by John Pellegrini
I've always considered myself something of a music expert, not necessarily from a composer's point of view, but as a musician (somewhat retired). For a while there, I was even something of an elitist with regards to my preferences and judgments of performances. Now I just dig the jams, man. But I still find myself critical of poor performances of music, especially in the area of jingles.
Perhaps the most overused and poorly done category of advertising is the jingle. For a while there it seemed any music school dropout with a Casio and a boom box could consider himself or herself to be a jingle writer. Fortunately, most of those types are seldom heard outside of small and extremely small markets. But, now that I have tapes coming in from larger markets, I'm discovering even greater dissatisfaction from the jingle packages I hear. The problem is not in the production values, obviously. In fact, many of these jingle demos, from a production standpoint, sound even better than much of the regular music on our play list. The problems lie with the compositions themselves.
It all comes down to the song, the melody. How memorable is it? When a jingle works the way it's supposed to work, you can instantly recall it after you've heard it; i.e., "It's Always Coca Cola." Even when you read the line "It's Always Coca Cola," you hear the music and the singer. Ditto Coke's other jingles of the past. Try some of these other jingle lines and see how well you recall the tunes:
"When you say Budweiser, you've said it all."
"You deserve a break today...." (McDonalds)
"I am stuck on Band Aids Brand, 'cause Band Aid's stuck on me."
"Hot dogs, Armour hot dogs. What kind of kid eats Armour hot dogs?"
I could go on, but you get the drift. Did you notice that except for the Coke jingle, not one of these jingles has been used in the last ten years? Yet we still remember them. Why? Why is it that one tune will stay with us for decades while others are so forgettable?
Two reasons: Simplicity and repetition. Most of those jingles have no more than five or six notes, total. Most of the time it's even less. Then the composer merely repeats them, perhaps reverses them, and if they deviate for a bridge or interlude, they simply transpose the pattern into another key. The best and most memorable jingles are about as simplistic as composing can get.
That's the secret. That's what makes a jingle memorable. Just like "Do, a deer, a female deer," it's as simplistic as children's music. Think of all the most memorable music, even Classical, and that principle of five or six notes total still applies. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony starts with two notes (the first one repeated three times), then it is transposed to a different key. Everyone knows it. Everyone can instantly identify it. The famous "Ode to Joy" theme of his Ninth Symphony is exactly five notes, excluding repetitions: F sharp, G, A, E and D. The Close Encounter's alien theme is four notes. One's an octave, so it doesn't count: B flat, C, A, (an octave), E. The most memorable tunes of our life are almost always less than six notes total. Of course, in Classical and other music, the composer goes on to add considerably more notes than five or six, but remember, there's only twelve notes total in the scale. And no matter how hard you try, you're going to lose the tune if you try to get them all in sixty seconds!
For a jingle to work the tune must be memorable! Otherwise, you've lost the purpose of the jingle, TO MAKE THE LISTENER REMEMBER THE CLIENT'S PRODUCTS! But so many jingles are written as though the composer was trying to cram everything he or she learned in jazz school into sixty seconds that they become a tuneless mess. I've heard jingles that don't even establish one single theme! Nothing but half tone scales going to off time signatures, then even changing genres of music before they're done! What's worse, I actually received a demo a few years ago where the guitar player was noticeably out of tune from the rest of the musicians! They wanted me to recommend their services to our clients based on that example?!?!
Even the most unmusical people in the universe who can't even carry a tune can remember a simple song. They may not get all the notes in the correct pitch, but they'll know it when they hear it. And when it's connected to catchy and, again, simple lyrics, it will remind them of the product. That's the other problem I have with jingles. Just because you've figured out a way to rhyme all the client's services does not make it memorable. The jingle lyric, more than any other type of advertising, must rely solely on the emotional reason for the purchase. Music is emotional. Music, when memorable, reminds us of emotions we've experienced.
Here's an example of what goes wrong with many jingle lyrics. Try singing any standard auto dealership's lease program disclaimer to any music bed in your production library. Does this stir you to feel good about the car? Do you envision a classroom full of kids singing along? That, ultimately, should be your test question for any jingle: will kids sing along with this song? Because, if kids can remember the tune, anyone can, and you've got a good jingle.
Yes, jingles should be to composition what etch-a-sketch is to art. Jingles should be as simplistic as possible and should thoroughly suppress the composer's artistic capacity. Sorry if that upsets you iconoclastic types, but jingles are not about your personal musical tastes. They're about memory and making the music, as well as the product, memorable. You may disagree here, but jingles are not the place to break new musical ground. Besides, why would you want to limit your innovative musical ideas to less than sixty seconds? Perhaps that sounds a bit silly, but when I listen to some of these jingle demos I get, I truly come away with a sense that the composer was trying to achieve exactly that, a compositional breakthrough. Expanding your horizons beyond the twelve tone scale isn't going to sell beer, kids...although we may need the beer to get over the performance.
Some of the finest composers, as great as their musical abilities can be, are lousy jingle writers because they cannot break free of their own creativity mind-trap. (How's that for a heavy philosophical riff?) Jingles should be treated as a style of music all unto their own. Just as Jazz is not Classical which is not Country which is not Folk which is not a March, so, too, is the Jingle a separate category of music. Yes, you can borrow from different styles and genres into each category, but each has its own voice, its own sound.
Let me also make this clear. I'm not downplaying the abilities of jingle writers as composers, either. Good jingle writers are as gifted in composition as any other composers. This person who came up with those jingles like "Always Coca Cola" and the others are as much a group of musical geniuses as the best composers in the other categories. All Classical composers understood the necessity of the recurring theme. Name any famous tune that doesn't have a familiar melody or, as we say in the word game, a catch phrase of music. I have the same respect for a good jingle as I do for a good symphony. Both are well-crafted pieces of music. One's a little shorter than the other (ouch), but when done properly, they both make significant musical statements. As long as you never forget the purpose of each and don't confuse one with the other, everything should be fine and nobody has to get hurt.
As Peter Schickele always says, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quoi".
P.S. If you want to hear a truly fantastic jingle package demo, call my good friends, Dennis Daniel and Steve Morrison, at One On One Productions. Not only are these guys great and affordable (!) jingle creators, they also pay well for shameless plugs by fellow RAP writers. God Bless America.