In Hollywood, writing an epic film score can win you a place in movie history. John Williams has five Academy Awards and a whopping 48 nominations. Television scores don’t carry the same cache, however. Although the Primetime Emmy Awards do have a category for Outstanding Music Composition, the Boston Pops aren’t likely to perform a tribute to the music of The X-Files. We do remember the theme songs to our favorite shows, but the music behind each episode is something that is rarely, if ever, discussed in TV criticism. There are a few shows that are defined, for me, by their musical scores — where I can’t imagine another sound that would better back up the characters and set the tone.
The West Wing: W.G. Snuffy Walden
Snuffy Walden is the John Williams of television, having scored everything from Felicity to Roseanne to Friday Night Lights; the range of his work is incredible. But he’s always going to be known as the guy who scored The West Wing. In 1999, when the drama premiered, the theme song didn’t yet have its signature strings. Aaron Sorkin’s show was ambitious in its scope, and required an ambitious soundtrack to match. When I watch today’s more halfhearted political dramas, I’m left thinking that if someone had just created a score as inspiring as Walden’s, we would find it easier to imagine Geena Davis as the president of the United States.
Game of Thrones: Ramin Djawadi
Let’s ignore Hold Steady’s rockin’ version of “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” for the moment. While the fantasy series has been using indie bands to pump up the cool factor on its end credits, the actual scoring deserves some attention. Composer Ramin Djawadi came in to replace the venerable Stephen Warbeck only weeks before the show was set to air. Djawadi had composed “additional music” for the Hans Zimmer-scored Batman Begins and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Djawadi was tasked with creating a period score without solo vocals or flutes (basically, avoiding anything that remotely sounded like The Lord of the Rings). His philosophy was to create a “10-hour movie” in each season, building the score up as he goes. The score projects epic without being cheesy, and aligns perfectly with George R.R. Martin’s universe.
Doctor Who: Murray Gold
Although the very special musical episode “The Rings of Akhaten” didn’t do it for me, Murray Gold has blessed Doctor Who with many gorgeous musical moments. Most of these happened during Amy’s tenure as the Doctor’s companion. In those episodes, Gold gives the audience a score filled with childlike wonder (and a ton of those wispy vocals that Ramin Djawadi was ordered not to use in Game of Thrones). It matches Matt Smith’s more effervescent Eleventh Doctor, and plays up the fairy-tale elements of the fifth and sixth series. Not sure yet? Listen to the Doctor Who Fan Orchestra play its own version of “Amy’s Suite.”
Battlestar Galactica: Bear McCreary
McCreary is in a class by himself. His score for Battlestar Galactica, chock full of taiko drums and haunting piano lines, is somehow futuristic without incorporating heavy synth, techno or anything else that one would instantly identify as “from the future.” In fact, McCreary wanted to incorporate instruments that were “as ancient as possible.” This meant he used world instruments that American audiences hadn’t heard before, like the Armenian duduk, and the Balinese gamelan. The result is that the mythos of the BSG universe seems all the more real. Writers can tell you that the people of the 12 colonies had rich cultural traditions, and that their civilization now hangs by a thread in the middle of space — but McCreary can tell you that without any words. Although he’s worked on many TV shows since (including The Walking Dead and Defiance), his career-defining moment came aboard the Galactica.