Theme music for a radio show is like graphics and fonts and paper format for a magazine. Music establishes the neighborhood, telegraphs what’s going on, reinforces the mood, and establishes the emotional tone. It’s the glue between stories and episodes and voices. It’s a strand that instantly lets you know where you are when you tune in.
For 40 years since NPR’s “Morning Edition” launched, it’s had the same theme music:
Composed by BJ Leiderman in 1979 at the age of 23 while still a student at American University, the music has embedded itself in the ears of millions through several generations of listeners. And though it’s been updated and rearranged and “freshened” many times, it’s been surprisingly durable.
This week, NPR introduced a new theme for the show, workshopped and constructed by a music house by the name of Man Made Music, which declares on its website “We Score Experiences”:
Reaction from some listeners hasn’t been positive, with listeners mocking the vaguely techy electronically-produced score:
While listening, my wife asked why I was on hold.— Greg P. (@skoynk) May 4, 2019
In sound and feel, it joins Canada’s CBC:
and the UK’s BBC:
All these themes are more look-and-feel than substance or distinction.
The ME theme opens with the synthetic protein of an electronically constricted wah-wah backed by a faux-strummy guitar-ish backbeat intended to elevate your metabolism. Just as your mouth starts to register the acrid chemical aftertaste, what’s this – a warm reassuring piano enters with hopeful chords to suggest strength and familiarity. Optimism. The get-up-and-go! electronic pulses build underneath until about the 25-second mark when the music takes a turn towards the familiar Leiderman Morning Edition chord progression, the old theme finally bouncing through in a loopy sonic parody. What sounds like a crowd (us?) clapping on the beat to say what – we’re all in this together and we approve? Finally, the old theme melody bubbles up to end on a rousing upbeat note. Which quickly evanesces in a calorie-free starburst of feels-good.
The sound and feel? The aural manifestation of what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” an idea advanced by philosopher Thomas Nagel in his 1986 book The View From Nowhere.
There’s nothing authentic or real or substantive in any of this music. It ventures no point of view, no geography, no anything to wrap your ear around. It is devoid of authentic culture. It suggests rather than tells. It feels instead of proposes. It is, in fact, exactly what Young ordered: “a sound and a mood and a tone and a feel and a vibe all mixed in one” absent any nutritional value or originality.
The Times described a process of composing by committee in which ideas were arrived at and workshopped until the right tone was achieved. A contrast, I suspect to the 23-year-old Leiderman’s approach 40 years ago.
Times change. And it was probably time for a new theme. But if theme music represents the show its in, what does this music-from-nowhere say about the stories Morning Edition aspires to make?