Music in Television and Film, Is there a Difference?

Harry Potter, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Godfather. What do all these iconic films have in common? Not only are they known as being some of the most popular and successful films made to date, but they also have some of the most iconic theme songs in cinematic history. I’m sure most people, even if they had never seen these films, would be able to recognise the tune right away, and might even feel inclined to sing along.

I mean come on! Who doesn’t sing along to the star wars theme when it comes on!

The same goes for Television. Just look at Doctor Who, Friends, or The A team. Most of these TV shows have theme songs as famous and as the show themselves. I’ve never seen the A team, but I defiantly know what the theme song sounds like.

So why do we remember these tunes as fondly as  we remember the films themselves? It’s because they are as integral to the story as the script or the characters. They help shape the world that we are seeing, creating the atmosphere of the film or Tv show. This is why I’ve always been so intrigued by the scores and consider them personally to be one of my favourite aspects of Film and Television. What’s interesting however is the way scores for both Tv and Film have changed over time. They have started to become a lot more minimal, with many not having the iconic lyrical themes that characterised older films.

This lead me to think, how was the way film and TV score been written changed over the years? And why? I personally believe that the kind of music being written for Tv these days is a lot more cinematic than it used to be. This is due to the rise in quality and kind of TV shows that we are watching today compared to those 20 to 40 years ago.  At one point in time TV and Film scores were so different, but today they are becoming more and more alike, creating a new era of composition.

In the early days of composing for TV and Film there was a distant difference between the two styles, as well as the kinds of composers who chose to write for each . “ It seems at one time, a composer had to choose which path to pursue film or television”  Jeff Cardoni said in his article ‘ The Music of Film and Television: Is there a difference?” He explains the stigma surrounding TV scores saying that people early on in his career would say  “ Don’t do television if you want to score features”. Overtime however this has begun to change. This is due to the massive change in the kind of Television that is being produced today that started around 2010 as TV shows started getting bigger budgets. Tv shows now are a lot more cinematic, higher quality and overall shot in a more sophisticated manner than something like a sitcom. Today we are beginning to see more scores written for Television by big movie composers. The lines between the two are becoming more “blurred than ever” according to Cardoni who says “ You have Oscar-winning film composers scoring television shows and revising Emmys for their outstanding work”  This proves that this stigma surrounding television scores are starting to fade.

This stigma surrounding Television comes from its history as a form of media. TV was considered in its early days as a more ‘casual’ form of entertainment. Shows had a certain layout and structure that they had to follow, as well as a smaller budget than films, which resulted in them being very similar and generic in style overall. This also resonated through their themes. Cardoni mentions in his article that “ I never once heard a producer say “ I want my film to sound like a Tv show” and that Tv shows were considered a ‘smaller scale’ than films. But according to him this is “ old thinking, where there was some type of destination between the two” thus proving that tv show and film scores are more alike than ever.

When tv first started to take off in the 50s there was only one channel you could tune into. It only ran a few hours a day with allocated times for certain shows and programs, meaning that what you what was very limited and had an appeal to a wide range of people. Watching Tv was originally seen as a family activity where people would take time out of their day to gather around together and the in.  This created shows like ‘I love Lucy’ and ‘Allo Allo’ which were very laid back and generic in content and theme songs.  However as we got into the 60s and 70s TV began to arise as a main form of media, meaning that more channels and types of Tv shows began to arise. This meant that you no longer needed mass appeal and creators began to target certain types of audiences. This was mirrored in their music which began to get bigger and extravagant than ever before. Just think of the Doctor Who theme! As we got into the 90s it was popular to have a song written  by a band as the theme song like in friends and cheers. But this slowly died out in the early 2000s.

It is only as since 2010 that TV theme songs have started to sound more ‘serious’  and more like movie themes. Just look at shows like House of Cards, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey!  These shows are completely different to say something like Magnum P.I or Dallas, they are almost made to the same quality as a feature film. Because many of our Tv  shows are created in such high quality the soundtracks have developed to accommodate this. We can see these shifts to more traditional sounding scores, like Downton Abbey, which has a full orchestra theme opposed to a synth score, and The Walking Dead theme which actually sounds as cinematic as a thriller movie theme. Even more modern themes such as Homeland or Mad Men that are very minimalist and modern and can be compared to movie scores like Interstellar. Scores today in both film and television are not so much about big lyrical tunes and instead focus more on creating a subtle atmosphere. Compositions are becoming higher quality and dramatic for both mediums compared to what it used to be, proving that today the distinction between film and Television score is becoming less and less.

