A man smiles into the camera.

Sean Hayden breaks down the mystery behind making music for TV

Sean Hayden has been playing music all of his life. But it took a Craigslist posting for him to turn it into a career. The Vancouver native asked a friend how he’d gotten into composing. The friend’s advice? Look for another composer who needed help. A day later, he spotted exactly that on Craigslist.

Now, Hayden is putting music to television ads for Interac, Nissan, Bell, The Keg and Blue Ant Media’s upcoming animated series, Gary and his Demons.

We spoke to Sean Hayden about composing and collaborating with others.

You literally fell into this job because of Craigslist. Are you still pinching yourself?
Sean Hayden: Yeah. It’s bizarre that that happened. A bit of a Twilight Zone moment.

Give me a little bit about your background, Sean. Has music always been a part of your life?
SH: Yeah. For me, music was something I just knew I wanted to do when I was seven or eight years old. My dad is a pilot and when he was three years old, he was the same way when it came to piloting, which is crazy at that young an age.

He just knew he wanted to be a pilot. For me, it wasn’t necessarily composing. It was just about wanting to do music. I don’t know the exact path I’d end up being in music then at seven or eight years old. I just knew I wanted it to be just what I did for the rest of my life. I had a fortunate upbringing where I was in a place and circumstances where I could focus a lot on music most of the time. I still had a normal childhood, obviously. I was from the West Coast in Vancouver, so I grew up doing a lot of mountain biking and snowboarding and stuff like that. But when I wasn’t doing that, I was playing music.

Did you play in bands in high school? Was there a Vancouver club scene that you played in?
SH: In high school, where I grew up was in an area called White Rock in Surrey. Every day from Grade 8 until 12, I was doing both jazz band and concert band. I was doing music basically for most of those years for at least two hours a day. That was huge. And then we had what we called combo groups outside of the normal school hours through there. Then I played in some garage rock bands just for fun on the side as well. It was just always there for me. it was a little incubator. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time.

I got a copy of your reel and went through it. When Peter Dinklage pops up on screen it’s like, ‘Wow, OK, that’s a pretty cool gig.’ You’ve worked on ads for Ford, for Nissan, for Shreddies, for Mitsubishi. When it comes to an ad … let’s use the Cisco ad with Peter Dinklage as an example. Are you given a script? Are you then told we’re looking for a certain vibe? Where do you start to even come up with the atmospheric building and tempo music for an ad like that one?
SH: Right. Yeah, a lot of times they come—they being a director or the agency or both. They can sometimes be very specific about what they want. They have a very set idea in mind. Other times it’s really open. In that case, they were actually really open with the Peter Dinklage one. They did have some things in mind. They wanted a sense … some of the words if I recall correctly that they used was they wanted a sense of technology to be somehow incorporated in the music and a bit of a futuristic sound. Not necessarily the main thing, but it is a spot about technology moving forward, so they wanted that to be incorporated in the music. They wanted to hear something that was grand in scale and somewhat cinematic, which cinematic really is … it’s just a word that tends to be used pretty often and a cliché but something that sounds quite grand and large, although, it doesn’t have to be. A lot of times we’ll talk about what’s the main emotion you’re supposed to feel and what are we trying to suggest to the viewer, what things do we need to help out the picture. These are all things we’ll try to address.

But going back to the Peter Dinklage spot, what I did was I just tried to take—which is one of my favourite things to do—is to take familiar sounds, things like a violin, for example, and just try to mutate it so that you know that it’s an organic sound but there’s something that’s been done to it that’s just manipulated in such a way that it’s different sounding. That could be the way that the actual instrument’s being played or how it’s being processed or both. So I love the combination of things that are fairly synthetic or organic sounds that are made to sound synthetic or vice versa.

A man sits at a keyboard.Actors and actresses have to say words in a script. The settings are decided. The setting is a castle or it’s inside a car. But when it comes to composing you very much … you got maybe some keywords and some themes but other than that it’s wide open for you, isn’t it?
SH: It can be. It actually can be. Sometimes what I’m doing is trying to convince a director to go in a direction that might be a little bit different than what they’re thinking. Sometimes they’ll be like, ‘Well, we like something like this.’ And you look at it and it’s your first time seeing all this and you go, ‘I know why you think that but I think there’s something that we can maybe do that’s more exploratory and fits your film or your advertisement a lot better.’

Let’s talk about Gary and his Demons. Are there any major differences when it comes to composing an ad or an animated series?
SH: I think one thing with animation is when you’re working on it a lot of times it’s being animated at the same time, in conjunction while you’re working on the picture. You’re working in what we call animatics, which are the sketches. You might not have the full movement or the full idea of what the end product is going to look like. You try to flush out those details as best you can.

I was doing this episode and writing music for it. For whatever reason, I thought the entire time that this episode was taking place during the day. Then when we got the picture in with all the colouring and everything, the background scenery, it was all placed at night. So the music suddenly was like, ‘Oh, does this feel right now?’ Those little things are sometimes TV fails that you try to flush out, but you forget about and then those are some challenges with the show there. But that’s also what makes it really fun. The other thing about animation, especially with Gary and his Demons, is to try to make the music to be as legit as possible. What I mean by that is not making it cartoony because it’s an adult cartoon.

As an artist, are you always thinking about music? Are you able to turn your brain off?
SH: I do have daily habits are kind of funny. Most people listen to music when they go to the gym. I don’t. I’m doing it every day so much, a minimum of eight hours a day. So for me, going to the gym and not having music is nice. I’ve gotten better at turning off over the years. But sometimes there’ll be some music playing in the background and then I’m having a conversation with somebody that I just catch myself having a moment when I’m just not listening, and analyzing the music in the background or something. So those moments happen all the time.

Check out more of Sean Hayden’s work on his website.

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