John Lunn, Jeff Beal, and Mark Snow on the ascension of TV music

I wrote an LA Weekly piece, posted today, on television music in light of the upcoming concert hosted by the television academy. In it I said that “TV music has largely languished in a sea of forgettability”—and while I admit it’s not totally fair to paint the whole medium with such a broad brush, I do think most TV scores throughout the decades have been pretty bad.

I’m not talking about TV theme songs, which are their own animal. Actual television underscore has suffered from the limitations and weaknesses of the format: short, choppy cues, the repetitive use of reheated “library” cues, and either a busy style that apes manic action or boring, ambient drones.

You once had Bernard Herrmann, John (back then “Johnny”) Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and Bruce Broughton writing for TV, yielding some genuinely great music (especially Herrmann’s contributions to The Twilight Zone). But even Williams’ material (for, say, Lost in Space) I have a hard time getting into, due to its small, ’60s-era corny (to me) nature.

Then in the mid-’80s, synthesizers suddenly enabled composers to write scores as one-man-bands, often literally out of their garages—which was of course an attractive proposition for money-conscious producers who didn’t place a high value on live orchestration. The quality and compositional richness suffered, and TV’s reputation as a cheaper art form was validated by cheap-sounding music. (Exceptions: Lost, Twin Peaks, and probably several others I’m not familiar with since I haven’t watched that much TV. Ignorant generalizations are fun!)

So it is an immense pleasure to see shows like House of Cards and Downton Abbey getting truly exceptional, wonderful scores. The reasons are many. First of all, John Lunn and Jeff Beal are both excellent composers who can both write a tune, and know how to coax, develop, and interweave thematic ideas over the course of a whole series. They also get to use live players: in Lunn’s case, a 35-piece orchestra on every episode, and in Beal’s a 17-piece string ensemble, bass, piano, and solo trumpet (played by him) infused with samples and electronics.

But the very nature of these series—in the greater context of the increasing production value, creative risk-taking, and means of consumption of contemporary television in general—have allowed for a much higher and better form of TV music than has (mostly) ever been the case ever before.

Here are some unplugged observations from Beal, Lunn, and the recipient of the television academy’s career achievement award—Mark Snow—on why television music is getting so much better.



When you say TV today, it encompasses this whole world of incredible programming, from network to cable to basic cable, and now—like with House of Cards—Netflix. When you look at the quality of shows being produced, just in terms of acting talent and the scripts, I just think we’re living in a bit of a golden age right now for the small screen. And part of that great creative output is, of course, there’s a lot of good music being created for some of these shows.

It’s not necessarily because of bigger [music] budgets. There’s a sophistication and depth to the type of stories being told, and I think that’s also a function of the amount of time you can devote to subject material in a series, as opposed to a two-hour movie. Because of the whole ability for people to go back through, on demand or Netflix, and watch a whole season, the idea of a series that is scripted with a real throughline has really had a resurgence. In that sense, the way in which storylines and characters can be developed has a lot of depth and dramatic resonance. I think the scoring is challenged to hopefully live up to that.

[On House of Cards and the Netflix format]

It’s almost like you’re writing a really long movie. It’s much more a complete whole, and in that sense the way in which your material evolves, you don’t have to worry about what people heard last week and reminding them too much. But by the same token, you can remind them enough in the sense that they just saw it. So it creates a different experience, a different relationship, I think, to the listener. And it’s got this very of-its-time political setting, but it’s also got the sort of Shakespearean element on top of it. There’s something really interesting about those two things combined, which has led me in a specific place where I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to go.

