Note: This paper makes heavy use of media examples.
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Striking images. One might perversely call them “spectacular.”
But they are not purely visual: a whole sonic realm works with the images
to produce their impact. We as musicians may have observed the
role of music in creating affect in that montage, but how many members
of the American public-at-large, the consumers of such media representations,
know that the music is selling us a certain take on the news?
In the context of television, this political application of music, "the
ultimate hidden persuader" to quote Nicholas Cook (122), is all the
more powerful not only by virtue of the size of its audience, but also
because it seems natural.
Indeed, a multi-million dollar industry is devoted to providing music
for the broadcast media. Normally, local radio and television
stations and even national networks do not possess the resources to
have a composer on staff, and thus they turn to production companies
that sell licensed packages or libraries of musical material, called
elements, for insertion at appropriate moments within the broadcast.
The most popular such production elements in television news (see Appendix
for a listing) include:
Opens and closes, also known as titles or themes, which identify
the newscast and provide musical material for the rest of the broadcast.
Through fanfare-like, wide-ranging, quick, syncopated themes in
brass and strings over a driving beat, they create the impression
of a dynamic newsroom, while at the same time establishing an authority
in the eyes and ears of the viewer.
Stingers or teases are very brief musical and visual markers for
an important news item — occurring just before specific coverage
begins, they serve the dual purpose of notifying the public about
the importance of the reports to follow and — subliminally
— helping to create an attitude within the viewership that
will not only accept but also adopt the broadcast's position.
These are the most original and free production elements of the
Beds, often called "promo beds," provide framing and background
music for extensions of opens or longer previews of upcoming items,
under voices and images. Beds at the beginning of broadcasts
often take the opening theme and loop several of its measures in
the middle, so that a highly variable length is possible.
Bumpers are the musical lead-ins to and lead-outs from commercials,
which like stingers create a mood for the news items to which they
refer. Unlike openers/closers and beds, bumpers within one
newscast may widely differ, depending on the topic of the referenced
Thus standard signifying practices in this music industry have created
designations that describe either the placement of the music or its
affect, which foregrounds the role and importance of music as "hidden
persuader." And here we encounter the underbelly of the multi-million
dollar beast. While the production companies publicly claim that
their music creates an identity for the station, they are also creating
attitudes, perspectives among its audience. As Larry the O. from
LucasArts observes, listening to this music "is not a conscious thing;
it's subliminal... The whole idea behind sound design...is that the
viewer... buys into the whole thing." Lawrence Grossman, former
president of NBC News, put it this way with regard to the in-your-face
news music of CNN and Fox: “The music on the cable channels...
tells you what to think" (Engstrom, 94). The industry relies upon musical
signifying practices that are readily understood, and yet seem natural
to the recipient. Such practices are nothing new to music, whether
embodied in theories explaining "the doctrine of affections" of the
Baroque Era or the affectively organized anthologies of music for silent
films from the beginning of this century.
Production companies of today fully subscribe to music as bearer
of messages, and if there is any question, we can just look to their
own, often disturbing rhetoric. Thus the British firm Mokal Music
advertises its broadcast package called Shuffle with the words "mean
and pushy, strong & persuasive. These themes cover a lot of
beefy styles, all up-tempo and up attitude" (Link
[pdf]). And the track entitled "This Evening" is described as "persuasive
theme with sax & horns" (Link).
Shelly Palmer Productions, Inc. of New York City sells to radio and
television stations news music packages that are guaranteed to have
an effect upon listeners and viewers. Let's look at the significantly
named "Brave New World": the productions elements are alternately described
as "majestic," "hard-hitting," "jazz-oriented" and "timeless," which
suggest a full range of musical expression and moods (Link).
