Music at Six


Music at Six



First printed in 2003 in the inaugural issue of Esopus magazine as "Music at Six", reprinted in Harper's magazine in February 2004 as "Orchestrating War", this essay considers the history and traditions of the underscoring of news with music. In the process of researching it, Carter Burwell interviewed composers responsible for the music used by the three broadcast TV news networks, as well as some of the cable news networks.

The Rough Riders at El Caney, recreated by Edison
in New Jersey for his newsreel of 1899


Music makes a people gentle. - Gustave Flaubert


On April 19, 1995, I was in my studio, writing music for the film Fear. To fight the cabin fever that results from being locked in a room with a film for sixteen hours a day, week after week, I had the television tuned to CNN.

On this day the regular rhythm of news coverage was interrupted by the report of a large explosion in Oklahoma City. The first reports told little more than that, accompanied by confused video images of smoke rising from the city. The passing hours added only a small amount of information - a building destroyed, many people dead - but added a great deal of window dressing. There was a special computer-generated graphic that introduced the video footage, and a somber musical theme. I wondered how these were developed. I pictured a windowless room full of designers and composers with a producer standing in the middle screaming "More pathos!"

On September 11, 2001, my experience was very different. My wife and I live a few blocks from the World Trade Center site and we experienced that day at street level. It wasn't until later that we saw the television package that had been developed, and the disjunction between the reality we'd seen and the packaged version was so great we still haven't really been able to watch that coverage - not only because of the violence it presents, but because of the window dressing and what it says about the motives of the presenters.

It is now 2003 and we seem to be winding down from a war in Iraq, a war that was extensively covered and extensively packaged. Each network and cable news organization came up with its own "war" music, most but not all of the rally-round-the-flag variety, and this again raised questions: Where does this music come from? What is it intended to do? And why do Americans seem to want their news presented as that marriage of music and drama called melodrama.

Pathé newsreel of World War I armistice celebration

The unmistakable cadence of military drums and a fanfare of brass announce the arrival of the war news. On a screen of light embellished in gold ornament, you watch the machinery of war go about its timeless business, the spectacle and drama of each moment driven home by rhythms and melodies familiar from previous reports. It's news of the First World War, courtesy of the Pathe Weekly newsreel.



The live music for these newsreels varied from theatre to theatre - sometimes only a pianist, sometimes an organist playing a device like the "Fotoplayer Style 50", a 21-foot-long music machine capable of simulating everything from a 20-piece band to horses' hooves, crackling flames and 75mm cannon. In the movie palaces of the big cities the presentations might be accompanied by 80-piece symphony orchestras. The actual notes played varied as well since the film distributors didn't provide scores specific to each newsreel. The theatre's music director had to go to sources such as popular songs and classical music to find material appropriate to each news story.

To ease this burden, digests of music categorized by dramatic need were published, such as the Sam Fox Moving Picture Music Volume (1913, composed by J.S. Zamecnik, a student of Dvorak) or the Kinobibliothek (1919, by Giuseppe Becce). As the newsreel played, the musicians could simply turn to page 11 for "War" music (Sam Fox offers 3 varieties), or page 17 for "Hurry" music (4 flavors).


Fotoplayer Style 50 theater organ

Marches are the most abused compositions for newsreel accompaniment. Any time a leader cannot decide just what music to choose the easiest way out is generally found by taking any old march and playing it through. - Erno Rapee, 1925, musical director of the Capitol and Roxy Theatres in Manhattan.

I haven't been able to find a date that establishes the origin of the town crier with his hand bell, but this seems an obvious early example of the use of music in the broadcasting of news. The bell served to gather an audience as well as to focus their attention, and I suppose the difference in tone and ringing pattern between the famous bell of Antonio Pucci and any other 14th-Century crier served what we might now call a "branding" function.

Written news was often the basis for the town crier's announcements, and its market value was established in Venice two hundred years later when the government sponsored readings of avvisi for the public, price of admission one gazeta. It is from this tradition that we get the word "gazette."

It's a good bet that the news the Venetian Republic gave the gazeta audience reflected well on the republic and somewhat less well on their enemies the Turks. Despite efforts at impartiality, whether in the 16th or the 21st century, news cannot be understood without considering the interests of the parties involved in making, distributing, and receiving it. Newsreels were produced and distributed by well-capitalized corporations such as Path? and Time, Inc., who may have been impartial with regard to any one story but whose existence depended on the stability of the capital markets, and who thus could not be impartial in the face of any war that involved territories where they did business.


