I don’t watch a huge amount of TV but I have noticed the quality of programmes improving in recent years. I think an important factor of the success of any TV series is of course the music. I can still sing all of the tunes from my favourite childhood TV shows. I remember feeling sad every time the end credits of Monkey Magic would play, or excited when I heard the opening themes of He-Man, The Goodies or even Family Ties. I still get nostalgic when I hear the M*A*S*H theme tune (Suicide Is Painless) because it reminds of my mother and that time of night when she would watch it while we waited for dinner to cook.
TV tunes are powerful forms of music and communication. They can create the whole mood for a series and they become an important cultural reference as over time they become loaded with memories and zeitgeist. These songs tell us in a few seconds what we can expect from the show we’re about to watch. Think about the unusual opening theme of Seinfeld, it tells you straight away that it’s fun and quirky. Or consider the sassy and brassy saxophone in the Roseanne theme tune or how about the sexy, sophisticated and postmodern intro of Mad Men (A Beautiful Mine by RJD2). This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of TV music, and I have my own personal taste and memories attached but I think that TV music plays a big role in the instrumental music genre. Perhaps not in an obvious way, but in the kind of way that gets absorbed like osmosis. Don’t tell me that Ben Folds wasn’t just a tiny bit influenced, consciously or not, by Charlie Brown (Linus and Lucy theme ,Vincent Guaraldi).
We can’t live our lives exclusively feasting on art house documentaries and listening to Schoenberg and in fact sometimes it’s the most everyday things that can provide the most inspiration. But I didn’t really want to talk about TV theme tunes in this post, I actually wanted to share some of the better examples of TV music that I’ve come across. Not always the lowest common denominator, sometimes you get pearls in the murky waters of television.
It started early for me, I was a big fan of Twin Peaks. I bought the sheet music and used to play it on the piano. Angelo Badalamenti, I discovered later was David Lynch’s right hand man when it came to creating the mystery that Lynch is so famous for. Lynch only ever uses Badalamenti to score his work. Did you know that Ennio Morricone has written for television during his career, up until as late at 2008, scoring the music for Pane e Liberta, an Italian mini-series about the infamous politician Giuseppe Di Vittorio. Jazz musician Pete Rugolo wrote the theme for The Fugitive and Henri Mancini wrote the themes for Peter Gunn and The Pink Panther.
Some other examples of note are Rene Aubry’s score for German-British production The Gruffalo. Based on a beloved children’s picture book, Aubry transformed this simple tale into something much more complete, with music that bought depth, mood and playfulness to the production.
If you’re a fan of Kevin McCloud, no doubt you’ve seen his excellent series called The Grand Tour. This documentary follows the epic journey of some of Britain’s finest architects as they travelled Europe seeking inspiration. This series was scored by a British composer called Matthew Cracknell who succeeded in making music so perfectly aligned with the show’s content that without it, the programme would seem incomplete. He borrows sounds from different periods in music and turns them into themes that carry the documentary from country to country.
Another UK composer worth mentioning is Edmund Butt. Probably best known for his work on Life on Mars, I noticed his score on the BBC2 documentary Yellowstone. The romance and pathos of his score is worthy of it’s own release and beautifully complements the bittersweet trials and tribulations of the natural world.
And finally, I have to mention David Carbonara’s contribution to the AMC series Mad Men. Carbonara’s score is sophisticated and moody and uses simple arrangements that really celebrate the instruments, whether that is a simple piano melody, a mournful clarinet or a jazzy vibraphone. In an interview, Carbonara said he wanted to score Mad Men like a film with character and thematic compositions. I noticed recently in one episode the use of an oppressive hum, similar to that inside a plane. It was used every time the character Pete Campbell featured on screen. In that episode his father is killed in a plane crash. The subtle use of noise went unnoticed at first, but certainly added to the tension of certain scenes and highlights the thought and creativity that has gone into the underscore.
I’m sure I’ve left out lots of worthy mentions, but hey, like I said, this is not an exhaustive dissection of TV music, it’s just a moment to stop and consider that perhaps just because music is made for television, doesn’t make it any less laudable than music made for film.