Writing Songs for TV Commercials

More commercials than ever are using songs, many from independent artists and small labels. It’s a lucrative market that offers great exposure if you’ve got what they need. Advertisers look for songs that express the energy and emotion they’d like consumers to associate with their product.

Let’s take a look at three songs that have been featured in national ad campaigns for major brands within the past year. Listen to the songs, watch the ads, read my analysis, and then see if you can write and record something in a similar style.

The links below will take you to YouTube where you can see the commercial with the song. To hear the whole song, listen on your preferred stream-on-demand site (Spotify, Apple Music, etc.) or buy the song on iTunes.

SONG #1:  “Day to Feel Alive” – Jake Reese
Writers: Leon Palmen, Scott Efman, Jaap Reesema (Jake Reese)
TV Commercial: Ameriprise Financial

Watch the ad on YouTube.Watch the ad on YouTube.

The opening lines of this uplifting song describe the kind of person many of us would like to be – someone who embraces life through good times and bad. It’s a strong, positive message. The big, anthemic chorus lifts the spirits and invites the listener to sing along.

THINGS TO NOTICE


Song Structure
VERSES: There’s a double verse at the top of the song. (This is cut in half in the commercial). Even with the double verse, though, the song still gets to the “oh-oh” hook at :40, sooner than most radio hits.  For commercials, it’s a good idea to keep the verse short and get to the chorus.

CHORUS: The chorus is a simple “Oh, oh, oh, what a day to feel alive.” Songs that work well for film and TV often have a streamlined, very singable, refrain-style chorus rather than the big, complex choruses that are common in radio-ready hit songs. This one is a great example of a chorus with a simple lyric and catchy melody that runs through your head long after the commercial is over.

There’s no bridge in this song and no pre-chorus section, but there is an…

INSTRUMENTAL POST-CHORUS: Listen for the instrumental hook following the chorus. The rising line keeps the energy up and the optimistic feel going. 

Advertisers love to associate this kind of uplifting, energetic feel with their brand. Think about adding something like this to your next song. It can seriously increase your chances of getting a placement.

Lyrics


This is one of those themes that works well for commercials: Live life to the fullest; take whatever comes your way. The singer feels confident, even when times are tough. The lyric is universal, using folksy images – a king, a poor man, the world on a string. The lesson learned: There’s so much to live for.

The payoff line – “What a day to feel alive!” – is expressive and relatable. It’s the kind of day and the kind of feeling we all want to experience. Keep a journal or text file handy and jot down expressions like this so you’ve got a title or payoff line ready to go when you need one. For ad songs, look for upbeat, emotional statements about moving forward, empowerment, good times, happiness, teamwork, or friendship.

Melody and Chords


The verses have a simple melody pattern – two short lines at the beginning, then a longer line. This short-short-long pattern is very popular with listeners. Try this pattern in a song of your own or listen to successful songs in a style you’d like to write in and notice the pattern of long and short lines. Choose one and use that pattern for a verse or chorus.

With its big melodic leap from the verse into the “Oh, oh, oh” vocal of the chorus, this song easily grabs attention, leading the viewer to the payoff line. Keep your ears open for more of this type of wordless “oh-oh-oh” vocal. They’re extremely popular in commercials because they can add energy and emotion under a voice-over.

This is a three-chord song: G, Emin, C. To play along with the recording: Guitar players, put your capo on the fourth fret. Keyboard players, transpose your keyboard up four half-steps (+4).

Production

Finger-picked acoustic guitar introduces and underpins this track, giving it a folksy vibe. The kick drum is added to build  energy and strummed guitar emphasizes those shoulder-lifting upbeats. The “oh, oh” refrain is followed by an instrumental section with a synth line providing a hooky instrumental riff. It sounds like it’s being doubled with a human whistler. I think they could have gone with the whistler alone. The style is clearly Indie Folk/Rock which is very popular with brands.

– Try It Now –
Listen to the full song “Day to Feel Alive” by Jake Reese on Spotify, Apple Music, or buy it on iTunes. Choose an upbeat lyric theme and work up a song and/or production with a feel similar to this one.

