The origin of music news themes can be traced all the way back to when film studios began incorporating music and sounds in newsreels. The music says a lot about the network and even the newscast it introduces — even if most viewers might not notice it.
Composer Joel Beckerman calls news music the "silent player" of TV newscasts and says it helps viewers understand stories. Beckerman runs a studio called Man Made Music in Manhattan, where he has composed tunes for several brands and networks including NBC, CNBC, and AT&T.
BBC composer David Lowe believes news themes play a more functional role — to alert viewers. "It can't have the same sort of emotional impact that other music has, but the general idea of news music on TV is to basically tell them that the news is on," he said.
While music news origins can be traced to the nickelodeon era when live piano players played along with the movies, network news jingles didn't become mainstream until the 1980s.
NBC was the first network to use news music to distinguish itself as a brand. Before that, local news stations would use various teletype sounds like the ones you would hear in a newsroom before the computer era.
Some local news stations even used soundtracks from popular movies during the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to news music expert Victor Vlam. For instance, WABC in New York used "The Tar Sequence" by Lalo Schifrin from the movie "Cool Hand Luke." It went on to serve as the station's "EyeWitness News" theme for almost 30 years.
But news themes have changed a lot over the years. For one thing, they've gotten shorter. Long opens and closes are a thing of the past. Viewers are now hearing more and more bits of sound throughout a broadcast. These sounds are called music cues.
When John Williams composed NBC's "Mission" theme in 1985, it had 19 cues. A typical television score nowadays consists of anywhere from 50 to as many as 1,000 different pieces of sound and music. The music is used in bumpers, promos and segment opens.
The inspiration for music news scores can come from a variety of places. Beckerman is inspired by things people might not necessarily think of as just music. The self-described "variety junkie" said this includes everything from a pop song to walking around in the park and just being aware of the world around him.
Composing a news score involves a lot of different players. Networks typically hand composers a brief, outlining the brand's vision along with other thematic elements. Composers then work with directors and producers to fine tune the music before adding it to a segment or clip.
Beckerman said he guarantees clients at least three rounds of revisions, but the internal process with network directors and producers can double or even triple that number. Timing for the turnaround on these compositions can also vary. Beckerman likes to have a minimum of eight weeks for each project.
Music news can be a lucrative business, thanks to royalties. Composers get paid every time their music is played, so any time you hear a piece of music on TV someone is likely getting a royalty check.
The royalty rate varies from network to network, but it often depends on three factors, including length of use, type of usage (instrumental or vocal) and time of day. The latter rate can change, depending on whether it's a prime time broadcast or the midday news.
Networks are responsible for reporting music usage. They do this through submitting cue sheets to writers performing rights organizations like American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. These organizations then send royalty checks directly to members.
So what does the future for music news hold? It depends on whom you ask, but it's certainly not going away anytime soon. Vlam believes composers will tap new genres as networks continue to try to stand out among competing networks, noting that's it's "already taking place."
— Disclosure: Comcast is parent of NBC and CNBC.