The top 11 television music scores

News Dan Watts
12 Nov 2010 - 17:08

The composers behind the terrific music from The Sarah Jane Adventures pick their favourite TV music scores...

As the BBC brings the fourth series of Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures to an end this week, Dan and Sam Watts, who wrote the music for the show, accepted our invitation to list their choice of the ten finest television musical scores. And here's what they came up with...

Survivors – Edmund Butt

To be frank, anything Ed Butt does is fantastic, but Survivors really jumped out for me. The score varies so much. One minute it’s huge, as like in the opening titles, then it’s a moody, scary wash (like his work on the equally brilliant Life On Mars), and then beautiful solo piano.

It’s a movie score and a TV score all rolled into one, and done on what we're guessing is a shoestring budget. Anya’s piano theme is a stand out piece from the show. Beautiful, fragile and yet somehow filled with hope.

Invasion – Jason Derlatka and Jon Ehrlich

A huge score, and very Hollywood. The whole series was scored like a movie, with big, lush arrangements and a decent sized orchestra. Being American, it probably had a decent music budget, so it’s all real musicians, adding to the size and mood of the score.

So much TV music is done on a tiny budget with no money for real players. Fortunately, some American producers understand what real people add to a score – emotion, feeling and believability. This is a great example of how TV music should be done.

True Blood – Nathan Barr

This is again made with real musicians, albeit on a smaller scale. Comprising strings with a touch of piano and guitars (for that Southern feel) it’s very economical, yet always hits the spot. Lovely theme work too, but not in a John Williams lietmotif kind of way, rather more akin to Bear McCreary’s work on Battlestar Galactica (more on him later). It’s a small ensemble of players, but he really makes the most of it.

Firefly – Greg Edmondson

Why was Firefly cancelled? It was a fantastic show with an equally fantastic score. The Southern American civil war influence is matched in the score, giving it a real cowboys in space feel that never feels overused or tacky. It is, however, much more than that. Greg Edmondson manages to give the show real depth, and although there are many dangerous moments for Captain Mal and his crew, Edmondson manages to keep it light. That’s what we love about the score - it can be dark and dangerous, but just like the series, it never loses its sense of fun.

Alias – Michael Giacchino

Alias, Lost and Fringe are all great shows with brilliant scores, and we remember being hooked on Alias as soon as we watched the first episode. Not only was it a great TV show, but its techno-influenced music really knocked me off my feet. It was the first time we’d seen or heard anything like it used on a score.

As the show progressed, the electronica waned. In fact, jumping from season one to season two, you can tell Michael Giacchino is becoming more confident in his simple thematic approach to the score, as the beats and synths take a back seat. Again, this show was big on themes, but like True Blood and Battlestar Galactica. We’re not talking Luke staring into the twin sunsets here – they are simple and subtle. Trust us, they’re the hardest kind to write!

Band Of Brothers – Michael Kamen

It’s a TV score Jim, but not as we know it! The late Michael Kamen’s Die Hard score is one of our favourite film scores ever, and this is right up there with it. Simply put, the man was a genius.

The budget must have been huge on this. Each episode is like a film, and the score is equally expansive. There is an air of gentle nostalgia in the music which isn’t in the picture. It helps tell the story without softening the subject matter too much, and never undermines the story. The main titles are a thing of beauty, with a choir, horns and strings all working together beautifully. This is one of our favourite pieces of TV music ever.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Patrick Gowers

We have a childhood memory of Sunday evenings, sat eating crumpets by the fire watching Sherlock Holmes on the telly. It might not have been Sunday - we can’t quite remember - but it was bliss. The opening titles still fill us with warmth to this day, and the solo violin playing that clever melody is a joy to listen to.

In the episode The Twisted Lip, Patrick Gowers even dabbled with using the BBC’s computers and synthesisers, and it’s testament to the talent of the composer that upon listening now, none of it feels dated.
Battlestar Galactica – Bear McCreary

The drums. Everybody remembers the drums. However, it’s the simple and haunting two chord strings and gamelan melody used for Caprica 6 that sticks in our mind. Bear McCreary used themes but, again, was subtle about it. In fact, he was told not to use themes at all but snuck them in anyway.

There is a lot of drama in Battlestar Galactica, and it was all scored brilliantly. The huge taiko drums really helped define the action scenes, while strings and ethnic woodwind (especially the duduk, an Asian woodwind instrument) helped add another worldly air to the everyday trials of the fleet. As the seasons progress, the music becomes bigger and more complicated, and like Alias, it needed to develop with the show.

We also can’t think of another series that had the score become part of the show like it does in Battlestar Galactica seasons three and four. Plenty of composers talk about the music being like another character. Well, in Battlestar Galactica, it actually was.

And now for something completely different! All those shows were dramas. That being said, music is a broad church and can be used in many other contexts – here are a few of our favourite themes from the world of comedy...

Look Around You – Gelg (Peter Serafinowicz)

This needed a quick mention as it’s so clever. Part of what makes the show so funny and yet still feel like a 70s science show is its music. It’s the dated music that takes you right back to half-forgotten memories of elephants pooing on Blue Peter, or Kieran Prendiville spreading jam on a CD on Tomorrow’s World. The music is used as a trigger to help convey the 70s feel.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – Andrew Hewitt

This does a similar job to Look Around You. The music helps sell the 80s lo-fi of the show. It’s the tackiness of it that really works, with over-the-top guitar and synth lines over tacky dated drumbeats. It puts a smile on my face every time.

Green Wing – Jonathan Whitehead

This show is totally off-the-wall, and the score matches it perfectly. It’s fun, funky and totally tongue-in-cheek, a high-concept score of electronics and beats. We loved Jam, which was also composed by Jonathan Whitehead (with Chris Morris). This is a slightly toned down version of that with a dance feel.

Agree? Disagree? Head to the comments!

The latest episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures season four airs tonight on CBBC.

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