Tell me more about news music. What is it doing to me?
April 2, 2024 1:32 PM   Subscribe

A lot of news and current affairs channels use theme music that I would describe as orchestral, rising, presidential, and military. It often has heavy use of brass, strings, drums, satellite beeps, and whooshes. Intuitively, I feel that this music inserts a lot of bias into the stories covered. It feels a bit aggressive and it also implies credibility, gravitas and urgency. To me, it feels like it could create a sense of danger, fear, and reliance on the news, or even a need for protection from "the assault" of the news. Has anyone studied or quantified this? Can any musicians break it down?

I tried to google, but the search terms are broad so it's hard to narrow down.

Examples of what I mean are: BBC News Theme (example of beeping satellite), CNN Newsroom (orchestral and magestic with heavy drums), CBC Breaking News Bumper (heavy drums and a whoosh), Fox News Live (pulsing orchestra), Al Jazeera - Evening News Open (epic orchestra in a minor key).

I'm looking for articles or studies discussing whether this kind of music actually does bias the listener about the news stories being covered.

I'm also interested in hearing from musicians (published or Mefite!) who can break down and describe the musicality of how these pieces are composed, especially if the musical devices used have ever been studied as having a particular effect in the listener's brain / responses / emotions. Thanks!
posted by nouvelle-personne to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Bill Bailey has a whole sketch about this idea. The iconic "beep" sound you get in the BBC theme is, I believe, derived from the Greenwich Mean Time "Pips" - four short and a long - which would give a 5 second lead in to the news since the 1920s. When I was a kid the news titles used to sound like Morse - see this example. (is it Morse?)
posted by rongorongo at 2:33 PM on April 2

You might be interested in this episode of Song Exploder, which talks about the theme song for The Daily (the New York Times' daily news podcast)
posted by third word on a random page at 3:22 PM on April 2

rongorongo, it's not Morse, but if you tried real hard you could read it as "5(five)-S-S-S" with the two final S's being run together inspead of having a space between them.

TV music side note: the haunting Inspector Morse main theme includes the name Morse, in Morse code.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:50 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

Starting in about the 1970s, the Eyewitness News & Action News formats were semi-franchised across the U.S. and other countries. The whole concept was a fast-moving, attractive, and more entertainment-like news program that features on-the-spot reports from reporters, commentary and "happy talk" from news anchors between reports, more emphasis on the suburbs, etc etc etc etc.

The logos, video lead-ins, general format, and music were all part of that package.

The Action News Theme was initially a "brass-drive rock song" of the type designed to complement the fast-moving, hard-hitting, entertaining type of news format. This was soon changed to Al Ham's Move Closer to Your World theme which was used by dozens of TV stations across the U.S.

You can listen to your heart's content here on the TV Music Museum.

The Eyewitness News format had similar musical material that was used by among various stations across the U.S. & the globe.

In general, there was (and I suppose, is) a whole cottage industry creating musical clips for use on TV, radio, advertisements, etc. You could buy stacks of LPs with titles like "Energetic orchestral hit, 12 seconds". These things were used over and over at different stations and in different formats.

So the whole idea that you could either request or easily find little snippets of music with the affect of your choice and in the various needed lengths was common and such things were easily available.

All you need to add to that is the PR people saying, "OK, we need something energetic that will appeal to the youth demographic, show that we are hard-hitting and fast-moving" or whatever, and you end up with something very like this.

Add to this the fact that the format was literally replicated in every TV market across the U.S. and you end up with the type of music you mention being associated strongly with news programs.

Now I don't know if it literally started there. But previous to the 1970s the TV News was seen as a rather sedate, professorial kind of public service that stations were required to provide. It was about in the 1970s at the time of the Action & Eyewitness News trends that the News started to be seen more as a profit center whose goal was to drive eyeballs to the station and build ratings. The various TV stations in a market competed fiercely with each other for rankings, with the Nielson Ratings system playing a big role.

So the idea that the News was a "TV Show" with theme music and all that came along with this concept. It is not very surprising that the theme music was quite similar to what you might hear on Hawaii 5-0, Dragnet, Adam-12, and such contemporary cop shows. The first Eyewitness News theme was literally lifted from the 007 James Bond movie theme (more). This was exactly the vibe they were shooting for.