It is to the mutual reinforcement of an ideological demand ("to see life as it is") and the economic demand to make it a source of profit that cinema owes its being. - Jean-Louis Comolli

In the 1930s, newsreels became "talkies," and began to include prerecorded music, putting a lot of pianists and organists out of work, but creating jobs for composers who could write music specifically for each film. When the newsreel industry finally died at the end of the 1950s, many of its makers joined its killer, television. Television, like radio, was subject to more government regulation than the film industry - the belief being that this limited number of broadcasters were using a public resource, the electromagnetic spectrum, and therefore had an obligation to the public. As early as 1941, both the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters were making it clear that radio and television newscasts could not be "editorial." Perhaps it was in reaction to this expectation of "objectivity" that there was much less use of music in television news than in newsreels.

The first nightly network newscast was that of Douglas Edwards on CBS-TV in 1948, but affiliate stations generally thought news unattractive to their audiences. It was only in 1963 that CBS and then NBC felt there was enough interest to expand the newscast from 15 to 30 minutes, and John Kennedy's assassination that year established the role of network news as a place of common comfort, as well as information, for the nation.

I...wanted production elements that would "say" ABC News over and over again, on radio as well as television, creating a kind of Pavlovian brand recognition. This led to the opening fanfare of drums and trumpets that is used to this day to introduce every news program, and to the signing - ABC Moscow, ABC London, and so on - in uniform graphics. - Roone Arledge, President of ABC News from 1977-1998 [from Roone: A Memoir, by Roone Arledge, HarperCollins, 2003]

If music was present at all, it was only at the very start and end of the newscast itself, and it served primarily the branding function which theme songs did on serials and sitcoms; it was no longer scoring the news itself, as newsreels had. As studies of the viewing patterns of the American public revealed that they often had the television on when they weren't even watching, music was asked once again to serve the function of the town crier's bell - to gather the audience.

It's what we refer to as the "kitchen mix," which draws the viewer from the kitchen (or now their computers) to the TV. ... These notes come in and the theory is that people go, "Oh, here comes the news - I better pay attention." - Gary Anderson, composer and executive vice president of Score Productions, which has been responsible for most of ABC's news music, as well as the original CNN music package.

At the same time that the public was increasingly turning to television for news, the '60s brought a growing sense of civic responsibility among journalists who were discovering that the information they received from their government about the war in Vietnam - which they had traditionally presented without additional perspective - was often false. By 1968, CBS News was presenting Special Reports like "The Vietcong" or "Hanoi," which are startling to watch today. There is no music over the opening or closing or anywhere else in these pieces, and since the footage was largely shot without sound, there is a pervasive sense of quiet and, at least to someone listening in 2003, what must be called seriousness.

Conventional practice has made an anchor of background music, such that it dictates what the viewer's response to the images ought to be. Remove it from a scene whose emotional content is not explicit and you risk confronting the audience with an image they might fail to interpret. - Claudia Gorbman, [Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music, Claudia Gorbman, Indiana University Press, 1987]

To create the drama of a breaking news story for his broadcast of The War of the Worlds in 1938, Orson Welles used music to negatively score the story. The broadcast begins with a live concert - "We now take you to the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ram?n Raquello and his orchestra" - which is then repeatedly interrupted as news of the alien attack breaks in. "Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News." Music is used to establish a "comfort level" for the audience, which is then subverted.

While in the instance of this fiction the question of "comfort" may seem trivial, its place in actual news broadcasting is far from it. Serving both the psychological stability of the individual and the cohesion of society, news reports frame fragments of often frightening information so that they seem to be in some sense "under control" - familiar music, familiar graphics, familiar faces all make a scary world seem manageable. This is certainly what the public wants, and would it do any good to show us how truly out of control the world is? For us to function in the world it needs to seem ordered - but it helps to remember who is defining this order for us.


There's definitely a difference [in] the way America portrays news. If you turn on the BBC or something like that it's very low-key and underplayed, and we tend to overplay a lot of things and that's just the way it is... Music now is just so in-your-face all the time on TV in general... It's really changed - I don't know if for the better or not. - Michael Karp, composer of NBC's, CNBC's, and MSNBC's Iraq War music

Post-structuralist literary theory holds that the meaning of the written word is diffuse, endlessly contingent on a web of equally diffuse meanings. But how much more is this true of a filmed image? And how much more still of music? When news is presented visually, every effort is made to constrain the meaning of the image. Newspapers give captions to their photographs, a practice Roland Barthes described as ancrage, an attempt to anchor the meaning of the image, and this is surely what is being attempted with titles, voiceover and music in newsreels and television.

