My story begins back in nineteen-dickity-two. We had to say ‘dickity’ cause the kaiser had stolen our word ‘twenty’. I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickity-six miles.— Grampa
The conductor raises his arms. An expectant silence settles over the room. The orchestra seems to tense as one body, and the count begins.
Then, on cue, the music surges forth - a Las Vegas show band sound that would delight Wayne Newton.
The music builds to a crescendo, only to halt as abruptly as it began. The conductor lowers his arms and turns to his audience for approval.
His audience doesn't exactly approve. "I want to be able to hear that drum," says Jay Kogen, a producer of The Simpsons and the author of the "Old Money" episode.
In the story, Grampa Simpson inherits a small fortune from his girlfriend. At this point in the episode, Grampa is off to Las Vegas on a casino junket, in hopes of doubling his inheritance.
A busload of geriatrics from the Springfield Retirement Home pulls up to the casino. Flashing neon signs, spouting fountains and toga-clad cocktail waitresses take over the screen... accompanied, of course, by a burst of show-band sound.
When you sit down to watch The Simpsons, you may not even notice the music - unless Lisa plays the blues. But it's an indispensable part of the presentation, every bit as important (and sometimes every bit as subtle) as the visual details that appear in the corners of numerous scenes.
"The music helps to sell the reality of the show, more than it helps to sell any joke in the show," Kogen says. "Because the people are drawn, and sometimes the drawings can't convey everything, the music helps a great deal."
Composer-conductor Alf Clausen takes Kogen's point about selling the reality of the show a step further: "We don't consider The Simpsons a cartoon. These are real people.
"More important, what I have found on this show is that the editing is a lot tighter than in a typical dramatic show format. It's difficult to find long spaces for fitting in music. The stories are detailed, and the editing is tight. Sometimes I only have three or four or five seconds to play something sad, before it changes gears and goes someplace else."
You may be surprised to find out how much work goes into the music behind each episode. Assisted by a handful of skilled technicians, Clausen assembles the complete score for a single show, to be played by a 40-piece orchestra. They have five days to do it.
The process begins on Monday, 11 days before the episode will be aired. The first step is called the 'music spotting session.' Clausen, Kogen and a group of music and special effects people view the show without benefit of sound - no dialogue, no music.
"We go through the show," Kogen says, "and we talk about what music we need and where we need it. Clausen gives his ideas, what he'd like to do. And they're usually right on target."
That figures. Clausen's credits as a composer for television include Moonlighting and ALF. He has received seven Emmy nominations.
"It's a collaborative effort," Clausen says. "I look at the scene and then evaluate the observations that were made in the spotting session. Then I try to compose a piece of music that will fit emotionally to what they've asked for. Once I have a general idea as to the style of the music, the nuts and bolts part of it starts.
"Sometimes they just leave it up to me and say, 'We know there should be music there. Do something.'"
Clausen has all of three days to work on the "nuts and bolts" of composing the music. (Between finishing his work and recording it in the intense, four-hour Friday afternoon session, Clausen must leave time for copyist Joann Kane and her staff to extract the orchestral parts.)
After the spotting session, music editors Chris Ledesma and Bob Bedecher prepare a set of "music spotting notes" for Clausen. These take the form of a numbered list of music cues. Each includes a brief description, a starting time, a stopping time and an approximate length. An average episode of The Simpsons contains 30 music cues.
Once the music cues have been assembled, Ledesma and Bedecher break down each cue into "timing notes," observations about each scene.
Clausen explains the timing notes: "If a guy turns, if a guy pokes somebody in the shoulder, if a guy falls over dead, the music editors will describe, in seconds and one-hundredths of seconds, the exact timing of each one of those pieces of action.
For example, a 3.7-second scene could have many different actions. Clausen's tools for merging his composition with the scene include:
Using the visual streamers, which mark the beginning and end of the music sequence, Clausen can plot the music so that it precisely matches the action on the television screen.
During the three-day process of composing the score for each episode, Clausen can turn to a team of specialists, which includes:
It is Friday afternoon, 2:00. Through the heavy glass of the control booth, a visitor can see the orchestra, surrounded by microphones.
A small group sits jammed in the booth. Behind producer Kogen are three engineers, working the maze of switches and levers on the sound board. Also on hand are members of The Simpsons' writing staff, making sure the "feel" of the music corresponds to what came out of Monday's spotting session.
Outside, members of the orchestra scan their music sheets. This is their first look at Clausen's work, and they will sight-read as they perform. To a visitor's untrained ear, every passage will sound perfect the first time it is played, but it often takes several recorded attempts before the entire staff is satisfied.
Less than a week later, the show will appear on the Fox Television Network. Midway through the episode, a tiny bus will pull up to a glittering casino. In the background we'll hear the sound of an orchestra - a "Las Vegas" sound, but with a special Simpsons touch.
Source: Simpsons Comics