Trek's musical problems

January 24, 1995

Article Text

Originally posted on Usenet's rec.arts.startrek.current.

I still don't understand what it is with the music on TNG, DS9, and now Voyager. Don't get me wrong. I don't doubt the talents of the composers, and I'm not talking about the main themes (I believe the main themes to TNG, DS9, and Voyager are quite good). But the scores for each episode lack energy and interest, and I'm very disappointed with what I hear most weeks.

Currently on DS9 (and in seasons 4-7 of TNG), the music is primarily scored by Dennis McCarthy and Jay Chattaway, who alternate every other week. And week after week it's flat and uninspiring. Occasionally I will be surprised, like with Chattaway's recent score to "The Search, Part I," which accompanied the closing action scene with some bombastic energy. And McCarthy will sometimes turn out nice work, most recently displayed in "Past Tense, Part I." It just makes me wonder why in the world we can't get decent scores like that more often.

In an article in the October 1993 issue of Cinefantastique magazine, I read an interesting article about the music on TNG and DS9. Apparently, the linear-restrained quality has nothing to do with the composers' abilities, but rather the wishes of the producers, and the strict guidelines they impose. It appears to be the reason that led to the firing of Ron Jones (who turned out some of TNG's best scores, including "The Best of Both Worlds" parts I and II, as well as "Brothers," "Final Mission" and many more). Jones was reported as an overbudgeted "troublemaker" who decided to ignore these guidelines—i.e., they got rid of him because his music was too "noticeable." For some reason, the producers decided they wanted no recognizable or recurring themes in the episode scores.

When Jones was gone, the producers gave Jay Chattaway the full time position, working with him to tone down his work. If you go back and watch TNG's third season "Tin Man," you will notice a very atypical score (by recent Trek music standards), with a recurring theme and many bombastic qualities. That was Chattaway's first score for TNG, and many of the qualities within it were exactly what the producers didn't want and had Chattaway tone down throughout his fourth season "break-in" period.

Apparently, Dennis McCarthy's situation was similar. McCarthy started on TNG from the very beginning, and his early works were much more interesting than his post-third season outings (I think the article mentioned that a certain producer retired around that time, leaving the other producers to influence the composers more directly). If you doubt McCarthy's abilities, listen to the very commendable score of "Star Trek: Generations" and you will hear his best work yet. Granted, that was a feature-film budget orchestra, but I know the composers could get more out of their television orchestra—Ron Jones did it every week.

Recently on DS9, they brought in a new composer named David Bell. So far I've liked his work a lot ("Second Skin" and "Past Tense, Part II"). It has a melody that inspires. I'm just afraid that he will sound just as boring as McCarthy and Chattaway by the end of the season, because, provided the producers keep him around, they're going to work on him to get what they want.

I'm not saying the music on Star Trek is totally without merit. But with the resources the composers have at their disposal, it's awful to know that it's being so toned down because the producers think it shouldn't be "overwhelming." I defy anyone who can tell me that they were more excited when Picard was in 10-forward with the baryon sweep coming at him ("Starship Mine"—6th season) than when Data and Worf kidnapped Locutus off the Borg ship and escaped ("The Best of Both Worlds, Part II"—4th season). The reason—linear monotony versus exciting bombastitiy, respectively. Music is about 70% of action or suspense.

Hey, I'm not asking for miracles. But something with some energy, along the lines of "The Search, Part I" would be nice. I knew before the pilot aired that Chattaway was scoring the first episode of Voyager. Being the major TV debut it was and considering Voyager is supposed to be more "adventurous" than the other Treks, I thought we might get something like "Search, Part I" in "Caretaker." But it was just more of the same boring stuff, and worse, because it was at such a low volume it almost didn't matter at all. Take, for example the scene in the tunnels where Paris rescues Chakotay from the staircase about to collapse. The music was so soft and unexciting that it destroyed the scene completely. I'm fed up with that.

The question I ask is, WHY DO THE PRODUCERS THINK THAT TONING THIS STUFF DOWN IS BETTER OFF FOR THEM? "Best of Both Worlds" felt like a movie because of its thundering soundtrack. What can the producers possibly fear in a soundtrack like that?

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19 comments on this post

    Most Trek music (TNG and on) is bland. I agree with your article. Aside from some of the kitch of the era, TOS music really stands out from its descendants because it regularly conveys a sense of the otherworldly and unknown, a must-have for a sci-fi series. And those composers did it with limited TV orchestras too. When it's just an action scene with little or no dialogue, an interesting score is a must. Bland brass chords with a maddening use of the snare drum is totally uninventive. Yet, episode after episode features such music. Some more creative music could definitely have punched-up some uninvolving cliff hangers (before commercials). Music doesn't have to be bombastic (draw attention to itself) to be effective either. You can get a lot of color out of percussion and woodwinds to create a mood of mystery.

