×
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

  • Luciano Pavarotti

    Ron Howard Turned to Editor Paul Crowder to Make His 'Pavarotti' Documentary Sing

    Ron Howard is fast becoming a noted music documentarian: His 2016 film, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — the Touring Years,” released by Abramorama in theaters and Hulu on television, was a Grammy winner. His follow-up is “Pavarotti,” a doc about the man who became one of the most successful and beloved opera singers in [...]

  • Lesley Barber Film Composer

    How 'Late Night' Composer Lesley Barber Channeled Paul Shaffer for Talk-Show Theme

    When director Nisha Ganatra started planning “Late Night,” the new Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling film about a failing late-night network talk show, she knew she’d need a house band and a theme for the program. Her first call was to composer Lesley Barber (“Manchester by the Sea”), with whom she had worked a few years ago on [...]

  • Ma Movie Set Design

    How 'Ma' Filmmakers Turned a Garage Into Octavia Spencer's Party Basement

    In the new psychological thriller “Ma,” a middle-aged woman played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer befriends a group of teenagers and invites them to use the basement of her house as a place to party. Of course they accept, and much of the film happens there, though the subterranean space we see in the film [...]

  • Jim Frohna Big Little Lies Cinematographer

    'Big Little Lies' Gets a More Naturalistic Look for Season 2

    Jim Frohna has a knack for framing female-centric stories that are lyrical and dramatic. As Jill Soloway’s shooter since her debut feature, “Afternoon Delight,” as well as several seasons of “Transparent,” Frohna has become a preferred DP for capturing the female gaze. So when conflicts in scheduling kept director Jean-Marc Vallée and DP Yves Bélanger from [...]

  • Fosse Verdon BTS

    How 'Fosse/Verdon' Recreated 'Big Spender'

    The making of one of filmmaker Bob Fosse’s early triumphs, the sizzling “Big Spender” sequence from the 1969 musical “Sweet Charity,” kicks off the opening moments of the first episode of FX’s bio-limited series “Fosse/Verdon” in the same sultry style for which the legendary director-choreographer was known. It juxtaposes the film’s dancers in a sinuous, [...]

  • Andy Vajna Remembered

    Hungary's Film Business Copes With Life After Late Producer Andy Vajna

    When the producers of Lionsgate’s “The Spy Who Dumped Me” were struggling to get a permit for a key location on the streets of Budapest several years ago, they knew exactly where to turn. “I called Andy,” says Adam Goodman, whose Mid Atlantic Films serviced the shoot. “I said, ‘Look, we need your help.’” Goodman [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content