The Best TV Series Music Themes of All Time, Part I

Certain movies or TV shows are instantly recognizable by just a few notes of their theme songs. Iconic TV series are inextricably linked to their timeless themes, and it’s hard to imagine them separately. Think of Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, or Friends without their iconic opening themes; they just wouldn’t be the same. A good soundtrack can elevate a project to new heights, and in some cases, can even make or break their success. Today, we’re rounding up what we think are five of the best TV series themes of all time. Obviously, the list is not exhaustive, so stay tuned for Part II of this round-up. 

1. Law & Order

The iconic Law & Order series is recognizable after hearing just two notes of its theme song. Mike Post, a Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer who also worked on projects like NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues, Magnum, P.I., and Renegade, was tasked with coming up with a theme song for the series, which debuted back in 1990. Since it was a series focused on police work in New York City, Post wanted to mimic the sound of a jail door slamming shut. He then combined that iron-sounding sample with some different sounds, like a hammer hitting an anvil and people stomping on a wood floor, and came up with the now-legendary ‘dun dun’ sound at the start of the song. Post then added some cool-sounding guitars and some percussion, and a timeless theme song reminiscent of NYC was born. 

2. Mad Men

The excellent Mad Men series is set in 1950s New York, but its theme song sounds modern, fresh, and mysterious. It’s an interesting and unsettling combination that instantly makes you want to learn more about what the music is all about. The song, A Beautiful Mine, was written by Columbus-based DJ and composer Ramble Jon Krohn, aka RJD2, and was featured on his Magnificent City album. The studio album version also includes vocals by rapper Aceyalone, but an instrumental version was used for the Mad Men theme. Initially, Mad Men mastermind Matthew Weiner wanted to feature a Beck song for the show’s opening, but the musician refused the offer. Weiner then stumbled on the instrumental version of A Beautiful Mine while driving in his car and listening to the radio. It was definitely meant to be. 

3. The X-Files

There’s no way you can even think of the X-Files series without the theme song immediately popping into your head. The creepy, sci-fi tune was composed by Mark Snow, who wrote all the music for the X-Files series and films, as well as the music for the Millennium series. Dubbed Materia Primoris, the theme was featured on Snow’s 1996 album The Truth and the Light: Music from the X-Files. It was an instant hit, even reaching number one on the singles chart in France, and number two on the U.K. Singles Chart. That’s quite impressive for a creepy, slightly alien-sounding theme with no vocals. But as it turns out, the theme for the X-Files was the result of an ‘accident’ in the music studio. It was all just a case of Snow accidentally resting his elbow on his keyboard while an echo delay effect was turned on. He liked the strange sound so he continued to play around with it, adding some ominous whistling courtesy of his wife, Glynn. 

4. Seinfeld

We couldn’t leave aside one of the most iconic and unusual TV theme songs of all time, namely the Seinfeld theme. It was composed by Jonathan Wolff, who also wrote the music for Will & Grace, The King of Queens, Married…with Children, and Who’s the Boss?. It’s a unique and innovative theme that consists of sampled solo slap-bass riffs coupled with beatboxing sounds. Jerry Seinfeld liked it so much that he also used it for all his stand-up scenes in the series, however, the folks over at NBC weren’t impressed. The executives were reportedly concerned that the theme sounded odd and weird – which is exactly why audiences loved it. It managed to stand out from other TV series that had complicated, orchestra-driven theme songs and scores. Now, we couldn’t possibly imagine Seinfeld without its one-of-a-kind theme song. 

5. Game of Thrones

To finish off with something more contemporary, we had to include Game of Thrones on this list. The epic masterpiece theme song instantly gets you ready for action, and makes you excited about what’s coming in each episode. Because you know that each episode of GoT was packed full of action and surprises. Composer Ramin Djawadi only had one request from the GoT producers: that he was not to use flutes, which they felt were overused in fantasy films and series at the time. Djawadi thus picked the cello as the main instrument, as he thought it had a darker tone that fit the plot of the series. He went on to compose one of the most epic and hair-raising theme songs of all time, and earned two Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series. 

