Composer Bill Brown, An Insider’s Perspective on How to Score a Hit TV Show

10/17/2016 05:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 17, 2016
Photo by Fitz Carlile

It’s no secret that behind every great TV sitcom there are many different components that have to come together to make a successful project, or in the time of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu & now Youtube original content, just stand out in the crowd. For every Game of Thrones or Lost there are the shows like Angel from Hell that don’t resonate with viewers and only last a few episodes. One major component of a show’s success is the score. It tells the viewer when danger is looming or when a love story is about to come full circle. Can you imagine Mr. Robot without the show’s heavy synth and unsettling score? Or even Modern Family without the jazzy theme music at the beginning of each episode?

With multiple hit projects under his belt including CBS’s CSI:NY and Syfy’s Dominion composer Bill Brown discusses his personal scoring process and contributing to a successfully syndicated TV series.

-What are the main differences in scoring a show like CSI:NY compared to a Syfy show like Dominion?

CSI:NY was always happening in the present time, modern NYC for the most part, and it was a procedural, so each episode had it’s own narrative arc - beginning to end, mostly. So any themes I created were always specific to just that episode, or brief arc of episodes. Scoring Dominion season 2, everything and anything was available to me musically and I could write character themes and use them throughout the season..It was biblical, post-apocalyptic, orchestral, wild distorted guitars and dirty analog electronics all pulsing and pounding away, with a common thread of cinematic themes tying all of it together throughout. Seriously epic and so much fun to work on!

-What is your process like creating music for television? How does it go episode to episode? Can you walk us through the process from page to screen, and where you fit into that?

Starting a new project, I’ll meet with the team to discuss the direction of the score. Once we have a collective creative direction in place, I’ll go into the studio and create either a series of themes, or create underscore for specific scenes that will show the direction of the score. After I record some ideas, I’ll have the director or producers over to the studio to go through the new material. I’ll address notes, we’ll discuss the direction from there and then it’s back to creating more score and repeating that creative process until the project is complete. With TV specifically, I’ll get together with the post production team and we’ll watch through the newest episode and talk about the music and sound in detail. I usually get the locked picture the next day, and then deliver the score 3 to 5 days later. For CSI:NY I would write new thematic material first, start recording sessions and deliver after a few days of writing, recording and mixing. With films or games it’s a similar process usually with longer schedules depending on the project.

-How would you say your creative process has evolved throughout your career?

I approach each project with new perspective and new tools every time I start. My experience has taught me to be open to magic happening wherever it can. Every new cue is like playing in the sandbox.. I try to listen for something new and magical and capture it and then take it to the next level. Most everything I do is rooted in some kind of thematic idea, whether it’s created by experimenting with new instruments, programming in the studio using new technology or writing for piano or orchestra. I try to keep things fresh by having something unexpected happen in the instrumentation or the composition of the cues, creating unique sounds, and collaborating with great musicians. Every project has a new story and direction behind the scenes musically and that’s what makes it interesting for me.

-Is there a genre you feel more comfortable scoring?

I’m lucky in that directors and producers have trusted me throughout my career to create music that will elevate the project, regardless of the genre. I’ve had just as much fun creating huge orchestral scores for Marvel, etc. as I have creating the smaller, minimal, emotional scores for film and television.

- At what point should a filmmaker bring the composer on board? Does the composer play any influence in pre-production?

Dominion was a great example of how bringing a composer on board early can really benefit the project. When I started working on Dominion Season 2, the Main Titles music (The Chosen One) and Michael’s Theme were two cues that came to me in a dream after I first met with the show’s creator Vaun Wilmott. The day after our first meeting, I woke up and ran into the studio to get these ideas into the computer the next morning! Soon after that they were playing my demo mock-ups on the set in Cape Town South Africa through loudspeakers while they were filming the initial battle sequences to inspire the action on set. Before we even spotted the first episode of the season, I had written many of the character themes and was already going through revising and recording them which served us so well. It was one of the most exciting times in my career to date. The audience really embraced all of the themes, even to the extent that after the season was over, they wanted me to keep writing new ones.. So I did! Tracks I composed & produced like “Anthemoessa” and “Gabriel” were created after the end of the season because the audience was begging for more themes on Twitter, etc. It was a really incredible ride.

-You have scored many different mediums. Is writing for film a different then writing for a tv show or video game?

Scoring video games, the thing to remember is that players are steering it, like a director but in real time, and they might live with the score for longer periods of time as compared to film or television, so you have to create a score that will work for each different scenario. Film and TV are the same each time you watch them back.. So as a composer I have the opportunity to get really specific with each frame. I've always believed the music has to have a soul regardless. It needs to be connected thematically and texturally so it connects with the audience, and then it needs to support the action emotionally and physically to elevate the scene.

-What are the common elements you use?

I love to experiment with new technology, live instruments, custom sampling, anything that takes it to the next level. Everything here in the studio is always evolving and changing but what I try to create in each project is that emotional layer that ties everything together and something exciting that really connects with the audience and elevates the project in some way.

-What defines a Bill Brown score?

Whether it’s in an orchestral context, or a minimal acoustic-electronic score I think it’s the emotion that comes out of it. I like to write themes that haunt me.. that I want to listen to myself over and over. So maybe “haunting”.. I hope so anyway.. even if it’s a light score, the music should strive to express the soul of it all, what’s underneath - the subtext. That’s how the score transforms the project, by expressing what words can’t express, and what the images can’t explain.

- Themes are very important to shows these days. American Horror Story or more recently Netflix’s Stranger Things are prime examples of this. How does a project you are working on get its 'sound'?

Using CSI:NY as an example, it was always dark in some form from the beginning, and always maintained this mix of orchestra, modern rock elements and electronics. We initially talked about the score in terms of differentiating it from the other shows, and at the time we were actually temping the pilot with a lot of my orchestral / electronic game music. That eclectic sound just worked for the show. I would create these pulsing, edgy, dark underscore atmospheres and then had these great opportunities to blast into the foreground musically for those now classic CSI “process scenes”.. these really fun music-driven procedural sequences where the team would go into serious ‘cool-nerd’ mode and find the evidence that would break each case! (laughs) It was really a blast to work on. In the sixth season, the writers went in some really fun new directions, I remember one of the cast members even contributed an episode and there were episodes coming in that were just surprising us in a great way. When the writing elevates, everything follows and I began to record the score in a different way, using more acoustic instruments in my studio.. just experimenting and going wild with it. That spurred a whole new sound for the show that continued, blended with that original template of instruments and everything continued to evolve and grow.

-Which project that you worked on changed the most because of your score?

That’s an interesting question! Looking through my credits, I feel like they all were in some really significant way. I’m not just saying that to say it, I can point to moments in each where we collectively sat back and were surprised or humbled by what had happened when the score was introduced to the mix. Those are sacred moments. So much work has been put into it by everyone involved, and when there is this soulful thing that happens when it is all combined.. it’s kind of indescribable. It’s just really, really cool, and I’m so lucky to do it for a living.

You can learn more about Bill at http://billbrownmusic.com/

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