I live in Nashville and, up until about two years ago, have been writing songs mostly for the country/pop and rock market. As a student of the craft, and having been in countless hit-making classes and workshops over the years, I have heard mantra-like phrases meant to hammer home lessons about the elements of a “hit song”. When I say “hit song” I’m talking about something you’d hear in heavy rotation on radio stations.
Among these mantras, one that has always stuck out for me has been, “write with furniture“.
What does this mean, you might wonder? It means writing with names, places, images, and brands; anything specific to help people imagine the story and draw in the listener in 3 and a half minutes while they are driving to work and back. Specifics of a story, as it’s been reiterated countless times, make the song relatable. A kind of “theater of the mind“. In other words, “Show me don’t tell me“. (another mantra phrase)
But when writing for film, t.v and advertising, the “rules of the road” are different than the ones for hit songwriting. The people who are the A&R folks for film, t.v. and advertising, called music supervisors, are looking for songs with a different goal in mind than the people who look for songs to be placed on radio. Music supervisors’ primary responsibility is to pick music which will support a scene or visual on the big screen, small screen and the web. Since the actors are the ones tasked with delivering the dialog, they actually deliver the detail of the story (with the help of the scene writers, of course). And the function of a song is merely to support the scene and to add to the emotion being conveyed by the dialog. The song underscores, providing emotional weight to the scene. Or in some cases, helps the viewer understand a character’s inner feelings and thoughts more deeply.
So, what is considered a must in providing “furniture” to the hit song, is not necessary for the purposes of writing for film and t.v. That job is already being covered. In many cases, the “furniture” might actually detract from the visual. For instance if I mention San Francisco in my lyric, but the scene is shot in New York, then there’s likely a disconnect made by the viewer when they hear about the Golden Gate but are looking at the Brooklyn Bridge. Music finders for film and t.v. are looking for your song to support the visual with texture, mood, vibe, attitude and lyrics that convey emotion. In other words, not the stuff in the room, but the feelings inside when you’re in the room. The song is not front and center. It’s mostly the background and is ducked in around the dialog.
This was hard for me to get my head around at first, because putting specific physical details in songs has always been considered sacrosanct to the hit-making machinery in Nashville . That said, writing 32 lines of cliches isn’t going to cut it either. But real, interesting emotional furniture will. “How does it make you feel” kind of stuff. And being specific about those feelings.
For me, writing songs this way is exciting, and frankly a bit freeing because you’re not expected to pull people into the story all by yourself. You’re in service to the picture. The other thing I like about it is that you get specific details (for the most part) about what kind of music is needed, by way of scene breakdowns and genre preferences. It’s a much more targeted way of writing.
So when writing for film and t.v. don’t think “hit“, think “fit“.