    I applaud you for your thoughtful, professional reviews. I don't always agree with you, but your writing is excellent and thought-provoking. You should be screenwriting.

    I know this article was written years ago, but in just looking around the site (And the fact that it's not updated that much, but I understand the reasons) I found this article and it peeked my interest. I too don't understand why Trek music was so bad. I think the biggest hinderance to music might have been DS9's final chapter. Just think how better that would have been if the music had a little more life in it. Most of the time on DS9, the music was loud and quite depressing. It got in the way of the plot and wound up being more distracting than adding anything.

    I think the death in music happened when Ron Jones left. As much as I love trek, I don't think McCarthy and Cattaway were all that talented. Did they come up with great music? Some of the time they did. However, they were the only ones. I wish Trek had kind of a rotation of composers as they did with writers. It would have made the music less bland then it ended up.

    Hi Jammer,
    Long, long, long time lurker, first time poster. I have been reading your reviews for more than ten years and absolutely love them! As David said, your writing is excellent. It's always thought provoking, and nine times out of ten I agree with your assessments.
    I think this article is right on the money. Compare some of the works of the Star Trek composers to the likes of Bear McCreary in Battlestar Galactica. Admittedly sometimes McCreary can get a little repetitive, but he knows how to write character-based themes and he is damned good at it ("Pegasus", "Kobol's Last Gleaming", "Unfinished Business", "Maelstrom", "Exodus", "Occupation", "Crossroads". I did like a lot of David Bell's work (see DS9 "Sacrifice of Angels") and there were a couple of themes of Chattaway's I liked (one of which that was used many times is present in VGR "Night"). But as a whole, I found the music quite bland and uninspiring. The thing I found the most difficult to bare was the insipid string chords at EVERY SINGLE ACT BREAK that went for at least five seconds too long. The snare drum mentioned above was a close second!

    Thank you for your reviews Jammer, and keep up the good work!

    I just discovered this website, and I LOVE it! I love all things Trek and am just now coming down from my BSG high, so reading your well-written and incisive reviews is both bringing back good memories and easing the pain.

    I see someone has already invoked Bear McCreary here, but I was compelled to comment on this particular article precisely because McCreary's *insanely amazing* BSG score makes the Trek music unlistenable in comparison. I didn't really notice it the first time I watched DS9 when it aired 10 years ago, but upon re-watching the DVDs now, post-Battlestar, it's just cringe-worthy. Thank God DS9's usually incredible scripting and focus on character interaction make the banal music mostly irrelevant.

    I'd really, really like to see someone take on a new installment of Star Trek in the post-BSG world. I think BSG changed science fiction for much the better, and I'd be thrilled to see a newer, darker, more intense Trek. Of course, in many ways, DS9 is the direct progenitor of nu-BSG, both in the creative talent (Moore, Weddle, Thompson) and in tone, style, and substance.

    Just reading through the older articles here, and just thought I'd post to say how much I agreed with your views on uninspiring Trek music. From season 4 of TNG onwards till the end of Voyager, the composers were hindered, and it hurt the show. Watching reruns of the different series in the present day make you more aware of how much better other series' music was. (I'm thinking of BSG and Lost in particular.)

    However, I was very happy to see this disappointing trend end with Enterprise. By season 2 we were getting good scores again, though it was just a shame that most of that season was dreck. The upswing in general quality in seasons 3 and 4 made the use of good music relevant again.

    I couldn't agree more. I love Movie scores and soundtracks, and the last 4 seasons of TNG and beyond are unlistenable. I can watch them, but they just aren't as fun as trek that comes before. "skin of Evil" isn't always considered a great episode, but I could listen to that entire soundtrack over and over again, versus 20 seconds of that fade to commercial crap of later star trek. In fact I do.

    And McCarthy is quite talented. Listen to his scores for encounter at farpoint and generations. They are uneven but still quite good. Chattaway was never given a fair shake, so i have noo opinion. Although he did compose the inner light suite, and some of his early 4th season stuff is quite good. So the jury is out on him. The problem is entirely on the producers.

    And the person who post about TOS is quite correct. Listen to the score for "The Doomsday machine" which was 30 years prior to the crap Berman forced on us and you will see what I am talking about. It was fun. I can friggen JOG to the doomsday score.