So I don't know if that is literally where this type of theme for TV News was invented but I do know that is the way it was popularized across the U.S. in the later part of the 20th Century.

If you wanted to trace some of these ideas to an earlier time, you could look at newsreel music, which did tend to have a somewhat similar character. This started out as literal printed sheet music that was sent to theaters and intended to be played live accompanying the (otherwise silent) newsreels. It then developed into recorded scores used in talkie newsreels. There was a whole industry behind this.

A lot of the philosophy was undoubtedly similar to the philosophy behind music behind silent movies and later sound music. The music is generally designed to support the action on the screen and engender certain complementary emotions. It also fills a few other functions such as supplying the actual music you might have heard in that situation. So if you see a military parade marching they would naturally play military march music. You can see how this might play into the type of music people expected to hear accompanying "news".

If you want to trace the history prior to that, of course you can look at the whole history of music and what it's designed to do. But specifically you could look at the history of opera, which was specifically designed to combine all modes of human artistic expression into one in an effort to engender certain emotional states, and the history of incidental music, which is (exactly as music used in news programs) a small snippet designed to introduce some other action and engender a specific emotion or put the audience in a receptive state for what follows.
posted by flug at 4:03 PM on April 2 [19 favorites]

Broadcast News knows how it's done.

posted by calgirl at 4:55 PM on April 2 [9 favorites]

It sounds similar to military music for a reason: they're supposed to engender similar emotions.

Alertness! Readiness! Pay attention!
Strong pulsing beats a bit faster than a resting human pulse: Seriousness! Mild suspense! Something exciting (but not too much so) is about to happen!
Steadiness of tempo: Reliability. Resoluteness.
Upbeat feeling: Challenges! But we're equal to it! We can do this!

A personal fave: Channel 4 News (UK). Starts with a menacing bass line, then some reassuringly major strings, then a lone trumpet fanfare: the anguished voice of truth amidst the gathering maelstrom.

Military music (specifically for the quick march/advance) has a bit more bravado to it. It's designed to propel you confidently forward into adversity. News music is just supposed to make you sit down and pay attention to the news.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:27 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

Three more examples:
posted by Rash at 5:28 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

That's great! And from 1994, here's the intro sequence from the mock news show The Day Today which is making the point that such bombast is also (or has also become) an exercise in ridiculous attention-grabbing graphics.

To answer the question, I'm looking for articles or studies discussing whether this kind of music actually does bias the listener about the news stories being covered. then there's a wealth of research out of there on just this. Having the correct search terms is essential to finding the material, but then enjoying the access privileges afforded by academic libraries is essential to reading them.

Broadly speaking it appears that the question you are asking lies at the intersection of work on the psychology of music and work understanding the effects of media. This chapter provides an overview. There's more of a preview via Google Books.

There's plenty of articles that get at what you interested in. A focus of the research appears to be on the role of music in aiding the viewer in retaining information or paying attention. Here's one downplaying the influence of background themes (not quite intro music). Here's another that's more positive.

News is just the thin end of the wedge, of course: 'The influence of film music on moral judgments of movie scenes and felt emotions'.
posted by einekleine at 10:35 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Broadcast News has it really. A news theme needs to convey:
1. Its all happening right now! Its so new that we have built in the noise of the teleprinter we watch to see it come in.
2. Trust us, we're authoritative! - which is why we are using an orchestra rather a ukulele and a kazoo.
3. You are going to feel things! - We're not sure that those things will be but we've included a legato melody on strings.
4. But this is serious stuff! - Which is why we are bombastic - Wake up!
4. Big finish! Do you even know how much we pay our presenters?
5. (Not included, but optional for empires, hence see London Calling from the BBC: Our news is coming from the heart of things - Big Ben is right next door to our studio and its fucking loud; listen!).

See also the theme to TheDayToday - British comedy show - note there how we also feature an exaggerated map showing the British Isles as being about the size of Russia.
posted by rongorongo at 12:20 AM on April 3

Mod note: [btw, this great question and flug's excellent comment have been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!]
posted by taz (staff) at 2:23 AM on April 9

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