Even though broadcasters may consider music to be simply "announcing" the news rather than "underscoring" it, it is impossible to confine the meaning of music. Its significance spreads and shifts uncontrollably with changes in context - the context of its presentation, the context of the viewer's state of mind.

Lalo Shifrin may have been asked to score the tarring of a dusty road in the film Cool Hand Luke, but that didn't prevent ABC News from appropriating the same piece of music to announce its evening news during the '60s. To the folks at ABC, the piece wasn't about work gangs or the failure to communicate; it was about breathless urgency. But there's no way to know what it meant to the audience.

This couple comes up to me. "Mr. Anderson, we saw that you were involved in the music for 'Nightline.' We wanted to thank you. We wish that we had met you earlier. We used the music at our wedding, but we couldn't get a version without Ted Koppel's voice on it." - Gary Anderson

As it happens, the Cool Hand Luke theme partook - unintentionally, I'm sure - of cliche number one in the news music business: the rhythm of the teletype. While this cliche is kept alive by news organizations around the globe, every composer I spoke to for this piece had made a conscious effort to get as far away from it as possible. The teletype rhythm as a symbol of news had one major benefit over music: much less semantic baggage. It wasn't in a major or a minor key. It had no melody that would color the broadcast as uplifting or somber. As we entered the Age of Branding, however, it also had one shortcoming: it could not be copyrighted. It is the simple sound of a machine doing its job.

The lead instrument conundrum. News is serious and electric guitars are sporty, and in spite of the fact that Fox News has been doing a lot more sporty rock things, and some, particularly cable, networks have tried to introduce?more contemporary sounds, the important news is the sound of brass. - Cynthia Daniels, engineer at Score Productions

The two loudest instrument groups in the Western orchestra are the brass and drums, so it should come as no surprise that they have both served for centuries as long-distance communications devices, not only in the West but all around the world. Before metals could be worked to form brass instruments, animal horns were used for the same purpose - shofar in the Middle East, conch shell in the Pacific, ox horn in medieval Europe. By the 9th century in Europe horns had become associated with the military and nobility, and that association is still with us today, simultaneously renewed and enshrined in such pieces as Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Brass and drums represent cliche number two of news music, and we haven't gotten far from it since the first newsreels.

If you go into countries where this is not in the culture, it still is ingrained in them. When we do CNN Espanol the last thing they want is Latin music. They want Aaron Copland. And we give it to them. - Gary Anderson

War reporting is an ancient tradition of journalism, and it represents the crux of many of its challenges. Wars always generate propaganda, a word we get from the Vatican's 18th century efforts to propagate the faith, and journalists are always keen to distinguish between their work - providing information - and propaganda. At the same time, a war is traditionally a sport in which you cheer for the home team, regardless of the facts. Whether your side is right or wrong, you'd still rather not have your family or friends killed in battle.

For this reason, there's often a thin line between a German newscast from the 1930s and Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, or between an American newscast of the 1940s and Frank Capra's Why We Fight. The differences are actually more in form than content - the propaganda films bring all the art of master filmmakers to bear on the propagation of the "faith," while the broadcasters simply don't have the talent, the time, or the resources to shoot, edit, write and score the news that well.

Advances in technology in the second half of the 20th Century have allowed shooting, editing, and scoring to happen many times faster than before. Writing, however - the injection of an intelligent point of view into the news process - has not kept up with technology, and many reporters from the age of film, when it took at least a day to process and transport the footage of the Vietnam War, bemoan the speed with which live or almost-live video can make it onto the air without any vetting or interpretation by a real journalist.

We did music for a special on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, finished the music at around 7:15, messengered it over to ABC here in New York and at 8 o'clock watched it on the television set. That's about the closest we've gotten to a deadline. - Gary Anderson

Every composer I spoke with felt that NBC erected a milestone in the use of music for news in 1985 when they hired John Williams - the composer who wrote the scores for the Lucas and Spielberg films that defined American commercial cinema in the last quarter of the 20th century - to write a set of themes for NBC News. The package of orchestral music he created was called "The Mission," and the network is still mining it almost twenty years later. While the central melody is often carried in brass voices, it was much more highly developed than anything that had been written for news previously - and probably since. Written in the self-ennobling Richard Strauss mode, its orchestral colors, countermelodies, thematic variation and development create a much richer musical experience, and a much more diverse palette of moods and emotions, than any news music before. It had to have been a very expensive proposition to commission someone like Williams, but the effect it had, at least on the composers working in this field, was to make television news, and by extension, its music, seem like serious business, worthy of respect; a noble - if you will - mission.