    I agree. TV music has really become much better over the past 20 years. I mean, as much as I love Star Trek, the music is pathetic compared to the BSG reboot or Firefly. It's especially worrisome because there are so many scenes in Trek heavy on technobabble. Music can really instill those scenes with energy.

    I think DS9 tended to have better music overall. Never great, but it had more life and energy. Battle scenes had battle music that at least supported the action.

    I'd love to see the Bear take on a Trek show and breath some life into the music.

    I don't ENT music is much better. Louder and more noticeable yes, but it still wasn't good. Especially not the action music. Completely and utterly predictable and repetitive. At some point it just got annoying. Especially since the show overused action resolutions and often had unnecessary space battles.

    Individiually, TNG, DS9 and VOY still managed to break out of the mediocrity now and then though. DS9 has for example "The Visitor", "The Ascent", "The Siege of AR-558" which really excellent scores. And there are some nice small pieces here and there that are great like in "Children of Time", "Field of Fire", "One Little Ship", "In the Cards" or "Badda-Bing Badda-Bang". Another thing I love is the use of 'The Minstrel Boy" in the finale when O'Brien picks up the soldier figurine, harkening back to the TNG episode.

    Or as mention VOY's "Night". Or the use of classical music in "Counterpoint". "Scorpion" also has a great score overall.

    It's just all too little and too rare in the grand scheme of things. Maybe that's why those even stand out so much.

    Ironically enough, I actually think TNG season 1 had some of the best music across all of Trek. As a fan of electronic music, I felt that some of the synthesizer-based scores, while at times sounding a little dated, still contributed other-worldly and futuristic atmospheres. One particular stand-out for me was Ron Jones' score for "Where No One Has Gone Before":

    It's sad that the overall poor quality of the earlier episodes can sometimes cause their intriguing and compelling music to be overlooked. The same goes for the early sound design work on Trek which I think far too often gets ignored; you only have to look at some of the behind the scenes footage and out-takes without the sound effects added to see *just* how much they add to the overall believability and feel of the show.

    As for Trek music after Jones' departure...

    Jay Chattaway's work is perhaps my biggest bugbear; I think his shows suffer the most from those thoroughly bland and repetitive horn sections (used over and over again), frequently heard during action sequences that could have been elevated to far greater heights with more tense, less meandering music, but as Jammer suggests, perhaps it Berman who is to blame.

    Dennis McCarthy's scores, while perhaps not always as notable as Ron Jones', are still worthy of merit (given the limitations imposed on him), and in certain episodes he manages to include a theme or motif that still sends shivers down my spine (Picard bedding down with Beverly for the night in "Attached" took that scene to another level for me, for example). David Bell is also worth another mention for some sterling, albeit all too brief cues (most memorably Neelix's departure at the end of "Homestead").

    So while later series never exhibited the originality or inspiration offered by Jones et al in the first few seasons of TNG, there were still moments that stick out in my mind, and I will simply never understand why the producers (and/or Berman in particular) chose to lessen the impact of their shows by insisting on bland music; maybe they thought it would compete with the storylines for the viewers' attention? But when composers are at their best, they only heighten the enjoyment, excitement and suspense, bolstering the emotional impact of key scenes, and lifting others from otherwise lacklustre fare.

    It was Rick Berman's personal (lack of) taste that caused this. Gene Rodenberry liked the good music from Season 3- some of 4, and that one composer won an Emmy for has work on The Best of Both Worlds, but from what I've gathered Berman had been harassing him about the music being "too flamboyant" (umm ok Rick) but the composer was able to ignore him because Gene likes it. Then right after Gene Rosenberry's death (and less than a year after winning an Emmy) Rick fired him, trying to do it quietly but the composer did speak out on the situation and its absurdity I believe. This is another reason demonstrating Rick Berman's apparently neutered creative drive and why he is rightfully called "a suit", even though it "hurts" him to be called that and to defend himself he reminds everyone how before TNG he worked on some preschooler show. Even in recent interviews Rick gets a terse defensive tone when music is brought up and states an official sounding explanation about how their composer refused to cooperate with "the show" and his music kept getting more and more "flamboyant". He totally ignored the part of the question in one interview I saw that also asked about the timing of this with Rodenberry's death. Why? Because for years his only way to make himself feel like he was a useful contributed to Trek was that he was carrying the torch for Gene and regulating the show's to stay true to what Gene wanted. Except when it comes to the musical score he's obviously full of shit and waited until after Gene died to fire the show's prized award winning and beloved by fans' composer.

