While the themes seem largely similar, Robert Gjerdingen, a professor of music theory & cognition at Northwestern University, extrapolated some of the moods and messages that seemed to come from each network. "The ABC theme tries to be the most hip," he said in an e-mail, "with few allusions to past glories or a homespun era. CBS adds the 'Charles Kuralt' tag at the end to convey a warmer, more 'Mayberry' feel (listen .) NBC goes for the steel and glass of corporate America, with an adventure movie connotation."
Gjerdingen described NBC's theme as "closest to themes for adventure (but not action) movies, science fiction … and 'official' sport" such as the Olympics.
As for CBS: "with its warm tag ending, [it] has vestiges of Aaron Copeland's 'Appalachian Spring,' or Elmer Bernstein's score for 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'" However, he added, "Many viewers would more likely associate the theme with 'The Waltons.'"
ABC, says Gjerdingen, "has music in the style of '70s and '80s television themes" he said, citing shows such as "Starsky & Hutch," and "Hawaii 5-O."
Matthew Nicholl, chair of contemporary writing and production at Berklee College of Music, spent 10 years writing music for television, including news programming and political advertisements. The challenge of composing such themes, says Nicholl, is that of translating the adjectives that you hear from executives describing what they want out of the song – who often aren't speaking in musical language. In other words, says Nicholl, the job of the composer is "translating adjectives into a musical reality."
Nicholl interpreted the "brassy, uplifting sound" at the end of NBC's opening theme (listen ) as "something that seems to say, this is a complicated world, but we're going to resolve it for you."
NBC "projects a certain confidence," and "sounds more expensive," said Nicholl, because of a "big brass" sound. He found CBS and ABC's themes more neutral sounding.
"I like ABC the best musically," he said, mostly because of the main chord (listen .) It's "scored the best" and "stands out as the most well-written."
NBC's theme "has an element of cheese," he said, "it seems a little too calculated to pull at your heartstrings."
As for CBS' theme, "There's no recognition factor," said Nicholl. "It doesn't have a memorable theme," or a "signature sting," as he calls it. This element is important because a theme should be "meant to appeal on a subconscious level to viewers not paying attention to it musically." However, he said the fact that CBS's theme isn't recognizable, "might be a conscious choice."
Nicholl's overall impression of the themes: "These are all knit from the same cloth," he told me. "The music is communicating that this is urgent, important and serious, but not necessarily bad," and while the intention is to create mood of immediacy, "they don't want to bum people out," he added.
Gjerdingen agrees that the similarities among the themes "are striking, almost as if all three networks ordered from the same menu." However, he found the mood of each theme far less neutral.
"Perhaps the oddest thing about all three is the 'theme' of dread and foreboding," he said. "This is off-putting. I suspect the suits think that the music is 'active' and will arrest the attention. But if viewers are burned out on disasters, mayhem, and death, then it's hard to imagine most people thinking, 'Yeah, this sounds like more dread--great!'"
Both professors were quick to note that an ongoing sound within the themes resembled that of a teletype machine.
"The echo of the teletype machines heard in radio newsrooms of the 1950s can still be heard in the rapid, rhythmically syncopated machine-like sounds of low, ominous strings," said Gjerdingen.
Listen as ABC's theme moves from its signature melody into what Gjerdingen described as a "ticker-tape rhythm."
Listen as NBC's moves to the "same ominous ticker tape strings."
CBS also uses "ticker tape strings" and an "ominous, dark background." (Listen .)
Nicholl -- somewhat jokingly -- calls this the "important chord." Using this "teletype rhythm" makes it sound "like the news is just … coming … in.," he says, syncopating his voice to resemble a teletype machine, "that it's important and urgent."
He explains that these chords are missing both a major third – which creates a happy and uplifting sound – and a minor third – which makes dark, sad sound. Instead, the sound is "harmonically neutral," says Nicholl. The sound doesn't stand out, he explains, because it's "not supposed to detract from the voice over."
The other primary similarity among the themes – the music sounds expensive, says Nicholl. "It's orchestral, there are no cheesy synthesizers here," he says, which appears to send the message to the audience that "this is expensive and well produced."
Gjerdingen described all three themes as "heavily processed, or not 'authentic' as a young person might say. All are thoroughly 'corporate,' with no impression of individual expression," such as an instrumental solo or a voice.
He also noted that the programs' audience is evident in the music: "All are pitched to an older audience, with CBS pitching for the oldest."
The real way for a network to break the mold would be to "drop the angst," says Gjerdingen. "I'm not suggesting Bob Denver, but something that strikes the average person as more 'real.'"