Friday, 17 June 2016

What's in a Theme?

Let's talk about theme songs. They open our favourite television shows at the start of each episode, we hear them week after week. The pieces of music or songs which tell you something about the show you're about to watch, they are an often overlooked part of a show's success.

You can't think about Cheers without starting to hum "where everybody knows your name" or start an episode of Friends without wanting to clap in time with The Rembrandts' "I'll Be There For You". It's just not physically possible. Those songs are so intrinsically and inescapably linked to their associated television shows that hearing them immediately brings nostalgia tinged recollections of the show.

Funnily enough, it seems to me that often the song can be even more memorable than the show itself. I know chorus to "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" so well that hearing it is like meeting a good friend, warm and familiar.

And this is for a show I can barely remember. To be fair, it was popular before my time but I still didn't watch the show regularly, at least not that I can recall. Despite that, the song remains entrenched in my mind. It's more than just having a catchy hook or singalong chorus though. The song is wrapped in the 'feel' or essence of Cheers.

And people love the theme songs to their favourite TV shows and recall them fondly. If you type in "tv theme songs" into Google, you are immediately bombarded by lists of the best theme songs defining what makes a good theme.

This was just as much as I could catch in one screenshot. The lists go on and on and on. They never stop...

Which is something that interests me. How does a piece of music which is so intertwined with a show become so memorable that ir can actually surpass the show in regards to popularity?

I think part of this of course has to do with the fact that songs are significantly more transportable than a television show. What I mean by this is that a song can be recalled far easier than an episode or series. A drama is an hour of television while sitcom is between 22-25 minutes long and cartoon like Adventure Time or Steven Universe is 11 minutes.

So in terms of just time, they obviously take more of it but they also cover more in that time. An hour long drama can incorporate several plot-lines which have been carried over from a number of previous episodes and possibly a multitude of narrative twists or character developments in a single episode.

However, a good theme song condenses the themes and feel of a show into a digestible and identifiable minute long earworm which slithers into your brain forcing you to hum along. There's an art to crafting a great show theme. Speaking of which,

I think it's become quite clear that I have less than positive things to say about the last couple of seasons of Game of Thrones, particularly in regards to its poor writing and lack of consistent characters. But the theme song is simply put, perfect.

Since it debited in April 2011, the Game of Thrones theme has woven itself into the fabric of the pop cultural consciousness. It is one of the most covered TV theme songs of all time, from renditions with electric guitars and violins, in 8-bit, or with vocals repeating Peter Dinklage over and over, and many, many more.

On the wonderful Song Exploder podcast, where musicians breakdown the different elements which comprise their songs, composer Ramin Djawadi talked about his inspiration in crafting the grandiose theme for the show. What is interesting is how much it was a conscious decision to make the music match the feel of the show from the get-go.
"The one keyword that they [the show's creators] said to me about writing the main title was that they wanted it to be a journey. Because there's lots of different locations, there's lots of different characters, there's just a lot of travelling in the show. And that's something that they wanted to convey with the music as well."
The focus on matching the visuals/feel of the show with the main title theme should be obvious I suppose but since the soundtracks or scores aren't something which are often discussed in much detail, it's refreshing to examine how they are composed.

Oh, there's a voice and violin cover too.

For example, Djawadi discusses how the opening of the song starts with its recognisable riff in a minor key, then a major key before it changes back to a minor key. This key shift mirrors the complex way in which characters in the show change allegiances in the show as he explains,
"My intention was just because what the nature of the show is, there was so much backstabbing and conspiracy, and anybody can turn on anybody at any point, so I thought it would be cool to do the same play with the music so, even though the majority of the piece is in minor, there's that little hint of major in there where it kinda switches and then it changes back again so that's the opening."
Whether this is something that the average audience member would pick up on consciously is debatable, I'm not sure even most critics would notice, but I would argue that it plays to the success of the theme, not only as a piece of music but as possibly the most identifiable part of Game of Thrones.

Dwajadi even chose the cello for the instrument which starts the theme because it has a darker sound which matched the tone of the show. I guess what I'm trying to get at here is that it's clear a lot of thought goes into composing a memorable theme.

