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Binge-Viewing Gives Composers New Headaches

Composers reveal how new distribution methods affect TV scores

Scoring for television has always had something of a catchall element to it. Some composers frantically clef away to keep pace with a merciless week-to-week deadline, while others (particularly on cable) are able to tackle the task at a more leisurely pace.

But with shifting viewing habits and binge-viewing erasing the traditional pacing of episodes, some composers are forced to take an unusually long-view approach to their work, as the distinctions between scoring for film and scoring for TV become fewer by the week.

As for the show that made binge-viewing a household phrase, House of Cards composer Jeff Beal was well aware that his Netflix audience might take the divisions between episodes in an unusually cavalier way, which presented its own challenges.

While Beal’s memorably jazzy main theme opens every episode alike, he nonetheless adopted a slow-burn tactic within the individual chapters, looking at the whole series as a sort of long film. Yet composing so much original music at once can be a grind, especially when the average TV scorer’s best friend — strong, recognizable themes to fall back on — can become a liability due to the series’ distribution method.

“You don’t want to overuse (themes) because, as we knew going into it, people might watch this in one or two sittings,” he says.

On the whole, however, Beal found the experience similar to composing for a premium cable series, as he tackled scoring HBO’s Rome in much the same way. “My attraction to the material was that it was obviously going to be scripted in a very longform way,” he says. “I know a lot of the enjoyment I had in doing Rome was due to the operatic scale, where the story is constantly evolving in a very linear way.”

“Operatic” was also an operative word for Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi. Though the show airs week-to-week, Djawadi starts every season with a rough cut of the whole order, watching all 10 episodes at once and then spotting them one per week with the larger narrative already in mind.

In addition to enabling Djawadi to make tweaks to previously scored episodes along the way, the long-lead approach also gave him license to seed Wagnerian motifs and themes across multiple episodes in ways that connect with viewers on a completely subconscious level (or on repeat viewings).

Scoring The Bible, composers Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a full cut to work from, but neither were they forced to move episode-to-episode.

Instead the two (along with vocalist-composer Lisa Gerrard) spent six months scoring scenes bit by bit while shooting was still ongoing. (As Balfe notes with a chuckle, the duo scored the creation immediately after scoring the crucifixion.)

“We looked at themes as actual categories,” Balfe says. “So there would be a ‘faith’ theme, the same as with ‘hope,’ for example, and so that’s how we looked at the subject matter.”

Though he insists there’s no one ideal arrangement for a particular scoring project, having a series of dialogues and give-and-takes with directors and editors certainly helped Balfe and Zimmer attain a more cinematic feel.

“It’s purely a team effort, and if you’re a composer who likes sitting by yourself with a piano this isn’t your gig. Because it’s everyday communication with editors. It was a constant process of replacing things, and you have to keep stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.

“We do it with films,” he says, “so I don’t see why we can’t do it with television.”

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