“And if you had no music, just some low notes going on in the background, it’s very unsettling. That might illuminate that somebody has hidden intentions.”
When music is used to highlight hidden context, “you’re not meant to notice the music and then think about it”, he added. “It’s supposed to go straight to your amygdala and then you instinctively realise something’s going on here (in the scene).”
A similar understanding applies to commercials, where music can be used to tap into a psychological desire. For example, cars that are marketed to men “tend to use heavy rock guitar, because for a long time, the guitar was a very gendered instrument”, said Mr Li.
“So when you hear it, you think of (the car) as being masculine. And men who want to feel masculine might gravitate towards that. So it’s a matter of understanding your audience.”
But pinpointing the perfect track often requires asking a lot of questions because then clients are “forced to clarify their needs and intent”, he added.
“If they say they want it to sound upbeat, there are many styles of music that are upbeat. That’s not specific enough for me. Do you mean upbeat in the sense of playful? Do you mean upbeat in the sense of high energy like we’re having a party? And if we’re having a party, is it the kind where you have a mosh pit or where you’re partying in a nightclub?” he explained.
“Asking those questions helps me to narrow down the style, the energy, the instrumentation.”
Mr Li didn’t always ask many questions, however. He highlighted one of his first few advertising projects – a Kinder Bueno TV commercial that was a remake of its original version – where he felt the brief was “possibly incorrect or not ideal”. Nothing he tried felt right, so he submitted two soundtracks in the end.
The first was a demo of house music based on their brief, while the second was “based on my understanding of what the video was conveying”.
While doing his research, Mr Li realised there was “Latin influence” in the music for the original version of the commercial. It added to the sensual undertones of the commercial, which depicted a girl enjoying her Kinder Bueno chocolate bar while other shoppers looked on.
“It was kind of voyeuristic … There was something inherently, shall we say, passionate about that. So I decided to incorporate more Latin influences and used tango instead, which was nothing like (the brief) they had sent me. And they ended up going for it,” he said.
The experience taught him that “sometimes, you have to think really hard about what the client actually needs rather than what they tell you”, he added.
“Because if you just do what they tell you, I’ve learned that that’s a recipe for a lot of frustration, because they’re also relying on you for your interpretation and expertise. You’re not just a factory.”