Designations like "Crime" and "Coping" make the signification
of specific 41⁄2 second cuts clear. Here are "Crime #3"
and "Coping #2", which musically correspond to our expectations from
the descriptive titles:
Audio Example 5
Audio Example 6
These examples prove that the networks have come to recognize for
their news broadcasts what television advertising agencies and indeed,
the film industry, have long known: music is unsurpassed in its ability
to tap into the personal narrative of the viewer and to suture her or
him into the diegesis. As Claudia Gorbman observes in her landmark
book Unheard Melodies, "Music may act as a 'suturing' device,
aiding the process of turning enunciation into fiction, lessening awareness
of the technological nature of film discourse. Music gives a 'for-me-ness'
to the soundtrack... [And] Music... increases the spectator's susceptibility
to suggestion" (5). Put in slightly different terms, if music
is an important component in the construction of personal narrative,
and the newscast is geared to convince the viewer that its purpose coincides
with his or her narrative ("following the stories that are important
to YOU" or "keeping an eye on YOUR city"), then this can create a commonality
so that the viewer regards the music chosen for a particular production
element as natural and his or her own choice.
It is not really any jump at all to the use of music to sell not
only one particular network’s coverage of the war, but also an
attitude about that war, whereby American media empires seem to be marching
in lockstep with the government. As media personality Danny Schechter
writes, “it started with the Gulf War — the packaging of
news, the graphics, the music, the classification of stories ... If
you can get a sedated public hooked..., you have a winner in terms of
building audience” (Baum, 105). War may “leash devastation
and death on people, but it also delivers ratings and brings life to
television. War is often the ‘big story’ (when sex
isn’t) and a defining moment for many journalists...”
And for the American public, it is one’s patriotic duty to support
a just war against terrorists who have heinously attacked the homeland.
Indeed, in the media since 9/11, we can observe almost a continuous
beating of war drums and sounding of martial trumpets, after the initial
sounds of grief and mourning gave way in late September to the bellicose
tone in broadcast media coverage of the War on Terrorism. As noted
media researcher Shoma Munshi observes, “from the days and weeks
following 9/11, till the United States attacked Afghanistan in October
2002, and most recently Iraq in March 2003, US broadcast media have
managed to maintain a sustained level of patriotism fanning the public
mood to keep the United States safe by whatever means possible"
(50). Already shortly after 9/11, NPR asked its composer Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr
for special coverage music, “either for another crisis in the
States, or, as it happened, an attack on Afghanistan.” The music
he composed for the events of October, 2001 found use again in March
of 2003, albeit with “subtle changes” dictated by the network.
We shall return to this specific music, but we should note that even
a politically liberal news provider like NPR, which was no uncritical
supporter of the war on terrorism, recognized the value of creating
a “war music” that would engage the public.
Thus if the evening of March 19, 2003 brought the unannounced, yet
not unexpected, onset of the War on Iraq, the networks were well prepared.
Five days before the war began, Fox News had its music package entitled
“Liberation Iraq Music” ready to go. Bob Israel of
Score Productions, the source of the ABC Nightly News theme in 1978,
used the same thematic material to make a soundtrack for the ABC war
news in advance of March 19.
When queried about preparing a soundtrack for a war that was not yet
certain, he explained that it “sounds a little crass, but that’s
what you have to do in this business to be prepared.” Although
the dates are unclear, CBS had commissioned Peter Fish, composer of
the Evening News theme, and NBC had done the same from Michael Karp,
creator of the Dateline NBC sound, to write their War In Iraq music
before the conflict began. NBC told Karp, “it looks like
there’s going to be a war and we could use a good theme.”
[Esopus] And in anticipation of finding a buyer from some station
or network, music production company TM Century had already created
the militaristic music package “Juggernaut” in December,
2002, under the assumption — according to Nicholas Engstrom in
the Columbia Journalism Review — that “within
six months there would be either a war or another major terrorist attack
on American soil” (45).
Audio Example 7
What were network executives looking for when they commissioned this
music? The Philadelphia Inquirer’s
music critic Peter Dobrin summarized the desired effects: “Like
quick-firing subliminal messengers, special music is telling TV viewers
and radio listeners what to think and how to feel about the war on Iraq."
Thus Richard O’Brien, Fox News’s Creative Director, wanted
something “with a marching feeling... We wanted the music to say,
‘Something big is coming this way’.” After previewing
the package, O’Brien directed the unnamed composer to “put
in more tom-tom drums because they had more urgency. I wanted
it to sound like, I don’t want to say war drums, but...”
