cultural and political climate of the time is in episode five that focuses on the story of Michael Fagan, who famously broke into the Palace to speak to the Queen about the realities of what was happening to the working classes in Britain at the time. The Thatcher years were a politically explosive time in the UK, and I delved into researching music that played a strong social, cultural and political role throughout this period.

“Throughout this episode I was drawn to explore songs that invited the audience into Fagan's world and reflected the tonal landscape at play, featuring bands such as Joy Division, The Cure, and The Specials. It was really important to give authenticity to this period through music whilst juxtaposing the bleakness of his world, a disillusioned Britain against the richness of the Royal Family.”

The challenge of music supervision often requires the individual to thread the needle between gut intuition and deliberation over what will constitute the perfect song. Get the balance right, and a valuable added layer of meaning will be grafted onto even the most standard sequence.

“Sometimes there really is one perfect song for a scene,” explains Brienne Rose. “But other times, there are songs that define or carve out different emotional elements from a scene; they make you feel something unexpected, and those decisions tend to become larger conversations about the objective, in that particular moment.

“Do we want the musical selection to underscore what’s on the screen in a subtle way, or do we want it to serve as a counterpoint to the moment or the image? Do we want it to apply commentary on what’s happening, or stay out of the way and just add a touch of emotion? These are all constant considerations.”

On certain occasions, a band or a song finds its status elevated by virtue of its appearance in a TV show or film. Alexandra Patsavas recalls the use of music in teen drama The O.C., which spoke openly to the mid-noughties teen generation through its blend of humour, heartache, and angst. The show’s wide-ranging impact extended to its use of music, which crossed the spectrum from indie-pop to garage rock, encompassing a variety of different artists including The Beastie Boys, Super Furry Animals, and Death Cab for Cutie. Such was the success of the show that it offered a significant boost to many noughties bands.

“The show was incredibly popular among labels and companies,” she says. “We had so many amazing opportunities. We were able to debut Coldplay’s Fix You in a way that really stuck true to the characters and the story. When you’re telling stories about teenagers, it’s a great opportunity to use music naturally and honestly. I was often surprised and delighted by the afterlife of the songs outside of the context of the particular episode.

“With Fix You, we were able to hear the song early. I listened with Josh Schwartz and [executive producer] Stephanie Savage. The song was obviously going to be iconic. That was not a surprise. In Bridgerton, it’s been wonderful to see the Vitamin String Quartet pieces really take off in popularity, to see these pieces really resonate with the audience.”

If on the next viewing of your favourite movie or TV show, you find your emotions pinballing between euphoria and melancholy, exhilaration and pensiveness, consider the role of the music supervisor in that process. The rich seam of music flowing in the background has been carefully handcrafted and curated to surreptitiously bolster your visceral response to the material. As with any great film score composer, music supervisors face a contradictory challenge: their role is at once invisible yet keenly active, carefully masked in the heat of the moment, but extending resonance long after the credits roll.

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Sean Wilson

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