How To Write Music For The News

Ever wondered who writes the theme tunes for the news? No? Oh… Anyway, this week on top TV podcast Boxcutters we talked to David Ashton and Damaris Baker about writing the music for ABC2’s News Breakfast. You can hear the whole interview by going here (and why not consider subscribing to the show through iTunes? Perhaps on multiple computers?).

You can hear the News Breakfast theme at whatsonthetube (scroll down for the second video clip), and here are some highlights from the interview:

Note that for the sake of simplicity I have combined all hosts into one question-asking entity I call “Boxutron“.


Boxutron: How do you approach writing a theme tune for the news?

David: The thing about writing music for TV is that you’re told what to do, basically. It’s not like writing your own song where you just sit down with a blank page and think “what do I want to write a song about?”. They say “we want something like this” and that’s what you try to do.

When they say “something like this” do they mean “dark and moody” or “like the thing NBC is using but change enough notes so we don’t get sued for it”.

David: (pause) Somewhere in between… (laughter)

In the case of Breakfast News they had a piece of music they’d been using when they were throwing ideas around. They checked out how much it would cost to get that cleared and it turned out it would be cheaper to buy us. They didn’t tell us to copy it, they said “this is what we like about it”.

It came down to ominous, serious strings with a little bit or percussion under them – and that would be what they’d read the headlines over – then it burst into these big dancey drums and a bit more melody in the strings and that would be where the opening titles with the spinning graphics would go.

The theme is surprisingly funky…

Damaris: There was a bit of an issue as to whether it should have a tune or whether it was something that was meant to be dancey and funky but definitely not sing-able, whether it should just be hummable, or…

David: There was a phrase, you had to be able to “nod to it, but not hum it”, or something…


Destination Moon - Damaris Baker, David Ashton

Damaris: We had extensive discussions over the visuals and the look and how to fit in with the whole feel of it. We sat down and consulted for two hours with the director about what was going to work and what wasn’t… [the theme] wasn’t what we expected to do.

David: The idea is the strings are like the traditional news theme and the drums are to keep it modern and happening. Vibrant and exciting.

How much discussion do you have with the producers?

David: We sent them a demo early on and they said it was too much like the other song.

Too much like Walking On Sunshine?

David: Yes, it’s too much like “Walking On Sunshine”, which was the one they wanted to use. Which was great. We thought that’s good, we can do our own thing a bit more. And there were a few versions and we got notes each time, until it got to the point where it was getting quite specific and then they said “OK, that’s it, that’s good”.

Damaris: There was quite a bit of tweaking, though. “Make it a bit more punchy, a bit more energy, a bit more life…”. Strange words that mean nothing to musicians trying to write something, that mean abstract qualities. Like “a bit more energy” – well, do they want more bass, do they want it faster, do they want more treble? So you just have to run with something…

Would it be worthwhile getting them in to the studio to demonstrate different options?

Damaris: Often that doesn’t work either, because often they’re not quite sure what they want.

They’ll know it when they hear it?

Damaris: Well, you watch something on TV and you don’t know how to produce films or film effects but you know when it’s lacking something, and you’re almost saying “it’s lacking something”. And they come and say “it’s lacking something” and you go “OK, we’ll fix it”. And you go off, to try and find that gap between what it’s lacking and the BBC theme, or Radio Indonesia, or whatever you think is the ideal news theme of the world…

Have you ever told a client they’re wrong?

(very long pause)

David: No.

Are there elements you think are inherently news-themey?

David: The timpani were something I thought “it’s a news theme, we should put timpani in”.

Damaris: Any time you listen to music the texture and the tune reminds you of other things… you’re always going to want to do things that have some echo of past news themes, that say “listen, this is serious. Sit down and listen”. But a bit funky, because it’s new and it needs to grab your attention, have a bit of energy and be upbeat  – but serious enough to say “time to sit down and listen to something because you need to know this. You need to know this”.

News themes do seem much more serious than before – they’ve gone from fanfare to “hugely epic”…

Damaris: But that fits with the idea that news sells, and you can have 24-hour news channels and you want to watch what’s happening in Iraq for 24 hours. That’s part of the whole “you need to know this because you’re worried. So sit down and we’ll tell you stuff and then you’ll feel better because you know what’s going on”.

Do you get feedback on your music – presumably you don’t get reviews?

David: The day after the breakfast news started I went on the internet, googled “breakfast news music” to see if anyone was talking about it. The only comment I could find was someone saying “oh, the music’s awful, it sounds like a Mexican soap opera”. I though – OK…

Damaris: We’ve now contacted Mexico and decided we’re going to start writing themes for soap operas. Because they do really good soap operas. Rivalling Brazil.

ABC News Breakfast is on ABC2 from 6 – 9am weekdays. David and Damaris also make music as Destination Moon: you can find their website here, and you can buy their CD here (no news themes on that, though). And you can read David’s reviews of Australian movies on this very site. Boxcutters live here.

2 Responses to How To Write Music For The News

  1. popartdivatv says:

    John – thanks for stopping by The PopArtDiva Blog today.

    I had to laugh at the question, “When they say “something like this” do they mean “dark and moody” or “like the thing NBC is using but change enough notes so we don’t get sued for it”.

    And David is a man with more self control than I’ll ever have – I have been known to tell a client they’re wrong and often emphatically!!! Hey, why hire me if they don’t want my expertise? LOL.

    I just never thought of news theme music as ever having a beat you could dance to – crap, now I’m going to be listening to the music more than the talking heads – oh, wait that could be a good thing!


  2. outlandinstitute says:

    Hello, PopArtDiva – perhaps the dancable news theme is more a Euro/Commonwealth thing, as electronic music has never been as popular in North America as it is elsewhere.

    As a good example, here is a clip of the BBC News theme:

    And here is comedian Bill Bailey talking about that theme:

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