How To Compose Music for Binge Watching

By  · Published on May 15th, 2015


Summer is coming. With most series coming to an end for the summer hiatus, the next few months will likely be spent binge watching new shows like Netflix’s Grace and Frankie or the next season of Orange is the New Black (or shows you have heard about and want to get caught up on).

Television has changed a lot over the past few years. Gone are the days of singing along to your favorite theme song in favor of fast forwarding to the actual show itself. You no longer have to wait week-to-week for the next episode of some of your favorite shows thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon releasing full series all at once.

Creating music for television is a delicate balance between helping influence the emotions on screen and not overpowering what is being said. (The CW still has a tendency to crank up the popular tunes while their characters are talking…) But when you know a series is going to potentially be binge watched, how do you keep the music fresh and make sure the stings at the beginning and end of an episode resonate even when listened to back-to-back?

One of Neflix’s new series, Bloodline, is a dark exploration of what it means to be family. Led by Kyle Chandler as John Rayburn, the trailer for Bloodline teases the sound of the series through a driving violin that would be melodic if it weren’t for it’s staccato pace. The Rayburns are a close knit family, who seem to be living in a perpetual paradise, but they are also a family full of secrets.

The score Tony Morales and Edward Rogers created for the series is sparse (much like the scores for true crime stories) and it works to add more to the atmosphere of the show than the emotion. With the Rayburns, what isn’t said is almost as important as what is said so it is important for the music to stick to the fringes of a scene and allow for moments of silence.

But Bloodline has a distinct sound and feel thanks to Morales and Rogers’ ability to create music that works as a slow burn – especially knowing viewers may end up watching the entire series in a single sitting. The music works almost on a subconscious level, bringing you into the Rayburns’ world, but not in an obvious way. To achieve this, Morales and Rogers opted to think about the overall sense of the series, instead of focusing on specific scenes, saying, “We developed a few key melodic themes and specific sound palettes. These became the backbone of the score for the entire season, and although you might not hear the full statement of these themes in every episode, there are pieces of them woven throughout. These small strands of thematic DNA live in the entire score and keep it cohesive.”

These musical hints, which work to tie the entire series together, also reflect the hints scattered throughout Bloodline as viewers try and figure out this “bad thing” the Rayburn siblings did. If it seems like Morales and Rogers’ music is also a bit unsure of where the story is going, that is because it is. “The show runners only fed us story lines as we were working through the season. This, in a way, kept us guessing and kept us on our toes.” This decision by show creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler, and Daniel Zelman was a smart one because it keeps the music from giving too much away while still allowing it to be electrifying.

Just as Morales and Rogers created sound palettes to weave throughout Bloodline, Dustin O’Halloran’s score for Amazon’s Transparent also focused on moods and instruments more than themes, saying, “There is a kind of style that follows through the season. Only a few motifs come back, but it feels connected.” The style established in the show’s opening credits can be heard as the basis of some of these motifs and can be heard in the following clip after the Pfefferman women have an unpleasant altercation in a public restroom:

Like Bloodline, Transparent deals with the tricky nature of family and how one member’s decision (i.e. Jeffrey Tambor’s Mort/Maura) affects everyone else in different (and ever changing) ways. Transparent is driven by dark humor and unflinching honesty so O’Halloran made the wise decision to “do everything organic and record everything as I wrote it.” By not over thinking the music, O’Halloran created a score that stays exciting and unexpected from episode-to-episode. But that is not to say the music does not have a close-knit feel. As O’Halloran explains, “I think this approach helped give a sense of fluidity and connection with the whole season.” Staying within these parameters of being organic and honest works to let the music reflect Maura’s transition, without overly influencing it.

Where Bloodline and Transparent are set against familial trappings, Marco Polo takes viewers back in time to the 1200s and the Mongolian Empire. Marco Polo might be the name of a silly game you play in the pool, but it is also the name of a person (played by Lorenzo Richelmy) with a vast history that began when he was a member of Kublai Khan’s (Benedict Wong) court. Bloodline and Transparent might deal with family politics, but Marco Polo plays in much more dangerous territory made up of the politics of the volatile Mongolian Empire. Marco Polo is rooted in real history (and some legend) which required the series composers Eric V. Hachikian and Peter Nashel to create music that is dynamic, but also historically accurate and influenced the by show’s setting in China.

Luckily having Marco Polo set in a specific location and time period helped Hackikian and Nashel because, “Knowing key plot points of the season, and specific locations of where Marco’s adventures would take him; with this information we were able to plan our use of instruments from those regions, specifically the morin khuur, erhu, pipa, yangqin, among others. This opened up a large creative palette for us, which made the sheer amount of music needed feel less daunting and more open-ended.”

When it comes to potential binge watching audiences, Hachikian and Nashel explained, “Knowing that the episodes might be watched one after the other meant we needed to keep our orchestration and motivic development consistently fresh and growing.” One of the ways the composers were able to do this was thanks to having not one, but two, composers working on the series which allowed them to “do variations on each other’s themes.”

The trick to composing for series that tend to be a bit darker, heavier, and more serious comes from a composer’s ability to approach these series as a single project instead of individual episodes. But what about binge-watchable comedies? Particularly ones aimed at children?

All Hail King Julien is another series from Netflix that is a prequel to the film Madagascar and focuses on the titular character Julian (voiced by Danny Jacobs) and the adventures he gets into in his new role as king. King Julien can be consumed in a single sitting, but unlike these other series it is meant to be consumed by viewers with very short attention spans (i.e. kids) making the music’s ability to keep the fun going all the more important. Because King Julien faces a different situation each episode it allowed the series composer, Frederick Wiedmann, more freedom than he would have if he was trying to tell a continuous story. “These episodes are really standalone adventures so I need to approach each of these episodes more or less from scratch. They introduce new characters from time to time, or the episode deals with a musical gag that is reoccurring, so they are all unique in their own way, musically speaking, but have an overall King Julien tone.”

To keep the episodes still feeling like a series, and not just a bunch of mini-movies, Wiedmann said, “We always try to give each show its unique identity, that can be accomplished with a unique instrumentation, or thematic material (or both). I think it helps immensely to identify characters, new and old familiar ones, and helps the overall flow and the storytelling. Especially in King Julien we try to give the new characters their own theme, sometimes with a very unconventional sound palette. But it keeps it evolving, and interesting for our audience.”

Keeping things interesting is key for all these series (regardless of genre or audience) and each composer is able to do so by trying to make each episode sound unique, but still a part of the overall series. For King Julien, Wiedmann explains, “The most important thing is to remain fresh. In a lot of TV shows you might be able to “re-use” some music from previous episodes, but I usually write every cue from scratch. When you watch all the episodes currently available on Netflix, it doesn’t feel repetitive. Yes, certain themes are part of the show and need to find their home in every episodes (like the most prominent King Julien theme), but it always has a unique arrangement, to keep it form sounding like repeated material.”

While these may be considered television series, the composers approach each project as an overall story more akin to working on a film than a weekly series since the “weekly” portion does not exist here. By not relying heavily on a specific theme or musical branding, each series is able to keep their individual episodes feeling original and keep viewers from become tired of listening to the same musical cues over and over when watching these episodes in succession.

So whether you spend the summer watching families (hopefully) more dysfunctional than yours, taking a trip back in time, or laughing alongside the silly adventures of an animated lemur (who is also happens to be a king), you can rest assured that the music taking you through these binge-watching journeys will never be boring, and may be the reason you tell yourself, “Just one more episode…”