Check out  Robin’s books at Amazon.com.
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SONG #2: “Be OK” – Ingrid Michaelson  

Writer: Ingrid Michaelson
TV Commercial: Traveler’s Insurance

Watch on YouTubeWatch the ad on YouTube.

This quirky, energetic song from Michaelson’s 2008 album of the same name has been used in  several commercials, movies, and TV series and is still going strong. The warm, unpretentious vocal and  syncopated acoustic guitar obviously appeal to advertisers and viewers alike, so let’s take a look.

THINGS TO NOTICE



Song Structure


The structure is unusual but broadly based on a standard Verse-Verse-Bridge-Verse form.

  • Verse 1: “I just want to be okay…” (repeat)
  • Verse 2: “I just want to feel today…” (repeat)
  • Bridge 1
  • 
Verse 1 with lyric variation
  • 
Bridge 1
  • Bridge 2
  • Verses 1 & 2 with lyric variation.

If you have a catchy, repetitive verse and want to start your song with it, this structure is a good layout to try. There’s enough variety to keep it interesting and enough repetition to create a respectable length. (This song is just under 2:30.) Another song with a somewhat similar layout is “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. Try using the structure from either of those songs as a basis for a song of your own.



Lyrics


These verse lyrics are universal and appealing: “I just want to be okay, be okay, be okay.” Simple variations (“feel today” and “know today”) move the song along. Keep in mind that the lyric in the bridge sections is a little more melancholy than most brands are looking for. (“Open me up and you will see / I’m a gallery of broken hearts…”) For obvious reasons, most companies don’t want to associate their product with broken hearts. However, the music track is upbeat, the overall vibe is sweet and quirky, and the bright verses can stand on their own, so the theme is less of a problem than it might seem. In the case of the Travelers Insurance ad, the lyric actually worked to their advantage. To be safe, though, I would recommend you avoid taking your lyric in a negative direction if you’re going to pitch a song to advertisers. You’ll have a better shot at snagging a placement if you keep everything positive and optimistic.

Melody and Chords

The melody has a nursery-rhyme simplicity to it while the repetition of short phrases gives it a catchy, sweetly oddball quality. It’s reminiscent of songs we loved as kids. This is a big part of its appeal to advertisers because, even though the lyric may have a touch of heartbreak, the melody evokes feelings of home, family, warmth, and childhood.

The chord progression consists of basic, major chords, underscoring the sweet, simple feel of the song. There’s only one minor chord – it’s in the bridge section. Using three-note chords (nothing fancy) and emphasizing the major feel reinforces the vocal’s childlike quality and straightforward honesty.



Production

The rhythm guitar strum is all about the “upbeats.” (Count “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and” as you listen. The upbeat is the “and.”) Upbeats literally lift the listener up. Emphasizing those beats creates a feeling of being not-quite-anchored to the ground and a little off-balance. It’s an irresistibly fun, happy sound.



- Try It Now –
Listen to the full song “Be OK” by Ingrid Michaelson on Spotify, Apple Music, or buy it on iTunes. Play this rhythm on guitar or keyboard and write your own melody to it. Keep the chords simple. Choose an upbeat, optimistic theme and create a positive, happy lyric for it.

Check out  Robin’s books at Amazon.com.
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SONG #3: “Walking On a Dream” – Empire of the Sun  
Writers: Nicholas Littlemore, Jonathan Sloan, Luke Steele
TV Commercial: Honda Civic

Watch on youTubeWatch the ad on YouTube.

Here’s an Indie Pop song with a hipness factor that appeals to young professionals and college students – exactly the market that the Honda Civic is aiming for. This is not only a successful ad song, it’s also a cool album cut in the band’s own style. Remember, you don’t have to choose between writing songs for ads and writing songs for yourself as an artist. Just look for brands that want to connect with the audience your songs appeal to, and then write a song or two that might work for those products.

THINGS TO NOTICE 



Song Structure

Here’s another unusual song structure. I’m not even sure which section is the chorus. Whatever this song is doing, it works. Each section is clearly differentiated from the others and each one is a catchy melodic hook on its own, giving the ad agency the ability to feature any section of the song or, as in this case, all of them. This is an idea worth trying in a song of your own. Create a theme and a mood with a repeated chord progression, then write a string of three short, catchy sections, each with a different melody.



