The Sounds of War

Rating the news networks’ theme music.

Editor’s note: Some of the links in this piece launch audio clips.

If you logged any time watching the war in Iraq you heard a lot of blaring trumpets, military drums, and soaring violins—the artillery of broadcast news themes. As the number of cable, satellite, and Internet news options rapidly grows, music has become increasingly important in helping characterize a news organization and its anchors. Gone are the simple, early days of teletype clicks; ever since the ‘60s, when ABC’s World News Tonight flaunted tunes from Cool Hand Luke, and NBC countered with a swingin’ theme by composer Henry Mancini, news music has been highly competitive. For Operation Iraqi Freedom, many networks commissioned special themes composed of authoritative martial elements—victorious brass, pounding timpani, and electronic war sounds.

Good news music, it seems, should feature spirited themes of moderate length, laden with exciting contrapuntal events. It shouldn’t seem short, stunted, or quick to the gate. It shouldn’t convey worry, nor should it sound aggressive. The new war themes must complement those that already introduce the news—for branding purposes—without sounding over-familiar. Here’s a guide to some of the tunes, new and old, that formed soundtrack to the war. 

NBC was the first to take news music to the big leagues: In the mid-’80s, it commissioned a grand symphonic work called “The Mission” from Hollywood composer John Williams (better-known for his Star Wars and Indiana Jones themes). The other organizations have been trying to match its success ever since. Williams still rules NBC, and for good reason. The everyday theme for Nightly News (which you’ve heard for nearly 20 years) is both symphonically and structurally sophisticated. The composer draws on the music of late-Romantic Richard Strauss, whose work includes “A Hero’s Life” and “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Its French horns (the instrument used in hunts) blast a syncopated stutter-step rhythm that cadences with a descending major triad, mimicking Aaron Copland’s American paean “Fanfare for the Common Man.” There’s a searching violin line, a dash of fantastical harps; by the time the victorious trumpet fanfares enter, you feel that you’ve been asked to join an exciting journey for truth.

The network uses sections of this work for its other shows, including Tim Russert’s analytic roundtable Meet the Press. Russert’s theme music (titled “The Pulse of Events”) consists of fast, complicated modulations that sound more urgent and wary than Brokaw’s music: They foreground the show’s relentless, logical ethos. There’s even a fuguelike episode in the middle to suggest you’re in for tense discussions about power.

For the new Gulf War, NBC commissioned a special war theme from New York composer Michael Karp, the man behind the sound of Dateline NBC. The theme successfully incorporates Williams’ blend of symphonic confidence with strong thematic material; the music revolves emphatically around counterpoint and declamation. While it’s not as memorable as Williams’ theme, it’s the best of the new war music. NBC’s musical dominance continues. (Click here to hear MSNBC’s special news theme.)

CBS’s regular news music is cheap. The network’s evening closing theme (it’s also used for the morning news and as a substrate for the network’s war theme) is complicated, harried, strong, and poked with sensitive thematic holes. For better or for worse, it suggests the sensitive “one man versus the world” style of Dan Rather (one of few anchors to cry on air after Sept. 11). The string section leaps frequently, as if to reflect a jumpy anchor who still takes stabs on air. Listening to this music takes some effort—it isn’t comforting. But it is adventurous.

CBS’s war theme was composed by Peter Fish, who has scored forgettable TV movies like Intimate Betrayal and Middle School Confessions. It’s compatible with Rather’s theme, but it’s more artificial in instrumental make-up—full of synthesizer drum beats, the sound of helicopters, and superficial thematic material. The rhythms are repetitive and dissonances are not used melodically as they are at NBC. They’re used, instead, to suggest a sense of alarm. I can’t imagine it pleases older viewers.

ABC’s music simply sounds tired. Ted Koppel’s Nightline theme is boring and has been playing in one form or another on all ABC News shows since TV-composer laureate Bob Israel, of Score Productions, penned it in the ‘70s. The percussive elements are lightweight and tentative: The drums seem merely tapped; there isn’t enough meat to their thwacks. Melodically, the theme does nothing more than stretch out ABC’s four famous notes in a weak, long line, accompanied by even weaker violin accompaniment. The music lacks the drive and intensity we associate with victorious harmonic events.

ABC’s new “war with Iraq” theme is a failure, too: an amped up little-drummer-boy variation on the weak melody of its Nightline theme. Michael Eisner should get the phone number of film composer James Horner; what this music needs is some vast Aaron Copland Americana and Perfect Storm tenacity. Whatever happened to the network that used to play Cool Hand Luke?

CNN’s music says “now.” Its first news theme was also written by Bob Israel’s Score Productions—the most prominent company in the news-theme business. Like ABC’s, its melody is based on four notes. But these tones move; they’re accompanied by quickly ascending and descending flute scales that suggest a fast world moving at an ever faster pace. This is appropriate: CNN was the first 24-hour news network, after all.

But CNN’s war music is cheaper and more sensationalist. Blind-marching drums and heavy-handed gongs seem meant to imply brash intensity, but the effect is mostly confusing. Overall, it’s martial in an ostentatious, distasteful way—as if war coverage were another reality TV show, full of tawdry excitement. It’s fine for Aaron Brown to say that he’s pro-war; it’s another for CNN’s music to suggest as much with its vague video-game sensationalism.

Unsurprisingly, Fox’s war theme is a tanked-up shock-and-awe campaign of gung-ho missile “whooshes” and high-pitched electro-shrieks. Inspired by rock ’n’ roll—rather than Richard Strauss—it sounds youthful, impatient, and reactionary: It begins with one clear high tone and French horns in the forefront before descending by whole steps for two beats; then come crashing drums, five fast beats, and a weird whoosh. The network’s regular news theme, produced by Phil Garrod and Reed Hays of OSI Music in New York, is in the same spirit: It consists of short jumping three-note rhythms, a repetitive four-note violin riff, broad drum smashes, and big brassy timbres that sound more appropriate for the NFL.

If you switched from TV to public radio, you would likely have heard NPR’s special war music, composed by producer Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr (and based on his music for the network’s coverage of the 2001 liberation of Afghanistan). Public broadcasters seem to like hip minimalistic tracks; this sounds a bit like PBS’s electronic themes. Freymann-Weyr writes of the music that “though trumpet, timpani and military snare drums are a bit of a cliché, it didn’t feel right not to use them, given the history of music in times of war.” (Click here to read an essay by him.) NPR’s drawn-out trumpet is quite different from the staccato effects of the TV trumpets; the theme is underpinned by repetitive synthesizer motifs that portentously suggest the ticking of a clock

Al Jazeera
How is theme music handled in Arab media? Al Jazeera, which you can watch on the Web, doesn’t play music regularly. But the network occasionally uses Arabic pop to entice young viewers, as well as non-Western soundtracks to accompany series of images.