David Fincher is very sophisticated about music, and he never was interested in—I think he disparagingly called it “mortar,” in the sense that sometimes you feel like music is just something to get you from one scene to the next and then it’s out of there, and it’s not really engaging, it’s not invested in the scene. He was always talking about, “You know, we’re not just playing what you’re seeing. There’s always a metaphor at play, in terms of what the story is we’re telling. A character is not just a character—they can be metaphors for power or aspiration or sex or whatever.” To me, the musical translation of metaphor has to be a theme, because it’s an idea. It’s not just a mood. It’s not just a feeling. You’re trying to give the music the sense that it has a voice that’s saying something, that’s hopefully complimentary, but not necessarily just mimicking what you’re already seeing. That was one way in which I think we got led into these more expansive things. And in terms of the general feeling of how we felt music flowed on it, we tended to write longer cues. Sometimes a cue will sort of bridge together two or three scenes, as opposed to just playing one scene. A lot of times what you’re doing is emphasizing maybe the connection between things, or underlining for the audience these things are all related—you might not know yet now how that is, but there’s a connection. It’s another way of reaching that synergy of elements.

It is a more theatrical experience for a lot of people. A lot of people that really are serious lovers of movie and TV have a really good screen, a really good sound system. So I think part of what we’re trying to do is to create a theatrical experience for an audience in their living room.

My wife and I just got finished watching this last season of Downton Abbey—that’s a show we’ve been fans of ever since it first aired, and the music plays a huge role in that show, and it’s very orchestral and sweeping, which is fun and very appropriate for those people.

I think 100, 200 years from now, when we’re all gone and people start to look back at these centuries, and they start to look for what music was being created, I think the snobbery that exists maybe from the concert world about film music and media music in general—you could include TV and game music—I think people now might be surprised at what get’s noticed as being the real significant cultural barometers.


lunnJohn Lunn:

I thought the music for House of Cards was really good, actually. And Game of Thrones works really well for it. Very polished and very dramatic, and really suits what you’re seeing on the screen.

The great thing about using a real orchestra, which is also one of the reasons we used it in Downton, is that it can be really quite powerful underneath dialogue. I don’t know what it is about sampled music, but it’s very stodgy, it can really get in the way. I do feel that, on Game of Thrones for instance, some of the music’s absolutely fantastic when there’s no dialogue going on, but when there is any dialogue you can barely hear the music. I’m sure that that’s partly because it’s sampled, and you don’t have the same breadth that you can manipulate. When we’re recording Downton, I hear the dialogue in the control room, so we can actually manipulate the dynamics to go along with the dialogue. I always feel with Downton, even if the music has to be quiet underneath dialogue, it still has a presence. I still think that’s a bit of problem in some of the American shows, where the music’s very busy. In my experience, I tend to overwrite if I’m using samples, because I’m trying to make up for the lack of dynamism in the orchestra. It’s also very time consuming. I’m assuming they’ve probably got assistants who do all that sweetening. And it is impressive. But I can still tell.

I was quite lucky actually that a lot of the themes just seemed to warrant further development. I always think of the music as being about the relationships between people, not necessarily about one particular person. You know, it’s about either Bates and Anna, or Matthew and Mary…only the house has got its own sort of style music, which I come back to. The other fundamental thing, as well, about the music is that a lot of these things have to be able to merge into one another as well. And I’m finding better ways of doing that.

The music’s really quite simple as well. That does help. It’s simple, and it’s distinctive. So it does mean that I can be under dialogue, and I can take music from one scene to another. The music can creep up on you without you actually noticing it’s even there. And it works like a kind of shorthand, because there are so many different story strands. The difficult thing about season four is that some people might come into the series halfway through, they might have missed an episode—and what the music does very, very quickly is it works like a sort of shorthand to actually describe what the situation is between these people or the situation. It’s constantly giving you clues about how you should feel… It’s shorthand way of emotionally connecting with a scene.

The next series is kind of set for 1924, 1925, so we’re beginning to really get into the jazz age. Black music is just about to really take off, both in Europe and America.

[On why using live orchestras is still so much more prevalent in the UK]

It’s a tradition. You’ve got to remember about the BBC—although Downton is not BBC—but at least 20, 30 years ago the BBC were really doing most of the major proper dramas. And they were like an arts organization anyway, so they had orchestras as part of their makeup. It’s always been expected. Budget-wise, it can be a struggle, it really can. And it’s getting more so. But the people on Downton, they totally understand. It is expensive, recording Downton. It’s not cheap. But nobody’s ever tried to cut my budget on the show. You put $50,000 into an actual TV series, it’s not a great deal. For $50,000 you can make a hell of a difference in how the show is perceived by the use of a live orchestra. Of course I’m totally biased, but I always think spending a lot of money on the music always works.

