25 May 2022

What your business can learn from TV theme tunes

Expert comment
We recently read with interest an article that revealed Netflix’s ‘Skip intro’ button is pressed over 136 million times a day.

The piece, published by The Guardian, unsurprisingly featured comment from prominent theme composers arguing for the button’s eradication.

The TV theme song was once considered an artform, with some particularly iconic themes entering the public consciousness – we can think of dozens of singalong examples, with tracks from our childhoods particularly ingrained in our psyches.

It’s no coincidence that we’re especially able to recall shows from the days when linear broadcasting was the only way to catch your favourite show; the opening titles (and credits) had a key role to play in signalling its start and end. But box-set marathons are now normalized; ‘binge-watch’ was the Collins English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015, and 87% of Gen Z consumers admit to binge-watching – and this is before the stay-at-home orders of 2020 and 2021 focused much more attention on at-home entertainment.

Why are theme songs helpful for audiences?

There’s no explicit need for the opening credits to feature music, but almost all shows have them – even the news. So they must help audiences settle into the show in some way.

Our Senior Vice-President of Creative, Dan Lafferty, explains their role as a kind of long-form sonic logo.

Theme songs aren’t there to advance the story, but their content can prime the audience with signifiers about the show’s pace, content and – perhaps obviously – themes.

There are some famous motifs that composers can include as sonic ‘Easter eggs’, to trigger subliminal emotive responses – although these tend to be used at key plot points during the story, rather than in the theme song. The most famous is Dies Irae: a four-note motif originally appearing in Gregorian chant, used in the Catholic requiem mass to emphasize judgement, wrath, holy fire, power and subordination, and general impending doom.

It’s been used throughout history to imply all of these sinister emotions – famously at critical points in hundreds of films:

How theme songs help audiences

Some classic theme songs set up the plot in explicit terms; the theme song to 90s sitcom The Nanny, starring Fran Drescher, explains the titular character’s backstory and enables casual viewers to enjoy the show, without having watched past episodes.

Others forgo lyrics but use musical tropes to play with audiences’ emotions. A&R Manager, Alice Salmon, explains:

Tempo and tonality are the quickest and most universally reliable routes for a composer to communicate their intention to every listener. Painting with broad brushstrokes, major notes imply happiness, and minor notes imply sadness or peril.

Why is this the case? We could get very technical so we’ll not get too bogged down in detail, but essentially it relates to the tonal system we in the West have for harmonies; this doesn’t exist naturally, but was created hundreds of years ago with strict rules. But even that was reverse-engineered from ancient and traditional folk music. It’s so ingrained in human culture that, arguably, it’s innate.

In essence, each of us has learned to associate major chords with happiness, and minor chords with sadness or peril, based on our experiences of the world (and often, based on the media we’ve consumed while growing up). So when composing modern theme tunes, composers will not only use their technical knowledge, but also consider what similar TV series’ from history sounded like – because this will inform and reinforce audience expectations.

The theme tunes to mystery-thriller shows How to Get Away with Murder and Sherlock have in them musical echoes of the music from the title credits to 1964 film A Shot in the Dark, which starred Peter Sellers as the comically incompetent Inspector Clouseau.

Henry Mancini’s composition for A Shot in the Dark has become a blueprint that others now follow; you’ll commonly find theme songs to mystery shows are underpinned by a driving bassline, with a slower melody playing over the top. That faster bassline hints at a racing heartbeat – signifying suspense and intrigue – while the slower melody, written in a minor key, implies the circuitous and perilous route to the mystery’s resolution.

These tricks aren’t limited to mystery-themed shows. Period pieces like Downton Abbey and Bridgerton routinely feature soaring, orchestral themes that hint at grandeur and drama; sci-fi shows like The Mandalorian frequently use synthesizers to create ‘unnatural’ sounds that imbue an otherworldly atmosphere; and we can’t not mention The Simpsons.

It’s one of the most universally recognizable theme tunes of all, but did you know that its uptempo pace and frequent changes of instrumentation hint at quick-fire jokes and large cast of characters? Even Lisa’s saxophone solo is deliberate: it hints at her high intellect and standing as a social outcast.

Our final example is cult comedy show The Good Place. The titular location is a faith-neutral afterlife that is, visually, moulded on a whimsical interpretation of Middle America.

This short, nine-second melody echoes the instrumentation of the classic Somewhere Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz – a film which also shares The Good Place’s use of saturated colours and fantastical architecture. Fans of the show have also pointed out the similarity between its theme and the theme track to life-simulation game The Sims (no spoilers, but this may not be accidental).

It seems that the tone (and very short length) are spot-on, judging from this YouTuber’s comment.

Theme songs today

So, what role does the theme song have in a streaming-first future?

Rather than simply indicating the beginning or end of a show, modern themes could help audiences (often overwhelmed by choice) to decide whether a show is for them.

Discussing this topic at the office, more than one person stated that a ‘downtempo, overlong’ intro can hint at a slow-paced, overblown plot that struggles to retain attention (one even said they turned off the first episode Netflix’s The OA on the strength – or lack thereof – of its theme song alone).

Lessons for businesses

We believe passionately in the power of audio to capture attention and influence audience emotions – it’s why we spend our days crafting sonic identities for brands.

As such, we implore Netflix (and other streaming platforms) to make theme songs ‘unskippable’ when watching the first episode of a binge, to help the audience settle into the show.

And businesses can learn from this too – because success in audio depends not just on having great sonic assets, but knowing when (and how often) to use them. Clearly, some audiences are unimpressed by being made to wait with segments that add nothing to the story; so if you’re making your customer wait (say, queueing on the telephone), make sure you’re using this time to communicate useful information about your products and business.

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