There is a lot of content online about the benefits and challenges of temp music, but it’s usually written by and addressed to composers for film and television productions, offering advise on what to do when you’re given temp music for a project, and how interpret it when creating an original musical score.

This article is little different. It’s meant to guide for brand and agencies so they can understand what temp music is, why it’s such a powerful tool in establishing a creative direction, and why when used incorrectly can doom a project to fail.

We named our company COPILOT because we saw our clients as the pilots. They knew where they wanted to go in order to get their message or story across to their intended audience. We just had the knowledge and skills to help them get there through musical strategy. And proper use of temp music was key to setting the best creative strategy.

What is temp music?

Temp music can also be called “scratch music”, “reference tracks”, or “placeholder score”…but the definition is the same. The “temp” in temp music stands for temporary. It’s music that is used as a creative stand-in until (in theory) the intended “final” music is created or discovered.

It’s music that already exists, and therefore can be used as a creative starting point or as inspiration for the composer. It can be shared as simple reference (hence the term “reference track”) or as part of a playlist, as a way to say “hey, these are the kind of things I like. If you made me something like this, I’d be happy”.

We do it all the time when we say “I want to get a suit like James Bond wears”, or “I love frozen drinks with those little umbrellas in them. Could you make me one of those?”

So if references and allusions to other things are so common, what makes a music reference any different?

Why is temp music so powerful in a developing marketing campaign?

(1) Music is hard to talk about. Even amongst music theory geeks like me, there are only so many distinctly musical descriptions. So why should anyone expect brand representatives and marketing executives to have the practical vocabulary to describe what they want musically?

When I started my career at traditional advertising agencies in New York, the creative teams responsible for developing the campaigns were partnerships of art directors and copywriters. The art director was skilled in telling a client’s story through visual style and images. The copywriter’s expertise was with the written word. But rarely was there someone managing the client’s “brand voice”… what it literally sounds like when communicating with its consumers.

I was lucky to serve in that role in the music departments of Grey, Saatchi, and BBDO, but most agencies don’t have music producers or music supervisors on staff. It’s even more uncommon for a brand to have its own Director of Sonic Branding Strategy.

So we end up with a lot of brilliant marketing minds, struggling to explain to a composer what they’re imagining.

(2) Temp music can serve as a creative short hand. Rather than asking for “a mix of avant garde electronic and orchestral elements at a steady pace of 80 beats per minute”, you can just say “something like this”.

And not only can temp music be shared as stand-alone references, they can also be incorporated into the edit while the commercial is being constructed. This allows you to get a feel for how the music is going to work with the visuals, and see whether your idea for musical creative direction makes sense in practice, or if you’ll need to try other genres and styles. All this can be done without repeatedly returning to composers (and paying them) for endless exploration.

No guesswork, no miscommunication, and a huge time saver for you and your composer, right?

Well, not so fast….

Enter the dreaded “Temp Love”.

Temp love is, of course, falling in love the temp music — so much so that any other options pale in comparison. It’s also known as “demo love” (since the music was initially meant for demonstrative purposes), but the “love” part probably isn’t the right word.

It’s sometimes more of a crush, an infatuation with the idea of a piece of music rather than a clear opinion based on merit. An editor may choose a piece of music and time their edits to its rhythm. You’re not judging the music. You may not even be paying attention the music at this phase of the production. You’re more likely focused on an actor’s performance, the graphic design, or a voiceover script.

But with every presentation, review, and critique you keep hearing that same track in the background. And every revision is made with that music influencing the edit’s pace and structure. Unless it’s completely the wrong direction, you subconsciously accept the music as the best fit for the project, because the project has been customized to fit the music. You fall in “love” with the music even if it’s not right for the brand.

And now your stuck with two less-than-ideal options:

(1) Surrender to the temp

This is the clearest solution, and not necessarily a bad one. If everyone is happy enough with the temp music, why not just use it and call it a day?