These are just five of our favorite TV series themes, that we just had to mention, remember, and enjoy. But they are not the only ones; there are many other legendary TV music themes that deserve a spot in the hall of fame. That’s why you should stay tuned for Part II of this round-up, where we talk about more timeless and amazing TV series themes. Make sure to keep an eye on future blog posts to learn more.

If you’re in need of help with a musical project, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Cutting Room Music team. We’re a trio of passionate composers that can’t wait to work on new, creative and exciting projects and deliver a best-in-class product that wows audiences and elevates the project to new heights.

How Did Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross Become Hollywood’s Favorite Music Duo?

Many of us know Trent Reznor as the supercharged leading man in Nine Inch Nails, the protagonist of eyebrow-raising music videos and large-scale live performances. Since its inception in 1988, Nine Inch Nails has constantly been breaking new grounds and mixing genres in a way that’s completely unique and instantly recognizable. The voice, the sound, the vibe, there’s no mistaking it – you know when you’re listening to a Nine Inch Nails song. That probably has a lot to do with the production of NIN’s music, as well – and that credit also goes to Atticus Ross.

Some might wonder how Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross became Hollywood darlings, scoring big-budget movies and earning Academy Awards and nominations pretty much every year. Listening to NIN’s iconic The Downward Spiral album, released in 1994, you wouldn’t believe it’s the work of the same person who scored movies like Soul. 

However, if you were to go through Nine Inch Nails’ entire discography, you’d be able to see the band’s evolution towards more atmospheric, genre-bending music. NIN’s Ghosts series of albums incorporate eerie instrumentals and reflective tonalities that have a lot in common with what Reznor and Ross did for movies like The Social Network or Gone Girl

How it started

Trent Reznor’s transition from rock frontman to elite Hollywood composer became official in 2011, when Reznor and Atticus Ross took home an Original Score award for The Social Network at the 83rd Academy Awards. Not even the two winners could believe what was happening; the list of nominees included legends like Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, and John Powell. But The Social Network, along with its soundtrack, marked the beginning of a new era in filmmaking, one driven by fast-paced, David Fincher-style dialogue and a strong music score as the backbone to hold it all together. 

From that point on, the musical duo was unstoppable, churning out eclectic scores for movies like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, Before the Flood, Patriots Day, and Bird Box, among others. Most of the projects the two composers worked on received either awards and nominations at prestigious ceremonies, including the Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Academy Awards. 

How it’s going

Fast forward to 2020, and Reznor and Ross were busier than ever. The pair received multiple nominations at the 72nd Primetime Emmys for their work on HBO’s Watchmen series, and won the award for Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics. They once again partnered with director David Fincher to score his latest movie, biographical drama Mank, and also wrote the music for Pixar’s animated film Soul

Fincher’s Mank, which focuses on the life of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz has received positive and even stellar reviews from critics, who praised Fincher’s direction, as well as Gary Oldman’s acting. The movie earned 10 nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards, including nominations for Best Original Score and Best Sound. 

The animated movie Soul also received numerous positive reviews from movie critics, who praised the movie’s storyline, acting, animation work, and music score. The film won Best Animated Film and Best Original Score/Music awards at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Critics’ Choice Awards, and also earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Sound and Best Original Score. 

What this means is that basically Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are competing against themselves for the Best Original Score award this year. Not many music composers can pride themselves with such an accomplishment, but Reznor and Ross are in a league of their own at this point. 

Later update: the musical duo scored another Best Original Score award for their work on Soul, at the 93rd Academy Awards held April 25th, 2021.

