'News music': it's almost an art form

There's really no name for it except maybe . . . news music. It's those urgent noises made before newscasters arch their eyebrows and begin with the evening's headlines.

It all seems to blend in with the show, or at least it should. But behind those newsy noises goes a lot of thought. In fact, news music writing has practically become an art form, and although it's still often done by the same people responsible for the ditties designed to put zip into crime dramas, levity into sitcoms, and schmaltz into soaps, news-music writing has become a separate business for some agencies.

Its writers cater to stations looking for a way to break away from the pack in the ratings race by establishing a special image. A news program's musical ''signature'' often comes with an entire promotional package for the station.

''News is the one thing that differentiates one station from another,'' says Mitch Farris of Atkinson-Farris Communications, a media research and consulting firm in Cleveland. ''News music is a part of the overall package. It sets a style and tone for the program. If it's the wrong music it can be disorienting.

News music strives to break through the clutter of game shows and sitcoms with the message ''Hey, the news is coming on.'' Mr. Farris mentions the name of a news song called ''News People'' that has been syndicated across the country. ''The good part of this theme is that it says the stories being covered are of concern to people.''

In some ways writing news music can be tougher than writing a full-length song. According to David Horak, the composer for Telesound, a San Francisco-based company specializing in news music, ''You have to make an impact right away. You also have to write something that lasts, that people aren't going to get tired of. And you have to make your statement in less than 20 seconds.''

Mr. Horak, who comes from a family of musicians, started playing the piano at the age of five. Over the 10 or 12 years he has been composing news jingles he figures he's written a couple of hundred.

Remarks Mr. Horak, ''I think you have to be able to look at the newscast and determine how the anchor people come across. That sets the atmosphere.''

Mr. Horak also writes what he calls ''personality pieces'' to promote the work of individual newscasters. ''There's a common problem. People sometimes come on stuffy and cold. You put a warm piece of music behind them.''

For this kind of promotion, commercials are aired showing newcasters at work - masterfully bringing together the elements of the news program, or perhaps talking animatedly with people out on the streets - all to background music oozing with warmth and competence.

The fact that Mr. Horak's contribution to scores of newscasts is not recognized by viewers doesn't bother him. He's bemused, though, by his jingles playing on numerous different TV stations at the same time. ''You notice it in motels when you're driving across the country. You realize your music is heard as much or more than a hit tune.''

One of the most successful theme composers in television today is Robert Israel, head of Score Productions in New York. Mr. Israel authored the music for ABC's ''World News Tonight,'' which contrasts strongly with that heard on the other two evening news programs: It can be easily hummed.

''There was a cliche associated with news - the ticker tape,'' he says. ''Actually it was a holdover from radio. That was great for pioneer days. What we tried to do was to create a theme that had urgency, energy, and adrenalin, and at the same time was musical.''

Variations of the resulting theme are now heard on the other ABC news shows, such as ''20/20'' and ''Nightline.'' Special coverage of events requires other variations. ''When Prince Charles was married, we did a version very much in the style of Handel. When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated we had a fife & drum early American sound. The space shuttle lent itself to electronical sounds.

''It was a breakthough in terms of news,'' asserts Mr. Israel. ''There was never that kind of all-embracing concept before.''

Mr. Israel says that when he starts composing a theme, ''I have a pretty good idea in my head what I want. Usually a news theme has an A-B-A pattern.'' There is a statement, then a release, than a statement again.

''The melody has to be simple and memorable. If the viewer is not in the room and hears the theme he should know that the news is on.''

When asked whether news music is an art form, Mr. Israel wouldn't say, but ''It's a discipline'' he asserted. ''Very little music on television has received its proper recognition. TV is very avaricious because of the amount of product on the air.''

The CBS Evening News, one of ABC's two nightly news competitors, has a very different theme. ''I would not really call it music,'' says Arthur Bloom, director of 60 minutes and charged with orchestrating the recent artistic changes on the program.

''I wasn't looking for music. I was looking for sound to go with the graphics.''

The program begins with a picture of the globe, glistening with tiny dots. ''We wanted to say that CBS can cover the world. The dots represent transmission centers. We asked ourselves 'What kind of noise would a transmission center make.' ''

It took six weeks and many hours in recording sessions, according to Mr. Bloom, to come up with just the right sound.

Contrasting dramatically with the process of choosing the evening news theme is the way in which Robert Northshield, executive producer of the CBS ''Morning'' broadcasts, selected Godfrey Reiche's piece ''Ablassen'' for his program. He sometimes listened to it on his automobile cassett player and felt it would make a good signature for the program.

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