How TV Shows Find the Perfect Song

MARCH 30, 2020
Man with headphones looking through records for TV songs.

Television shows are full of music moments that become iconic thanks to the perfect song choice. Tracks like Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" from The O.C. and Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" from The Sopranos contributed to unforgettable moments that we still talk about. So how do TV songs make it from an artist's album to our screens?

Who chooses TV songs?

First, you should know there's a difference between score and licensed music used in TV shows. A score is original music written specifically for a television show or film. Next time you watch an episode of your favorite show, listen for repeated instrumentals or musical cues. These are often the work of the show's composer and are featured throughout the entire series.

Selecting and licensing pre-existing music is done by a show's music supervisor. They collaborate with the showrunner and writers to find songs that fit the emotion and arc of a scene. In some cases, a writer crafts a scene around a specific track, but most often it's up to the music supervisor to find the perfect song.

"More than anything, the music supervisor is a part of the creative team that . . . in most cases we are really carrying out [the showrunner's] vision," music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas told the AV Club. "A big part of this job is licensing things, obtaining rights, and those rights are very specific."

How is music chosen for scenes?

Every production is different, but usually the music supervisor will meet with the showrunner and creative team in the beginning of a season to discuss the themes, character arcs, and major plotlines of the year. Then the supervisor will start searching for songs they think fit the tone of the show.

"You have to be very empathetic to do this, because you have to be able to put yourself in all these characters' lives and feel what they're feeling," music supervisor Maggie Phillips told Vox. "You're listening for a bunch of different people, and that would probably be challenging be if you don't have a lot of empathy."

So do music supervisors just scour Spotify playlists and listen to the radio? Yes, but there is a lot more to it than that. Established supervisors have relationships with labels and music industry insiders, who send them songs and material from emerging artists. They also discover new talent through social media, live shows, and like most of us, recommendations from friends.

Once the scripts are written and delivered, the music supervisor takes the potential songs they've banked, decides which one best fits the scene, and starts the clearing process. This often involves explaining the scene the song will be used in and contacting the copyright holders (songwriters and publisher) for permission and licensing information. While this sounds pretty straightforward, there can be a lot of back and forth between the music supervisor and the copyright holders. In the case of "Don't Stop Believing" in The Sopranos, Journey lead singer Steve Perry held out for weeks before allowing the show to use his song in the show's final scene.

Another major factor in choosing TV songs is budget. How regularly do you hear a current chart topping hit on your favorite TV show? Probably not often because licensing fees are high for hit songs and popular artists. You're more likely to hear up-and-coming bands, indie singer-songwriters, and unsigned acts because their fees are smaller and their songs can be easier to clear.

The right song can turn a good scene into an unforgettable TV moment. Next time see a perfect mashup on screen, you'll know all the work that went into creating it.

For more on how TV shows and movies come together, check out our articles Special Effects Makeup in Film and What Does a Location Scout Do?

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By Meghan Dubitsky

Article Category:

Industry Essentials