When two (or three) heads are better than one

The level of success and recognition that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have earned over the years is proof that two heads are often better than one when it comes to writing music. There aren’t a lot of musical composer duos that come to mind, that have had the same level of success in Hollywood as Reznor/Ross. Another long-standing partnership is that of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who’ve worked together on scoring films like War Machine, The Proposition, The Road, and The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Musical composer partnerships that can pass the test of time are rare, because a lot of times, egos and clashing ideas can lead to friction. However, when two creative minds are on the same page, or rather on the same music sheet, and their connection is driven by respect and friendship, the results can be outstanding. Musical composer trios are even harder to come by, because ‘the more, the merrier’ doesn’t always work in this industry. That’s why Cutting Room Music stands out, being driven by not two, but three creative musical minds that manage to combine their different styles, tastes, and talents to create something fresh and original. 

5 Techniques Horror Movie Composers Use to Elicit Fear in Audiences

5 Techniques for Scoring Horror Movies | CuttingRoomMusic

Modern horror film soundtracks are a blend of old-school, operatic string themes and creative sound effects, and composers are now able to masterfully evoke subtle reactions from their audiences through diverse techniques. It’s not just about jump scares and terror nowadays; it’s also about tension, suspense, eeriness, discomfort, anxiety, and even paranoia. 

We’ve actually gone through the brief history of scoring horror films and how this genre evolved over the decades. The earliest horror ‘talkies’ used orchestral soundtracks and epic operatic themes to instil fear. Nowadays, composers have a wider pool of tricks and treats at their disposal, and they use them masterfully to keep us on the edge of our seats. 

To elicit emotional responses from their audiences, composers use certain techniques that push horror movies to the next, scarier level. Here are some common techniques you can expect to find in horror movies:

1. Increased tempos and crescendos

One of the most common techniques found in horror movies is the use of crescendos to heighten suspense and anticipation. The best example of this is Jaws, where the simple two-note theme gradually increases its tempo as the killer shark gets closer. It’s both a signal to the audience that danger is nearby, and a means of growing tension in wait for the jump scare. It’s a highly effective strategy that triggers our primal fear and our flight-or-fight response, keeping us on the edge of our seat waiting for the release. 

2. Low-frequency sound effects

Modern horror scores tend to focus a lot more on sound design and unusual sound effects that create tension and an unsettling feeling. Low-frequency sound effects have a dark vibe about them that tells our brains that something is wrong, something is off, which is exactly what horror film directors want us to feel. We’re not just making this up; science says that low-frequency noises can have a negative effect on humans, triggering headaches, irritation, feelings of tiredness, and pressure on eardrums. 

3. The use of voices in the score

In the old days of horror films, soundtracks were purely instrumental, operatic, relying on orchestras to get the job done. But it wasn’t before long that, through experimentation, composers realized that inserting voices into the music made things even more unsettling. One of the earliest examples of this is Friday the 13th, which features some very unsettling vocal work by composer Harry Manfredini. The “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” sounds featured in the movie come from “Kill her, mommy,” which makes the tune even more disturbing to listen to.

4. Sound effects that mimic real-life sounds

Horror film directors and composers really want their audience to be as immersed in the action as possible, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve this. With the help of technology, they’re able to insert real-life sounds into the soundtracks, giving them a more authentic and instantly recognizable sound. The best example of this technique is not a horror movie per se, but still a pretty scary one, namely Terminator 2. The main theme of the 1991 movie sounds uncomfortably metallic, industrial even, reminiscent of the killer robot’s origins. That peculiar sound, composer Brad Fiedel explained, was the result of hitting a cast-iron frying pan with a hammer. 

5. Harmonic and musical oddities

The human brain reacts to music in fascinating ways. Our primal instincts can immediately recognize when a sound or a note is in the wrong place, and horror music composers love to play tricks with our minds. Notes and compositions that seem out of place, that don’t go well together, that aren’t harmonious – our brains can pick up on these cues and think ‘something’s off here.’ Sudden increases or decreases in tempo and volume throw us off and signal to us that something is about to happen, which makes us uncomfortable and triggers our fight-or-flight response. 

Another similar technique used by composers is layering ‘happy music’ with scary movie scenes. Think of A Clockwork Orange and Kubrick’s use of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain during some very uncomfortable torture scenes. You can never listen to that song in the same way again after hearing it in the movie. 

