- The theme song to HBO’s “Succession” has become wildly popular.
- The song’s composer, Nicholas Britell, has a background in hip-hop.
- We break down the song to pinpoint why it gets stuck in your head.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: When you hear this, you know exactly what song it is. And when you hear this, the feeling is the same. The theme song to HBO’s “Succession” has become wildly popular, even to people who don’t watch the show. Teens on TikTok have made it into a meme. Pusha T hopped on a remix. And this guy’s hilarious cover has also made waves.
It’s rare for a TV theme to have the staying power of a major pop song. But “Succession’s” title song practically dares you to skip it. So, what makes it so good? And why is a TV show theme song getting stuck in our heads?
To answer that question, we have to understand the mind of the song’s composer, Nicholas Britell. Britell has a background in hip-hop. Growing up he studied the genre closely and even played in a hip-hop band in college. In an interview with Polygon, Britell said he believes hip-hop is the most important form of modern music. And he’s not wrong. In 2018, Nielsen reported that for the first time hip-hop has surpassed rock music in popularity. So, it makes sense that hip-hop is the foundation of “Succession’s” theme song. Britell scored films like “Moonlight,” and was even nominated for an Oscar for scoring “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Illustrating his mastery of orchestral music.
It’s the combination of his film scoring experience, mixed with his background in hip-hop that explains why the “Succession” theme song works. It’s hard to hear through TV speakers but if you listen closely you might notice that the song has some hip-hop elements that support the orchestral melody. By singling out the lower frequencies of the song you can hear this… an 808 bass drum. It drives the song giving it rhythm that you might not have known was there.
To understand the impact an 808 can have lets consult none other than BeyoncÃ©. At the top of her 2006 hit “Deja Vu” She calls for the 808 drum to come in and you can immediately hear the difference. The song starts to boom and you’re more inclined to dance. In the “Succession” theme song the 808 baseline plays over the duration of the song leaving you in a surreal situation where you’re bobbing your head to orchestral strings and cellos.
By focusing on the higher frequencies of the song you can get a sense of what it would sound like without the bass. Still good but the rhythm just isn’t there and you lose that dark, menacing quality. The 808 drum provides not just the rhythm but also some melody.
Let’s single the drum out. You can hear that the drum has notes that correspond to the melody of the strings and piano. By adding the 808 drum, Britell transforms the orchestral song into something that’s more danceable, more modern, and apparently more memeable.
But there’s more to its brilliance. Britell manages to distill “Succession’s” key themes into its title song. There’s an unsettling atmosphere to it, an unease lurking beneath its polished veneer. This makes it hard to pinpoint exactly what the tone of the song is, but that’s the point. Even fans of “Succession” argue whether the show is a dark comedy or a drama. The theme song matches those conflicting tones.
Former TV and film composer, Drew Silverstein, described the distorted strings in the theme as gritty. There is a low ostinato pattern, an ostinato is a repeated musical phrase or rhythm. In this case, it’s the four repeating notes played by these low strings. Contrasted with these increasingly high pitched strings. That lend the song a sense of frenzied momentum. This is important because of the sense of urgency in the show. A lot of time can pass between episodes but within each individual episode we’re often following the characters over the course of just a few hours. The ostinato pattern reflects that.
Then we have the higher strings, they echo the uncertainty of the piano, which is out of tune. Here’s what these notes sound like on a tuned piano. On the outside looking in, the Roy family is elegant, confident, and daunting. The out of tune piano represents the deep anxiety, dissonance, and abuse lying under the surface.
Nothing embodies the family’s tension more than the show’s protagonist, Kendall Roy. On the outside he’s the determined, polished, likely successor to his father’s giant media company. But underneath, he’s addicted to drugs and struggles with relationships. Until he is involved in an accident and is at least partially responsible for someone’s death. In the immediate aftermath you can hear a version of the show’s theme song playing. The accident forces him to lean on his father, Logan, for help and he becomes completely subservient to him. In season two we see exactly how tragically humiliating this subservience can be. And are treated to other versions of the theme song.
The theme song succeeds in exposing what the Roy family is at their core. Powerful to outsiders, but crumbling underneath.
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