These composers are likely to score big with Emmy voters

Composer Ludwig Göransson
Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson scored the main theme for “The Mandalorian.”
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

For composers, television has often been a farm system for the big time — film. Due to its demanding production schedule, smaller budgets and the sheer volume of notes required, TV music has traditionally suffered in quality.

But these days, as prestige directors and actors flock to the small screen, so do some of our finest composers — armed with unprecedented creative freedom and sometimes even full orchestras. There were many outstanding scores written for TV this season, making the 2020 Emmys’ four composition categories as exciting as the Oscars.


Take a listen to these original song contenders from a wide range of series

Here are a few standouts:

Nicholas Britell, ‘Succession’

For main title theme music, it’s almost impossible to beat Nicholas Britell’s for “Succession” — one of the rare TV themes to jiggle pop culture and become a bona fide banger. People who pay no attention to scores dance to it on social media, and Britell even collaborated with Pusha T for a rap remix. The tune won an Emmy in 2019, and it continues to have the biggest presence.

Britell’s scoring work on the stellar second season added new themes and expanded on his canvas of genteel classical dances, conveying a filthy-rich family’s distorted perception of themselves. The finale, “This Is Not for Tears,” finds the Roy family aboard a yacht, sunbathing and backstabbing to the strains of violin sextets and Beethoven-esque sonatas. “Succession” has some of the most elegant, refined music on TV — and in its dead seriousness, the score proves hilarious.

Ludwig Göransson, ‘The Mandalorian’

The Mandalorian” isn’t eligible for a main title theme Emmy because there’s no real title sequence at the top of each episode. But Ludwig Göransson’s main theme, woven throughout the series, is an unforgettably rousing march worthy of its own award. And he’s still a contender for the score.

It says something about the alluring state of television that, immediately after winning an Oscar for “Black Panther,” Göransson would submit to the grind of scoring eight episodes of a Disney+ series. The composer brought his bag of tricks — hip-hop beats and modern electronics fused with old-school symphonic grandeur — to provide the galaxy “far, far away” with some fresh new blood.

Using the distinctive call of a bass recorder as a badge for the masked protagonist, Göransson wrote cinematic action music that deftly blends the show’s spaghetti western and sci-fi influences — anchored to that rousing, infectious main theme, which pays homage to “Star Wars” composer John Williams without ever sounding like a ripoff. The season finale, “Redemption,” features a dramatic guitar and string adagio over tribal percussion to score a flashback to “Mando’s” origin story, culminating in roguely heroic electric guitar.

Martin Phipps, ‘The Crown’

For the third season of “The Crown,” Martin Phipps took over scoring duties from Rupert Gregson-Williams, an acolyte of Hans Zimmer (who wrote the main title theme) — and the difference was striking.

In sophisticated British shows like “Wallander,” Phipps has applied a modern, minimalist spin on the retro film music traditions of composers like Jerry Goldsmith. He accompanied Queen Elizabeth’s middle-age years, and the national tragedies and personal tribulations she encountered, with pulsing electronics, men’s choir and opulent orchestration that was simultaneously grave and groovy.

For the episode “Aberfan,” Phipps wrote a somber requiem for the 1966 coal mining disaster in a Welsh town — a lone French horn, symbolic of the lonely queen, flying nobly above a darkened landscape of strings.

Emile Mosseri, ‘Homecoming’

The first season of “Homecoming,” adapted from a hit podcast and an homage to the 1970s paranoia thriller, didn’t have an original score — instead, director Sam Esmail built an entire patchwork soundtrack from vintage film scores. For Season 2, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” composer Emile Mosseri was tasked with writing something completely new that still fit the blueprint.

The result is a mesmerizing nod to the olden days, a vertigo of queasy strings, brass and wobbly piano that feeds the paranoia and mysterious atmosphere while worming into the brain. Full of beautiful chromaticism and exposed instrumentation, it’s almost like Bernard Herrmann came back from the dead to score an Amazon Prime show.

In the second episode, “Giant,” Mosseri’s recurring brass motto is a menace haunting Janelle Monáe’s amnesiac character, and his main “fate” theme — a seductively spiraling series of chords — pulls her deeper into discovering the truth.

Daniel Pemberton, ‘Dark Crystal’

Another composer tasked with living up to classic film music was Daniel Pemberton, on the Netflix series “Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.” Making only occasional nods to Trevor Jones’ symphonic epic from the 1982 Jim Henson film, Pemberton (along with co-composer Samuel Sim) opted to paint the prequel with a medieval sound using earthy, primitive instruments including nyckelharpa, bansuri flute and the Norwegian hardanger fiddle.

The main theme is like a rustic folk tune, setting the table for a story steeped in ancient history, and the score is hugely responsible for giving human heart to a cast of puppets. Episode 1 — “End. Begin. All the Same.” — introduces the world and its interconnected inhabitants, and Pemberton’s score, like the crystal, holds them all together.

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, ‘Watchmen’

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a.k.a. Nine Inch Nails, continue to upturn conventions as dramatic composers for the screen. In the limited HBO series “Watchmen,” based on the popular graphic novels, Reznor and Ross added to the historically off-kilter madness and violence with an ’80s-era sound that manages to be both electronically icy and emotionally fragile at the same time.

The opening episode, “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice,” smashes a real historical event — the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 — against those ominous vintage synthesizers for an eerie effect. The dark-techno tone persists into the violent comic book world of the show’s alternative present day.

Michael Abels, ‘Bad Education’

“TV movies” used to mean something inferior, but now we get high-class, grown-up dramas like HBO’s “Bad Education,” which features Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in a true story about corrupt school officials. Michael Abels, composer of nightmarish chorales in “Get Out” and “Us,” navigated the film’s tricky tone between comedy and unfussy drama with a serious score that evokes the choir practice and performance halls of an English boy’s school.

Matt Morton, ‘Apollo 11'

In the relatively new category of best-scored documentary, a strong contender is “Apollo 11.” Matt Morton’s score accelerated the tension and enhanced the stunning 70mm footage of the launch — using only electronic instruments that were available in 1969 when the mission took place.

Five seasoned entertainment journalists predict the shows and performances the Television Academy will honor with Emmys; do you agree with their picks?