How the theme that took GMA to #1 was composed


“I love that drumroll!” That’s how anchor Robin Roberts affectionately referred to Good Morning America’s new theme music on the broadcast. In fact, the anchors regularly comment that they can’t get started without “that drumroll”. The theme that debuted earlier this year is unlike any other morning news theme. It’s percussion based and splashes energy into viewers’ living rooms. Composer Matthew Kajcienski of DreamArtists Studios succeeded in doing something different. But how was this theme composed? Network News Music talks to Kajcienski about how a different idea was turned into a popular theme that helped GMA beat the Today Show in the ratings for the first time in sixteen years.

Late last year GMA was in the market for a new theme. In the past year or so the morning show had undergone huge changes. The format was changed to include a great emphasis on lifestyle, entertainment and crime news. Josh Elliot and Lara Spencer were added as anchors. And they started using a new street level studio. To complement all those changes, ABC decided that the show needed a totally new theme and graphics. The previous theme was too serious and orchestral and wasn’t a good fit with GMA’s new format.

Getting the call

Matthew Kajcienski, CCO of DreamArtists Studios

The process of composing a news theme always starts out the same way. “I’ll get an initial call from a high level producer at ABC News and they’ll give us the head’s up and discuss the projected timeline… I have to say that my heart still skips a beat when I see ABC come up on my caller ID,” says Kajcienski.

They know the drill. Kajcienski and his company have also done the two previous themes for GMA and they had become the go-to-guys for all of ABC’s theme music. “There hasn’t been a new ABC news theme or branding campaign that has debuted since 2007 that was not composed by DreamArtists, with the exception of the debut theme for This Week with Christiane Amanpour, but we eventually took that over as well”. In the case of the GMA theme, the initial call came in November, two months before the theme was supposed to debut. “At this point in the process, ideas already start to percolate in the backs of our heads.” But the actual work can’t start until the second step of the process takes place, the “creative call”.

During this phone call, which took place about a month before the theme was supposed to debut, Kajcienski is given the necessary guidance on what ABC wants. Kajcienski’s point person at ABC is always the same. He doesn’t really deal directly with the producers of the various shows he’s composed themes for. Kajcienski’s point person acts as a music producer and is tasked with conveying ABC’s very specific demands. For the GMA theme, DreamArtists was given two main points of discussion: eight to ten adjectives that describe how the theme should feel or be conveyed to the audience and the actual structure of the theme itself.

Given that the music is intended to be used in a specific way, the structure details which way that is. Does the show open with anchors talking with music playing in the background or does it start with a musical bumper that accompanies a graphical flourish? Those kinds of things matter when composing the theme. In the case of the GMA theme, they were given the following structure. It starts out with an opening bumper to accompany the logo lasting 3-4 seconds. This continues into 40-50 seconds of thematic material. We then lead into an 8-10 second build up to a 2-second signature, then a ring-out and vamp. “I draw different shapes out on a piece of paper like a linear graphic representation to plan the initial structure and thematic ideas. This ensures I know exactly what the theme should consist of per the creative call,” explains Kajcienski.

After the initial structure discussion, ABC then tells him what each part should convey to the listener. In other words, what ABC wants in terms of mood, texture and tempo. Kajcienski adds, “It is not so much about ABC giving specific musical ideas, but rather how they want their audience to feel when listening to the theme. How we reach this is mostly up to us”. In this case ABC wanted a theme that sounded “hipper and fresher”. It should appeal to the younger demographics but not in the usual way, rather in a more “thoughtful and interesting” approach to the composition. Those descriptions form the building blocks for the musical ideas later on. Kajcienski then asks more specific questions: “Do you want this to be percussion driven? Do you want a prominent melody? Do you want it to feel stop-and-go like a rollercoaster? Do you want it to begin right out of the gate or ease into it? Do you want it to build to a grand climax?”

During this part of the process it’s the composer’s job to understand the view of the client well enough to get to work on a demo. “It’s like peeling away layer by layer revealing a musical piece that already exists somewhere in our heads, basically. We’re not starting from A hoping to eventually end up at Z. It must be approached logically, there simply is not enough time to do otherwise.”

Demo phase

Kajcienski’s original notes from the creative call (click for a larger version)

“Here’s where they let us loose,” says Kajcienski. After the creative call, DreamArtists is asked to do a 30-second demo that is a sort of miniature version of what the final show open will be. These demos are presented to their point person, and eventually to executives, producers and talent. (Yes, talent needs to approve a theme before it goes on air, some even have considerable clout.) The approved demo is then expanded to a full theme.

But first Kajcienski must form a trusted team. “As creative director and often lead composer, I need to form the right team based on the musical direction and sound appropriate for the show.” DreamArtists Studios consists mainly of young and extremely accomplished Juilliard trained concert composers/musicians with awards and premieres in venues such as Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Their similar background is no accident. It’s DreamArtists’ mission to combine the concert music aesthetic with the commercial world in a positive and creative way.