The other networks, they always go for that John Williams, big, grand music, but our music is always pointedly more aggressive. I feel the sound of Fox News Channel has branded us more than the look has. It's rock-influenced, for sure. We try to keep the sound and look younger and hipper than what our competition is. - Richard O'Brien, vice president and creative director for Fox News, quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 30, 2003

Television news music is delivered by a composer in the form of a "package," of which "The Mission" is one example. A package consists of many - sometimes more than 100 - different "cues", short pieces of music that presents the thematic material with a certain feel, duration and purpose. A feel might be "funky" or "somber," durations are typically very short, between 10 and 30 seconds, and purposes include a "teaser" to announce an upcoming show, or an "open" to start it. Four feels each performed for four durations and for four purposes would generate 64 cues. The numbers add up. All the networks commission exclusive packages from composers such as Peter Fish (CBS) or Michael Karp (NBC) or from music production companies that represent teams of composers, such as Score Productions (ABC). But generic packages, generally known as "libraries," can be licensed by anyone who can do without proprietary themes, and there is much of this music in local news.

Something as simple as a one-hour special may get 60 cues, of which they might use 12. We have to give them the choice as best we can. Because you're not scoring anything - you have no idea what the images are going to be. Basically, it breaks down into four moods: a generic-everyday-neutral mood; one that's a little bit more dramatic; one that's lighter; and they always ask for somber - we don't use the word "funereal," but it's really for that purpose, when they do have bad news. It's not used very often. - Gary Anderson

The package for the Gulf War was maybe 14 or 16 cuts, because basically there's tragedy and there's blood-and-guts. But if you do something for "The Early Show" you have to do tragedy, blood-and-guts, general news, sports, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Election Day, and what I call "dead Pope music," for when the Pope finally dies. - Peter Fish, composer for "CBS Evening News," "Face The Nation," "The Early Show," the CBS Iraq War coverage, and many others

And so we come to the American news coverage of this year's war in Iraq. It's important to note that there was a great divide between the tone of war coverage here and that everywhere else in the world. In a striking return to the melodramatic traditions of the newsreel, American television invested every piece of war news - down to the titles and graphics - with an overwhelming amount of emotional context. Special music packages for the war were commissioned by each of the broadcast and cable networks. Who made these calls, and how was the assignment described?

For the Iraq war it would be the director of the program, Eric Shapiro, who is both the director of the Evening News and director of special event programming [at CBS]. ... I did the last Gulf War for him in '91, so this was the "once-every-ten-years-we're-going-to-do-a-war call." - Peter Fish

On the Iraq War, the direction [from ABC] was: "Serious but not down, somber or morbid. Serious but uplifting." They also veered away from "military" or "martial." Again and again the words are "serious," "powerful," "uplifting." - Gary Anderson

They said "it looks like there's going to be a war and we could use a good theme... big but not overpowering." They always want that kind of classy signature sound that NBC seems to have over many of the other networks. - Michael Karp

The increasing use of screen real estate for graphics and various informational "crawls" and displays, as well as that of propulsive music and sound effects, has prompted many people to liken today's war coverage to video games, although this completely ignores the one distinguishing characteristic of these games: interactivity. Although our television screens may be so crammed with information that we feel like we're piloting a jet, we are as much in autopilot as ever. The better simile is sports. Two adversaries meet on the field of honor. Instant replay, interviews with coaches and players, color commentary, and the complete absence of relevance are all pleasantly familiar from sports coverage. (It's worth noting that Score Productions, who did themes for ABC's "Wide World of Sports" and "Monday Night Football," got into the news-music business when Roone Arledge, who ran ABC Sports from 1968 to 1986, was put in charge of the network's news division in 1977.)


The Iraq war was, of course, a rematch, and it was inevitable that some aspects of the coverage would relate to the '91 Gulf War.

