3 Minutes to 30 Seconds: How I Started Writing Music for Commercials

By | April 26, 2015


This article originally appeared on Living on Gigging.

I get a lot of questions about how I became a jingle writer and how it’s possible to have a career as a songwriter and a career as a composer. Everyone who writes for ads has a different story of how he or she landed into the world of writing a 30-second film score. Here’s mine.

To start, I have two upfront confessions. One, I only have one career: I create music while sharing my process. The whole kit ‘n’ caboodle (composing, songwriting, touring, speaking, writing e-courses and articles, hosting apprentice programs) is what I do to make a living, to stay creative and wake up excited about my day of work ahead of me. Two, I’ve never really written a typical “jingle,” you know, like Folgers’ “The Best Part of Waking Up” or “The Joy of Pepsi” or McDonald’s “ba da ba ba ba.” I write what I’d call music underscores – the kind of music that you can maybe hum along to, but usually doesn’t have lyrics and is often specific to a certain commercial (versus an entire campaign), like this Honey Nut Cheerios ad.

After a lifetime of playing the piano, a double major in biology and music, and dabbling in writing piano music and a few lyrics (mostly about rainbows and unicorns), I always thought music was a hobby. So after college, I landed a job as a scuba diver for the USGS doing water quality research (in the Delaware River, not as glamorous as it sounds). After six months, I realized I missed music. So I started looking to write music for anything I could get my hands on, including a friend’s website’s landing page and several (terrible) low-budget indie films. Through a connection of my sister’s, I ended up getting a job as a messenger for a post-production company in New York City – the folks who edit the video content, mostly for ads. I became fascinated with how the whole process of creating a commercial worked, especially where the music comes from.

I started to think that if I had my own music recorded, I could ask the editors to slide my songs under their edits of the ads, in hopes that the clients would fall in love with them! So, I started writing songs, putting together a band, doing a few gigs, and finally recording my first record. Yet even with a mastered record in hand and a full-time position at a post-production house, it turned out that placing my songs in ads was harder than it sounded. After a year, I transitioned to a job as the assistant tech at a composing studio, also known as a “jingle house.” I had caught the gigging bug and performed around New England every weekend, and did longer tours all over the USA and Europe on my two-week vacations. Luckily, I was able to take extra time off for touring since the company I was working for was run by musicians and past performers.

While I was at the jingle house and not on the road, I started staying late, using the empty composers’ studios to write on whatever jobs were in-house. The next morning, I would present my tracks to the bosses, and they started to include my compositions in the batch of tracks they sent to the clients. And pretty soon, I started “winning” jobs.

Unfortunately, my “winnings” came at the same time my touring was becoming slightly more profitable and exceedingly more addicting. My second pop record was about to be released and I saw myself on the songwriting-artist path more than I saw myself as a jingle composer. This realization hit me when I was sitting in the composer studio, coming up with a musical theme for the cartoon germs that were infesting a cartoon toilet for a cleaning supply commercial. I thought, “Is this what I want to be doing, creatively, forever?”

Three years into the job, I left the jingle house and continued touring for another two years, until producing my third record. At this time, I was missing the consistency of working at a full-time job (read: money was tight!) and tired of the logistics of booking my own tours. I was at a crossroads: take on the artist lifestyle, or establish myself as a freelance composer, or get another day job? 

I decided to do the first two. And as soon as I made the decision to do both – be an artist and composer – I was signed on to score two documentary films and compose original scores and remix songs for CollegeHumor.com web series and parodies. I knew this was the direction for me: to be a “music creator” and not stuff myself into a single bottle labeled “performer,” “songwriter,” or “composer.” I decided to reach out to all the jingle houses and ad agencies I had met over the years of working in the ad industry to see if I could get on their freelance call lists. I put together a great looking reel. I looked up film productions that were still in pre-production (the time when they are choosing their team) and film auditions on Craigslist to see which directors were in the early stages of creating their films. I hired an intern. And I kept writing songs, booking small tours, and moving forward.

My favorite part about writing for jingles is that the fast turnaround (usually the whole process goes down under two weeks) caters to my need for creative diversity. I get bored – fast (this may or may not have anything to do with why I married a mountain guide). Working on creating a whole musical story in 30 seconds is ideal for me. Yet, I’m not going to ever quit writing songs, as there’s a level of personal expression in a song that could never be captured in a jingle. So, for now, I’ll do both.

Now, my benchmark for accepting a composing job is whether or not I get to help someone (or brand or company or film director) express themselves and tell their story through creating music. The partnership and creativity that results in self-expression is now the reason why I write for commercials, films, and co-write with other artists for their new records. Ask me in another six months, and I’m sure there will be different iterations of this, but it all comes down to self-expression, creativity, and partnership!


Cheryl B. Engelhardt founded CBE Music, a music creation and sonic branding firm, and has produced her own piano pop records, toured around the globe, has had dozens of TV placements and scored multiple films and commercials. Passionate about supporting musicians, Cheryl hosts popular workshops, video trainings, and other valuable resources on her website, In The Key Of Success. Get her free PDF for insider tips on how to make it in the music biz.

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