Well, just because you love it doesn’t mean you can have it. That piece of music we played earlier didn’t just magically appear. It was written by a composer — my parter, Ravi Krishnaswami. That’s his intellectual property — his copyright. And therefore he gets to decide who can use it, how it can be used, and how much to charge.

The art and commerce of music supervision and synchronization licensing is perhaps a subject for another post, but the main take away here is that moving from a commissioned, branded composition to temporarily borrowing an existing song is a huge shift in marketing strategy and creative direction. It should be done because it is what makes the most sense for your brand or current project. Not because you accidentally got the wrong song stuck in your head.

(2) Chase the temp

If you can’t use the reference (perhaps it’s too expensive for your budget, it’s being used in another marketing campaign, or the rights holder just doesn’t want to be associated with your brand), now is the time that you might reach out to a composer or music vendor to create something new.

Unfortunately, what should be the beginning of a healthy collaborative relationship feels a little like going on a first date after a heartbreak. You’re not over the unrequited love you felt for your previous crush, and your new relationship doesn’t get a fair shot. You’ve built your project to fit the temp music (consciously or unconsciously), and so any new, different ideas (no matter how brilliant) can feel like a let down.

So you give your composer feedback, gently pushing them to sound more like the temp music, even though (as I mentioned earlier) it might not even be the best creative choice for your brand.

Having to follow a temp track like that can be creatively limiting for a composer, and there is plenty of content online that points out an even mocks those kind of carbon copies in film and tv (the video essay entitled “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” is a favorite).

But one significant difference worth pointing out is that, in television and film, the storytelling is long enough to incorporate several references, even within the same scene. Taken as a whole, a composer could use those references to inspire a singular work that carries the audience through the story.

A lot of advertising and marketing content, by contrast, is often :60 or less. I’ve worked on Facebook and Instagram campaigns as short as :06. That’s only enough time for one temp track to be placed. And leaves little room to develop that reference into something more than just a poor imitation.

Even more important than the creative challenges of chasing temp music are the legal implications. Copying someone else’s work without permission is copyright infringement, and you are putting you and your company at risk for expensive lawsuits and penalties. Copyright law is a complex issue that is assessed on a case-by-case basis. But its worth pointing out that one can still infringe if only part of a work is copied, or if the new piece is not the exact same but sounds similar to another work (also known as “sound-alike” music).

Finally, a claim of infringement needs to show a “causal connection” between the initial work and the new work. That composer feedback we discussed earlier, where you were “gently pushing them to sound more like the temp music” is a clear indication of causation.

At COPILOT, we’ve turned down projects when the initial creative request was to “get as close to the reference as possible”. Creatively, legally, and morally, those projects are just set up for failure.

What Should You Do?

You could try not using temp music at all, but that would deny you all the benefits of creative clarity that we reviewed at the beginning of this post.

Some suggest simply removing all temp music before sending any visuals to the composer. If you don’t share the reference tracks, then there’s no chain of evidence showing intent to infringe. But I don’t think that’s the best approach either. Your creative partner is being denied key insight into what you think is the right musical genre and style.

And while they may be shielded from the excessive influence of the placeholder music, you’re not. You’re still enchanted by its charms and listening to it endlessly, allowing it to burrow into your brain and heart, and affecting your perception of any other music.

So how can you employ temp music’s power to communicate creative direction while avoiding the potential pitfalls of “temp love”?

Here are my five suggestions the proper use of temp music.

1) Share References in Context

Too often, the composer only receives the final selection of temp music, placed against the picture without any information about how or why the music was selected. They’ll know you like the reference track (otherwise you wouldn’t have sent it). But without any context, the only implied instructions are to make something similar.

Instead, tell them how and why this piece of music ended up as the temp. What other tracks were tried and rejected before you settled on this one? Did you try to secure the rights to use any music from a label or publisher before approaching the composer?

Describe what you love (and what you hate) about the temp music. And don’t worry about terminology. Even music professionals turn to non-musical language when describing musical qualities like timbre (rough, smooth, bright, dark, warm, cold) or emotion (aggressive, quirky, comforting, stoic)

Give your composer all the information available and let them decide what’s most important to their creative process.

