2017 has been a spectacular year for TV. From Netflix originals such as Stranger Things and Godless to dramas and documentaries like The Crown, Peaky Blinders and Blue Planet II, audiences have been pretty spoiled for choice.
In all of those, the soundtrack has played a prominent role. One of the reasons why that infamous lizard chase was so iconic in Planet Earth last year was because of the dramatic, menacing music that accompanied it. Viewers were on the edge of their seat as the tension built and the snake inched ever closer, before suddenly – whoosh – the lizard made a run for it. Strings and drum beats upped the tempo as the lizard dodged each opponent, eventually making it to safety.
The musical score for a show has a drastic effect on how the audience interprets the scene. While (hopefully) the work of each actor is technically enough to convey mood or feeling, music enhances it, and a good soundtrack can help a viewer remember the biggest moments for months after an episode first airs.
Speaking to some of the people behind those scores, The Independent learned a little about how the music – both original compositions and songs by popular artists – is chosen and created to best suit a particular scene or character.
In Stranger Things, Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon of US electronic band S U R V I V E used synthesisers to pay homage to class Eighties artists and film composers such as John Carpenter, Tangerine Dream, Fabio Frizzi and Jean-Michael Jarre. The challenge for season 2 was composing scores that would work when the characters were faced with entirely new scenarios.
“We already had a style established, we had some motifs and sound palettes we revisited for certain moods, and we knew what helps accompany the story in a way that the Duffer brothers respond to,” Dixon explains. “That being said, there were new scenarios that called for a slightly different style of music, which has also been fun and challenging.
“Inevitably the characters were going to develop in some way considering everything they went through in the first season, so we had to adapt some themes to help tell their stories. There are a few cues towards the end of the show that we were pretty excited about when we wrote them.”
Dixon believes TV scores have always been important to the show, but suggests that now the line between TV and film is “a bit more blurry”, more attention is being paid to them.
“One thing that I believe gives more emphasis to the music in movies is that you are often hearing the music in a theatre with a very large, high quality sound system, whereas most people probably have a much more modest setup for their TVs or laptops at home,” he says, ”if they have anything at all.”
Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
One of the main draws of Peaky Blinders is finding out which songs will feature in the latest episode. Otto Bathurst, who directed the first episodes in season one, knew he wanted to feature modern, popular music but didn’t tell anyone else what the plan was.
Jamie Glazebrook, executive producer of the production company behind Peaky Blinders – Caryn Mandabach Productions – notes that most period dramas before the hit BBC show would opt for “sweeping strings”.
“I was worried it might be something like that!” he says. “I remember sitting down to watch the first cut of the first episode, and suddenly Nick Cave started playing. It was incredible, it felt totally original and totally right.”
The way the music is selected works differently per series – sometimes it’s led by directors and editors, and at other points it involves a conversation with the wider team. Since the show’s inception, artists have been hammering on producers’ doors in the hope their music will be featured. But it all depends on what works best for the scene in question.
Artists featured on the four series so far have included Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Johnny Cash, Laura Marling, Arctic Monkeys, Ane Brun, The Raconteurs, Radiohead, Royal Blood and PJ Harvey.
“The aim is always to use music to get inside the heads of our characters – most of all Tommy Shelby – and to mine the very deep emotions that are contained in Steve Knight’s scripts,” Glazebrook says. “I can’t speak to the wider audience but I know that our fans are incredibly sensitive to the music we choose.
“I have particularly liked the tracks at the end of each series,” he adds. “Arctic Monkeys – ‘Do I Wanna Know’ at the end of series two wrapped so many complicated emotions into a single fist-pump. Radiohead’s ‘Life In A Glass House’ at the end of series three landed the ‘WTF’ final twist, and made it truly epic. And series four ends with Laura Marling covering Bob Dylan, specially recorded for the show. I won’t spoil it by saying which Dylan song, but it might be our best ending yet.”
Taboo, the acclaimed BBC drama set in pre-Victorian London, saw Peaky Blinders star Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney – an adventurer who was long believed dead but who returns to London after 12 years in Africa to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire.
One of the most notable things about composer Max Richter’s soundtrack was that the opening theme changed each week: in the first episode it was performed on the celeste – a piano which makes a sound similar to the glockenspiel – while future episodes used a string arrangement. The haunting, childlike celeste version returned for the finale.
Speaking to The Independent, Richter explains that the score came “directly out of the trajectory of the central character: an avenging dark angel, as unstoppable as fate itself. The show plays as a kind of very dark fairy tale, populated and driven by Tom Hardy’s character.
“These two aspects – the hallucinatory environment, and the irresistible force of Mr Delaney – are embodied by the two main themes,” he says. “The first theme is a haunted waltz, based like hundreds of works since the 17th century, on a falling chromatic line called a ‘lament bass’. Widely used in opera to evoke tragedy, for Taboo I have made a deceptively sweet-sounding version of it, so that we are lulled into a false sense of security.
“The second theme is that of our protagonist. His inexorable progress is evoked by the perpetual-motion ostinato figures in the orchestra, which pivot around a bass line that moves between the interval of a tritone – called ‘Diabolus in musica’ by 18th-century theoreticians, because of its destabilising effect on harmony. Mr Delaney is certainly some sort of Diabolus himself.”
On Blue Planet II – the most popular TV show of the year by one thousand fathoms – the score saw a collaboration between renowned film composer Hans Zimmer and Radiohead artists Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood, the latter of whom has previous experience scoring films such as There Will Be Blood. The trio reworked Radiohead track “Bloom” from 2011’s The King of Limbs for the prequel.
Elsewhere, Zimmer’s emotive, sweeping instrumentation and siren-like choruses add to the visual splendour of a pod of whales or dramatic, crashing waves, while more comical scenes feature woodwind and brass instruments. In a scene featuring a Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish, one of the pirates of the sea, there is a clear, genius nod to Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score.
Russell Emanuel, chief creative and CEO of Bleeding Fingers Music, served as creative producer on “Ocean Bloom” as well as the score for Blue Planet II, and says the team managed to achieve something “very special, sonically experimental, and at the same time works to intensify Sir David Attenborough’s remarkable narration”.
“Over the past few years, television scores have become increasingly important and now enjoy the same recognition as major movie scores,” he says. “There’s no longer a line between TV and film in terms of audience expectations, and the same composers scoring major motion pictures are now scoring TV: Harry Gregson-Williams, Trent Reznor, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Ólafur Arnalds to name a few.”
“Working with Thom and Hans on the collaboration track ‘Ocean Bloom’ for the Blue Planet II prequel was truly a career highlight,” he continues. “These opportunities don’t come around often so it’s important to make the most of them when they do. Both Thom and Hans are at the pinnacle of their careers and working with them is an experience you can’t help but learn from.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies