This episode originally aired on Every Little Thing. Go subscribe!
Ever wonder how the music on your favorite news stations is created? Dive in with news music appreciator + journalist Victor Vlam; Composer Matthew Kajcienski, Composer Irad Eshel, Composer Adarsh Thottetodi, Composer David Lowe, Musicologist James Deaville, Film and TV studies Professor Deborah Jaramillo to find out.
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View Transcript ▶︎
[Cheesy newsy music in]
[Dallas reading like a stereotypical newscaster]
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story of news music.
[Cheesy newsy music out]
You don’t have to watch news all the time to know how news sounds. And I can tell you, just from doing that cheesy newscaster voice a second ago… getting it right is not easy. The sound of news has been established and refined over more than half a century. It goes all the way back to TV’s first anchorman, Douglas Edwards [play Douglas Edwards clip]
… it became a household staple with Walter Cronkite [play Cronkite]
… and ultimately, it got to be so recognizable…it was just ripe for parody [Anchorman clip]
But the sound of news goes way beyond the voices of the anchors. [bump out music] Recently, Flora Lichtman from the fantastic podcast Every Little Thing did a report about a man she met who is obsessed with news music. And if you like Twenty Thousand Hertz, I think you'll like Every Little Thing. It's about small stuff that makes a big difference. Flora takes it from here.
Hey so I want you to meet somebody, his name is Victor Vlam.
Victor: Hey Flora, it's Victor.
So Victor is a dutch journalist covering US politics. But he also has a side hobby that he’s just straightforwardly super proud of...
Victor: I first did it anonymously because I was sort of ashamed for it. But after a while I just said to myself, "Why in heaven's name should I be ashamed of this?"
The interest ...that Victor should absolutely not be ashamed of ... is …television news music - like the themes that TV news station play.
Victor: I've been recording television music from when I was like four or five years old. I remember my parents giving me a recording device, one of those red recording machines just made for kids, and I think most people record probably themselves singing or whatever, but I actually used it to record television theme songs at the time.
What did your parents think?
Victor: I think they probably thought it was incredibly weird, but they certainly did not say so. They were actually very supportive.
Ok so that childhood interest turned into a blog -- that he has run for the last 15 years. It tracks the latest fashions in news music...drawing from this library he has been collecting since age 4.
Victor: And I literally have like 50,000 hours of news music on a hard drive stored in my house.
50 thousand hours?
Victor: Yes it’s an incredible amount, and I put a lot of that stuff on my iPhone for example and when I go out for a run I listen to some news theme music.
Ok I need to know more about this. Do you have a running playlist?
Victor: I do actually, yeah.
Do you have your phone? Can you go to it and read me of the songs?
Victor: Yeah, sure. When I ran a marathon a couple of years ago, I just actually thought of a good playlist, I'm actually searching for it now.
Yeah. It actually starts with the World News Tonight theme from 2012, which is by Hans Zimmer, and I thought it was a very dramatic theme.
The first song on your playlist for your marathon run was the 2012 World News Tonight theme song?
Victor: Yes. Exactly. Yeah.
[music in World News Tonight 2012 theme song]
Okay. What came next?
Victor: There's some local news themes came next...
[Local theme songs]
and then at the point at which I plan to be at around quarter of the way through, I have The Mission, which is the NBC News theme.
[The Mission NBC theme]
So I have actually a couple of NBC News themes up there from Nightly News, from Meet the Press, and let's see, there's some CBS stuff as well. Some local stuff. Oh, and there's a...
Victor: Yes? Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Victor, this is amazing.
[News music in]
This is really surprising. You are the only person I would venture in the world to run a marathon to news music.
Victor: [laughs] Yes, I would bet that that's probably true, yes. [News music out]
All right. So here's the thing Victor, your love for news music makes me think I'm really not getting it. Like, there's something to news music that I am not seeing.
Victor: You know I think it’s sort of interesting, sometimes people ask me what do you think is interesting about that and to be honest I have no idea what I think is interesting about it.
Victor may not know what makes it interesting to him, but he does know how it makes him feel.
Victor: I think also because the events of the news are so incredibly important, and they shape our lives. For example, the Berlin Wall coming down. That was a very vivid memory I have in my childhood. I think some of the news music from that time that I listen to today, it sort of brings you back to a safe comfortable childhood when things were feeling much more innocent than they are today. That's sort of the feeling that I think it gives you.
I mean, that’s kind of amazing. Because think about what news music has to overcome to create any positive feelings at all right now.
[News clip montage]
But despite so much, so much bad news, news music is giving Victor a feeling of safety, and on top of that, it like propelled him through 26 grueling miles. How is it doing that?
Ngofeen: I can help you answer that question.
I’ve got producer Ngofeen Mputebwele with me. Ngofeen is a music nerd, and introduced me to Victor.
Ngofeen: Yeah, so to figure out the answer to this question, I called up a bunch of composers from all over the world - cause news music is a global genre. And let me introduce you to them. We have Irad Eschel.
Irad: I live in Tel Aviv Israel.
Ngofeen: And Adarsh Thottetodi
Adarsh: I’m a music producer with New Delhi Television in India.
Ngofeen: We’ve got David Lowe...
David: I put the news theme together for the BBC.
Ngofeen: And Matt Kocinski, who composed Good Morning America’s theme.
Matt: Hi how are you doing?
Ngofeen: Here are three things these composers try to do with their news themes. So first, news themes often start with a bang.
Matt: With all my news themes, I try to grab on to the viewer right out of the gate.
[Play news theme opening]
Really pull them in from passive listening to active listening through some sort of quick intense build marking the show open and ID.
Ngofeen: And you can hear it in Irad’s theme for News 10 in Israel as well.
[News 10’s theme music]
So that’s a way of grabbing people, right? The second thing the composers pointed out is this steady beat.
Adarsh: If you see any news music, the rhythm, the groove section is very constant...
Ngofeen: One beat you’ll hear a lot is called four on the floor.
Irad: That is like boom boom boom boom.
Ngofeen: Four on the floor is in a ton of music, but in news music it gives you this feeling of reliability and stability.
Irad: It never stops. It's like a grid that you can't run away from.
Ngofeen: Ok last thing, and this is actually pretty subtle, but composers also want to convey that even if the news is tense and urgent, things are also under control. So, listen for the how david uses chords to do this in the BBC theme...
David’s moving from a minor chord to a major chord which feels a lot more settled.
David: What it sort of says the news is coming in it’s all a bit uncertain, it’s all a bit unstable, it’s making us a bit worried, but then we’re processing it and we’re bringing it to you in a very safe authoritative way.
So let me see if I got this: news music kickstarts you with a big build; it has a driving beat that creates this feeling of steadiness; and it makes you feel like even in tense, hard moments, things will be fine.
Got it. Thanks Ngofeen.
So it makes total sense that Victor would both be propelled by news music and get a feeling of safety from it, because it’s designed to do exactly those things!
But here’s the deal, Victor appreciates news music on this higher level too.
Victor: It's one of the most difficult pieces of music to create.
Just think about this for a sec, so news themes have to work with every headline - from cat video memes to disasters.
Victor: The news is literally different every single night. And it's played multiple times a day for sometimes many, many years. It needs to hold up very well.
Do you think it's the most heard music in the world?
Victor: I would actually not be surprised if that were the case.
The most heard music in the world, that we also may think about the least.
After the break, Flora explores how news music can be used in ways that are…not exactly wholesome.
James: You can't see it. You can't touch it. And yet it's there working. And it’s working with the images to convince us of something.
Deborah: Those images and sounds would sell not only the war coverage that you were watching, but also in a particularly insidious way sell the war.
And…find out which super-famous composer is responsible for one of the most iconic pieces of news music. Stick around.
News music has not only defined the way we think about The News, but the way we think about world events. And the way we think about these things has rarely been more important than it is now. Here’s Flora.
I think it’s safe to say that it’s a weird time for news.
[News clip montage]
Fake news, fake fake news, information overload, the false urgency of the 24 hour news cycle - there are a lot of threads to scrutinize about the media right now. And I know news music, isn’t usually at the top of that heap of concerns. But the story of how news music came to be tells us a lot about how the tv news industry as a whole developed.
James:Before the advent of television, people got their news in moving images through newsreels.
Musicologist James Deaville is gonna give us some high points of this history. Starting with a time when people would get their news in movie theatres!
James: Originally during the era of silent film they would have live music accompanying the newsreel that was shown in the theater.
So early news music was very classy. And by the way, just as a fun aside... there were actually newsreel theaters that looped the news constantly. You would just like go into a movie theater and watch the news. Ok Anyway… moving forward…
James: Television becomes a technology in the late 40s.
And with TV comes TV news.
James: Then comes Walter Cronkite and CBS and in September 1963 they move to a half hour format.
This is like a big moment. This is the birth of the evening news format as we know it. And around this time, you also start to hear the first TV news themes. CBS evening news has a theme, but they don’t go with music.
James: It was the teletype.
[CBS News theme]
It was no nonsense. There was no sense of entertainment.
[Continue CBS News theme]
NBC’s evening news show at the time, the Huntley Brinkley Report [Play Huntley Brinkley Report Intro]. It has theme too, for the credits - and they go with Beethoven
[Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony]
James: The Ninth Symphony which I think gives them a sense of authority. And so you'll begin to get them branding of the news product in the late 60s.
Are they trying to compete with Cronkite in some way or does anyone talk about this as explicitly as we need a sonic brand?
James:There is some documentation about that and I mean, let's face it, these networks are in competition with each other for audience as they are even today.
Throughout the 70s, networks continue to experiment with news music, and then in the 1980s, NBC takes it to the next level.
James: You find NBC commissioning John Williams to write music for its newscast.
