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Q&A With Brad Segal

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The Reality of a Reality-Show Composer

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Do you need music that conveys “the art of the possible,” “the age of wonder,” or “left for dead”? After a number of years as a film and TV composer, alumnus Brad Segal founded FineTune Music, a catalog of music that producers can use to score television programs and movies. It was a natural step for Segal, a Los Angeles native who started studying the piano at age 6 and got his degree in piano performance from Juilliard in 1986. After graduation, he recently told The Journal, he reassessed his options. “As a pianist, either you would become a touring concert pianist or teach. While I did well in competitions and loved to perform, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue the option of being a touring concert pianist and at that time I didn’t want to teach, so I decided to stay in New York and see where life took me”—a road he describes below. In addition to running his business, Segal also continues to compose and be a musical consultant; some of the shows he is currently working on are The Bachelor, Dancing With the Stars, Life Below Zero, and America’s Got Talent.

Brad Segal

Brad Segal

(Photo by Suzanne Landis)

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How did you get your start composing and what led to your present career?

I had a neighbor who had a Moog synthesizer. This was back in the ’70s, really early in the world of synthesizers. He would let me borrow it and I would spend hours turning knobs and making all kinds of weird, awesome sounds. I remember one time my parents came running into my room because they thought a helicopter was landing on our roof!

By the time I moved to New York for Juilliard, in 1983, I had played in a couple of different bands and was interested in other types of music in addition to classical. In 1984 I bought the first model Macintosh computer and learned how to use it to sequence music. While at Juilliard, I practiced hard on the pieces I was assigned, but I also loved to improvise. This led me to enjoy creating original music, short pieces without lyrics. I didn’t know it at the time but this was “underscore” music, music that accompanies television or film images.

So you switched gears from piano performance to composing after graduation …

Yes, but that said, I had a fantastic time at Juilliard. It was the first time that I was in an environment with other talented musicians from all around the world. I also had a relatively unique experience with my private piano teacher situation. While most people study with only one teacher for the duration of their Juilliard careers, I had the amazing experience of studying with three different teachers: Adele Marcus (’29, piano), Jacob Lateiner, and Abbey Simon. Through these wonderful teachers I got a taste of the whole gamut of music. The variety of my education proved invaluable to me as a musician and then as a composer.

How did you get a job scoring reality shows?

After I graduated, with my skills as a classical pianist, an improviser, a computer sequencer, tech person, and a synthesizer programmer I got a job at a jingle company, producing music for television and radio commercials. In 2003, I was asked to score a reality show. Working on this kind of program was something of a shock: scoring reality shows is a completely different animal than scoring scripted film or television. When scoring a scripted film or television show, the composer waits until there is a “locked” picture. This means that the producers and director have completed their edit of the show and it will not change. The composer can then write music to match the visuals moment by moment. In unscripted programs, the music is done separately for about 80 percent of the show. The picture editors have the music in advance of editing the picture. They are, in essence, editing the picture to the music, rather than the other way around. Occasionally, important scenes will be sent to the composer to score but that’s done much less frequently in the world of reality television.

How do you decide what music is appropriate for a character or scene?

I’m involved in the meetings about the show, the discussions about the different cast and characters and the tone and direction the producers would like the show to go. I then create a “library” of music in advance for the picture editors to have as they begin their editing process. My company, FineTune Music, developed its own underscore music catalog about eight years ago. Now the catalog has over 4,000 individual cues covering many styles, from action, atmosphere, electronica, country, dramatic, and emotional to quirky, rock, suspense, and tension.

The music I create can help let the audience know what the producers want them to feel. For example, by adding some low strings, with some light percussion, and maybe a brass swell as an accent you can transform a fairly superficial conversation into something rich with tension. Similarly, if you have a goofy interaction but the producers would like it to be “over-the-top” funny, some quirky pizzicato with a bass clarinet and some light percussion can do just the trick. If a dinner between a couple that’s supposed to be romantic is sagging, just add some heartfelt acoustic guitar with some strings and love is in the air!

Has your rather unusual compositional career affected the way you listen to music?

In many ways, classical and pop composers are really after the same thing: to communicate emotion to an audience. Sometimes I play a recording of the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto for my kids (ages 15, 13, and 10) and they love it. The other day we were listening to it as we were driving to a restaurant and we got to the restaurant halfway into the first movement. I was about to turn off the car and one of my kids said, “Wait, Dad, the ‘drop’ is about to happen.” The drop is a term they use in pop music when there is a long build to a climax and then the main theme comes back. So I suppose just about every classical composer knew that by creating sections and building tension and eventually leading back to the theme, they were creating a drop that would last for centuries.

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