2) Curate a Collection of References

It’s a myth that there’s only one “perfect” track for a project. And if you happen to find that unicorn, well congratulations, and prepare to get out the checkbook and Surrender to the Temp.

But in most cases, there are plenty pieces that could heighten the emotion of your story and represent your brand values. So why limit it to one?

Sharing a playlist of songs (in context, of course) gives the composer a variety of inspiration and influences, so they’re not stuck chasing a single reference. For example, if you like the energy of track A, the modern instrumentation of track B, and that weird sound effect you hear in track C, the composer now has room to explore in order to develop something unique that also fits your creative direction.

Having more than one reference also serves as an internal reminder that there are several potential musical solutions for your project, and as immunization against the development of “temp love”.

Finally, a curated collection of references is also evidence that your intent was to guide your composer towards a general creative direction, rather than to infringe on a singular work.

3) Make Your Composer Your Collaborator

Bring your composer in early in the process. Rather than hiring them once the the visuals are edited, the creative direction is set and the temp track is chosen, talk with them at the very beginning of your production. Explain the marketing objective, the inspiration behind your campaign, and the emotion you’re hoping to elicit, and let them help you brainstorm temp music ideas.

Your composer is probably going to have a pretty deep knowledge of music and could suggest new ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. Their suggestions will also be filtered through an understanding about which musical directions of feasible for them to execute, both creatively and budget-wise.

The best solution would be if your composer presented music from their own catalogue as potential references. If “temp love” occurs, you can take comfort in knowing that your composer can not only write in this style, but possibly use elements of their piece as creative starting points without risk of infringement.

4) Retain a Musicologist

A musicologist is an academic who studies music as it relates to history, composition, theory, and culture. If you’ve ever heard the term “musicologist” before, it may be in the context of a high-profile lawsuit involving claims of copyright infringement. Legal teams often retain the services of a “forensic musicologist” to offer a professional opinion as to whether similarities between two pieces of music are likely due to plagiarism.

In the advertising and marketing industries, once a music reference has been shared with a composer (and especially if an attempt was already made to secure the rights to that temp music), a brand or its agency may ask for a musicologist report to “clear” the music for public use.

Musicologists are usually brought it at the end of a production, to compare the finished score to the temp score and, if necessary, offer guidance on what changes changes could be made in order to avoid inadvertent infringement. It can be a frustrating revision process, especially when a composition has already made its way up the approval chain only to find out that what everyone thought was a finished production needs to be thoroughly reworked.

At COPILOT, we sometimes reach out to a musicologist as soon as we get a reference track and before we’ve even written a note. That way they can help to recognize and respect the copyrights of the temp music, and at the same time clearly define the creative sandbox in which we can safely play and develop new ideas.

5) Keep Temp Music Temporary

This is perhaps the best advice I can offer. As soon as a composer presents their work, start incorporating it into your edit. Even if it’s not perfect (and it probably won’t be perfect yet), use it in place of the temp score. The temp score, by its very definition, is meant to be temporary. The sooner you can move on from the temp, the easier it’ll be to get over your feelings of “temp love”.

Placing the composer’s music against the edit will immediately highlight what’s working and where the storytelling needs more support. Let those moments where the temp fits the emotion of the visuals better serve as a guide when giving feedback to your composer, but don’t go running back to your temp. One round of revisions may be all that’s needed to address your concerns.

Also, as a gentle reminder, part of the reason the temp music fits your visuals so well is because your edit was crafted to match its rhythm; the structure of your story was tailored to its musical arc. It could be that a small revision to the visual edit can achieve the same “perfect fit” as the temp did previously.


Temp music is a powerful tool in defining the sound of a marketing campaign. In the right hands, it can clarify creative objectives and opportunities. But when used incorrectly, it can dampen creativity and inspire little more than an ineffective copycat.

Hopefully, this post sheds some light on the best practices for using temp music in collaboration with a composer. And if you have more questions about musical strategy, COPILOT’s here to guide the way.