TV series theme songs are back in vogue as great songwriters tune into the small screen

Remember when TV themes were instantly catchy? Around the time of “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Bonanza,” and “Mission: Impossible?” And the last days of “The Rockford Files”, “Cheers” and “Friends?”

Those days seem to be back. Think “Game of Thrones” (and now “House of the Dragon”), “Succession”, “Westworld”, “WandaVision” and “Only Murders in the Building”, to name a few, and there chances are the musical openings as each will haunt your thoughts for the next hour or two.

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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 obsessing over TV 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 musical idea of ​​a TV show’s intro. Not every project needs it, but if it works and there’s an opportunity, it’s a way to bring audiences into the world of the show.

“Succession,” he notes, “is a very pronounced musical idea right from the downbeat. You get an idea of ​​a lot of different elements out of proportion with each other. The show is about absurd and very serious at the same time. You have a sleigh bell, pianos out of tune, strings, a hip-hop beat, 808s, all those kinds of crazy juxtapositions.

Brian Tyler, currently acclaimed for his music for both “Yellowstone” and its prequel “1883”, feels that the importance of themes “has returned”. (Creator-producer) Taylor Sheridan treats these shows like movies cut to pieces. For this reason, you need something to anchor yourself in the story. “1883” and “Yellowstone” are very orchestral, with a cinematic and classic appeal. »

Tyler thinks that “we are in an era artistically open to creativity, and that makes it exciting”. He recalls that when CBS was planning to bring “Hawaii Five-0” back as a series in 2010, “there were voices among the executives who wanted to do something completely new” musically, and Tyler felt that rejecting the original by Morton Stevens, the iconic theme was “unthinkable”. He even unearthed Stevens’ arrangement and re-recorded it for the reboot.

Sherri Chung, currently music governor at the Television Academy and composer of The CW’s “Kung Fu,” points out that there’s more content available than ever – not just broadcast TV, but also cable and now streaming services – increasing the chances of recognizing and remembering thematic material better than before on-demand viewing became popular.

“Maybe the showrunners want to have something unique and identifiable with the music so that it can really stand out among the large number of programs that the audience has to browse,”
she says.

She cites shows from the ’90s, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Seinfeld,” which had memorable musical identifiers, even though (especially in the case of Jonathan Wolff’s slap-bass intro to “Seinfeld”) they were sometimes “more of a musical imprint than a humable melody.

Recent three-time Emmy nominee Siddhartha Khosla (theme and score for Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” song for NBC’s “This Is Us”) loves “the creative freedom that comes with streaming. The rules aren’t not as strict as they have been on the network for the past 15 years.You have time to put a one-minute main title sequence into your show.

In the case of her undeniably catchy theme “Only Murders in the Building,” Khosla says, “I just wrote it as a piece of music. John Hoffman, who co-created the series with Steve Martin, said, “It’s my theme, and I want it everywhere.” It’s funny, whimsical, dramatic, lonely, mysterious, all of those things. I gave them a piece of music, and the next thing you know, the animated sequence is built around it.

Network television is very often a different situation. Beginning in the early 1990s, executives mandated that most shows have a minimum opening in order to prevent people from switching channels (the seven-second piano intros of “Frasier”, for example). “On ‘This Is Us’, I had three seconds to do something on a map,” Khosla recalled.

Chung comments, “There is a growing sense that the goal is to give as few opportunities as possible for an audience member to leave their seat or change channels. So, even though the main themes and visuals of the titles can be very well designed, they are either very short, like in broadcast, or they can be longer in streaming, but you can always skip them. This is happening more and more now.

And yet, viewers can’t get enough of a favorite theme. “Game of Thrones” started off slow, but when viewers got hooked on HBO’s fantasy saga, some became so obsessed with Ramin Djawadi’s 100-second opener that they started recording their own covers. A cello trio has generated 26 million views on YouTube; a voice and violin duo made 17 million; a cat meowing the whole theme earned six million.

This 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. Likewise, Britell’s hip-hop-infused “Succession” theme is so ingrained in viewers’ minds that when he sat down at the piano to perform it last year at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles , the audience immediately stood up.
and acclaimed.

Curiously, the “Succession” theme was the last thing Britell recorded for this first season. “The 90-second main title is really a combination of ideas that I came up with during Season 1,” he reveals. He didn’t know how long the sequence would be, so he waited for the team to put the visuals together to put something together, and by then he had recorded almost the entire underscore.

Britell’s “Andor” “Star Wars” series, on the other hand, is not designed to be a big musical statement. Each of the 12 episodes begins with a different version of the theme. “It’s music that’s not sure of itself,” he says.

This theme in the first episode “starts to emerge from the darkness, and then has this crescendo and climax, and it comes out almost as soon as it started. It’s a metaphor for Cassian’s own journey. If the music seemed very clear and simple right away, it would actually play against one of the central questions of the show, I hope people have a sense of mystery.

Khosla considers his theme “Only Murders” to be “one of the best things I’ve ever written. It’s never been done on any picture. Sometimes only a script can inspire. I come from a background of ‘songwriter,” he adds. “It’s all about the melodic hook. Putting together notes that you’ll remember.

Tyler muses: “Artists find a way. We now have themes that are coming back to be an important part of television. It’s exciting, and something I’ve been missing for quite a while.

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