Lyrics


The core idea in this lyric – seeking, looking for the next thing, discovering, going places – is perfect for today’s car commercials. It speaks to youthful restlessness and the desire to move beyond limitations. The idea being, of course, that this brand of car can take you there. When writing songs you might want to pitch to ad agencies, consider a theme that speaks to people’s desires and dreams.

Melody and Chords

After an opening instrumental riff, the vocal melody sits on the same note through four phrases, then moves between three notes, finally releasing with a jump upwards and a downward descent. There’s a build here, from static to motion-filled, from simple to more complex.
The four-chord progression is basic and repetitive but the track adds a repeated note that creates complexity, while the melody falls into easy-to-remember patterns. The chord progression is C, G, Emin, D. The repeated note is a B. Listen for it. It turns the C chord into Cmajor7 and the D chord into D6. To play along with the recording: Guitar players, put a capo on the first fret. Keyboard players, transpose your keyboard up one half-step (+1).

Production

In keeping with the “searching/seeking” theme of the song, the groove has a propulsive feel, a sense of ceaseless motion. It’s anchored by a steady 8th-note guitar strum and straightforward, clean drum part. A synth pad fills space. The production itself is surprisingly bare bones, something that could be handled in a good home studio.

– Try It Now –
Listen to the full song “Walking On a Dream” by Empire of the Sun on Spotify, Apple Music, or buy it on iTunes. Try recreating the basic groove on guitar or piano with different chords. Vary the rhythm, explore different ideas. Create a melody with an optimistic or anthemic feel.  Whatever you decide to do, make sure every element of your song and production works together to create a single mood.

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Something to keep in mind…

LENGTH: Don’t be fooled by the 30-second and 60-second uses you hear on TV. Your whole song needs to be good. Ad agencies are looking for songs that sound like an authentic artist or band, so approach it the same way you would any track you were going to put on your own album or pitch to an artist.

Also keep in mind that several songs have crossed over from TV commercials to the radio airplay charts. Hits like “Best Day Of My Life” by American Authors, “Let Her Go” by Passenger, and “Be OK” by Ingrid Michaelson initially built an audience via TV ads then moved on to radio success. So don’t toss off a weak second verse or bridge thinking no one’s going to hear it. Aim for your best.

– Try It Now –
Check out the following songs used in TV commercials and notice the lyric, melody, chords, and production. Choose one or more and write a song with a similar mood and energy.
•    You Always Make Me Smile – Kyle Andrews  (Holiday Inn Express)
•    I Make My Own Sunshine – Alyssa Bonagura (Lowe’s)
•    Technicolor – Tim Myers (Tide)
•    Beautiful Day – Joshua Radin (Subaru)
•    Best Day of My Life – American Authors (Lowe’s)
•    The Birds and the Bees – Patrick and Eugene (Volkswagen)
•    Fly Me Away – Little & Ashley (Kindle)

Listen for more songs used in commercials and study them on your own. So don’t mute your TV during the ads! Study them.

To find out more about what advertisers look for and how to pitch to them, listen to my podcast interview with Cathy Heller of Catch The Moon Music. Cathy’s songs have been featured in numerous commercials for some of the most popular global brands. Listen to the podcast here.

RELATED POST:  Songwriting Trends in TV Commercials

EXTRA READING: To find out more about the techniques used in these songs check out the following…

In my book Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV:
Shortcut 30: Major and Minor Chords: Speak the Language of Feelings
Shortcut 31: Anchor Your Song with a Fresh Melodic Phrase
Shortcut 37: Communicate a Mood or Atmosphere with Your Music
Shortcut 47: Write Universal Lyrics for the Best Chance of Success
Shortcut 52: Tabloid Technique #2: Use Emotional Details
Shortcut 67: The Best Advice: Train Your Ears
Shortcut114: Get It from a Pro: Peter Greco, former Sr. V.P. of Music at Young & Rubicam, NY

by Robin Frederick

This post is based on my songwriting books. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.

Copyright Robin Frederick. All rights reserved. Reprints by permission.