TV Theme Music

October 28th, 2015

TV Theme Music
TV Theme Music

I know that most of you or perhaps all of you no longer watch TV. And by TV I mean cable TV with those nasty commercial breaks. I’m sure most of you still watch television shows but mostly specialty channels, online or on Netflix etc. And that’s where I’m headed today with this blog about TV theme songs.

So what makes a good theme song?

Well many things.

1/ Usually they need a catchy hook repeated many times so it stick s in your brain but overall the song is still interesting enough that it doesn’t get monotonous or boring.

Think of how Danny Elfman quickly moved from phrase to phrase in The Simpsons theme song. You probably can sing the basic hook from memory but I bet you can’t remember the whole song?

2/ It needs to be short and sweet.

Composers have no time to develop anything that requires an elaborate build up, as most themes are maximum two minutes in length.

3/ It needs to somehow reflect the mood and tone of the show it’s introducing. Think of the fiddle in the theme of The Americans which adds the Mother Russia element and kind of clues us in.

There are more elements but let me leave it at that for know.

As always I have some examples of what I think are great TV theme songs

First up is a song that was not written for the show but fits perfectly.

From wiki…
Way Down in the Hole” is a song written by the singer-songwriter Tom Waits. It was included on his 1987 album Franks Wild Years, which was later, made into a stage production.

The song was used as the theme for HBO‘s The Wire.[1] A different recording was used each season. Versions, in series order, were recorded by The Blind Boys of Alabama, Tom Waits, The Neville Brothers, DoMaJe and Steve Earle.

Sorry I couldn’t embed this as HBO disabled that function.

A great song to start us off and it really sets the mood and location for the series “ The Wire “ which in case you don’t know is set in the drug dealing streets and port area of Baltimore. The hole references the space that drug dealers and police find themselves in metaphorically that they are trying to climb out of and the struggle between right and wrong and the blurry line that separates the two sides.

Each of the five seasons showcased a different version of the song and the final season featured a version from Steve Earl. Very interesting and ironic as he also had a small part in the show as an ex junkie turned drug councilor.

Down in the hole
-catchy hook
-short and sweet
-references the show perfectly and sets the mood.

Full marks Tom Waits!

Example number two is not for the faint of heart and introduces the horrific and very messed up “ American Horror Story “. If you like the horror genre then this is the show for you which retains most of the same cast from season to season but the location, scenario and story change from one season to the next. Special mention goes to the delightful Jessica Lang who still packs a mean acting punch. My favorite season is “ Asylum “ and yes I am in therapy!

From Fastco OCTOBER 17, 2012 | 8:00 AM

” The song was composed in 1998 by César Dávila-Irizarry. Today he’s a television sound editor in Los Angeles, but back then he was just a sophomore at the University of Puerto Rico, living at his mother’s house, futzing around with digital remixes on Windows ’95. “I started playing around with the software that other people were using then, which was Cool Edit 96,” he recalls. “I was just getting some demons out.” He grew attached to a particular sparse, haunting melody and added sounds of clattering metal hangers, dripping water and white noise—all distorted beyond recognition. To some ears, the hangers might sound like an electric guitar.

He gave the song to his friend Gabriel Diaz and didn’t think much about it until Diaz—now an editor at Prologue Pictures—dusted off the track a decade later and slotted it in as a temp track for the American Horror Story title sequence. (A temp track is placeholder music that editors use while working on rough cuts.) Everyone at FX and Prologue grew so accustomed to Dávila-Irizarry’s song; they decided to keep it—even after hiring composer Charlie Clouser (formerly of Nine Inch Nails) to write entirely new music. Clouser submitted four of his own demos, but each time was told to make the music sound more like the temp track. “I remember there was one quote that came down from the producers, ‘What we need to play for Ryan [Murphy] is a version that sounds better but that he won’t know is different from the original.'”

Dávila-Irizarry’s version had been recorded on a single track, which made for difficult sound mixing, so Clouser was eventually asked to simply recreate the song (which FX bought from Dávila-Irizarry) and allot each sound its own track. Clouser calls it “an exercise in sonic reverse engineering,” but agrees it was the right decision, albeit challenging. “There was a lovable inaccuracy and crust to the sound that was becoming lost when I tried to regenerate it using pristine modern technology,” Clouser says. “It became a challenge to duplicate a lot of the spontaneous magic that he had in the original piece.”

American Horror Story
-catchy hook
-short and sweet
-references the show perfectly and sets the mood
-song is as messed up as the show.

Full marks Dávila-Irizarry!

My third and final example is from a composer I have admired for many years, Jeff Beal. I first clued into his work while watching “ Carnivale “ which in my books was one of the best series ever and sadly only ran for just two seasons.

And here’s Jeff’s offering today from the delightful “ House of Cards “.

Excerpt from House of Cards interview

What kind of sound was Fincher looking for?

When David and I first met he shared with me one piece by this band Supertramp called ‘Crime of the Century.’ It’s something I really didn’t know that well, but the end of it has this sort of vamping sound, this really strange mixture of classicism and something much grittier. And I think that’s what spoke to him. What we tried to do is create this sense of the political underworld with more electronic sounds and definitely the bass, which became one of the most important sounds for Frank’s character. It had this predatory energy, which was really good for his character.

There’s also a lot of piano and electronic music in the score, too.

We also had the ambient electronic part of the palate, but then on top of that we had piano, which serves multiple purposes dramatically. It can be emotional, it can be reflective, it can be noir-ish, but it can also be precise and very intellectual and smart in a more minimalist rhythmic way. And then I’d say the third major element was the string orchestra, which I used throughout the show, I had a group of about seventeen players and the strings gave a connective element to the score. It was able to play size and play mood and also play the world of Washington.

House of Cards
-catchy hook
-short and sweet
-references the show perfectly and sets the mood

I really like all the styles that he has amalgamated together: jazz, orchestral and electronic. In my mind this piece has the best flow and I never get tired of it.

Full marks Jeff Beal!

Honorable mentions goes to “ Penny Dreadful “ for its sweeping strings and drama.

Of course there are many other great themes out there and I’m sure you have your own favorites. Why don’t you put them to the test and see if they satisfy my three basic criteria? You may be surprised at how many don’t pass. “ Game of Thrones “ for example wouldn’t pass as it’s bloody boring and drones on and on. If you choose which show to watch by listening to the theme song first not knowing anything about the show – I think you might pass.

Right then, Sergeant Major marching up and down the square! Left, right, left, right…


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