The best new music for TV drama: a listener's guide

James McCarthy
Friday, September 21, 2018

Some of the finest television drama scores of the last two decades are essential listening, with or without the onscreen action, writes James McCarthy

Composers that have something new and interesting to say will invariably find a way to say it, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the obstacles.

This is no more true than for composers who write music to accompany television drama. The position of a composer on a TV project contrasts significantly with that of a composer commissioned to write an opera, a string quartet or a concerto. In the world of contemporary classical music or opera the composer is at the top of the tree, free to explore their artistic whims and creative impulses.

The TV drama composer's position is much more as a member of a creative team, and not a particularly high-ranking member at that. They must follow and deliver the vision of any number of producers (with their often vehement and contradictory opinions), the channel and the directors. The music they write must fit the drama on screen to the hundredth of the second, and the composer must be able to slice-and-dice their music as scenes are re-edited right up to the deadline. There is no time for being precious and protective over one's creations.

Not ideal conditions, one might think, for producing great music. But often when you are starved of creative freedoms you find ways of being more creative than if you are just given carte blanche.

The cardinal rule of the job is that the music must never conflict with the dialogue. The dialogue, the script, is paramount.

Of course, music composed for television dramas is not intended to be listened to in isolation, as standalone music. Doing so is a little like listening to a concerto without the soloist part, the star of the show – the dialogue – is missing.

But in spite of all of this, there is a huge amount of remarkable music out there to discover and enjoy. Music that truly stands alone, outside of its original, functional, dramatic context, that manages to overcome the limiting circumstances under which it was composed and still be wonderful.


Less is more

In my own experience, moving between writing music for the concert hall and writing music for TV drama is a huge change of gear. When you're writing a piece for the concert hall you are creating the whole world of the piece, you are in control of everything within that world, every detail. But when you start on a TV project you have to adjust to the fact that the best way of scoring a scene might be with just a couple of perfectly placed chords. That takes a huge amount of restraint and belief in the bones of your musical material. 

When scoring a television drama, you must be able to convey an emotion or a mood, or set a dramatic tone within seconds. It's a hugely difficult thing to achieve in an original way, but can make listening to the best of these scores in isolation a deeply emotionally involving one.

A note of caution. This is not an exhaustive guide to all of the music that is out there, it is more a starting point, a personal journey through recent scores that I find interesting and, yes, emotional.



Michael Giacchino cut his musical teeth writing music for video games in the late 1990s (the Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty) before producer JJ Abrams signed him up for his television series Alias. It was in 2004 that Giacchino began work on another JJ Abrams produced show that would become hugely popular, Lost.

The score is striking in its use of the kinds of 'extended' instrumental techniques that were pioneered by the likes of Bartók (the late String Quartets) and Penderecki (try Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima), and indeed film composer Bernard Herrmann, in the 20th century.

Herrmann's influence is perhaps no more clearly felt than in the cue ‘Kate’s Motel’