Composer David Schwartz has helped define quirky television on both sides of the 21st century. He struck comedy gold with the cult series Arrested Development with regular collaborator Mitchell Hurwitz, where – from the opening strains of his ukulele swing theme song – Schwartz contributed score and songs that were both funny and mock-serious, jumping from genre to genre and providing an essential (and Emmy-nominated) layer to the show’s eccentric charm. He returned for the resurrected fourth season on Netflix, and is collaborating with Pam Brady and Hurwitz on the second season of the Netflix original series, Lady Dynamite, starring Maria Bamford. Schwartz also scores the NBC comedies The Good Place starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, and Better Late Than Never starring George Foreman and William Shatner. Schwartz’s dusty, fiddled main title theme song for the lauded HBO drama Deadwood invited audiences into the criminal world of the old west every week, and was recognized with an Emmy nomination.
Schwartz, who grew up in New York, recently completed scoring the final season of the HBO hit VEEP, which aired earlier this year. Schwartz has been playing music across genres most of his life. He studied at the School of Visual Arts (NY), and Berklee College of Music, and during college he played bass in a wide variety of orchestras, ensembles and bands. He quickly began engineering and producing music—and his quirky, multi-instrumental, and song-oriented background prepared him perfectly for his first big writing assignment when he landed Northern Exposure. “When I’m composing for comedies, I never think, ‘Oh boy, ‘let’s make this funny music,’” explains Schwartz. “But I always try and make things fun.” He is just as excited about music now, as he was when he started playing in bands. He adds, “I come from a family of visual artists and when I discovered film/TV composing, it immediately felt like the right fit, where I could combine music with visual storytelling. I like to get inside the filmmaker’s head and figure out how to best support the emotions of the story with music.”
In our new interview, Schwartz discusses everything from his work on VEEP, The Good Place, and Arrested Development, his musical influences, and more!
What got you into composing, and theme music composing?
A good friend of mine asked me if I knew someone who would be interested in scoring his small film Skeeter’s Wings. I suggested myself. The film never made it to theaters, but I got the bug for composing. 18 Months later, I heard from one of the two dozen or so people who had seen Skeeter’s Wings asking if I’d be interested in trying to write the theme for a new TV show. That show turned out to be Northern Exposure.
Why are theme songs so important to television?
That’s a great question. Hopefully the theme song sums up everything you like about a television series. Interestingly, it’s what people remember most about a series. That may change, as these days, the very short, seven-second style main title cards, may not have the same lasting effect.
How do the mediums of television and music enhance each other?
Something magical happens when you compose music to an existing picture. You can enhance or change the emotions on screen in very unexpected ways. This never fails to inspire me.
What are the main components to composing music for television?
My main objective is to enhance the story. Music has great power to change the emotions underneath that story. Sometimes this is accomplished without the audience noticing, other times it’s very obvious. Either way can work, it’s really about the style of the show and the people who create it.
What influences you to write each theme song?
That remains a mystery to me. I like to find out as much as I can about the characters, the setting, the time period. Then, I just start to write. There are times when I haven’t seen any video or read a script. So, you really have to use your imagination. I very much love the challenge of writing a new main title!
What are the biggest differences between composing for film and composing for television?
Often they are very similar. With film you often get a little more time. Also, films have a complete story, beginning, middle, and end. Whereas episodic television, the story continues and evolves over multiple episodes, seasons, etc.
What is your favorite genre of television to write music for?
I am really genre-non-specific. If it’s a good show, then I will be inspired to write music for it. If it’s not that good, then I’ll find a way to inspire myself. Good is better…
Do you have a set formula you rely on for composing each genre or is it entirely dependent on how you feel when you get the television show brief?
I’d like to think I have no formula. I prefer to start fresh and see what develops. That said, after doing this for a while, I think we all have a tendency to rely on some of the methods we have learned. Where possible, I try to resist this.
From your first composed music for Northern Exposure to most your most recent music for Arrested Development, what has sculpted your composing strategy over your career?
There’s a strategy? I wish I could say I planned my entire career, but it’s more a series of fortunate accidents, which I am very grateful for. Don’t interpret that to mean you should wait around for accidents, I’m always working, writing, and actively looking for the next project.
There was a five-year gap between Arrested Development’s season four and five. Did this affect your take on the music at all?
I think for everyone involved in the show, it was a little scary. I know we all want to better ourselves each season. Once we got started though, it just felt like Arrested Development. On Netflix, the shows have the luxury of more time to tell the story, and therefore, I was able to write longer length cues which I felt really helped tell the story.
VEEP just recently ended… how did you feel about the finale?
I loved it! I think the writers did a great job. It’s a tremendous challenge to bring a show to a final conclusion.
What differs between writing the theme intro and the theme end to a television show?
They can be similar or very different. In some shows, we choose a different piece of music for every end title. In season seven of VEEP, I composed different end titles for each episode.
How do light and dark humor affect writing music for television comedy?
That’s a good question. Finding the line between comedy and drama, or light and dark comedy, is very important. I find this can be a tricky one, as different people react to that music differently. I might try to find a couple of cues to demonstrate this and send them to the producers/directors in the first day or two to see if I’m on the right track. Letting them know, that line can be adjusted.
If you could compose for any show, finished or not, which show would it be?
If I love a show, 99 per cent of the time I love the music that was written for that show, therefore I would have no incentive or desire to replace it. I remain excited for my next show.