A TV Music Primer

An overview of the musical elements used in TV productions

  Mitch Coodley has composed extensively for TV and founded the music library Metro Music.

TV has changed a lot since the days of Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy. Back then there were the big three broadcast networks - CBS, NBC, and ABC - plus a few local channels that viewers could pick up with rabbit ears. Today, hundreds of broadcast channels, satellite, and cable providers have emerged.

As the TV industry has expanded, the applications of music on TV have grown exponentially. There are more places for music to appear, more specific audience demographics that offer opportunities for broadcasters to use music to reach a specific audience, and a wider variety of programming to support it all. For composers, producers, and music publishers, this means more opportunities for work and for music placement.

Sources for Music


Today's music on TV comes from three major sources: custom music written by a chosen composer, production or library music, and music licensed from indie or major-label artists. Custom music is composed for a particular show or channel. Production music (also called library or stock music) now makes up roughly 65 percent of the music on TV. A sync/master license from the publisher or music library can be written to give end users nonexclusive rights to match music to picture for a program, promo, or other network uses.


TV shows now license songs with increasing frequency. A show's producer licenses tracks by indie artists and bands nonexclusively and for use as a background feature.

Usage Defines Style


The use of music influences its style, instrumentation, and effect. Music on TV briefly describes the types of music TV productions call for.


Theme music. Strong instrumental themes are like beacons, or a searchlight for viewers to follow. Shows that have such themes include The X-Files, The Simpsons, The Twilight Zone, and Mission Impossible. Many themes evolve from logos; the musical equivalent of the Nike "swoosh" or the Coca-Cola red script logo. News themes always revolve around a strong musical logo. Another theme is the sonic image: an instantly identifiable sound or groove. The reverbed sound of the gavel is a signature for the show Law and Order, but it's not part of the musical theme.

Approaches to instrumental TV themes include traditional melodic motives such as that for Monday Night Football and Hawaii Five-0. In the latter, the theme is a reprise of the original brass melody played with guitars. To set up a vibe, short "groove" themes are also widely used, as in the themes for The Mentalist and Modern Family. They are about 10 seconds long with almost no melody and crop up within a show as incidental cues.

Vocal theme songs are back in vogue - mostly in comedies. The mix of lighthearted goofiness and memorable hooks invites the viewing public to sing along. Shows with vocal themes include Two and a Half Men, Family Guy, Married with Children, Cheers, That 70's Show, Big Love, Malcolm in the Middle, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Charles in Charge.

Program music. Every show uses a sound or instrumental palette from which the various cues are generated, and these sounds create a thread that runs through a series. The feel, texture, mood, and instrumentation really count, because the show features constant dialogue, sound effects, or voice-over. The music can't compete with these elements but instead creates mood, interest, and momentum.

For sports, how-to, lifestyle, travel, nature, and adventure shows on the bigger cable networks, the music is varied and more likely to be production music. These music selections range from carefree, move-it-along music for a cooking show to speed metal for sports highlights to intense world-music dramatic cues for an outdoor adventure program. A producer or director often chooses music selections during postproduction to deliver the right mood, energy, and sound palette for the show's setting.

Several popular shows are scored entirely with licensed music. The Sopranos, an HBO series for which I licensed many tracks, licensed every piece of music-including the theme song "Woke Up This Morning" by British band Alabama 3. The music was so well matched that it seemed to grow organically from the show, and the moods were always perfect. Another HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, is scored from production music libraries. The show's whimsical theme "Frolic," which you may have thought was "pure Larry David," was penned by Italian composer Luciano Michelini. Much of the show's incidental music comes from a library catalog.

For reality TV, turning a competition among regular people into a drama has led to music with an exaggerated dramatic flair: high tension punctuated by flourishes, stabs, and breaks. The music is often episodic and segmented to allow for the ticking clock (or the time bomb) of an approaching deadline. Some examples include Survivor, The Amazing Race, Iron Chef, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

For comedy programming, music that's exaggerated - too popping, perky, jaunty, or wholesome for words - works well. The piece is often punctuated with a button ending rather than a fade-out or an ending with sustained notes. The short theme/intro to Modern Family fits in this category.

Production music (also called library or stock music) now comprises about 65 percent of the music used on TV.  

Commercials. While meant to sell products or services, commercials also attract specific demographics, using music as the hook. For a new campaign, an advertiser and ad agency work with music houses to create the right music. Because well-known songs provide a common language, they are often used as a reference point. Often this leads to a "sound-alike" or a "style-alike" or the licensing of a hit song. For a composer, the challenge is to provide the mood and sound of the reference track while keeping the music fresh and original and respecting the copyright of other work.