Scoring horror with Cutting Room Music

Here at Cutting Room Music, we’ve dived into the dark, twisted world of horror movies several times. Our co-founder Adonis Tsilimparis has scored more than a few scary movies, and here’s what he has to say about where this genre is heading, and what it means for composers. 

“Nowadays, there is a fine line between the “score” and the “sound design. “Many recent horror films have been dominated by a carefully constructed pattern of sound effects with touches of musical notation here and there. 

I, too, have done the same thing for some of the horror films I scored, including Dementia 13. The director did not want too much of a traditional orchestral score. He was looking more for sounds that no one has ever heard before. Luckily, with the wide universe of synth patches and sound banks out there, I was able to give him what he wanted. In the end, the score was probably 70% sound design and the rest being musical score. 

The trend seems to be continuing with no real change in sight. It begs the question of where it will go from here.”

If you’re an aspiring or established director looking for skilled and talented composers to help you tell your story through music, reach out to Cutting Room Music to see how we can bring your ideas to life. 

Music in Horror Movies – A Brief History of Fear

History of Horror Movie Music | CuttingRoomMusic

Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock originally intended for the shower scene in Psycho to have no music? Try to imagine your favorite scary movies without their eerie-yet-delicious soundtracks and think whether they would still have the same effect on you. 

Each genre of film employs specific techniques when it comes to scoring. Comedies are usually accompanied by upbeat music, adventure or action movies use dramatic effects and loud, powerful scoring to keep viewers engaged, while dramas play on our emotions with scores and harmonies that make us feel uplifted. 

When it comes to horror films, things are very different. More often than not, what horror movies present us with are not pleasant images or situations, eliciting tension, fear, suspense, anxiety, and even revulsion or terror. Composers certainly don’t have it easy, as the right score can make or break such a movie. Imagine films like Halloween, Jaws, or Suspiria with different music – it’s virtually impossible, that’s how iconic these soundtracks are by now. 

We’re big fans of horror movies at Cutting Room Music, and we’ve even scored a few of them. So, in the spirit of ‘sharing is caring,’ we wanted to present you with a brief history of horror film scores, as well as some techniques that composers use to elicit (much enjoyable) fear in their audiences. 

In the beginning, there was (mostly) silence

The horror genre has been around since the very beginning of cinema. Obviously, during the silent film era, there were no soundtracks to begin with, and film directors had only the visual aspect to rely on for horrific effect. That all changed when sound was introduced to movies, and the first horror movie to have a soundtrack was 1922’s Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau. Unfortunately, the original score has been lost, replaced in 1997 with new music by James Bernard. 

In the early days, horror films didn’t really have a proper soundtrack composed by scratch. Instead, directors and composers repurposed existing pieces of classical music to get their desired effect. King Kong (1933) was the first to break out of that mold. Initially, film studio RKO instructed composer Max Steiner to stick to repurposing existing music for budgetary reasons. However, director Merian C. Cooper disagreed, thinking that such an epic movie deserved an original soundtrack. He paid Steiner to compose and record original music for the film, which he did – in just six weeks and with the help of a 46-piece orchestra. Luckily, the folks at RKO loved the end result, and so King Kong became the first feature-length musical score written for an American movie. It was also the first movie score ever to be recorded on three separate tracks: music, sound effects, and dialogue.

1930’s to 1950’s: The golden era of horror movies

You know how people refer to the stretch of time between 1910 and 1960 as Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age?’ These were the most glamorous decades of Hollywood cinema, and the horror genre was no exception. Everything was grand, majestic, loud, and in-your-face. Including horror movies. 

