{TB Talks TV} Bear McCreary’s High Art of Cult TV Scores

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Tweetable Takeaway: Prolific composer is the super-hero of TV scores.

By: , Contributor

I am not a music expert. I don’t know music theory, and I can’t play any instrument though I’ve tried a few. I can sing a little bit, but mostly only when there is no possibility any plant, animal, or human being can hear me. I am in no way qualified to objectively judge music, or scores, or composers. So, subjectively, let me introduce you to : the closest thing to a super-hero composer you’re ever going to find.

is prolific. Like, insanely prolific. It’s possible he owns a time-turner, or can split himself in three, or doesn’t actually need to sleep like most human beings. In 2014, he was actively working on eight television shows. There is a playlist in my iTunes that is literally ten hours of his Battlestar Galactica music. McCreary has also scored a few films (that I’ve never seen and look to be the sort of terrible that MST3K enjoys) and video games–always verging into what I would call “nerd territory.”

I love this man.

He started out under the tutelage of the great Elmer Bernstein, and his first “real ” was scoring the 2003 Battlestar Galactica. This is where I met Bear. (For a much more in-depth introduction, he’s written a blog post about his time with Elmer Bernstein that is worth a read.)

One of my favorite things about his scores is that he doesn’t lock himself into stylistic silos. Whatever the scene needs to amp it up, he is right there with anything and everything possible to nail the emotional tone. He’ll go orchestral, he’ll go African tribal drums, he’ll go insane obsolete instrument only three people on Earth have heard of. (I mean, have you ever heard of an “erhu?” Me neither.) Whatever will make the sounds that he wants to make, he will throw them all in a pot and somehow they blend together perfectly.

Here’s McCreary discussing his use of the hurdy gurdy in the Black Sails score:

And Bear discussing his unusual uses of all sorts of instruments for The Walking Dead, including a frickin’ lime green kazoo:

His themes for characters and relationships always capture them entirely in one small cue. It’s witchcraft, I tell you. Here’s “Roslin and Adama” from Battlestar Galactica, which evokes all the responsibility, trust, and hopefulness of the characters’ relationship:

And he manages to score that much fiction without repeating himself or sounding stale. Each show has its own personality and he helps shape that personality musically.

McCreary’s blog posts and videos make me feel way smarter than I am. He talks in musical jargon about minor chords and flats and other things I remember vaguely from middle school chorus. But the best part is that he explains how those things make you feel. He picks apart his own process for you and tells you why a certain sound is spooky, or devastating, or triumphant. He also just really loves the stories that he works on, and that comes through in his work.

One of my favorites of his Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. blog posts is about the tangled, incestuous use of themes in the first season episode “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The episode is a bit of a mindscrew, and you can’t tell which way is up, who is bad, who is Hydra, and who is just a jackass. McCreary’s score only increases that complete disorientation. I bow before the master. He wisely chose to wipe the theme slate clean for season two, giving us the bombastic, sinister Whitehall cue that makes me shiver. (Fun fact: each episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. requires “minimally 30 minutes of score.” And this is not the only thing this man does with his life, either.)

Here Bear talks about scoring the heavily music themed Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episode “The Cellist” and geeks out a little bit about The Avengers. Also, the song flawlessly scores two intense emotional climaxes at the same time. Dayum, Bear:

After my bad breakup with Battlestar Galactica, I found that the only thing 100% of fans could agree on was that is a god. I hate The Walking Dead but I love Bear’s creepy horror score. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had to grow into its score, which was so awesome from the get-go that it gave me cognitive dissonance because the show itself was really not awesome. I don’t even watch Black Sails but the theme song makes me want to go join a wayward pirate crew and pillage.

Bear’s Emmy-winning theme song for Da Vinci’s Demons:

And the Black Sails theme because it gets stuck in my head:

Before Bear, I never paid attention to television scores. After Bear, I still can’t find anyone who quite compares. I hear the music in all my TV now, but no one is quite as affecting, innovative, or just all out fun as . He’s my favorite, so I’m allowed to be biased. Ultimately, he’s the master manipulator, giving emotional tones and subtle plot clues to the viewer that simple visuals can’t convey. He loves his work. He loves his shows. He loves music. He takes television storytelling seriously. I still don’t think he actually sleeps. McCreary elevates TV scores to a high art. Next time you turn on The Walking Dead, or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., or good ol’ Battlestar Galactica pay attention to what the music does to you. And once you’re done marveling, there is plenty of room at my shrine.

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is a digitization archivist by day and a masked pop culture avenger by night. She spreads the gospel of science fiction and fantasy wherever she goes.
Twitter: @DanaLeighBrand

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