    Or you could interpret it as Rick Berman was eager to begin his career of ruining things but TNG was just doing too well for that to work so he decided to settle for ruining the music of not only TNG but future Trek shows for years to come. Later his ruining career would peak with Voyager and Enterprise, with Stat Trek Nemisis being his crowning achievement of making a negative contribute to the Star Trek franchise.

    Looking for some of my sources for what I posted above I found one perfect Rick Berman quote from Ron Jones ("the composer" I was referring to above) that seems to me to be the most honest quote ever from Rick Berman about how little he cared about pleasing the audience of Star Trek with the music (and about the audience in general).

    "Every time I would say in a meeting, “What about the audience?” Berman would say, “Fuck the audience.” Those were his words."
    - Ron Jones, Star Trek: TNG Composer: Link

    Haha I am so going to add to appropriate Wikipedia articles that Rick Berman, regarding the Star Trek viewers, was known to say "F*** the audience" and I have a reliable citation from a professional who worked on the show with him to back it up, too! Berman would hate that... he's spent years back peddling and ass covering in interviews to obscure blame from himself.

    Oh, also Jammer another good quote from another article from a different composer (I forget who) is that Berman complained to him that he wanted the music to ... "be like wall paper".

    This article hits the nail right on the head. The music that people remember in the long run and gets fandom excited is the bombastic, in-your-face music (in addition to the Best of Both Worlds score, classic TOS fight music, anyone?). Then again, I liked the bold, unsubtle cues of TOS - it was an integral part in giving the show character and flair. For better or worse, TOS would not have been the same without that music.

    On DS9, the only time I remember the score standing out was when they reused the battle music from Star Trek Generations in "Die is Cast" and "Way of the Warrior". Apart from that, I struggle to remember the music from any given ep afterward - nothing distinctive, hummable, easily remembered when I need something to power me through the day. Enterprise fixed this somewhat in its later seasons (the climactic battle in "Damage" had a respectable score).

    Fortunately, most shows nowadays seem to be trending towards more overt, standout soundtracks (of course, the motive being so they can sell it and make a little extra dough) to the point where it's sometimes hard to hear the dialogue. Lost in particular had one of the best TV soundtracks I've ever heard, beautiful in its complexity and rich with character leitmotifs as distinctive as the Darth Vader march (the one which set the standard for all character leitmotifs). I sincerely hope the new Trek series hires someone like Giacchino or McCreary to do the soundtrack; even if I end up hating the new series but like the music I'll still buy the soundtrack.

    This article holds so true, over 22 years later. Was researching this topic after seeing discussion threads elsewhere concerning the music of the forthcoming Star Trek Discovery, and this showed up in the search results.

    Music is like form-fitting clothing that needs to flow with the characters and onscreen dynamics — "bombastic" or "memorable" music is not inherently problematic unless it's ill-fitting to the scene.

    For the last few seasons I'd been dissatisfied with TNG but couldn't quite figure out why, because there were a number of eps that were quite good.

    As soon as I heard the scores of key episodes of Babylon 5, which started in TNG"s final year, I had my answer: The music had been severely lacking in TNG for several years. I'm a (non-vocal) soundtrack person, and as good as some of the later TNG eps were, the score was so bland and yawn-worthy they eps were incomplete in my memory.

    It's because of the poor music for almost half its run (3 of 7 seasons, and arguably the music was already being screwed with by the middle of season 4), that TNG lost its place as my favourite overall TV series after B5's 3rd season.

    I blame Berman for a lot of the hardship that Trek fell upon, and his neutering the music was just one of many reasons why.

    TOS music, though often parodied (such as the infamous "fighting music" which I think originated with "Amok Time"), is truly memorable and has stood the test of time. So have some of the movie scores. Though I'll be damned if I can recall a single Star Trek TV score. The music is just sort of "there"... incidental, barely noticable. The suspense-building chords near commercial breaks and the ending codas are the only things I really notice. In fact I'm surprised to hear anybody even talking about the music. I don't take music for granted, but the message from TNG-onward Trek is that music is usually not very important and I felt trained by the TNG very early on to simply ignore it most of the time. Unlike TOS and the films, I can't match a single character or theme to a single leitmotif... if they're there, I don't find them compelling.

    ("if I can recall a single post-TOS Star Trek TV score", that is.)

    The early Borg stuff... BIG exception... but I still can't recall any "riffs".

    Why Berman wanted such subdued musical scores is a real puzzlement.
    Part of the personality of TOS was its recurring musical themes. And from the same time period, John Williams’ score for Lost In Space is what helped make that series watchable & memorable.
    If you’re going to tie the hands of the composer, you may as well just use canned library music and call it a day.