When the director of the CBS Evening News, Eric Shapiro, asked Peter
Fish to write music that “tries to take into account as many situations
as possible” and “conveys some idea of mood,” the
composer responded with war music that — in his words —
conveyed a “climate of fear. To me, this is a real live
war, and we should be both awed and simultaneously scared... It
is just Techno-Ali-vs.-Frasier-IV-we’re-going-to-knock-the-crap-out-of-them,
testosterone-driven big-punch music.” Personally, Fish attests
to being a strong opponent to the war, “nevertheless, I have my
job to do... I believe the general mood of this country at this
point in time is ‘we’re going to go kick some Arab ass’...”
Here’s what Fish composed for CBS, as first presented on March
19, 2003 at 6:33 p.m. EST, the onset of the war:
Just awful, isn’t it, also by the standards of television news
music. It sounds artificial, synthesized, with repetitive rhythm
tracks, almost inaudible thematic material and cheap sound effects.
Let’s compare Fish’s package with the music written by
Karp for NBC, which wanted “that kind of classy signature sound
that NBC seems to have over many of the other networks.”
Karp manages to capture the symphonic sound of John Williams’s
signature music “The Mission,” while enhancing the materials’s
inherent martial qualities through percussion and brass. This
ennobling music can be all the more effective in terms of shaping attitude
because it is not in your face like the CBS theme or Fox’s war
As a brash upstart, Fox News does not have the same image to uphold
as do the established networks, so it did not have to employ anything
remotely dignified in its war coverage. The aforementioned music
with the drums of war has been described by Adam Baer in Slate
as a “tanked-up shock-and-awe campaign of gung-ho missile ‘whooshes’
and high-pitched electro-shrieks. Inspired by rock ‘n’
roll... it sounds youthful, impatient, and reactionary.” Engstrom
writes that the music “could be Metallica rehearsing Wagner..."
(45). Here is Fox’s adaptation of TM Century’s Juggernaut.
There is nothing subtle about this score, which John von Rhein of the
Chicago Tribune describes as “trumpeting an unequivocal,
scorched-earth patriotism: Let’s feel good about America and beat
If these networks — whatever their orientation — seemed
to march musically in lockstep with the Iraq war politics of the Bush
administration, one network resisted the pressure to join the bandwagon.
NPR’s director for All Things Considered, Bob Boilen,
commissioned Freymann-Weyr to write “more compassionate music,
more thoughtful without being sad, because no matter how you feel about
this conflict, I think people feel compassion for the soldiers and the
innocents.” As Freymann-Weyr echoed, “the challenge was
that it needed to be serious but not gloomy, not overly militaristic
or or flag-waving.” [Audio Ex. 8]
With its reflective, uncertain tone, the music certainly differs from
that of the other networks, which Freymann-Weyr explains in the only
interview that details a composer’s approach to writing music
for the War in Iraq: “One thing I tried to do with the harmony
was to introduce the ambiguity that (I hoped) would keep it from going
too far in either direction — overly traditionally patriotic or
overly morose. Even though the piece is centered around the key
of C, I purposely avoided the one note that would make it either major
or minor — all of the C chords, instead of E or E-flat, have a
D and F natural instead.” Still, he felt he needed to connect
with broader principles of signification for war music: “Although
trumpet, timpani and military snare drums are a bit of a cliché,
it didn’t feel right not
to use them, given the history of music in times of war.”
The result is a plaintive theme music that signifies the human tragedy
of war. Of course, NPR had the advantage of not being saddled with graphics
and live images that might dictate or influence the emotional tone of
The reality of the first days of the war confounded network expectations
that the early going would provide spectacular visuals from the shock-and-awe
campaign. According to Engstrom, music played a greater role at
the beginning, because "the first couple of days were less visually
dramatic than anticipated" (47). After having studied network
coverage from the first week of the war and compared it with similar
footage from the Persian Gulf War and the bombing of Baghdad in December
of 1998, I can concur that the absence of a sustained bombing campaign
in Baghdad made for visually un interesting television screens in the
homes of America, as citizens hoping for spectacular surgical strikes
audio-viewed silent, dark skies over Baghdad or heard bomb blasts without
the accompanying fireworks. In this clip, Dan Rather of CBS is
clearly caught off-guard by the deafening sounds not accompanied by
striking visuals, which might lead us to regard this media moment as
"auricular" rather than "spectacular."