As must be abundantly clear, I don't have any formal musical training but the thing that I think makes great a theme song is whether it has what I'm going to term 'complex simplicity', because oximorons are fun. Essentially, a great theme often has a complex arrangement built around a simple musical hook, like the way Game of Thrones' epic theme is all built around its main riff - daaa, da, dun-dun, daaa, da, dun-dun, da.

The Daredevil title theme is one of my favourite current TV show themes and listening to it, what it striking is how simple its main melodic hook is. Played on a piano, its just descending notes played slowly over the spiraling strings in the background pulsating the song forward.

There's a great juxtaposition between the simplicity of the main melody and the rushing string arrangement. Similarly, the beginning of the theme starts with an easy arpeggio repeated high on the piano awash with atmospheric electronic sounds to hook the listener in. And just as a nice touch, the theme ends with the sound of a beating heart, tying into Daredevil's advanced hearing and the often gruesome violence in the show.

It's a neat trick to craft something that sounds simple but actually isn't. I always found it fascinating that a lot of Beatles songs sound simple because they are so melodic but they would often have weird chords and subtle time changes which were rather complicated.

But then again sometimes things are just simple and that's okay because when talking about the effectiveness of simplicity, Adventure Time's theme song is a prime example.

It opens with a soundscape as the visuals fly over the land of Ooo passing by all the characters of the show until we get to Finn & Jake fist-bumping. Cue a youngish guy with a slightly weak singing voice (listen to how he strains to sustain notes) declaring it's "Adventure Time, come grab your friends, we'll go to far off distant lands/With Jake the Dog and Finn the Human, the fun will never end, it's Adventure Time!" over the simple strumming of an ukulele.

You might think I'm being mean criticising the singer's vocal abilities but I'm not. I think the fact he doesn't have a powerful singing voice improves the song immensely since it adds an innocence and playfulness that a more capable singer couldn't have. I particularly love how he ends the song on a high note he can't quite reach, it just feels so human to me.

And this plays into the sweet playful nature of a show which has candy people, ice kings, unicorn rainbow dragons, and a sword wielding boy having adventures with his shape-shifting dog. Furthermore, the lyrics are great. In two sentences, they sum up the entire show and what it is about. I'm not sure what more you could ask from an opening theme song.

So let's change tack and discuss a finale theme.

That is the final piece of music for Avatar: The Legend of Korra and it is just beautiful. Composed by Jeremy Zuckerman with a mix of Chinese and western instruments, yet again it shows the value in simplicity married with a complex arrangement.

On the Song Exploder podcast, Zuckerman notes that his favourite musical cue for the series is "such a simple little thing". I truly believe it is through simplicity that we can most easily convey emotion through music. He mentioned how he was inspired by the Lonely Man Theme from The Incredible Hulk and wanted to tap into the melancholy feeling of that theme invokes while composing the cue for Korra.

Now, I don't want to SPOIL anything for anyone who might not have watched the finale of Legend of Korra, but in the last scene Korra and Asami leave to travel the Spirit World as a romantic couple. Zuckerman explains that the spot notes (where there should be music and for what function) for the final episode read,
"Transition to score for this last sequence: They will hold hands and turn to each other at the end so we'd like to have a more romantic feel for this last sequence to support the intention that these lovely ladies are going to get together."
What I thought was a lovely touch is that Zuckerman, who was also the composer for Avatar: The Last Airbender, mentioned how he put a callback to one of the more memorable music cues from The Last Airbender at the end of the piece because it was a culmination of the journey from Aang to Korra. That level of detail is always impressive to me.

I'm not crying, I've just got something touching my very soul.

I guess my main argument for this post is that although we don't often discuss music themes in the same way we do about the writing or characters of a television show, they can be just as important to the success of a show as the rest.

This isn't to say a great show needs to have a great opening theme or that bad shows can't have a great theme song. Rather my point is that music has an ability to touch us and worm its way into our brains like no other form of art, and creating a memorable theme song which also embodies the feel of a television show is something special.


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