At some point TV in America must have just decided that they weren’t going to pay for musicians. [In the UK] it never really went away. This whole concept of paying the one person to do it in their garage has never really happened here. Not in terms of high-end drama. It is a different playing field. And in fact, the BBC do have, to this day, this mysterious fund. I’ve never quite worked out how it works. But actually people don’t have to budget for the musicians when they put together their overall production budget. They’re putting together a budget that includes a fee for me, and then I’ll tell them what I need in order to make the show work. And then mysteriously the money seems to appear from somewhere. But it’s not actually taken out of the production budget.

I think we’re in a very good place. I think America is definitely waking up to [the power of live, orchestral music in TV]. And I think that will change over the next four or five years. I think you’ll get better. Because TV’s earning people a lot of money at the moment. You think about the publicity that Downton gets, or Game of Thrones gets. It’s year-round. Somewhere series three is being shown. It’s just kind of constant. With a film, you bring it out and, okay, it might open in different places at different times of the year, but after a year it’s kind of gone. So to make it as classy as possible … and I know it seems like quite a lot of money sometimes when you look at a music budget, but actually in the grand scheme of production it’s not a big part of it.


snowMark Snow:

1986 was the beginning of the very, very primitive home studio. And from then on it got more sophisticated as time went by, and composers were really getting into the art of the home studio and sampling and using all these fantastic libraries of sounds and instruments, and what can be done electronically at home is pretty spectacular. And it also broadens the palette, the canvas, of what’s possible sort of instantly, with live musicians. The only little creative thing about that, besides writing the music, is choosing a really unique ensemble of players. But the home studio where I’m sitting at right now, you can have every orchestral instrument, plus every sound effect type of thing, and you can manipulate all this and combine them.

The music for TV now is so remarkable and amazing, and incredibly imaginative and creative, in contrast from when I started. It’s fantastic, and all the people who are doing it today are some of the most creative musician/composers out there. I don’t know where it’s going to go next in 20 years, but it’s hard to imagine getting more interesting or creative. From Game of Thrones, The Borgias, Breaking Bad, jeez, Downton Abbey. That’s a contrast in styles right there. Oh god, you could just go down the list: House of Cards…especially the cable shows, it seems there’s maybe more leeway to be experimental. Although there are some network shows that are fantastic too.

With all the samplers and music libraries and stuff, the real creative possibilities are so enormous, and especially when it’s a one-man band, and you’re basically doing it in your studio…it’s just as be-as-crazy-and-creative as the producers and the directors let you. And I remember my experience on The X Files—which, I don’t know if anything can beat that. That was pretty remarkable. From the pilot on, they just wanted kind of sustained pads and no melodies and very sparse and minimal. And I did that, and that was fine. And then that got boring after a while. I started stretching out doing all kinds of other things. And they just kind of went along with it, which was great, and gave me remarkable freedom to kind of do whatever I wanted. And for every episode in the 9 years of that show, somebody from the production company was at my studio listening to the music. Every note. And it was basically kind of a party, for these guys to get out of the studio, that was fun. And the notes were usually, “When the monster pops out, hit it harder or hit it softer.” You know, very minimal stuff. But boy oh boy, if I’m lucky ever to get something like that again, it’d be amazing.

I think this concert is the beginning of highlighting the importance and the originality and kind of brilliance of current music for TV shows. And it might lead to more recognition, which would be just great.

[On whether remaining primarily a television composer was a deliberate career choice]

That’s sort of just the way it worked out. It would have been great to break into the movies, but that just didn’t happen. Although I did maybe five or six movies, including the two X Files movies. Those were great experiences, but I have a feeling if my brother or cousin was a director of a movie that was a huge hit that he asked me to score, I think things would have been different. Or if I would have gotten a movie that became a huge hit, that might have put me more in the movie world.