[John Williams NBC News music]
Yes, the famous film composer John Williams. The person who did Star Wars, and Jaws, and ET, Big spielberg collaborator. And Victor says this is a masterpiece of news music.
Victor: It was recorded by a hundred piece orchestra. It has been used for 30 years.
[Continue John Williams NBC News music]
I truly think it's one of the best pieces of news music.
This is an inflection point. Now the news has a soundtrack…
James: We’re going into a high concept notion of the news like hollywood, like a hollywood film, I guess I would call it the and the rise of the infotainment industry.
And this John Williams theme - it’s just the beginning.
James: But really the thing that that catapulted the idea of the news as entertainment, I hate to say it, but was the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 and the rise of CNN as the network.
So CNN is born in 1980, but James says that the network really comes into its own with its Persian Gulf war coverage.
[CNN commercial as the world watches CNN’s coverage of the gulf war]
And music is a part of that. With the war we have CNN using special music - not just for its shows or network, but to help brand this big story of the day.
[CNN News clip]
James: They simply showed you that tank and had a kettle drum roll and it was like the Beethoven fifth... bum bum bum bum [CNN kettle drum roll]. It's kinda the soundtrack of that war. I mean that was just one detail and the other networks found themselves with their news packages down.
Deborah: We forget that television news is still television, and their ratings go up substantially during moments of crisis and certainly international conflict when the U.S. is involved.
This is Deborah Jaramillo, who wrote a book the cable news coverage of the war in Iraq. And basically her argument is that by 2003 cable networks adopt lots of high concept filmmaking techniques - from music to packaging to graphics - we are now a long way from those Cronkite teletype days.
Deborah: Fox News commissioned a number of pieces of music that would accompany its various title sequences. The composer for that actually referred to it as Metallica rehearsing Wagner.
Deborah: So that gives you a sense of the aggressiveness of the original package, and Fox News wound up kind of toning it down, so that it wasn't so rock and roll, but it was still pretty aggressive in terms of its excitement.
[Fox News war theme]
Other networks had special war themes too. Here’s CBS’s theme.
[CBS war theme]
Here’s MSNBC and NBC’s early war theme.
[MSNBC and NBC war themes]
Here’s CNN theme:
[CNN war theme]
Deborah: Certain sounds are being used for particular reasons. You hear a rapid snare drum, it communicates militarism, right? It's a march. It's a shortcut to communicating really complicated ideas. Nationalism? Nationalism is so loaded. If you have that musical shortcut, it can be communicated sonically.
This was all part of their kind of larger war branding strategy.
I mean, even just the idea that there's a war branding strategy makes me uncomfortable.
Deborah: As it should, those images and sounds would sell not only the war coverage that you were watching, but also in a particularly insidious way sell the war.
The composers we spoke with didn’t talk about their craft in this way. For them, the challenge of the theme is more about creating a clear sonic brand for the network.
And today, networks are using more music than ever - there are special cues opening credits, closing credits, getting in and out of commercials, special reports, election coverage. And all that music inevitably is shaping the way we interpret the information we’re getting.
[Ominous music start]
James: Music is the ultimate hidden persuader.
Like right now we’re trying to convince you that this is kinda ominous.
James: You can't see it. You can't touch it. And yet it's there working. And it’s working with the images to convince us of something.
Deborah: Unfortunately on any given day we have a disaster happening, so this is an important moment for comparative analysis of cable channels, and how they're responding to disasters using music.
It had it hadn't occurred to me that we could have news without news music it just felt like this inevitability until we started learning about it. So what does it mean that we do it this way?
[Ominous music out]
James: That's a very good question. I think it means that we've become to a certain extent divorced from reality if we were to see the bodies in Las Vegas or whatever it would overwhelm us without some kind of well, padding it kind of mediates reality.
It takes us out of the reality of the moment, it makes it seem like we're watching a film.
James: Very true.
Deborah: We're taught in this country not to think about television. We're taught in fact that television is where you go to turn off your brain. And some people say, "Well, just turn off the TV." No, don't just turn off the TV. Actively study the TV.
So there are a lot of things to study about the TV and news in general right now. And in this context, news music might seem like a this little thing, but as you know, little things can tell you about big things. You know what I mean?
What’s your closer? What was your closer tunes for, you know, like mile, whatever, 25?
Victor: I actually had that planned out very well. It’s actually Wrecking Ball, Miley Cyrus.
Haha, good choice.
Victor: It is. Actually. It’s really a great song, just to close.
You can find Victor’s amazingly comprehensive blog at networknewsmusic.com
Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at defacto sound dot com.
(Every Little Thing Annoucer) Every Little Thing was made by Flora Lichtman, Katherine Wells, Ngofeen Mptubwele, Christine Driscoll, and Devon Taylor, with help from Nicole Pasulka, Annette Heist and Doug Barron. Dara Hirsch scored and mixed this episode.
You can hear more episodes of Every Little Thing by visiting their website: elt dot show. You can also subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
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