There are very few main title themes worthy of being inducted into the Don’t You Dare Fast-Forward Through It canon, but HBO’s Succession has cemented its status in sonic TV history. Composed by Hollywood favorite Nicholas Britell — who’s also worked with Succession executive producer Adam McKay on Vice and The Big Short—the 90-second earworm is adored by classicists and chopped-and-screwed enthusiasts alike, and it’s easy to understand why: Britell juxtaposed a traditional piano with a looming hip-hop beat for the main sound, with distorted strings and electronics thrown in to further emphasize those contrasts. It’s the type of bop where if you close your eyes, you can practically hear 1 OAK blasting it for the 1 a.m. crowd, and Per Se gently playing it in the background during a luncheon rush. This writer listens to the song an average of 20 times per day.
Between recording sessions in London, Britell was nice enough to field a few questions from Vulture about the theme’s creation.
Did you instinctively know what the right “sound” of money and wealth was going to be?
The beginning of any project is exciting, but also terrifying, because you have no idea what the right sound is. One of the things I love about working with Adam [McKay] is that he poses a lot of good questions. When we did The Big Short, the first question he asked me he was, “What’s the sound of dark math?” For Succession, I got involved pretty early and was able to go to the pilot shoot. I went to set, read the script, and was able to think about some things that might sound good for a theme. I put together a package of ideas for Adam and [Succession creator] Jesse Armstrong.
What did you first play for them?
I invited Jesse over to my studio and we spent a few hours together. There’s a darkness to the show and a gravitas to it that I instinctively wanted to emphasize. But there’s also an absurdity that’s both comedic and strange. I played him these weird bell sounds I had created. I was like, What if we had like a weird zen bell that you just hear in the theme? They didn’t stick, but right away, there was this combination of seriousness mixed with a strange absurdity. That tapped into the wavelength Jesse was on. I wrote these string parts with some of the piano lines you hear in the final version, very strong chords mixed with some beats coupled with a weird, out-of-tune piano. Jesse was drawn to all of it, so we evolved from there.
How exactly did the theme evolve?
There was a tonal complexity to the show’s episodes that was fascinating. As a composer, you really want to make sure you’re balancing the elements properly. I was always a little afraid to step on the toes of the humor, but at the same time, I discovered when the show leaned into its gravitas, it actually made things funnier. There’s sometimes a tendency for composers to think, If the music has humor, maybe that’s funnier. But with Succession, it’s by being even more serious that the absurdity reveals itself in its grandeur. That’s the 30,000-foot view of the emotional landscape I was imagining.
When did you decide the piano would be the most prominent sound?
I’ll start by saying I’ve always loved hip-hop. Hip-hop is one of the most amazing and important art forms of the past 50 years. It has so many nuances, and such depth and profundity. One of the things I find so amazing with it, too, is the way in which it absorbs sounds and transforms them. If you listen to ’90s hip-hop and earlier, and an instrument is sampled from an earlier song, often the character of the sound changes a bit — and often, it gets a more interesting sound in the process of being sampled. So I wanted the piano line to feel like that, like it was from some weird place.
By de-tuning it a bit and running it through these filters, I was able to get the sound of a piano line that’s doing some weird blending stuff. It gave the piano a sound that just felt really strange to me. In a good way! There’s actually quite a few pianos in the theme. There’s a piano doing the melody line, there’s some pianos hitting the chords, and there’s even a couple pianos in the background that you might not even hear. Maybe they’re there subconsciously, you know?
Did the main piano always have an out-of-tune sound?
Yeah, I like the sound of instruments when they’re not perfectly in tune. It’s more interesting, this feeling of humanness that comes through when things aren’t perfect, or when a sound has a subtle sourness to it. I’m always looking for that, but I definitely went to extreme levels with this theme. It was actually the last thing I did for the first season. I had written all of this music, but the final version was something that I waited until the end to do. It was a synthesis of the things I had learned over the course of the show, so I’m glad I waited as long as I did. I mean, I got a sleigh bell in there!
Since your theme is such a study in sonic juxtapositions, how would you actually define it?
Gosh, I don’t really know. What’s that famous quote? “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture?” Something like that. I’d personally say the theme is an encapsulation of the elements in the show’s music, which is a combination of early-19th-century, late-18th-century set of harmonic ideas, coupled with a late-20th, early-21st-century set of beats. And then overlaid with a strange, circus-like mentality.