Film & TV

What Is a Music Supervisor? Understanding the Role and Responsibilities of a Hollywood Music Supervisor

Written by MasterClass

Jul 30, 2019 • 3 min read

Music plays a key role in film, television, and even video games—heavy bass can help set a nightclub scene, feverish violins can create tension, or pop music can place a scene or film in a specific era. Music sets the tone for each scene and creates emotion in viewers, and that’s why video productions have someone called a music supervisor.

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What Is a Music Supervisor?

The music supervisor is the head of the music department on a film or television show, and they select and license music for the production. Most music supervisors work as freelancers on a project basis, but others can be employed by a production company or a music-supervision company.

Music supervisors are relatively new to the industry. In 2010, the Los Angeles–based Guild of Music Supervisors was founded to promote awareness and understanding of the position within the Hollywood film industry.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Music Supervisor?

A music supervisor’s job description looks like this:

  • Meet with the director and producers. The director and producers will have a specific vision for their film, and it’s up to the music supervisor to discuss with them how music can contribute. The music supervisor will then suggest different styles of music to capture the correct feel.
  • “Spot” the visual media. This means the music supervisor will then go through the rough cut of the film or TV show and indicate there needs to be background music. The traditional spots for music are the opening and closing credits, plus scenes where music can be used to support the emotion of the storytelling. While spotting, the music supervisor works closely with the production’s composer to determine what scenes will need an original score, if they need to compose a unique theme song, or what scenes will use pre-existing music.
  • Select, negotiate, and license music. The music supervisor then chooses existing music or secures artists to write new songs or cover old ones. This includes navigating the maze of rights holders, intellectual-property laws, music licensing, and the public domain; if the music supervisor doesn’t do this thoroughly, a production can get sued for copyright infringement. The music supervisor also needs to keep within the production’s budget when negotiating music rights.
  • Ensure royalties are distributed. Royalties are tracked through “cue sheets,” which are lists of all songs used in a specific production. The music supervisor maintains the cue sheets to make sure all artists are credited properly and receive royalties for any music used in the production.

What Skills and Qualifications Do I Need to Become a Music Supervisor?

As head of the music department, music supervisor jobs are not entry-level positions. A few specific skills that make a good music supervisor are:

  • A wide knowledge of music and music history. In order to suggest music for any situation in any type of film or TV show, a music supervisor needs to have a wide knowledge of most types of music and their cultural backgrounds.
  • An understanding of licensing and creative rights. Music supervision is all about knowing the legal ins and outs of licensing music, including who gets royalties, who owns creative rights to particular songs, which songs are essentially unattainable, and which songs are in the public domain.
  • People skills. Music supervisors spend a lot of time negotiating with artists and record labels for song rights. They also listen to pitches from licensing companies and music-publishing companies (also called music publishers) for songs the companies want them to use. A music supervisor often has tight connections within the music industry. On top of that, music supervisors work closely with composers, music editors, music directors, production directors, and producers to make sure the music is just right.

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