Emmys: 'Game of Thrones,' 'American Horror Story' and More Composers Reveal How Music Can "Take the Scene to Another Place"

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images; JB Lacroix/WireImage; C Flanigan/Getty Images
John Legend, Mac Quayle and Ramin Djawadi

These professional musicians spill on the methods to their madness, including "crash courses" in baroque Parisian music and using clarinets to evoke the voice of Kerry Washington.

At the heart of every successful TV show are characters you notice instantly. Whether it’s their attitude or their hairstyle or their catchphrases, these people become the first thing you think of when you talk about the most recent episode of your favorite series. While the actors get all the magazine covers, however, most shows couldn’t succeed without the help of one unseen and often unsung character — the music.

“I always come down on the side of making music its own character,” explains composer Alex Heffes, who created the scores for Hulu’s 11/22/63 and A&E’s reboot of Roots. “It might be out in front or more subtle, but the score is an indelible part of the fabric of a show.” Adds Outlander composer Bear McCreary, “Music is at the very least the window we have into characters. It can do a lot to help the audience get inside the mind of a character. It’s that missing piece to help understand that person’s subtext.”

One of Heffes’ main challenges in scoring the new Roots was dealing with a story that sprawled over several continents and centuries. Because the story of Kunta Kinte begins in Africa, he at first relied on “a children’s choir and strings, but as the characters come to America, you start mixing the music of the Civil War era with African styles. As the show progresses, the music has to morph.” While McCreary concedes it’s the writer’s job to create relatable characters, it’s the composer’s job to make “their emotions feel real.” Outlander proved to be tricky because its characters trek from 1940s Europe to Scotland in the 1700s to the revolution in France. The Scottish element was easy enough for the composer — “I grew up with Scottish folks songs!” — but creating the lavish, ornamental melodies of baroque Paris required “doing a crash course, immersing myself in that music.”

Los Angeles-based musician Eskmo had an easier time adjusting when he took on his first TV show, Showtime’s Billions. He’s released several albums of eclectic electronic music, which helped him create “more of an aesthetic than a character. I want my music to help the environment of the show. I don’t want it to be obtrusive, but instead take the scene to another place.”

That was particularly true with one of his favorite musical moments of the season, in an episode where bad-buy hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) tears up a check and throws it in the face of his nemesis, U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Throughout the scene, Eksmo says, he built up tension with a very electronic underscore. That way, by the end, it felt natural “to turn the dial up to 11. In the script, Axelrod was on his own warpath so, musically, this was the first time I got to have both the main characters turned way up.”

In a sense, a show’s score is kind of like a sidekick for the characters. It might not get much time on its own, but it’s always there to lend support and context. That’s also the philosophy used by Harry Gregson-Williams, who provided music for the HBO film Confirmation. “A good score brings a point of view that wasn’t previously there to the project.,” he says. “The music doesn’t tell the story in terms of characters but with rhythmic textures.”

In the case of Confirmation, the story of the 1991 Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, this meant establishing a melody that “could be the musical voice of Anita Hill. Sometimes it’s a gentle rendition of clarinet or woodwind, sometimes it’s more forceful as she gains confidence. But it always goes toward underscoring what’s on the screen.”

There are exceptions to that rule, though. When John Legend signed on as an executive producer with WGN America’s Underground, he wanted to make a big musical splash right away. “We worked with the show's composers, Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq, to "set the tone we were after for the show with the very first scene, where Aldis Hodge’s character is running through the woods and you hear ‘Black Skinhead’ by Kanye West. Using it made sense even though the show is a period piece. Here was a thrilling moment and the music helped make that possible. Blending period styles and contemporary music was a controversial choice, but we knew we wanted the show to be bold and risky. The music was definitely part of that.”

That’s why using the song in that moment was in the very first draft of the script. However, that sort of advance notice is rare. Quite often, composers are not sure at what part of the production process they’ll be brought in. Sometimes they’ll have to start scoring after getting a glimpse of one script. Sometimes they’ll leap in after seeing a rough cut of an episode. And there are even rare occasions when they have to absorb a whole season of episodes in order to chart their musical course. “The best way to create a show’s sound is to get a composer involved early,” says Jeff Russo, who has scored the first two seasons of FX’s Fargo. “So often producers wait until halfway through their first episode before they start looking for someone. Then you get maybe a week-and-a-half to figure it out and immerse yourself in the show’s narrative.”

It rarely works the other way — where the music determines the characters and scenes — but one exception was ABC’s Galavant. Since that series was built entirely around its 60-plus songs, composer Alan Menken would have to meet with the writers to dissect the upcoming season before the scripts were even written. “We had to break each episode down and then decide what song moments we wanted to go after. That built the structure for the season. There was a lot of back and forth, where we’d read the scripts and realize they did this with the story when we did that with the music.”

That’s why Mac Quayle, who provided music for both FX’s anthology series American Horror Story: Hotel and USA’s Mr. Robot this past season, figures it’s nearly impossible to create his music without “seeing scenes on screen and hearing the dialogue.” Still, since there is usually very short turnaround time for creating a score, he makes it a point to regularly chat with the producers from the very start of a project.

“It all begins with conversations about what they’re thinking for a show, and then how music can help tell the story they’ve come up with,” he explains. “Out of that, we come up with ideas for general parameters so at least I’m not starting from scratch.”

It’s a tricky task to come up with a score that can both fully inform a character or scene while at the same time avoid leading viewers too far along. That’s particularly true when it comes to a dialogue-drenched show like HBO’s Game of Thrones. Composer Ramin Djadwadi is well aware that his series depends on intense character conversations, “so my music can’t overshadow the words. There are so many characters and so much plot, what I write is there to just support the drama. If I can achieve that, and you still have my melodies in your head to follow you around the rest of the day, I’ve done my job.”

Ultimately, if you can be heard and not seen, a composer’s music will actually ring loud and clear. “As long the score is helping tell the story and not pulling the viewer out of it, going, ‘Wow, this music!’ — that’s what you want,” explains Quayle. “There this saying I heard years ago, which was very funny and humbling: When we as composers are really doing our job well, people won’t notice us.”

This story first appeared in the June 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.