When Brad Segal studied classical piano at Juilliard, he didn’t expect that he would one day leverage his talents to score scenes of women weeping in Jacuzzis. But as a composer and music supplier for The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, he now spends his days turning small talk into high drama. Segal, who has worked on the shows for more than a decade, talked with Slate about how he manipulates contestants’ personalities from the moment they exit the limo, wrings high tension out of people sitting around, and ramps up the string music to drum up some reality television romance.
Slate: I imagine that you didn’t grow up thinking that you would become a composer for reality dating show competitions.
Brad Segal: No. No, no. When I went to Juilliard, I thought I was going to be a concert pianist. But I started to have fun just writing music. I first got a job at a jingle company in New York, writing music for commercials, then went on to score TV and film. When the early stage of reality shows hit, it was a rude awakening. The amount of music they wanted, and the time frame to do it in, was so different from scripted television and film—just a load of music in a short amount of time. It used to be that unscripted shows hired composers to write original music for the shows, so they would call me, Brad Segal, to score the whole show, because I specialized in that orchestral, emotional, romantic style of music they use on the Bachelor. Nowadays, producers don’t have time to edit their shows, send them to the composer, and have them score the show. They rely on big music libraries. So now they call my company, FineTune Music, to provide a collection of prewritten music, and then they’ll ask me to compose a few original cues as needed. One year, I did five reality shows and the movie Easy A, and I thought that might be my transition back into film. But the unscripted shows just kept coming and coming and coming.
Slate: Music must be more important in unscripted shows, because the producers don’t have the typical tools, like scripted dialogue, to set the tone.
Segal: Most definitely. Often, you’ll have two people sitting at a table eating and having a basic, normal interaction. But put some heartfelt romantic music under it, and all of a sudden it becomes a meaningful conversation. Or, by using a tension cue, you can make something feel tense that’s not tense at all. When I watch a scene without the music, I rely on the producers to tell me how they want to characterize the contestants or foreshadow the plot. If it’s going to be a relationship that lasts through the season, I’ll score it in a romantic way. But if they’re going to start butting heads after a few days, I’m going to want to play it a little more tense. For the music that plays as each person exits the limo, the producer will give me a little insight into their characters. If there’s a guy who’s a goofy guy, I’ll pull comedic music; if there’s a scene of romance building, I’ll pull that sweeping orchestral music. That’s the fun thing—it can tell the viewer what to feel as they watch.
Slate: What sort of music do you use for a goofy guy?
Segal: You could put five different types of music under one scene, and it really changes its entire feeling. So if I’ve got a goofy guy and I want to accentuate the fact that he’s goofy, I use a typical comedy piece—orchestral-type instruments, plucked sounds on strings, with some wood blocks and triangles for fun effects. I could add some modern instruments, too, like drums and guitars, if they’re played in a fun, percussive type of way—the guy on the screen is kind of bumbling around, and the music is bouncing along with him. It’s a lot like a cartoon score. But if you have a bit of a naturally goofy guy and want to accentuate the fact that he’s a respectful, caring person, you’d choose an acoustic guitar playing a soft, mellow melody with some easy strums—maybe some piano with some chords—to help along the feeling that he’ a good guy. And if there’s romance brewing, you’d add some strings to warm things up.
Slate: So would the goofy guy in Season 10 step out to the same music used for the goofy guy in Season 5?
Segal: Sometimes. Producers tend to have a visceral reaction to music. They get very comfortable with a certain sound. If they’ve used a piece of music before and like how it works, they’re not afraid to reuse it again. On unscripted shows, there’s so much music, so unless it’s a featured piece—the rose ceremony, for example, deliberately uses similar music each time—the music can be used more than once without calling attention to itself.
Slate: In this week’s Bachelorette premiere, former contestant Chris Bukowski “crashed” the mansion to try to get into the contest. How did you play that?
Segal: Creating tension is one of my favorite parts of working on unscripted programs. The party crash is the classic example—here’s this guy who shows up unannounced, totally out off the blue. But if you listen to that scene without any music, it’s just kind of like, “Oh, here’s a guy who showed up. Whatever.” The producers played it in an interesting way—when the host went and talked with the Bachelorette about his arrival, they started with some romantic music, to make the viewer feel like she might let him in. Then, when she’s like, “Nope,” the tense music kicks in and it ramps up pretty quickly as security escorts him out. There are a variety of levels of tension music—subtle tension, midlevel tension, and what we call “trailer-level tension.” This show by no means uses that big, bombastic tension music, but I’ll use tension music a fair amount to build suspense every time the show leads up to the next act—the commercial break.
Slate: Do the Bachelor and the Bachelorette call for a different musical approach? The men and women tend to fight with each other very differently on these shows.
Segal: On the Bachelor, the girls fight like you wouldn’t believe. They are so, so cutthroat, so they call for much more tense music. Sad music, too—the girls cry more when their feelings are hurt, so we use sadder music to enhance the sadness the girls are feeling. When the guys are doing their thing, it’s more passive-aggressive. Musically, it’s easier to be a bit subtler with that. On the women’s side, it’s just blatant. The picture speaks for itself, but musically, you have to go bigger to support it.
Slate: Have you ever met any of these people?
Slate: Do you ever feel like you know them? You’ve been scoring their lives for years.
Segal: No, no, no, no. We don’t get involved on that level.
Slate: I sometimes feel like I know them.
Segal: Yeah. I know. I feel for actors, because when people see them on the street, they feel as if they do know them. But because I do what I do, I understand their side of things a little more. Although, in the unscripted world, these people would probably want strangers to come up and say hi.
Correction, May 23, 2014: This post originally misspelled Juilliard.