The processes of writing these scores did differ slightly from one another, but have again become more similar as the years have gone on. Traditionally Tv scores were usually written as a synth score meaning that a lot of the sounds were made artificially or with electronic instruments or a synthesiser. Film scores were traditionally written with full-scale orchestras. Another thing to consider is that scores written for television need to be able to stretch out over a season. Different variations and smaller themes need to be written to make sure the overall sound doesn’t become too repetitive that the audience will tire of it. “ One good melody can carry a whole film for two hours, but in serialised television, it needs to be developed and expanded so to not wear out its welcome.” This can result in individual themes being written for setting or characters, sorting I personally really love. With video streaming sites like Netflix someone can watch 5 episodes in a row with no commercials in between, the melody may begin to “ grate on someone by the last episode” if it is not varied often enough.  Another difference with writing for television is having to deal and write for ‘bumpers’- the cues between commercials. They are often looked down on in the film industry, but again with the rise of Netflix which are getting rid of ads in shows this is eliminating this, again proving how Tv is becoming more cinematic and achieving a ‘higher quality’

Cardoni also mentions the interaction and direction  that goes on writing for both mediums. With film you film directly with the director and producer to create the scores where as for Tv as a composer you have much more say. You have faster deadlines which mean you have less time to question or asses the music you are creating but you also have the added pressure of pleasing a lot more people “ You have many people to please, sometimes with radically differing opinions” Cardoni states. “ So as a composer you have to be a musical problem solver”

Here I have delved a lot into the processes that help make up the scores of Tv shows, so I think its only fair that we have a look at one integral process of writing for a film, and that is creating a temp score. A temp score is the first draft of the audio which gets playing during the editing phase and is not often the final product.  It acts as a guideline for the mood and atmosphere that the director is looking for in the scene when editing and is then replaced by a soundtrack composed specially for the film. Temp scores are usually more specific to films as it can take a lot longer to get the final score finished. However as we see Tv scores become more complicated and made on a bigger scale, they are beginning to have temp scores as part of their creative process too.

A famous example of the Temp score replacing the Final score is with the movie Space Odyssey 2001. The iconic score we know all know was never meant to be used, however after hearing the one that was written specifically for the film they decided to not use it and go with the temp score instead. Now this theme is one of the most iconic film themes to date.

Here is the theme they almost used:

Here is the iconic one they ended up using:

Can you see the whole atmopshere of the film would have changed if they had gone with the other one? This proves how much a score can impact the overall feel of a film, and how much they really contribute overall. Not many people realise how significant they are.

When you look at the kind of music being made now for both movies and Tv shows it is vastly different to the lyrical themes that defined earlier iconic content. Now we are moving into a more minimalistic age of composition that has never really been explored until now. Cardoni supports this saying that “ these days in both mediums, it’s sometimes about sound and textures as much notes and melodies” stating that he too longs for the days of “ a good melody” . I personally think that this is very interesting direction that composition is taking. Many feel that the themes are becoming less about being iconic , but more about creating deeper levels of atmosphere and mood within the pieces they are written for. But for me that doesn’t mean they aren’t as memorable. I remember going to see Interstellar in the cinema with my family and being deeply moved by the subtle theme written by Han Zimmer. Even though it is not as grand or technical as something like Indiana Jones, it still deeply affected me and I left the cinema that day caught up in the vibe and message of that movie. I still can’t really listen to it today without feeling a pang of sadness. Movies aren’t the only ones going in this minimalistic direction. The theme to the 100 is also very similar to that of Interstellar, creating a subtle uneasy atmosphere to match the plot. What I like about this is that it leaves it a bit up to the imagination,as if not saying as much is saying more than ever before.

So when looking at all of this its interesting to see how much movie and television themes have changed. I’m sure many of you had never really thought about the impact these compositions can have upon you until today. But I’m sure after this you may begin to notice the impact it has on what you are watching. So next time you put on a movie, or binge watch that series you’ve been putting off on Netflix, why not pay attention to the music that’s playing in the background? And if you love, it why not sing along. I do! and i’m sure you’ll enjoy what you’re watching a lot more by doing it.


Cardoni, J. (2013; September. 24) The Music of Film and Television: Is There a Difference? ( Guest Blog). Retrieved from 

carlc5. ( 2012, December 12). Downton Abbey opening Up HD. ( Video File) Retreievd from

greg. (2010, August 4) Star Wars Intro HD 1080p. ( Video File) Retrieved from:

Hollywood Reporter. (2016) John Williams Conducting. Retrieved from

il con. ( 2010, September 22) 2001 A Space Odyssey Opening in 1080 HD. ( Video File) Retrieved from

kbirdusa. (2009, April 22). I love lucy intro with restored theme music. ( Video File) Retreieved from

Robert Bearsley. (2008, January 6). 2001-Space Odyssey- Alex North theme. ( Video File) Retreieved from

Word of Sound. ( 2014, October 6). Interstellar- Main Theme- Hans Zimmer ( Video File) Retrieved from


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