When it comes to horror films, we could refer to this golden age as the age of ‘obvious’ horror. Think of movies like Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula (1931), or Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). They all had grand, impressive scores to go with the big scenes happening on the screen. These now-classic movies all featured bombastic, operatic orchestral scores, and not much in the area of sound design or effects. But that was about to change, thanks to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The landscape of horror films took a hard turn in 1960, when the iconic Psycho was released. Not only did Hitchcock’s masterpiece employ never-before-seen directing techniques, he also changed the way horror movies were scored. Bernard Hermann wrote the eponymous score for Psycho, and Hitchcock himself stated that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” 

We all know that infamous shower scene and the shrieking violins that accompany each stab of the knife. Hermann had a tight budget to work with, so he had to make the best of the resources available. He didn’t have the means to employ a 40-piece orchestra, so he made due with a small string ensemble and a lot of creativity. The result is probably the most recognizable sound in horror history. And to think that Hitchcock initially intended to have no music for that shower scene…

1970’s & 1980’s: An experiment in fear 

The Golden Age of Hollywood started losing its glamorous appeal in the 1960s, and soon enough, gone were the massive studio productions with huge budgets and majestic scores. There were, of course, some notable exceptions. In 1974, Steven Spielberg released Jaws, which featured an epic score by composer John Williams. The now-classic soundtrack earned Williams an Academy Award, even though it was a rather simple theme focused around just two notes. Two very unsettling notes. 

During the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, film directors and composers, especially those new to the scene, often had very limited budgets at their disposal. There were no 46-piece orchestras to record movie scores with, so they had to improvise and find other ways to elicit the desired reactions in movie audiences. 

The limited resources forced composers to experiment, and the result was another golden era of horror movies focused on synthesizers and electronic music. The best example from this time is John Carpenter’s Halloween, released in 1978. Carpenter only had $300,000 to make the movie, so there was no budget to hire a composer, let alone an orchestra. So, the director took matters into his own hands, creating the entire score himself in just three days on his keyboard. The Halloween theme has since become one of the most iconic film soundtracks of all time, with Carpenter even releasing a revamped version for the 2018 installment. 

The 1970s and 1980s were basically an experiment in fear, with composers constantly churning out new takes on traditional horror film scores. The emergence of electronic music and synthesizers allowed composers to play with sound design and come up with innovative scores that pushed the horror genre into new territories. Notable releases during this era include A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omen (1976), The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), The Thing (1982), and Videodrome (1983), just to name a few.

Modern horror film scores – the best of both worlds

Horror movies have come a long way since the days of Frankenstein or Dracula. Plots and scores alike have taken a darker turn, and innovations in technology and cinematography have pushed the fear and tension to new highs. Think of modern-day classics like Get Out, It Follows, Insidious, Hereditary, or A Quiet Place; these movies are tackling complex, unusual, and often highly disturbing matters, and their soundtracks match the level of complexity. 

Nowadays, film composers are no longer constrained by limited resources, particularly when it comes to the technologies they use. While horror movies no longer rely on dynamic orchestration and symphonic themes, composers still manage to hark back to the old days by mixing classic and modern techniques. In fact, the earliest example of mixing and matching different composition styles was Videodrome, back in 1983. Howard Shore starts off with classical orchestral music and gradually incorporates electronic music and synthesizers as the main character starts to lose track of what’s real and what isn’t. The two tracks are mixed and played in tandem, in an attempt to convey the character’s confusion. 

Composers and directors now tend to focus more on sound design and sound effects to create the right atmosphere. It’s not all about the jump scares anymore. Found-footage-style movies like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity don’t even have proper soundtracks, as they focus on ‘reality horror’ to elicit fear and tensions in viewers. Other movies employ LFEs, or low-frequency effects, to create an unsettling atmosphere and prolong the suspense. 

The future looks bright (or dark, if we’re going to stick to the theme here) for horror movies and music alike. It remains to be seen what composers come up with next, and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to see new and innovative scoring hit the big screens. This year alone there are some exciting launches in the works, including A Quiet Place 2, a new Conjuring movie, Don’t Breathe 2, Candyman, and last but not least, Halloween Kills

If you’re an aspiring or established director looking for talented composers to breathe musical life into your projects, reach out to Cutting Room Music to see if we can help. Let’s work together!