Once the team is formed, the information from the call is discussed in house. Then the fun part starts: “We begin work in our individual studios and send files to each other for comment. ‘How do you think this feels?’ I might say: it feels modern but it may be a little too edgy. We try to help each other out in that regard. Our rule is that we all have to agree that it aligns with every adjective that we are given on the creative call. Otherwise, I will not put it through to the client.”

For the GMA theme, the challenge was to do something that appealed to younger demographics. The easy thing to do would be to grab a cliché hip hop beat and work that into the track. “You want your demographics to be able to hook into it, rather than targeting a specific group while alienating others – and just create something really cool. The key here was to keep the thematic material subtle but still give it a sound that could be identified easily through texture, orchestration, and most importantly a unique and memorable percussion track.” Given these demands, the process of composing the demo theme was different than usual: “We actually began by composing the percussion track first as it had to hold interest completely on its own before adding the harmonic elements. Once we had that, we dashed the track with some melodic/harmonic color and kept things simple. As the new graphic has its own ‘hook’, the music had to in essence be the sonic representation of that.”

“There is not a melody there that you can hum out. But the percussion track is extremely unique. That’s not something you get from a music library.” A lot of work went into making sure each drum element sound truly different. “Whether it’s taking one of our sampled drum sounds and speeding it up, slowing it down, making it higher, lower… it’s about creating something that cannot be replicated. We have even turned to the kitchen cabinet and banged around a bit until we found something interesting.”

After about three to four days, the first demos are submitted to ABC. There are usually about four to five initial demos for a show just to explore different approaches. ABC quickly gives feedback on each demo. The demo process lasted about two weeks for this project but it varies. The prior GMA theme only took 24 hours from composition to approval. “For the GMA theme when George took over from Diane, they wanted a more serious approach to the flourishy orchestral theme we did for them two years earlier.” So it was then merely a question of how to turn this melody, the background harmonies and the rhythms into something more serious. “We went in with a big swoop and were approved on the first try. That was a good thing.”

Music to graphics

The new GMA graphics that debuted along with the theme

While the composers are working on the music, other elements of the relaunch are coming together as well. The clock is always ticking. There are only about two weeks left until the relaunch, so it is time to pick a demo. DreamArtists zeroed in on one demo track that stood out from the others and that ABC liked the most. “We then refined and expanded the track from the 30 second demo length to fit the rough graphics cut given to us for the final presentation to the show producers, talent, and even the president of ABC News.”

If it turns out the graphics don’t match the music? “Nine out of ten times, we have to follow what the graphics person does and take our musical cues from that,” explains Kajcienski.

Kajcienski and his fellow composers also spend some time incorporating ABC’s feedback into the demo. “Usually the comments we get are minor things, something structural or melodic needs to be altered or changed. For the ABC election theme, one of the comments was that they wanted it to sound bigger and bolder. That was an easy fix. We just doubled the brass sections.”

For the GMA theme, approval moved quickly. And that meant that Kajcienski had some time off over the holidays while the rest of the relaunch was finalized.

Extended package

In early January, just a few days before the relaunch, ABC gave DreamArtists Studios the “laundry list” of various edits needed for the extended theme package. Usually getting a relaunch on air is quite pressed for time and there is not always enough time to do the extended package before the theme airs. However, there was enough time in this case. “We created a package of around 40 tracks in two to three days working diligently. This doesn’t usually take too long because it is based on the initial material.”

What types of cues are needed? For the recent GMA theme the list included:

  • “hard news, like for Iraq”
  • “light news, like Kim Kardashian getting divorced”
  • “sad news, like Columbine”
  • “hard news, like Michele Bachmann coming on to talk”

The package takes its cues from the approved main theme. Subtle but small differences sometimes do the trick. “Like a film theme, you take the main themes and pretend you are scoring to an imaginary picture.” That’s why the descriptions say “like Columbine”. “In our heads we have the pictures playing and we think, what sound does this evoke? We then work the thematic material into the new vibe we create.”

A composer is never done

“The package was reviewed and we delivered the final files two days before the relaunch premiered.” The theme debuted on GMA on January 16th. However, their work isn’t completely done when the music hits the air. While Kajcienski does not watch GMA live on a daily basis (“Honestly, I can’t get up before 7 a.m.”), he does record it to see if the music is working well with the show. “If I find that a track is butchered up when spliced or format details have changed, then I will go back and see if there is maybe a better solution. I can identify a problem and attempt to satisfy their need in a different way.”

Of course it is also exciting to see how viewers react to the changes. A few months after the relaunch debuted, GMA beat NBC’s Today in the ratings for the first time in sixteen years. Apparently viewers approve. But do you? Listen to the theme here.

Thanks to Matthew Kajcienski for talking to Network News Music. Check out DreamArtists Studios’ website for more information about him and his company.

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