Composing vs Songwriting

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Β© I.Woloshen

It was suggested to me recently that talking a little bit about the differences between the music I produce for television and songwriting might make for an interesting read. I’ll let you be the judge πŸ™‚

First of all, a little history. I wrote my first television theme back in 1993, when my husband, who happens to be a writer/producer at a local TV station, suggested that I might be able to “rip off” a certain theme and he would use it for a new series he was about to produce. Both of us were a little naive about the idea of copying anything at the time (although we aren’t now!), but I was defiant and refused to rip off anything because I knew I could write something completely unique! After much wrangling, he finally and reluctantly agreed to let me experiment. The result is that “Home Check with Shell Busey”, a kind of home fix-it series, was on the air for the last ten years, with my own theme on it.

When I listen to it now, I cringe πŸ™‚ I was pretty new at the whole idea of production at the time, and relied on midi and a simple 8-track reel-to-reel recorder to do my bits. My how times have changed! In the meantime, I’ve composed music for a number of series, the most recent being a news package for CHEK Television Victoria.

In some ways, composing for television is something akin to being a staff songwriter at a record label or publishing company. For instance, I can do what I want, but then it has to be scrutinized by whoever is producing the show, and sometimes more than one person, so the result may not always be what I thought would work best! Some producers are musically succinct in defining what they want, and others have a hard time describing it. Those of us who have had music around us and been involved in it all our lives, take for granted that everyone understands the lingo, but it is extremely difficult for many non-musical people to know how to articulate what they’re after and what they like. So as a composer, you are always trying to get to the root of what the producer wants to hear.

Not all producers are as involved in your work. Some will step back and pretty much let you come up with the ideas. For instance, the producer I worked with on a dog show, pretty much allowed me the freedom to use my own instincts and do what I wanted. I think that it turned out to be one of my best themes…plus, he played trombone, so I wrote a trombone part into the theme and had him come in and play it! It was great fun and we worked well together.

I’ve had to completely scrap ideas and start over. This isn’t easy, because when you have latched onto an idea, it’s hard to let go and start fresh. I’ve also lost work because the producer didn’t like what I was doing. That can be painful, but as long as I keep the attitude that I learn the most from the more difficult experiences, I live through it πŸ™‚

Creating a music package for a television show does not mean only creating a theme. Whenever you watch a show, you’ll notice bits of music throughout. There are bumpers, which are very short musical bits, usually anywhere from 2-10 seconds long, normally placed just before or after a commercial break and leading the viewer into or out of that segment of the show. For some shows there are music “beds”, which are longer bits, anywhere from 1:00 to 3 or 4 minutes long that play underneath someone speaking or some activity within the show. In the dog show I worked on, I created a lot of different beds for the producer to use in segments where, for instance, a trainer might be describing how to get your dog to stay off the road, or a person might be talking about how a dog saved her life. It creates a more emotional impact and gives the segment a nice flow. In fact, I’ll map out what an imaginary show might look like written out on a piece of paper:

Opening theme :15 – 1:00 long
Segment 1 7:00 – music bed 1:35, 2nd music bed 2:04
Bumper into break – :05
Bumper out of break – :06
Segment 2 8:30 – 3rd music bed :55, 4th music bed 3:00
Bumper into break- :07
Bumper out of break – :03
Segment 3 7:30 – 5th music bed 1:00, 6th music bed 2:55
Extro (the closing segment of the show) 1:00 – closing theme :50

For the above show, I have four different length of bumpers, I use 6 different music beds, I have an opening theme and a closing theme (often the same music). I do not edit the music on the show myself, but basically provide the music on CD to the producer, who takes it to the editor when the show is being packaged, and they use whatever they want to make the segment and the show all work. The producer sends something called a musical “cuesheet” to an organization called SOCAN, in Canada (the American equivalent would be BMI or ASCAP) for each episode, and SOCAN decides how much money I’ve earned as a composer.

Television music, in some ways, is hardly noticeable because a viewer is really paying attention to the content. But if you saw a segment WITHOUT the music and then with it, you’d notice the difference! It does a lot to carry the feel of what’s going on in the segment. In a sense, a show without a music bed here and there would be like a lyric without the music. That is true for movies as well…I once saw a James Bond film, many years ago, that was actually a pirated copy (don’t ask!), and it still hadn’t had the post production music on most of the film. It was BORING! You don’t realize how much the music works to drive your emotions in a film, to telegraph what’s coming, and to really milk the happy or sad parts, until you see a film without it.

You notice a lot of songs in films these days, which has become almost an industry in and of itself. A movie soundtrack can do very well for an artist if the movie is big. But television doesn’t quite have those theme music “stars” unless you’re talking about someone like Mike Post, who has composed music for some of the biggest and most popular television series around like NYPD Blue and Law & Order. My work is pretty small potatoes compared to him πŸ™‚

There are rarely any lyrics in the music I do for television…occasionally I will use vocals as some kind of background part, but today’s themes are quite different from the era of the Flintstones and Gilligan’s Island πŸ™‚ In fact, I would venture to guess that there was a lot more work involved in older television themes. For instance, they used live orchestras then, whereas today you can almost get away with being a one-person composer with a lot of synths and effects instead. The audio editing tools we have today make life SO much easier. If I want to create some bumpers, I can edit bits of the main theme and use them rather than creating them from scratch.

My work in television has been fairly lucrative at times for me. I get inquiries from time to time from other newer composers who want to get into what I’m doing. As you can see, in my case it was who I knew! And this, unfortunately is the reality for those who haven’t gotten their foot in the door yet. Once producers have used you, if they generally like your work, they won’t necessarily be on the hunt for anyone else. I have a feeling that the music industry itself is full of the same situations, and I feel extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I know, however, that it won’t last forever. One day another young buck will come along with amazing skills and blow me out of the water! New producers will take over and won’t know me from Adam (well, I’m a GIRL, how could they?) πŸ™‚

In the meantime, I love what I do and it supports my songwriting…what could be better? πŸ™‚

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