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'Music for Prime Time' book explores TV themes that haunt our brains

The cover of "Music for Prime Time" by Jon Burlingame. (Courtesy of Oxford University Press)
The cover of "Music for Prime Time" by Jon Burlingame. (Courtesy of Oxford University Press)

Here & Now‘s Jane Clayson looks at some classic TV themes with Jon Burlingame, who teaches film scoring at the University of Southern California and is the author of the new book “Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring.”

Book excerpt: ‘Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring’

By Jon Burlingame

Television music, someone once said, is “the soundtrack of our lives.” For the postwar “baby boom” generation and beyond, that is unquestionably true. We grew up in front of the set. The music that accompanied those images became— for better or worse— indelibly stamped on our minds. Kids of the 1950s don’t think of the William Tell overture as the start of a Rossini opera: to them it’s the Lone Ranger theme. Children of the 1960s can sing “a horse is a horse, of course, of course”; “just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip”; and “they’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky”— all instantly recognizable as the title songs for Mister Ed, Gilligan’s Island, and The Addams Family, respectively.

Instrumental music, too, became as familiar as the pop tunes we were hearing on the radio. Any boomer can hum the opening notes of the Dragnet, Twilight Zone, and Hawaii Five- 0 themes. Kids who grew up still later are equally conversant with the music of The Brady Bunch, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Dynasty, and Hill Street Blues. Later generations know the themes for Friends, Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and Game of Thrones as well as they know any song by U2, Madonna, or Taylor Swift.

But the story of this unique subgenre of American popular music extends well beyond the simple creation of catchy tunes or clever lyrics in one- minute bites. Virtually all of the most successful film composers of modern times— John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin— enjoyed their first taste of success in television. They learned and honed their craft toiling on weekly series.

For veteran film composers, the 1960s and 1970s marked a downturn in their motion- picture fortunes, especially as the movies increasingly shunned the traditional film score in favor of pop songs. So men like Bernard Herrmann, Alex North, Bronislau Kaper, George Duning, Franz Waxman, even the great Max Steiner, turned to the small screen for work, while others including Earle Hagen, Arthur Morton and Alexander Courage (who had worked on major films in better times) not only found steady employment in TV, they enjoyed bigger success in the new medium than they had ever found in the old one.

And their work wasn’t all for silly sitcoms, clichéd westerns, or turgid drama shows. Some of the century’s most celebrated composers created music for television, often in the documentary field: Richard Rodgers on Victory at Sea, Darius Milhaud on The Twentieth Century, Morton Gould with World War I. Even the great Aaron Copland composed the theme for CBS Playhouse.

As the made-for-TV movie matured into a forum for important social discourse and the miniseries tackled subjects on a grand scale— from Roots to War and Remembrance, Shogun to Lonesome Dove— the medium lost much of its stigma as “a vast wasteland” (FCC Commissioner Newton Minow’s infamous 1961 pronouncement) as front- rank film composers like Elmer Bernstein, David Raksin, John Barry, Michel Legrand, and Ennio Morricone wrote television scores that lingered in  the memory just as their greatest music for the big screen always had.

Music for television has often been dismissed as lacking the quality or lasting impact of feature film scores. This is the argument of arrogant, elitist, and largely ignorant observers who consider the medium as a whole beneath serious consideration. Television scoring— just like its better- paid cousin, music for movies— is written to exacting specifications, under pressure of impending airdates and impatient producers, and is designed to meet specific dramatic needs. The difference is that the small screen demands more music, more quickly, and these days, more cheaply.

To relegate all TV music to the junkpile is myopic. The fact is that not all film scores are great, just as most television music is forgettable. Both are, by and large, commercial endeavors, combining art and business for the sake of profit (and sometimes entertainment, education, or edification). Even Mozart didn’t write Cosi Fan Tutte as high art; he was trying to pay his bills.

What follows is a survey of music for American television, from its earliest days, when very little of the music was original, to the present. The focus is on music specifically created for the medium, although there is (in Chapter 1) a discussion of the widespread use of library music for “tracking” into various shows. Three areas of television music are outside the scope of this study: daytime (mostly soap operas and game shows); children’s TV outside of prime time (daytime, Saturday mornings, and on cable); and the realm of musicals and operas (a rich arena of musicmaking that deserves a detailed study of its own).

Music for Prime Time is the product of 35 years of research, including more than 400 interviews with composers, producers, orchestrators, and music editors; a thorough review of what little previous literature existed in the field; and viewings of countless series episodes, documentaries, telefilms, and miniseries with a critical eye toward the scores as they were heard by viewers over the past 70 years.

This is not a musicological treatise. Rather, it’s a history of a vastly underappreciated realm of American music, wherein seasoned professionals created sounds and scores that resonated in a thousand ways with millions of listeners. I hope the reader will find this both nostalgic and enlightening, reminding them of the themes and music they recall so fondly from the past, and perhaps gently prodding them to listen just a little more closely the next time they tune in or log on.

From Music for Prime Time by Jon Burlingame. Copyright © 2023 by Jon Burlingame and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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