The creative brief in the first [Gulf War] had more to do with a conflict of cultures and ideologies - it was the Islamic or Arabic East versus the West, and so the conflict was set in those tones. The second time it was more like they were trying to promote the war the same way they would promote Terminator 3 - it was like Battle of the Megaheroes....So the first time what I delivered was vaguely militaristic and vaguely Arabic, simultaneously. And the second time it was just Techno-Ali-vs-Frasier-IV-we're-going-to-knock-the-crap-out-of-them testosterone-driven big-punch music. - Peter Fish

Score Productions can chart the musical pedigree of ABC's Gulf War music back even further. In 1979 ABC put on a special 15-minute nightly report on the Iranian hostage crisis following the news at 11:30, and despite doubts that news could compete with Johnny Carson at that hour, it went on to become "Nightline." The variation on the ABC "World News Tonight" theme which was done for the Iranian Hostage Report became the theme for "Nightline."

[The request was] can you expand upon the library that we did in '91, which actually was an extension of something we had done at the last minute for what was called "The Iranian Hostage Report." That sound, because the directors and producers were the same, drifted into the '91 package for the Middle East Conflict - I think that's what it was called - and then that was brushed up a little bit and updated [for 2003].... I never got instructions that "we want music to be gung ho"; nobody has ever said that to me. - Gary Anderson

Even if we agree that it's impossible to write music that is only "serious and uplifting" and is nothing else, it is hard to avoid the impression that much of the music for the coverage of this Gulf War strove to make one "feel good" about the war. This is particularly true for CBS and Fox, which invoked contemporary rhythm tracks to give an unmistakable air of excitement to the proceedings. Clearly the networks had come to the conclusion that this was what the public wanted.

Going back ten years ago, one of the networks we were working with did in fact take what came to be known as the "Drums of War" from a generic library - not something we had supplied them - and then actually pulled it off the network because it was too "gung-ho"... Cut to the chase, ten years later, that kind of thing did get on the air. I don't personally agree with it. As a viewer I don't really appreciate that kind of thing. I want the music that we supply and we create to do what it's supposed to do. It's supposed to draw the viewer in, give them an identifying factor, so they know what network and what show is on the television whether they're looking at the screen or not, and you're not editorializing. You're not trying to have the music express an opinion as to whether this is right or wrong. It's not a movie. - Gary Anderson

There couldn't be any greater opponent of this war than me. Nonetheless, I have my job to do. But I believe the general mood of this country at this point in time is "We're going to go kick some Arab ass," and I don't think they need my music to tell them that. - Peter Fish

While the music packages that were developed for the war included more somber pieces with more deliberate tempos, these were not typically used to introduce the war news. Of course, if the war had not gone well for the U.S. we would probably have heard them. It goes without saying that no war goes well for everyone, and there were certainly people dying on all sides, but this was rarely the focus of the coverage or the mood of the music.

NBC even found a way to suck all the musical and emotional depth out of John Williams' "The Mission" by simply looping the opening measure of drums, creating a vapid bit of martial vamping. In the face of this kind of editorial recontextualizing, one can hardly blame the composers for the way their music was used.


You do what you're asked. We try to give the client what they're looking for in their music. ... You never have control over what's going to be used, of course. - Gary Anderson

You give them the music, you hope for the best. I give up the minute I hand in the material - officially give up. - Peter Fish

They could take some of the celebratory, uplifting [music] from the many heroic stories where that kind of music is appropriate and just stick it on top of a picture of the general of the day...and there you have it - you've got heroic branding on top of a war. Ultimately you can't control how they're going to use it. - Cynthia Daniels

As John Leonard, television critic and ex-editor of The New York Times Book Review, noted after the first Gulf War, the American public wanted to "feel good about itself - it hadn't for a while." Is it the responsibility of the news media to make us feel good about ourselves? Inevitably the current system of using advertising to pay for news, and pricing that advertising time according to the number of viewers, results in a competition to attract viewers. But advertisers are not simply driven by audience size. When CBS presented prime-time specials on the first Gulf War they got better ratings than the entertainment shows they had replaced. Still, CBS cancelled them because they couldn't sell the ad time. Advertisers were afraid their product might end up following a shot of dead bodies.

We want to feel good about ourselves, the advertisers want us to feel good about their products, the producers want the advertisers to feel good about their news shows, the state wants the producers to feel good about its government. Someone has to compose the music for all this good feeling.

Leonard comes to the conclusion that "media should stand in a quasi-adversarial relationship to the government because the government lies to us." In my opinion this skirts the issue. The media should stand in a quasi-adversarial relationship to us, the viewers, because we lie to ourselves.


The unmistakable cadence of military drums and a fanfare of brass announce the arrival of the war news, and on a screen of light embellished in gold ornament you watch the machinery of war go about its timeless business, the spectacle and drama of each moment driven home by rhythms and melodies familiar from previous reports. It's news of today's war, the same on every channel.