Music for Prime Time

Jon Burlingame's new book on television themes and scoring

Like a poor cousin, officially one of the family but often overlooked or belittled, the special field of music scoring for television has historically been considered inferior or at least subordinate to the full-blown, more respected, high-profile art of scoring the major theatrical feature film. TV composers typically work with half the resources, half the salary, and twice the rush to produce just as much music as a big-screen movie would require but all in service of a one-off evening home-screen broadcast or, in the case of music for a continuing TV series, a brief weekly program slot within which their music will be interrupted by adverts and station-identification announcements every ten minutes. Any self-respecting screen composer must ask, Why bother?

Jon Burlingame: Music for Prime Time - book cover According to a new book from Oxford University Press, Music for Prime Time, by the film music journalist and University of Southern California professor Jon Burlingame, there are at least two incentives for composers to try their hand, to give TV music its due respect and for us, readers and watchers, to care (1) the realization of how many future major theatrical film composers began their careers and learned their craft writing for television (in America, recall Henry Mancini scoring Peter Gunn shows; John Williams composing for Checkmate and Lost in Space; Jerry Goldsmith scoring live television dramas like Climax and later productions like Studio One; in Britain think of Edwin Astley's early contributions to Danger Man and The Saint and, of course, the iconic Ron Grainer music for Doctor Who) and, (2) how much good music has actually accumulated over the years in spite of the limitations, the modesty, of the medium.

Music for Prime Time takes on the whole history of broadcast music from its earliest days when, in Burlingame's words, TV "adopted the commonplace radio strategy of using 'canned' music in the vast majority of shows" (that is, generic music cues in different moods drawn from a pre-existing library of recordings) through the evolving practice of applying a few specially composed fragments of music meant to support live television dramas, through dedicated and increasingly sophisticated whole scores once recurring programs joined a weekly schedule of broadcasting. From there, Burlingame chronicles not only the emergence of each new stable of young talented ambitious composers rising to the needs of the new sub-medium of television but a number of backstage, unsung music editors and session producers, guys like Dave Kahn and Stanley Wilson, whose names appeared in the credits of countless TV series next to indecipherable job descriptions like "Music Supervisor". Music for Prime Time tells us where these men came from and what they did to make a lot of future composers sound good. And although it seems as though Burlingame must have researched this whole elaborate history with a staff of fifty, it was apparently all compiled alone from his own decades of journalistic experience and composer-contacts – a major and, I think, definitive accomplishment which can now serve both as an archive of names and facts and trends in what we're calling the "specialty of TV music scoring" and as an entertaining 'read' in its own right: the ongoing story of a fascinating medium that has affected us all.

The book's subtitle promises that it will be about "television themes and scoring" introducing the peculiar discipline of composing a single music theme for each given show – a musical logo that hopefully will become identified with the program-to-follow and instantly conjure-up the characters, the setting, the aura of each show – a music calling card, if you will – all in a few seconds of screen time. In that regard, the book reminds us of several eras of TV themes from Mancini's supercharged Peter Gunn theme (part jazz with a rock-music bass-line) or Lalo Schifrin's Mission Impossible with its dynamic 5/4 meter, the pulp fiction sound of Fred Steiner's theme to the old Perry Mason series, The Twilight Zone's atonal provocations (actually a combination of two fragments of library music by Marius Constant that had nothing to do with the series but became inextricably associated with it). All this discussion makes one search one's own memory for memorable TV themes – calling cards – in one's own past: the barking brass of Wilfred Josephs's theme to I, Claudius, Dudley Simpson's noble synth theme to the Jacob Bronowski cultural science series The Ascent of Man, Quincy Jones's funky theme to the comedy Sanford and Son and, once new programming carriers came on the scene, composers like Bear McCreary providing cutting-edge themes for shows like Battlestar Galactica. And, indeed, that new revolution in television packaging, the new purveyors and owners of TV entertainment, would soon begin to effect the sorts of music composers were asked (or even allowed) to compose. Burlingame bravely ventures into this whole issue with its own chapter - "Music for Cable and Streaming" – now that the major TV networks of the past in US and UK have been supplemented, even supplanted, by internet and satellite based providers – corporate venues and vehicles that not only distribute programming but now commission, sponsor, and produce original TV series and set the trends. Now screen composers entering the field of television scoring are working not for a studio or a single network music director but for a giant multi-tasking corporation and, as it were, for a cyber server that calls the shots. As analyzed in the book, this new situation can have contradictory effects on screen composing and it is the clarity and fairness of this discussion that makes Burlingame's book so valuable.

On the one hand, the decentralization, fragmentation, and randomization of TV venues seems to return the typical TV composer's reputation to that of the poor neglected cousin we described earlier. In a sobering sidebar discussion at page 248-51 of Music for Prime Time, Burlingame ventures a warning question as an essay title, "The End of Network TV Themes" quoting TV executives to say that any screen time spent on TV theme music in this age of impatience, channel-surfing, multi-networks, and multi-devices that can be clicked-off at a moment's discontent, is wasted time, lost time; that theme music in particular, the "calling card" of past hit shows, represents "an antiquated practice" and such music these days is mere "clutter". Everyone is worried about the fickle viewer and his/her instant gratification. For that matter, a lot of current TV programming has done away with all screen credits or produced a credit roll so quick that even the alphabet, let alone readable names, cannot be recognized. Veterans of the industry cry-out that "fools are running things now" and are sacrificing, for expedience's sake, the very elements, like memorable TV music, that create loyal viewers. But, they say, no one cares anymore who made the program – just get on with the next one – in fact, don't even finish this one: overlap, blend and blur. What hope does welcome-music or exit-music have in that world?

And yet, on the other hand, Music for Prime Time also claims an advantage is being presented by the proliferation of new cable and streaming avenues for programming. TV music is finding new opportunities "the widespread use of personal computers and the attendant rise of the internet... (has) led to surprising new developments in the second decade of the twenty-first century... producers working for the non-broadcast entitles seem to pay more attention to the role and power of music. And as big-screen filmmakers began to gravitate to television, finding greater artistic freedom than the medium once offered, they frequently engage high profile composers to help tell their stories".

As the scrappy medium that it always was, nervous about fickle viewers who are ready to abandon ship at the first sign of any quiet screen moment, television, across all its formats, will probably never feel relaxed enough to give full reign to subtle music scoring like the big screen can do (when it wants to), but one good way to encourage at least an appreciation for the potential of television scoring is to study its heyday, know its history, its trends, mavericks, heroes, and fools. This new book, Music for Prime Time, provides the ultimate and, as I've said, probably definitive vehicle for doing that. It's all in here, tastefully illustrated, copiously indexed.

Television scoring a poor cousin it may still be, but here's a book that covers it all in an orderly and personal way and, after considering it in toto, still calls it "this endlessly fascinating realm of modern music".

Review: John Caps

Jon Burlingame writes regularly for various industry publications including "Variety". He has written a number of books about music for film and television and its composers, including co-authoring "Music by John Barry" (see John Barry page) and "The Music of James Bond" (see James Bond Music page). "Music for Prime Time" can be found on and

John Caps has written several articles for mfiles on a range of topics related to film and classical music.