Creative Arts Emmy Contenders for Score Make Decisions to Keep the Music Fresh but Faithful

Game of Thrones Creative Arts Emmys
Courtesy of HBO

As TV shows get older, composers face tough choices

As a TV series progresses into two, three or more seasons, should its music stay the same — keeping audiences aurally anchored in a space and time — or should it change as characters and storylines develop?

The answer: it depends, as Variety discovered during interviews with composers for several shows, many of which are eligible for series-composition Emmys for 2015-16.

“We are in a new era of television: serialized, longform dramatic storytelling,” says Bear McCreary, whose five current series include Starz’s “Outlander,” ABC’s “Agents of SHIELD” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” “You need the music to evolve in the same way the characters do. It’s not enough to have copy-and-paste music that sounds like the pilot.”

McCreary cites “Outlander” as an example. The time-traveling series lands a 20th century Englishwoman in 18th century Scotland, prompting bagpipes, pennywhistle, fiddle and accordion sounds. In the second season the locale shifts to the court of France’s King Louis XV, which meant “a crash course studying French baroque music.”

Blake Neely — whose current lineup includes DC Comics series “Arrow,” “Legends of Tomorrow” and “The Flash” on CW; “Supergirl,” which moved from CBS to CW; as well as NBC’s “Blindspot” — says, “There’s almost always a phone call before season two starts that says, ‘I’d really like to change the score this year. We’re changing things about the story, and we should change the music.’

“You have to evolve, but music is not just set dressing. It’s part of the environment that the audience is familiar with. You’re not changing the sets or locations or costumes; there’s got to be some musical identity that stays.”

Says Joey Newman, composer of ABC’s “The Middle,” “The audience needs to feel familiar with what is happening musically.” He has “a set of sounds and grooves” (centered around guitars and bass) developed over seven seasons, including motifs for the family and individual characters, that provide a comfort level from week to week.

Composers on some of the more talked-about shows, notably HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Netflix’s “House of Cards,” create a palette of sounds at the start that tend to continue. But the music itself — the intertwining themes and motifs — has expanded and grown over the seasons.

“Thrones” composer Ramin Djawadi points out that “the story keeps evolving, characters jump ship from betraying one house to another, so it automatically leads me to evolve with them. I have to write completely new themes or transform existing ones. The unpredictability of it just pushes me in new directions with the music.”

The orchestra and choir colors, however, have remained largely the same over six seasons, Djawadi notes — the ensembles are just bigger. “It’s pretty epic this season,” he says.

Similarly, “Cards” composer Jeff Beal notes, “You always want it to feel like the same world,” so his initial palette of strings, piano, electric bass, occasional trumpet and vocal soloist, has remained largely unchanged over four seasons.

“But our characters are always changing, going through all sorts of permutations, so that we’ve always done a lot of new material. When Kevin Spacey’s character became president, he was on a world stage, so in season three, geography became very important, especially Russia and the Middle East. In season four, new characters and new relationships meant new sounds and music associated with them.”

And, for season four, he added drums for the first time. Beal brought in legendary jazz drummer Peter Erskine for “one more raw, slightly improvisatory element that played really well in this season.”

The sound of PBS’ “Downton Abbey” remained pretty much the same over six seasons: piano, strings, English horn, the occasional French horn or soprano sax. “Some of the things I came up with from episode one have carried through all six (seasons),” composer John Lunn says. But, over that time, he also wrote an estimated 60 themes for characters and locales.

The job is toughest when producers want the music “to be felt but not noticed,” as is the case with Showtime’s “Homeland,” says composer Sean Callery. “The directive is really to be present and affecting, supporting the story but not standing out.” But, he adds, “it does contour and evolve with each season.”

Pictured above: “Game of Thrones”

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