Composer's theme sets pacing, feeling, meaning
When most people think of the multi-Emmy-winning drama “Hill Street Blues,” their minds instantly flash back to a police garage door rising slowing in the early morning and a squad car emerging with its sirens wailing under the familiar piano-dominated theme from composer Mike Post.
For many TV viewers, the strong opening of this show, and others like it, is more than just a fortuitous combination of visual images and sounds that provides a transition from the product commercials to the beginning of the next program. It is an introduction, an emotional cue, a regular identifier of the show’s themes, content, tone and characters.
“For me, the main title has always really let me know when my show was on,” says score composer and eight-time nominee W.G. “Snuffy” Walden, who’s looking for his first win with a nomination this year for the political drama “The West Wing.” “It called me from the refrigerator, it yelled to me outside, it spoke to me in another room. I knew what was coming next. It was the handle that I related to the show in an auditory fashion.”
While the major networks were once consumed with the idea that one show should blend seamlessly into the next, nearly putting the musical theme to rest in the mid-1990s, filmmakers and creatives have come to understand that the main title music can be directly linked to the success of many shows.
“If you can put together a main title that creates an atmosphere for you to re-experience emotions you’ve had that are associated with watching the show, it’s going to be very powerful,” says Walden, who also composed the theme for “thirtysomething.”
“A successful theme song is one that actually contributes to the integrity of the show,” says Scott Winant, the former supervising producer of “thirtysomething.” “It doesn’t feel like it’s slapped on or added as a second thought. It’s something that’s integral to the tonality of the show. The theme sets the pace and tenor of what you’re about to see.”
With an ever-increasing number of channels and programs on cable, digital satellite and broadband systems, the composer has become the all-important link to help executive producers create an easily identifiable and stylistic sound that is both unique to their show and makes the channel surfers put down their remotes — all in a song that may run less than 60 seconds.
Composers working with producers have had to become very competent in turning the creatives’ emotional tone into a musical vocabulary and converting dramatic verbiage into dramatic themes complete with instrumentation.
For the main title theme for “Friends,” exec producers Kevin Bright, David Crane and Marta Kauffman relayed to composers Michael Skloff and Allee Willis that they were looking to introduce six actors to the public and present the theme of the show: growing up in life and finding your way as an adult.
“We told them we wanted a feel that was a little bit retro,” says Bright. “We didn’t want it to be totally contemporary. We wanted it to be in a more pop rock, Beatles kind of vein.”
Obviously, composers have their work cut out for them in this field. And, for the creative team that plays a tune that doesn’t jibe wth the show’s theme, the results can be disastrous.
“You’ve totally destroyed the tone you set and totally confused your audience (if the song doesn’t work),” says Bright. “You’ve put in a real mood-killer when you don’t have a theme song that complements the show.”
“When the stories and music are out of synch, it indicates a lack of vision,” says Winant. “A strong theme that communicates the tone and feeling of what you’re going to put across indicates a solid vision.
John Wells, the co-executive producer of “The West Wing,” agrees.
“If the theme music is wrong, it can leave you in completely the wrong place and can take you pages and pages to catch up with,” says Wells. “Viewers can also listen to just the theme music and decide, ‘You know what, that’s not a show that appeals to me.’
“In the early stages people definitely gauge whether it is something they would be interested in watching by all of the elements that they see or hear when they tune in. It’s very much a part of the branding of the show once the show is successful as well.”