    I was disturbed to read about Ron Jones' account that was captured in the phone interview (mentioned above by @Brian back in 2015). It must have been hell for TV soundtrack composers. Composing for Trek shows must still be a wild and crazy job today.

    In general, Star Trek soundtracks seem to avoid the use of leitmotifs and recurring themes. Voyager in particular tended to stick with a lot of menacing and disturbing backing tracks that bordered on the atonal. It gave much of the series a dark feel, sort of a sense of despair, I felt. I can now see that it could well have been the producer's decision that vetoed much of the thematic creativity, the more interesting turns that Trek music could have taken.

    There have been some nice exceptions. One melody in particular that was written by Chattaway for "Unforgettable" (yes, not one of Voyager's strongest outings) when Kellin was about to get intimate with Chakotay in his (her?) quarters was really haunting, and elevated that particular show up a notch, I felt. A memorable theme to a not-so-memorable episode. Likewise with the blaring brassy themes of Voyager encountering Species 8472 in "Scorpion", parts 1 and 2--this really raised the battle and confrontation scenes up (and those were some of Voyager's better outings, thankfully)"--another Chattaway theme. Also, the themes in "Where No One Has Gone Before" (as @heffalump mentioned back in 2015) were top-notch, mysterious sounding. The music used when Picard "met" his deceased mother in the corridor was also very touching and dignified, while still having that otherworldly feel with the use of synth layers (the Roland D-50 made frequent appearances in Jones' melodies made in this show). This was Ron Jones, as I understand. I think that every composer has done as well as they could under the difficult circumstances, and it's sad that the higher-ups couldn't view the music as more of an integral part of the show.

    It's good that the producers saw fit to letting the music speak out when it needed to. Unfortunately, the music of much of Trek is often too indistinct and muted to really bring the scenes up, and we can see that this is more of a producer and executive-level decision than anything else. I can't even remember the theme for Discovery, to be honest.

    I imagine that technology has made composing for TV a little easier these days, as there's no need to laboriously write out scores for each and every player, and composers have large and expensive digital libraries of sampled orchestral instruments at their disposal, so they don't need to hire out a full ensemble and rent the studio hall if they just need some filler pads or string layers to thicken the sound. It's truly amazing that new music is actually composed for each and every show"--it's like scoring a film every week, I imagine. It can't be easy to always be creative in such circumstances.

    I love Ron Jones' score for The Best of Both Worlds, I even purchased it since it was released as a proper music album. I do think he was a bit synth-heavy in the first season, which does date those episodes to some extent. The other episode of his that I think has an excellent score is Booby Trap. It has this Patton-esque fanfare that is so awesome and memorable. That episode wasn't free from meddling though. Berman had the music in the escape scene at the end swapped out for music from Where Silence Has Lease (also composed by Jones). Here's what I wrote in that episode's comments section:

    "I will say I'm conflicted about the changed out music in the escape scene. The recycled score from Where Silence Has Lease works very well and I think it fits the scene perfectly. Ron Jones' original score is basically a pumped up version of the music from the scene where they discover something is wrong and Geordi is running around engineering ("we should be going like a bat out of hell"). I do think it's a bit too pumped up for what is actually a very quiet, edge-of-your-seat kind of action. But what I do like about it is that it ties in thematically with the other music in the episode, save the Leah stuff. It incorporates that fanfare, which you hear two or three times in the earlier engineering scene, and being a variation of that score, it relates back to the crew's initial panic and realization of the trap. Someone did mix it into the episode on YouTube, but it was mixed way too loud compared to everything else so it's hard to judge."

    I like Jones' score for Who Watches the Watchers too, though it spoils the initial threat by opening with clearly ominous music. So Jones does/did need some boundaries, at least when it comes to the more subtle stuff. That doesn't excuse getting rid of him. I suspect that once Berman started to fixate on the music, he couldn't back away. Kurzgesagt's Dyson Sphere video on YouTube has a fantastic score, sort of like Ron Jones if he wrote video game music. I've listened to the score by itself many times since, and I noticed when I went back to watch the full video again I couldn't concentrate on anything but the music. I wonder if something similar happened with Berman. The thing is, no "normal" person would have that experience, so Berman ruined Trek music because of his own fixation.

    I have also heard, though I don't have a citation, that Berman instructed the actors in Voyager to downplay their personalities, emotion, etc., in order to better contrast with the aliens they encounter. I suppose that kind of sort of makes a little sense, but it's just lazy. Make the aliens more compelling characters, rather than dumbing down the regulars, the people we're supposed to empathize with and relate to. It's like only eating toast and rice crackers to make your occasional bologna sandwich seem more special.

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