I was joined today by Joel Beckerman, founder and lead composer of Man Made Music, a bicoastal “strategic” music and sound studio. You may not know Joel’s name, but I guarantee you know his work. Man Made Music is responsible for scores of (get it?) instantly recognizable tunes you’ve heard watching some of the biggest news events of the day, at the movies or cheering on your favorite Super Bowl contender. Joel, who Fast Company has heralded as one of their “Most Creative People in Business 1000,” has personally created or produced original scores for more than 50 television programs, won ASCAP’s “Most Performed” theme award for the past eight years, and has developed signature sonic branding programs for global giants including Disney and AT&T.
In preparing for our ‘Lunch,’ I was astounded to learn just how many iconic themes Joel was responsible for, including the reboots of the classic NBC chime and the decades-old HBO theme used to introduce the cable network’s original series and movies, as well as the music for Super Bowl XLVI. He also worked on this year’s Academy Awards and has a top secret project in the works for next year’s telecast.
A pianist who attended New York University, Joel’s passion for his work came through in everything he said. “We respond quicker to sound than any other of the five senses. During the course of our conversation, he frequently cited studies he’d read and used in his book, The Sonic Boom: How Music Transforms the Way We Think, Feel and Buy. In creating a theme for a show, film or brand, the mission is the same, he explained. “It has to capture the spirit of the brand and couldn’t be used for anything else. That’s the high bar we set for ourselves.”
I was most interested in talking to Joel about his work in television news and his thoughts on creating soundtracks for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (More on that later.) Most recently he was charged with creating the music for CBS News’ coverage of the upcoming presidential election. Shockingly, the network had been using the same theme music which premiered in 1987. “Ours in the fourth theme written,” Joel told me. “Before the themes were used, there was just teletype sound.” Joel and his co-writer Wayne Sharpe were tasked with creating something original that conveyed a sense of “moving forward” for both the news division and the country. Previously, Joel produced the session where James Horner created the theme for the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and wrote a couple of dozen melodies with Horner’s melody.
Last month, a version of the music Joel created for the network’s election coverage became the theme of the CBS Evening News, which is a great source of pride for this self-described news junkie. He wanted to bring “an elegance” to “the program of record” that reflected not only the spirit of the broadcast but the persona of its anchor. “Scott [Pelley] doesn’t insert himself into the story,” said Joel. “He elevates the work of his colleagues. [Creating the theme] was a very meaningful project.”
Joel describes the theme of the broadcast as having “worldliness and trustworthiness” as well as a “forward motion” composed of strings (for worldliness), lower brass (trustworthiness) and short note percussion (forward energy) recorded with a 35-piece orchestra.
For the debut of CBS This Morning, Joel wanted to capture the spirit of the show’s anchors and differentiate the broadcast from its more infotainment-focused competitors. He and his co-writers came up with a “drum groove idea” that captured both the “credibility and trust” of Charlie Rose and the “accessibility” of Gayle King. “Charlie is a rock star in his own way. He gets people to speak very personally and Gayle has a very sharp intellect and could also be an audience member. There’s no artifice there.”
In the studio, despite protestations from his colleagues, Joel decided there needed to be some “quirkiness” to the theme — and stuck to his guns. “You have to be careful not to throw out unvarnished ideas,” he told me, explaining that he and his team employs ‘the hour glass flip,’ where if something doesn’t seem like it’s working when the sands of the hourglass runs out, they start over. In the case of CBS This Morning, the theme wound up being “wake-up music that pulls you in rather than pushes you out,” said Joel. “It’s one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever done.”
When I asked Joel what other projects he found most rewarding, he reeled off a list that included producing the soundtrack for King, a documentary about the assassination of Martin Luther King from the History Channel and NBC, his work with many Grammy nominated artists, co-producing a poignant arrangement of U2’s Pride in the Name of Love featuring John Legend’s locals and piano solo and the theme of Entertainment Tonight co-produced with Will.i.am. Another favorite work: the theme of Anthony Bourdain’s show, No Reservations. “It’s proto-punk which is a stripped down version of punk,” he told me. “It’s perfect because Anthony is a rock ‘n’ roll chef who says playing Billy Joel in his kitchen is a criminal offense.”
Joel also counts his work for NBC Sports among his most exciting projects. When NBC approached Joel about “expanding” the work legendary composer John Williams originally created for the network’s football games, Joel told me he had more than a little anxiety tackling and tweaking the work of a “genius.” Joel was so anxious that he asked Williams if he wanted to do the work himself and went ahead only after he’d gotten his blessing. “He said ‘Do what you think is right,” recalled Joel, who added a “rock underpinning” to the soundtrack and was thrilled when he got word from Williams that he liked the end result. And of course, there’s Super Bowl XLVI. “Every time there’s a Super Bowl, it raises the bar,” he told me.
Believe it or not, Joel’s work is just as far reaching and impressive beyond soundtracks. Every brand, he said, needs “sonic sound” not recycled pop tunes to convey the right energy and image to their customers. While the “perfect” pop song “it works” in some cases, but Joel cautioned, “The days of selling people stuff [with heavy techniques] … people can smell that a mile away.” Innovation always rules the day. IMAX came to Man Made Music looking for a sonic identity system that would not only highlight their mind blowing technology but also emotionally prepare the viewer for the highly anticipated event to come. The solution? The IMAX Pure Experience anthem, featuring “The Drop”, an iconic musical signature created with electronic elements, and a 150-piece orchestra accompanied by a 75-voice choir. “I’m a huge fan of the IMAX experience,” Joel told me. ” Their tireless dedication to innovating their technology brings films to life for fans in a visceral way. It’s such an honor that they asked us to help create a musical ‘voice’ for the brand that acts as a beacon, and gets them credit for what they bring before every IMAX film across 65 countries— over 1.4 million showings per year.”
These days Joel is hard at work on a “top secret” virtual reality project for NBC’s broadcast of the Olympics and the soundtrack for the upcoming independent film, Cook Off! which stars “an amazing roster of character actors” and a “hilarious” extended cameo by a pre-stardom Melissa McCarthy (“It was shot before she was famous”). Apologizing for being a little fuzzy on some of the dates of his past works this afternoon he explained, “I’m running around with the theme [of the film] in my head and it will stay there until it’s finished.”