Remember when TV themes were instantly catchy earworms? Back in the days of “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Bonanza” and “Mission: Impossible?” And the later days of “The Rockford Files,” “Cheers” and “Friends?”
Those days appear to be back. Think about “Game of Thrones” (and now “House of the Dragon”), “Succession,” “Westworld,” “WandaVision” and “Only Murders in the Building,” just to name a few, and chances are the musical openings for each will haunt your thoughts for the next hour or two.
Why? Are we in a new golden age of television music? The answers, say a quartet of currently busy media composers, are surprisingly complex.
“I grew up being obsessed with television themes,” says Nicholas Britell, who won a 2019 Emmy for his theme for HBO’s “Succession.” “I really believe they’re an art form in their own right, the introductory musical idea of a TV show. Not every project needs one, but if it works, and there is the opportunity, it’s a way to bring the audience into the world of the show.”
“Succession,” he notes, “is a very pronounced musical idea right from the downbeat. You get a sense of a lot of different elements out of proportion with each other. The show is about the absurd and the very serious at the same time. You have a sleigh bell, out of tune pianos, strings, a hip-hop beat, 808s, all these crazy kinds of juxtapositions.”
Brian Tyler, currently enjoying acclaim for his music for both “Yellowstone” and its prequel “1883,” feels that the importance of themes “has come back. (Creator-producer) Taylor Sheridan treats these shows like movies that have been sliced up into pieces. Because of that, you need something to ground you in the story. ‘1883’ and ‘Yellowstone’ are very orchestral, with a cinematic, classic appeal.”
Tyler believes that “we are in an era that is artistically open to creativity, and that makes it exciting.” He recalls that, when CBS was planning to bring back “Hawaii Five-0” as a series in 2010, “there were voices among the executives that wanted to do something completely new” musically, and Tyler felt that discarding Morton Stevens’ original, iconic theme was “unthinkable.” He even unearthed Stevens’ arrangement and re-recorded it for the reboot.
Sherri Chung, currently a music governor of the Television Academy and composer for the CW’s “Kung Fu,” points out that there is more content available than ever — not just broadcast TV but cable and now streaming services — making the odds of recognizing and remembering thematic material better than before on-demand watching became popular.
“Maybe showrunners want to have something unique and identifiable with the music so that it can really stand out amongst the huge number of programs audiences have to wade through,”
She cites shows from the ‘90s, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Seinfeld,” that had memorable musical identifiers, although (especially in the case of Jonathan Wolff’s slap-bass intro to “Seinfeld”) they were sometimes “more of a musical thumbprint than a hummable melody.”
Siddhartha Khosla, a recent triple Emmy nominee (theme and score for Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” song for NBC’s “This Is Us”), likes “the creative freedom that comes with streaming. The rules are not as strict as they have been on network over the last 15 years. You have the time to put a one-minute main-title sequence into your show.”
In the case of his undeniably catchy “Only Murders in the Building” theme, Khosla says, “I just wrote it as a piece of music. John Hoffman, who co-created the show with Steve Martin, said, ‘That’s my theme, and I want it everywhere.’ It’s funny, whimsical, dramatic, lonely, mysterious, all of these things. I gave them a piece of music, and the next thing you know, the animated sequence is being built around it.”
Network television is very often a different situation. Starting in the early 1990s, executives demanded that most shows have a minimal opening in order to stop people from switching the channel (“Frasier’s” seven-second piano intros, for example). “On ‘This Is Us,’ I had three seconds to do something over a card,” Khosla recalls.
Chung comments: “It feels more and more like the goal is to leave as little opportunity as possible for an audience member to leave their seat or switch the channel. So while main title themes and visuals may be really well-designed, they’re either really short, like on broadcast, or they might be longer on streaming, but you can always skip them. That’s happening more and more now.”
And yet viewers can’t get enough of a favorite theme. “Game of Thrones” started slowly, but as viewers became hooked on HBO’s fantasy saga, some became so obsessed with Ramin Djawadi’s 100-second overture that they began recording their own covers. A cello trio generated 26 million views on YouTube; a voice-and-violin duo managed 17 million; a cat meowing the entire theme earned six million.
That theme is now considered so vital to the franchise that the prequel, “House of the Dragon,” features the same theme in a new arrangement by Djawadi for cello, orchestra and choir. Similarly, Britell’s hip-hop-infused “Succession” theme is so ingrained in viewers’ minds that, when he sat down to the piano to perform it last year at L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall, the audience immediately jumped to its collective feet
Curiously, the “Succession” theme was the last thing Britell recorded for that first season. “The actual 90-second main title is really a combination of ideas that I figured out over the course of scoring Season 1,” he reveals. He didn’t know how long the sequence would be so he waited until the team was assembling the visuals to put something together, and by that time he had recorded nearly all of the underscore.
Britell’s “Star Wars” series “Andor,” on the other hand, isn’t designed to be a grand musical statement. Each of the 12 episodes starts with a different version of the theme. “It’s a piece of music that isn’t sure of itself,” he says.
That theme in the first episode “starts emerging from the darkness, then has this crescendo and culmination, and it’s out almost as soon as it began. That’s a metaphor for Cassian’s own journey. If the music felt very clear and straightforward right away, it would actually play against one of the central questions of the series. I hope people get a sense of mystery.”
Khosla considers his “Only Murders” theme to be “one of the best things I’ve ever written. It was never done to any picture. Sometimes just a script alone can inspire. I come from a songwriter background,” he adds. “It’s about the melodic hook. Putting notes together that you remember.”
Tyler muses, “Artists find a way. We now have themes coming back to being an important part of television. It’s exciting, and something I’ve missed for quite a while.”