You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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

More Artisans

  • Jeff Goldblum performs in a sketch

    Inside the High-Pressure World of Late-Night Talk-Show Prop Demands

    Television production is an area where “Hurry up and wait” is a common refrain. However, for the prop teams that work on late-night talk shows like “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” that’s not an option. They typically have only a matter of hours to deliver what’s necessary. Lou A. [...]

  • Smithsonian Handmaids Tale Costume

    Why the Smithsonian Chose to Enshrine 'Handmaid's Tale' Servant Costume

    The iconic red-caped, white-bonneted outfits worn by Elisabeth Moss and the other childbearing servants in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” created by costume designer Ane Crabtree, have become that show’s signature visual.  Hulu immediately knew it had a good thing, hiring groups of women around the country to parade in the garments to promote the show. [...]

  • Sir Lionel Frost (left) voiced by

    Why 'Missing Link's' Title Character Was One of Laika's Biggest Challenges

    Stop-motion studio Laika pushes design boundaries in every film it makes, and the lead character in “Missing Link” is no exception. “It became pretty apparent that [the character] Link was going to be the cornerstone,” says director and writer Chris Butler. “I did this rough drawing many years ago, and it was basically like a [...]

  • Missing Link Laika Studios

    New 3D-Printing Technology Was 'Missing Link' for Laika's Latest Stop-Motion Project

    For the upcoming animated comedy adventure “Missing Link,” stop-motion studio Laika set the bar very high. To execute the designs created by director and writer Chris Butler, artists would have to speed up their 3D printing of character faces — and those faces would have to be the most complex they’d ever created. “Missing Link” [...]

  • The Old Man and the Gun

    Ohio’s Midwest Locations and Flexible Tax Credit Lure Producers

    With its small towns, rolling farmlands and industrial cities, Ohio embodies the American Midwest. Other location lures for filmmakers include the shore along Lake Erie, the campus of Ohio State University, the striking skyline of Cincinnati and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The Buckeye State also provides producers with a 30% [...]

  • Nancy Schreiber Mapplethorpe Cinematographer

    DP Nancy Schreiber Captures Life of Artist Robert Mapplethorpe in Grimy Gotham

    Don’t tell cinematographer Nancy Schreiber that she’s having a renaissance. That would imply there’ve been slumps in her long career, and she won’t have any of that, even if for a time she was taking smaller jobs as the gaps widened between larger gigs. “It’s never been about the money, for me,” says Schreiber over [...]

  • What Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga Share:

    LeRoy Bennett Keeps Top Acts Like Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande in the Spotlight

    You might say that LeRoy Bennett is a shining light among lighting and production designers for pop music. Doing double duty creating both touring sets and their illumination, he started out with a 14-year run as Prince’s collaborator, went on to work with Nine Inch Nails and Madonna and has counted Beyoncé’s and Bruno Mars’ [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content