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How composer Nicholas Britell created the sound of 'Succession'

Actors Jeremy Strong (from left), Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin are pictured in an episode of <em>Succession</em>, which ends on Sunday.
Claudette Barius
/
HBO
Actors Jeremy Strong (from left), Sarah Snook and Kieran Culkin are pictured in an episode of Succession, which ends on Sunday.

The final episode of Succession airs on Sunday, bringing an end to the hit HBO series and, almost as importantly, what some have called "the definitive TV theme of the 21st century."

The opening theme, with its dissonant chords, dramatic strings and 808 beats, has remained a popular earworm over the last few years, not to mention fodder for high-profile remixes and viral memes.

All of that came as a surprise to Nicholas Britell, the composer behind the show's Emmy-winning score.

"What's happened with Succession has been beyond my, any of our wildest dreams, I think," he told Morning Edition. "And certainly on the music side, it's been very special that the music has resonated the way it has. I did not expect that."

Succession is Britell's first foray into television. He previously worked on acclaimed films including Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, Don't Look Up and The Big Short. That's how he knew director Adam McKay, who told him in 2016 about the new show he was executive producing.

Once Britell came on board, his first task was to figure out what the project should sound like.

"So much of my early work on anything is really sort of trying to experiment and see what could work and what feels right," he says, adding that the process usually starts with conversations with the showrunner and ends once there's an edited episode to work off. "The picture tells you what it's looking for."

The sound of Succession came from Britell's early conversations with McKay and the show's creator, Jesse Armstrong, as well as his visits to the set.

He watched the filming of the pilot — including a fight scene between patriarch Logan Roy and his son-slash-original heir apparent, Kendall — an experience Britell describes as "subconsciously kind of taking things in about the frequency of the show."

Then Britell invited McKay and Armstrong back to his studio and played them some early ideas, one of which was a chord progression "that felt very, very 1700s." And that's how the Succession theme was born.

The show's musical signature is its mix of "dark, courtly classical sound" with "oversize hip-hop beats and 808s," with the latter reflecting the taste of both protagonist Kendall and real-life hip-hop enthusiast Britell.

And it's meant to sound "off-kilter." Britell says he gets asked whether the piano and strings are supposed to be out of tune — and the answer is always yes.

"I have takes of some of these things where it's perfect and it does not sound right because when things sound, quote unquote, 'right' for the Roy family, it's wrong," he adds. "It doesn't work because the family is so dysfunctional that the music has to have this kind of brokenness to it somehow."

Britell's Succession repertoire includes far more than just the opener. He says he does five to 10 new themes every season, in addition to variations on the main theme chords, which was part of his conscious effort to evolve the music throughout the show's four seasons.

"I had this framework, it was kind of like an early thesis of, well, what if every season was a little bit like a movement of a classical symphony?" he explains, adding that each has its own "emotional hue."

Season one, like the first movement of a classical symphony, was an allegro: "You're setting out a certain set of ideas in perhaps a slightly quicker tempo." Season two was an adagio, or a "slower, more inward, more introspective kind of a movement" (inspired by Kendall's arc). Season three was a lighter scherzo, which comes from the Italian word for joke.

Britell said season four could have been many things, and he approached it not through one particular angle but by considering the shape of the storyline and the characters' journeys. Logan's death posed a particular challenge: It arguably changed the nature of the show and demanded a new sound, and yet Britell didn't want that sound to "not feel like Succession."

"I think the biggest challenge was figuring out a way forward for the sound where it could allow for the possibility of a future of some sort, while also staying true to, to me, that strange mixture of absurdity and gravitas that is the essence of the show," he says.

Britell spoke to Morning Edition about his process, the final season and what comes next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On his use of hip-hop

I was obsessed with hip-hop and in college was in a hip-hop band. ... So when the idea struck me to perhaps experiment with utilizing 808s or or beats with this sound, it was something that I knew how to do because I'd spent 20 years doing it. ... The hip-hop is used very specifically in certain places — the beats, the use of 808s — certainly in the main title sequence.

In season four, there's a sequence where Kendall is walking into the office and he listens to hip-hop as a way clearly of giving himself more confidence. It's sort of a boost in a sense, and the sequence where I put one of my beats under him walking into the office, it's directly after he's listening to a Jay-Z track in the car, so there's a bit of a parallel, I think, in that to the pilot episode where he's listening to the Beastie Boys and then he's walking into the office and then the main title beat sort of comes in. ... I like attempting to draw certain connections and parallels and symmetries to things.

On the process of scoring an episode

I get a full episode from editorial and ... I go through and I start experimenting with, where do I put music? ... It's a big, big question, because you could put music theoretically anywhere, but there are certain places where music goes that have a power to them, that work in relation to the grammar of a particular project. ... And then once you have a sense that there could be a moment for music, well then you have to actually say, OK, well then what is the music? What do we put there? One of the wonderful things with Succession is that having lived with it for four seasons now, you get an instinct for where and what and how for the music.

On the episode where Logan dies

That episode in particular was really fascinating for me, because I had written a few pieces of music imagining what that might be. But when I finally got the episode and I saw the phone call sequence ... I realized that that whole sequence actually required a type of music or a sound that I had never used in the show before, because Logan had never died before. ... To me, the key for that sequence in particular was that we had to feel like we were inside that emotion. I didn't want to push people to feel a certain way, I wanted it to feel like you were actually one of them, feeling this, feeling your father dying on the phone and you can't be there.

I called [Armstrong] up and I think he was traveling, he was out of the country. And I said, "I really think we need to get in the room together, because this sequence is so important and I think the only way we will be able to have it feel right is if we're sitting together, looking at it and in the minutest detail shaping it together." ... He flew to New York and came over to the studio and ... we basically sat together like a whole day, just looking at this sequence and talking about it and experimenting with it.

On whether there's more TV work in his future

Television is a lot of work. I mean, it's been a joy to work on Succession. I'm very driven by the collaborators that I work with, it's sort of the trust of working with certain people and believing in the projects themselves. So to me, I would go forward and work on another show if it was the right great people for sure. ... And I think television does require an order of magnitude more work than movies, just because of the sheer scope of a show. So I think before I would go into any other television series, I would think about the sheer amount of music that needs to be written.

The broadcast interview was produced by Chad Campbell and edited by Olivia Hampton.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.