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Film Independent Mon 9.30.2019

Know The Score: Scoring for Television versus Scoring for Feature Film

Each month in Know the Score, writer and composer Aaron Gilmartin will step out of the scoring stage and explore, in detail, some important aspect of movie music. After all, film is as much about what you hear as what you can see.


With seemingly endless content streaming out of places like Hulu, Amazon and Netflix, today’s have become accustomed to musical scores that combine both the grand cinematic sweep of feature films alongside more functional TV-style scoring. In episodic shows, plot lines can often span multiple episodes or seasons; composers must provide music that compliments both the frequent change-of-scene associated with TV dramas while also providing continuity between individual episodes of a show.

Just like how a features have their dramatic highs, lows and changes of pace, TV music must similarly respect the shape of the story—guiding audiences through epic battles, intimate moments, thrilling tension, comedy and more. And film and TV composers both use a variety of techniques, from full orchestras to samples, electronics and other sounds.

Most of the techniques used score features are the same ones used to score television—using recurring themes for characters, places and other story elements. But there are differences. TV and film composers each have distinct ways of using the score, and the scoring arts have taken a long journey from the big screen to the small one, to increasingly jumbo-sized home theater screens. So let’s take a closer look:



Pos-production: get used to this view

On a feature, the director is generally the person for and with whom the composer will develop the score. Often, the composer submits music for a specific scene and gets notes on how the director wants the music to change—in small or large ways—to best support the drama. At certain points, a producer or editor may weigh in with suggestions and notes. But largely in the film world, the director is the one who guides the creative vision for the film and its music.

On TV the showrunner is the person guiding the creative vision for both the show in general as well as each individual episode—especially in post-production. Each episode also has a director, but their job is to oversee the production during shooting. The work of the director is done before the composer sees the episode, and a composer on a TV show usually does not interact at all with a director of an individual episode.

In their experience, frequent TV composers Alexis Marsh and Samuel Jones of AlexisAndSamMusic.com meet with the showrunner of a project—or more often, their assistant. On very important episodes, such as a season premiere or finale, they may work more directly with the showrunner.

In the case of TNT’s Animal Kingdom, which the duo has scored for four seasons, their primary contact is a post-production producer. And when they get notes, the notes come from this post-production producer or secondhand from the showrunner.

When composing for networks like HBO and Amazon, it’s common to also meet with network representatives. So really, there can be a whole group of people guiding the creative vision for the show and its score. In situations where a showrunner, their assistant, a post-production producer and network representatives are all checking in and giving notes, the role of guiding the creative direction of the score may be passed among these people like a hot potato, allowing each person input into the music as they feel is needed.



There’s never, never enough time—so get used to it!

The biggest difference between TV and film music is the amount of time allocated for the production schedule—which arguably can be the single greatest influence on a show’s music. Generally, a film will have a much longer production schedule than an episode for a show on either a streaming service or broadcast TV. On a film, a composer may have a month or more to develop their musical ideas and material before composing to picture. Then she may have a back-and-forth with the director about what music is working and what needs to change or be completely recomposed from scratch.

Let’s contrast this with the time TV productions typically allow a composer. Jones says that when working on a show like Animal Kingdom, he and Marsh get around a week and a half from receipt of an episode until the next episode arrives. In that time they need to score an episode, submit the music for review, receive notes when needed, make changes to the music and deliver a finished score.

The working schedule for a TV show will usually be between six and nine months. During this time the composer will likely be working on a two-week-long rolling deadline. For the remainder of the year the composer waits to be notified that the show has been renewed and if they will be scoring the next season.



The compressed production schedule has many effects on the music. As Jones puts it: “Music in TV has a desire to fly under the radar. It’s very specific to each show. The cinematic benchmark that they’re going for will be very different for a big cinematic show like Game of Thrones than it is for a smaller show.”

“Shows on TV have less budget for each minute of music than a film does. When you get to post-production and problems arise, music is sometimes used to provide the fix. The amount of music can be increased to help a scene be more exciting. A ticking clock, for instance, might be inserted to get across a sense of urgency that’s missing in a scene.”

One sound we often hear on TV is a drone. This is a long sound that may not change very much, but fills in to heighten the drama in the scene. If a scene isn’t conveying what is needed, the composer may get the request to compose something under the radar that introduces a sense of dread or tension. This is one reason, among many, for the use of such drone tones.

But there are other good reasons for a drone cue to be used. For instance, to make a quick change between scenes not connected by a shared storyline. For a wry take on the use of drone scoring on TV, check out this scene from 2008’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall:

Because TV typically has parallel story lines within each episode, there are usually more transitions in TV than in film, and it often falls to the music has to come up with creative ways to make the transitions happen. The need to get through a lot of info in an episodic hour with multiple nonlinear story lines means the music is responding to dialogue more so than it is to the great sweeping cinematic gestures found in film.

The result is more ambient and subtle sounds, as the music helps move between scenes fulfilling a much different role than it does in film. This, essentially, is where “TV-style” music comes from. In a film you might have more time with a visual transition, with the score used to give the audience a lengthier breather between set pieces.

On TV, a composer may get only 15 seconds between scenes, with no time to establish a tempo. In this situation, a drone underscore—sometimes with an added “pulse” like the aforementioned ticking clock—is all that is needed.


TV and film music draws from the same heritage, developed to work within the time pressures of TV production and the relative abundance of time found on a feature. The high number of transitions in TV and use of visual transitions in film have necessitated different styles of musical score. And although the language of music is distinct between the two mediums, the aim is the same: to support the drama and the story being told.

To learn more about Aaron Gilmartin, visit his website. Become a Member of Film Independent by visiting our website, and click here to subscribe to our YouTube channel. And why not be our friend on FacebookTwitter and Instagram?

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