Most jingles are instrumental underscores nowadays, but if a composer slips in vocal elements, they will generally please the client and possibly get the composer on a SAG vocal contract. The composer's main jobs are to ensure that the tracks appeal to an advertiser's targeted audience and to provide the right mood.

Ad makers want music that is unusual, riveting, even quirky - sounds that will cut through the clutter and get noticed. The "pause and payoff" technique is useful. Near the end of the ad, maybe 23 to 25 seconds into a 30-second spot, the music pauses for effect and lets the voice-over fill in the gap. Then the music returns full force to take it out. A Lexus RX400 spot uses this technique for dreamy black humor. Musical irony is ubiquitous in current TV jingles. Another approach is pure mood or minimalist spots with one or two instruments. Another popular and effective technique features deadpan vocals with no emotion or effect that contrast with the backing tracks.

  Music on TV

Theme music opens or closes a show. The show's bumpers and teasers often use the theme as well.

News themes are created for network or local-channel news programming and are often syndicated.

Sports themes are ususally logo driven and brand either the network or a specific sport.

Bumpers are short outros that lead to a commercial break and promote an upcoming segment of the show.

Teasers, or teases, are the setup pieces for a show that's about to air and are used for dramatic, reality, and news programming.

Program-use music is found within a show as dramatic or comedic incidental music, background soundtracks, highlights, or source music.

Previews are promos aired within the body of a show, but not as interstitial programming. They are typically heard under a credit roll.

Commercials employ music to help sell products and services, and promote local, regional, and national businesses. Ad agencies provide and sell the spots to channels or networks.

Promos are basically commercials for upcoming programs or for branding the network itself.

Musical logos are attached to a graphics package for a network or a specific show.

Public service announcement (PSA) music is paired with advertisements for nonprofit organizations and political campaigns.

Promos. While promos are related to commercials, their usage is different. First, many promos are pre-scored: that is, a producer or director edits the picture to existing music, including material used with graphics tied to the network or show logo. The composer or publisher supplies the music to which the picture can be edited. Hits, stabs, or accents at phrase starts or stops are effective for picture cuts and voice-over formatting. Short builds with swells, fills, and crescendos leading up to these accent points create shape and form and are a vehicle for voice-over text. Building to a last big hit never fails to please. The production music industry supplies most of the promos on TV.

Current trends for drama promos, prime-time drama shows, and topical news require about twice the energy they once did. For lack of a better word, shock is good. In TV music, there's been a lot of "tension inflation" lately. Whether created with orchestral or electronic instruments, impact and fear sell. Drums effectively create a sense of power and drama.

Comedy promos don't usually call for "funny" music but instead for exaggerated normal music. For comedy, hip-hop, metal, folk, lounge, opera, classical, or any over-the-top style works. One of my writers recently made a CD that I called "Too Funky." As you might guess, the tracks were perfect for prime-time promos.

Sports music. Sports programming is ubiquitous and a fruitful area for TV composers. Most shows have a theme and bumpers, plus tons of music for features (edited pieces about an athlete, history, moments from the game, past games, or the competition itself). The music may be heavy metal, indie rock, techno and techno-rock, orchestral dramatic, obligatory heartstring cues, and stirring emotional tragedy or triumph music. Much of this music is licensed production music because the quantity and variety of the cues are endless.

Bumpers and teases. Bumpers are the most "TV sounding" of all music in media. They are short, snappy, stylistically consistent, and lead to a "button" ending. They don't sound like pop music; they have a slick, edited TV quality. Bumpers that lead to a break often relate to or are edits of the incidental custom music in the program, such as the Seinfeld mouth-popping snippets.

Show teases, on the other hand, preview the coming 30 or 60 minutes and have a different flavor. News shows like 20/20 or 48 Hours begin with an emotionally charged tug, along with excerpts from the show, and require a dramatic pull to reflect the nature of the story. A poignant solo piano might underscore a classic "one twin lived; the other died" human-interest story. A brooding drone with haunting overtones might set up a crime piece or police procedural. At times the tease leads directly into the opening theme.

Getting Started with TV Music

The first step for any aspiring broadcast music composer is to learn the industry. However you get your programming, use every viewing session as a lesson in TV music. Pay attention to every use, and take notes on styles that feel comfortable, then create your demo with these uses in mind. The production music industry is a good place for young composers to get started. Dozens of companies are looking for new music and talent. While music libraries may not offer top dollar for untested talent, they are a great place to hone your craft and create a portfolio while you earn a little cash working from home. I have hired dozens of young composers who blossomed into major talents in New York and Los Angeles.

If your dream is scoring for TV or film and you don't live in a major city, get to know your local broadcasters, producers, and advertisers. With a little momentum, your credit list will grow, and clients will gravitate to you.