However, Engstrom does not account for the difference between live
coverage, which did not offer much to the senses, and the network packaging
of the news from the front, which from the start used music and imagery
to enhance the message of a justified conflict that we can win.
We have already seen how networks put together music, graphics and video
footage in stingers and bumpers at 6:30 and other times of breaking
news to brand their particular take on the war. (By March 21,
every network other than CNN had abandoned its continuous coverage of
the war.) The one element added to this television news media
mix that exponentially increased the danger for the audio-viewer were
the actual sounds of war. When sound editors mixed the sounds
of air-raid sirens, weapons fire, and jet take-offs with a music track
in the opening bed of the newscast, the result naturalized the violence
or — in the words of music critic von Rhein — “sanitized
war’s darkest realities.” As we can observe in the
next video example, sounds and music become one in the soundtrack for
war, on the one hand bringing the danger, excitement, “liveness”
of the armed conflict into our living rooms, on the other presenting
the invasion as a media event, a glamourized, “staged spectacle”
(the words of Danny Schechter).
Moreover, as a matter of principle, editors enhance the sounds of war
to add to the spectacle (or should I say, auricule). Indeed, sound
effects can stand in for music to create dramatic moments in war coverage,
which the CBS example illustrated. If one of the purposes of the
aural component of television is to suture the audio-viewer into the
diegesis, how much more do the digitally enhanced sounds of screaming
jets, shrilling sirens and booming explosions make us feel that we are
there, that it is our war, that we must support it, that we must win
But when the bombs are no longer our own and the reason for the conflict
is not clear any more, when public opinion has turned against the conflict,
the music and sounds of war disappear. Or do they? For a
newscast segment called “Fallen Heroes” that has aired since
early May of this year, Fish turned his CBS signature theme into a plaint
for the featured military deceased, through the use of solo winds (especially
clarinet and oboe), soft dynamics and slow tempo.
With this music, we return to a world before the War on Terror, seeking
solace for acts of violence against Americans. Unlike the Persian
Gulf War, there has been no closure to the War in Iraq, no winner and
loser- not even a clear sense of good guys and bad guys, at least since
the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. In closing I ask you, where
is the greater threat to freedom, in the non-existent weapons of mass
destruction, or in the very real yet hidden weapons of mass deception?
Baer, Adam. “The Sounds of War — Rating the New Networks’
Theme Music,” Slate, Thursday, April 17, 2003. <http://slate.msn.com/id/2081608>
Baum, Matthew A. “Sex, Lies, and War: How Soft News Brings
Foreign Policy to the Inattentive Public,” in American Political
Science Review, 92/1 (March, 2002), pp. 91-109.
Cook, Nicholas. Music: A Very Short Introduction. 2nd ed.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Dobrin, Peter. “Media’s War Music Carries a Message,”
The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, March 30, 2003.
Engstrom, Nicholas. “The Soundtrack for War,” Columbia
Journalism Review 42/1 (March, 2003), pp. 45-47.
Freymann-Weyr, Jeffrey. “NPR’s Special Coverage Theme Music.”
Gorbman, Claudia. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music.
Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Munshi, Shoma. “Television in the United States from 9/11 and the
US’s Continuing ‘War on Terror’: Single Theme, Multiple
Media Issues,” in Media, War, and Terrorism: Responses from
the Middle East and Asia. Ed. by Peter can der Veer and Shoma
Munshi. London: Routledge, 2004, pp. 46-60.
von Rhein, John. “U.S.A. Networks’ Theme Music Sanitizes
Wars’ Darkest Realities,” Chicago Tribune, Saturday,
April 6, 2003.