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Stranger Things and the Best Music Scores on TV

Of the many things Stranger Things has been praised for over the past few weeks, the music is perhaps the one that most immediately signaled with its opening bars “this is a show I’m gonna like.” On the latest episode of the Vulture TV Podcast, it got us thinking about some of the best music compositions on television, whether TV scores have improved of late, or if we’re only just now starting to notice them more. We discussed the music on shows from Fargo to The Leftovers to The Bachelor, and also rang up  Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of the Austin-based band Survive and the people behind Stranger Things’ score, for a glimpse into their process. Listen to the full conversation here, and read an edited transcript of our interview with Dixon and Stein below:

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Gazelle Emami: This is the first time you’ve composed film or TV music. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you initially got involved with this project?

Michael Stein: The Duffers reached out to us after using one of our songs in a little mock-trailer that they did to pitch the show concept to Netflix. They asked if we were available, and if we could send them some more music to pitch to their producers to sign off on us doing composition for the show. We worked on that for a little over a month, after our day jobs. And we ended up getting the job.

Matt Zoller Seitz: How do you actually compose the music? I imagine you guys with these gigantic analog synthesizers that have fans in them to keep them from overheating, but maybe you just use plug-ins?

Kyle Dixon: The former is correct. Maybe not fans. But a lot of the reason it sounds like the ‘80s is because we’re using a lot of the same equipment that those musicians would be using.

MS: There’s a one-to-one a lot of the instrumentation that John Carpenter or Tangerine Dream would have been using.

GE: Would you say that the quality is better? What made you want to go old school?

KD: The sound and the experience of using it. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily better, but it definitely has a different texture that we prefer in a lot of instances. But we don’t shy away from using new or digital equipment — we just happen to have a lot of analog stuff.

Jen Chaney: When you guys started working on this, it was really early in the process. It’s not like you even had any footage to look at. So when you were talking with the Duffers and trying to establish the right tone for what they were going for and what you were going for, what kind of things did you talk about?

KD: We did talk about some other composers. We also referred to the library that we sent over initially and used that as a guiding force for what we would do. They would pick a couple things and say, “Maybe something like this, but if it could do something more like this.” And we obviously talked about the characters and the way that they exist in the world and how they react to certain things, and we had some visual cues to look at, but no footage or anything like that.

MZS: Did you make any particular decisions with regard to the sound of certain characters or certain moments?

MS: When we were pitched to do a theme for Eleven, they had mentioned they wanted it to be wondrous, childlike, and maybe resemble a music box in some way. So we picked a synth sound and tried to write something that we thought sounded playful.

KD: I’m not sure how strong the themes stand out to the average listener. We don’t really beat it into the ground where every time you see Eleven you hear the theme, so I’m not sure how obvious those themes will be to the average watcher. Which I don’t think is a problem. I think it’s good, actually.

JC: At what point did you actually see the music married with the imagery from the show? Was everything already shot at that point?

KD: We started seeing picture in November, early- to mid-November, right around the time we went to check out the sets in Atlanta. And so that’s when we began to start seeing where some of the library had been placed and actually started to write to picture. We didn’t see a final cut until, I want to say, February.

MS: We were seeing these things called dailies for a while where we were even seeing casting, and then we started seeing where they were starting to create the monster, and then we started seeing all the outtakes of shooting the scenes.

KD: We would try to score that, but it didn’t really, really come together and get the full experience until we could actually score a scene they had stopped editing.

GE: About what percentage of each episode, would you say, has music?

MS: I think there’s about 20 to 25 minutes of music in each, out of 40 to 50 minute episodes.

KD: I was going to say about 30 to 40 percent.

JC: Are you guys surprised by the reaction to the show? It’s been such a talking point on social media and people really seem to be embracing the show.

MS: Yeah, a bit surprised. We had an idea … I mean, we knew it was going to be good. We didn’t know it was going to be like this.

JC: In terms of impact on your life, has it been a crazy past couple of weeks because of the show?

KD: Certainly a lot of emails. Messages, interviews, etc. But, I don’t know. We’re not, like, rich or anything.

GE: Is it making you consider doing more composing for television or film?

KD: We’ve wanted to do TV for music and film forever.

MS: We were just like, when are we going to do film scores? When are we going to get to do this?

GE: Would you say the opportunities are there for instrumental bands to get a chance to do a full TV season, or multiple seasons? Is that becoming more of a lucrative career opportunity?

MS: I think so.

KD: There’s a trend of artists being brought in to do more film and TV work, I believe, the last few years. As a trend.

MZS: Yeah, as opposed to someone who went to music school to be a composer.

MS: I think people are definitely looking to recording artists who have a specific sound. Or maybe not a specific sound, but that are doing music as a creative endeavor versus as a job. And kind of looking for their vision rather than someone who can be molded into doing whatever type of music you need for your show. There are a lot of composers who are versatile, who can write a salsa show, and also a classical orchestral score, and then maybe they have a couple synths and they can do some sampling. But there’s definitely a trend to go to someone who has a particular sound.

JC: Netflix announced recently that they’re going to release a soundtrack, and I was just wondering if you guys know if any elements of the score will be part of that?

MS: Oh, yes.

KD: We are working on that right now. I’ve got to go, after this, and try to rework some stuff for that, because initially we were like, “We’re not going to do a score.” Then the show came out, and they were like, “You guys need a score, and you need to turn it in in two weeks, or one week.” And I was like, uh, alright. So I’m a little underslept at the moment.

MS: Yeah, we have to do that.

Stranger Things and the Best Music Scores on TV