When a you’re totally involved in a scene from your favorite TV show or movie, you’re probably not even be aware of the music playing behind it. That is, if the composer has done his job right. Like lighting, costuming, makeup and set design, the proper music adds to a scene but doesn’t take it over. Music can heighten the action, deepen the drama and punctuate the comedy and when it comes to NCIS, composers Jeff & Greg Burns are expected to do all three.
I had a chance to talk with the brothers this past week about scoring, pop music and their favorite soundtracks. They replied as they compose – with one united voice.
How is scoring a series or movie different from composing a stand alone song?
Writing score for a picture is quite a bit different than a stand alone song. The most obvious difference is the fact that a songwriter is expressing their own voice and emotions in their song – where as music for picture is helping express the intention of the characters and the storyline. The other difference is technical in that the arrangement of a “song” follows a pretty set standard. For example, a pop song might have an intro, verse, prechorus, chorus, bridge, etc. Score music, on the other hand, follows the action of the characters. This makes the arrangement different for every piece of score. No two are the same.
What would you say is behind NCIS’s signature sound? Is it a particular instrument? A recurring musical theme?
NCIS’s signature sound is the hybrid of electronic and orchestral music. We, along with our composing partner, Brian Kirk, start with an electronic bed of beats and pulsing and add organic orchestral and world instruments to play the themes and express the emotion. Although there is a musical passage that serves as the theme for the show (you can hear it in the Main Title), we generally come up with musical themes for each episode. If there is a particularly heroic moment for the team, we will introduce the “NCIS theme” to really bring that moment home.
What do you think of the use of popular songs in TV and movie soundtracks?
We like it. Pop, rock, rap, country – any music can add emotion and enhances the characters. A film like Pulp Fiction utilized “popular” music to create a great atmosphere for the film.
What are your thoughts on how we’ve moved away from full orchestras to a more contained and computerized way of producing soundtracks.
You are right. The industry has gotten away from live musicians and have replaced them with computers. We both miss the days of live musicians. Having real people with all their talent and creative energy focused on a project can result in fantastic music. The deadlines and budgets these days don’t really allow us to utilize live orchestras or musicians anymore. Often we have 4 days to compose, perform and deliver up to 25 minutes of music. We can also make changes “on the fly” to tempos and themes. These things wouldn’t be possible with live ensembles like they are with computers. That all being said, we have written some amazing score music in computers and really enjoy the power it gives us to explore and manipulate audio.
Finally, what are your favorite soundtracks – movie or TV – not including NCIS – that’s a given!
Our favorite soundtracks are “Inglorious Basterds,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Juno” and “Once.”
You can hear the music of Jeff & Greg Burns on NCIS every Tuesday at 8:00 on CBS.
NCIS–From right to left: Mark Harmon, Michael Weatherly, Cote de Pablo & Sean Murray of the CBS series NCIS. Photo: Art Streiber/CBS ©2008 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.