Pop Culture

Music Is Key to TV's New Golden Age

Performers at the Game of Thrones Live concert tour, which reached Houston's Toyota Center in March.
Performers at the Game of Thrones Live concert tour, which reached Houston's Toyota Center in March. Photo by Violeta Alvarez
Think of one of your favorite television programs, and you can likely remember the title song of the show as much as your favorite character or plot point. These days, the affinity people have for the music in this golden era of streaming TV is serious.

It’s a stretch from the time when TV-show music may have gotten as complicated as laying some synth tracks down as transition music between scenes. But these days, music for the best television shows is somewhat epic and TV programs are dropping original soundtracks at an almost faster clip than your favorite rapper drops mixtapes.

“It’s not at all an afterthought anymore. [Game of Thrones] is such a great evolution. It’s a great example of the modern theme-song movement,” says Amanda Byers, an expert in the relationship between music and television.

HBO shows have long gone hard in the paint when it comes to using music for a hit series.

The Sopranos was one of the first to have this amazing main title experience for the viewer, that brought together a song that just started to trigger something in people’s brains and put it together with imagery that really got people to suspend disbelief,” adds Byers, who is managing director of the TV-music crowdsourcing database TuneFind. “The beginning of The Sopranos you sat there, and you watched those opening titles, and it got you going; you knew where you were going.”

The show True Blood, with Jace Everette’s "Bad Things," was another song/show combination that delivered.

A few years earlier, shows like Scrubs and The O.C. began incorporating music like never before, and not just in the titles. “A little over ten years ago, you started to see shows pulling music into the scene, into these moments to try and create a bigger mood or to really emphasize different scenes or to help develop character and kind of set viewers’ expectations around a character’s personality, what they brought to the show," says Byers. "As this golden age of television became more about rich storytelling, music became a key feature."

There are about 830 television shows covered on TuneFind, which helps viewers find songs used in their top shows.

Another whose popularity can’t be mentioned without acknowledging its music is the Netflix phenom Stranger Things, which recently announced Season 2 will premiere in late October.

“[The show’s music supervisor, Nora Felder,] was able to go in a theme around the 1980s, and this iconic time when a lot of these viewers were alive, with some great call-back stuff and familiar sounds,” Byers says. That’s not to mention the huge spotlight that was shone on Austin band SURVIVE, which produced the key music for the show.

Still, the man to look at as the leader of the pack in terms of the revival in television music is the composer and producer Ramin Djawadi.

“His work on Game of Thrones really caught a lot of people’s attention, and I think we saw a transition," Byers explains. "In cases where shows were going for original composition, they might release an original soundtrack after the season finished airing, but with a show like Game of Thrones, there was so much demand for Ramijn’s score that they started releasing that score concurrent with the air of the episode so that fans could get it right away.

“Now Westworld was another [show with Djawadi’s music]; it’s a new show, they weren’t sure if it was going to have this same level of popularity. It clearly did," she adds. "They released a soundtrack with all these amazing instrumentals and adaptations that were done for the show."

Of course, giving more attention to music in television has also followed the influx of a new kind of job in the industry — music supervisors. An important part of the rise in prestige-TV music, these supervisors partner with showrunners to select and identify music that will be used in shows, according to Byers, who has worked with all the best over the years.

The supervisor, she explains, helps to construct playlists for different options for different scenes. “They’ll get a script and start working out, ‘Okay, where are we going to have some music in these four spots, or these 20 spots?’” she says.

Television shows have, in many ways, become the new-music discovery platform, instead of an app or streaming service. “There are a handful of shows that have set the bar," says Byers. "Literally, viewers follow those shows in order to discover new music.”

The biggest challenge for the music supervisors is not to use cliché tunes, which is why you find shows like The Walking Dead pushing a lot of original music by independent or new artists.

“They don’t want to use an artist that you’ve heard, or some song that you have been hearing on the radio for ages," says Byers. "And often, some of those songs are too expensive. You have to budget for five different songs in a show; you can’t blow it all on this week’s top of the chart."
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Camilo Hannibal Smith started writing for the Houston Press in 2014. A former copy editor, he was inspired to focus on writing about pop culture and entertainment after a colleague wrote a story about Paul Wall's grills. His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times and the Source magazine.