An appropriately placed and paced soundtrack, be it through an orchestrated score or existing source material, has the potential to make or break a specific scene in many a TV series. But the ability to know when not to use music is a skill some shows are learning to master.
On the polar opposite end of music-filled offerings like “Glee” and “American Idol” lies the world of such soundtrack-less shows as “The Office” and “Modern Family,” half-hour faux documentaries that have stripped the sitcom standards of canned laughter and supporting soundtracks. Instead of filling in a show’s silent gaps with music, these shows have chosen to embrace the silence.
“A common use of music in television shows is to get a montage going underneath the music,” says “The Office” exec producer Greg Daniels. “We tend to use our voiceover interviews in a similar way; we can take entire scenes and turn them into montages, but instead of placing them under music we’re putting them under an interview.”
The power of those one-on-one interviews often lies in their long silences, sometimes sweet and other times awkward. In most other shows, these types of moments are filled with a supporting score that reinforces the overall tone of a scene. But “Modern Family” co-creator Steven Levitan doesn’t think audiences necessarily need that type of reassurance.
“Music is often used to tell the audience what they should be feeling or thinking or laughing at,” Levitan says. “But if things are working properly, if the writing is there, you don’t need to tell them that. They know.”
But the absence of accompanying music doesn’t always equate to less work on a production. Before “The Office,” editor Dave Rogers had worked on numerous other shows that were filled with supporting scores including “Entourage,” “NewsRadio” and “Seinfeld.” But editing together a show that almost entirely consists of dialogue proved to be a different experience.
“On ‘Seinfeld,’ we knew exactly where those music queues would go,” Rogers says, “and Jonathan Wolf, who was our composer, would put them in once we had locked the cut. With ‘The Office,’ our rough cut can come in anywhere from 35-38 minutes long and it’s completely dry; there is no music at all. In the end, those scenes ultimately have to stand on their own, and you have to make sure that they do.”
And that’s exactly what both shows aim for, trusting that a well-written script and a solid performance will be more than enough to convey an overall tone and hopefully get a good laugh in the process.
“(Co-creator) Chris (Lloyd) and I made a conscious decision early on to just trust the comedy,” says Levitan. “Hopefully, that’s enough to carry us through.”
So with the popularity of shows like “The Office” and “Modern Family” rising, should TV composers start considering a career change?
“Most shows still use music,” says Rogers. “I think we’re a small percentage.”
Adds Daniels: “The big thing they should be worried about is when people use music they’ve created off one Apple computer instead of hiring an orchestra.”