This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film, to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our head long after the credits roll.
Don't underestimate the power of a good jingle. One minute of music, skillfully written, with a killer hook, and with just the right amount of repetition can invade your consciousness and linger. For years, sometimes.
Think of some of the most effective theme songs ever written. Just a few bars – sometimes even a single note or two – can cause you to hum the entire song all day.
In that sphere, Ron Jones is a master. He's written so many television theme songs that he can't remember them all. "There were many" is all he can say when SYFY WIRE asked if he could name them all.
"People respond to repetition. And the latest musicological, biological, and psychological studies have shown that repetition is damn effective," said Jones. "So a musical track [with a very repetitive beat] might sound really dumb, but guess what? You're hooked like [bleep] to it."
For nearly 40 years, Jones has had a long and wildly productive career scoring music for TV. He was the musical heart of early Star Trek: The Next Generation (42 episodes across the show's first four seasons, plus an Emmy for "Q Who"), he scored every episode of the original DuckTales, he wrote the theme for Family Guy and has scored well over 100 episodes of that show, and his work has appeared in countless other shows and films.
But one of his first gigs out of the Dick Grove School of Music back in the late '70s was with Hanna-Barbera, the undisputed king of catchy theme songs. "That repetition, combined with melodic intervals and rests, is intrinsically tied to the human receptor. And that receptor is who I write for. I write for what we've evolved to like."
This is why Jones likes to think that he's in the business of subversion. Give him one minute of music, and he can have you humming a tune for days on end. Which, of course, is precisely the point.
"After about four or five sessions, they got used to me being there and hanging out, and I kept approaching the music director until he gave me a chance," he recalled. "I kept putting red marks all over their scores and correcting the other guys' work. [When asked about it], I said, 'Well, these guys don't know their transpositions. They don't know their stuff. I'm trying to show you that I do.'
"I did copy work for an office that would handle music like Sinatra, big band stuff, and a lot of record work," Jones continued. "One of their big accounts that would come through in the summer would be Hanna-Barbera, so I watched this procession go by and just volunteered to take the music because they had to pay someone. So I said, 'Sure, I'll take the 40 bucks.' And that got me into the session."
In retrospect, Jones recognizes how this looks. "It was kind of a dick way to do it, but I did impress him enough to get in."
"The idea is to get proximity to your craft. What's the point of being a painter if you don't have a canvas?" Jones asks rhetorically. "Doing a few years of [Hanna-Barbera] gave me hundreds of television shows. To me, that was a great foundation. It taught me how to crank; how to get a lot of music done. And even though you're cranking, you don't lower your standards. You just develop a completely new level you never thought you could do."
And that's what makes a lot of those classic Hanna-Barbera themes so special. Jones never underestimated his audience. "I never wrote down to or patronized the kids. I treated them as smart and very aware human receptors. I still do."
During his time at Hanna-Barbera, Jones worked closely with Hoyt Curtain, the legendary composer of shows such asThe Flintstones and The Jetsons.
"Hoyt would call the band and run the sessions. He was the boss. He was a genius, a musical giant. But there was so much work scoring that Saturday morning cartoon slate that he couldn't do it all himself," Jones said. "Hoyt could hear that I brought a fresh mix of power and hipness to the music, so I got in on 'ghosting' and scored a lot of music for Hoyt."
Though he was officially uncredited, Jones had his hand in a lot of the work that generations of kids would hear.
"I worked on the arranging, orchestration, and generally putting the whole thing together. Many of Hoyt's arrangers were old big band guys – all great, but they were stuck in the swing era," Jones said. "The network execs in charge of animation knew that to maintain the kid audience and thus keep the ratings up and satisfy the advertisers, the music needed to hold their attention. So I brought into the mix all sorts of popular styles and instrumentation."
Notably, the meetings weren't always at concert halls or even offices — sometimes, the music was hashed out over hash browns.
"Hoyt would have a few of us do versions of his themes, which were usually handwritten on a paper napkin as we would meet at Denny's or Jack's Deli in Westlake," Jones remembered. "He would hum a theme and quickly sketch it on a napkin, which would really just include brief melodic material. I don't have perfect pitch – I have relative pitch – so I would have to memorize that and then drive an hour home without the radio on or anything and immediately go to my piano and figure out what he just threw at me. I had to turn that napkin into a full-on theme that made millions of people instantly love it and hang out in front of the TV set and watch the show...and the commercials. It had to be ear glue."
One of the most enduring themes Jones had a hand in during this time was The Smurfs. "Hoyt composed the Smurfs theme. I had to take that sucker and do the rest."
Some of the other themes Jones scored for Hoyt (many of which were based on those quick napkin sketches) included Drak Pack, Space Stars, The Trollkins, Pac-Man, and so many more.
"That was great training. I got the job because I could make the music hip. A lot of the guys could do grand, epic, '60s-sounding main titles, but they were dated in the '70s and '80s. I was listening to more progressive music, so I made the advertisers and the network executives happy. I became the guy who would take Hoyt's sedate '50s, '60s sound and give it a hipper feel. So that made me indispensable, and then eventually I got the themes myself."
Again, the list of themes Jones composed and orchestrated for Hanna-Barbera is lengthy, but it includes notable earworms from The Snorks, Yogi's Treasure Hunt, and Go-Bots.
With the ability to crank out music fully in his skill set, Jones eventually moved on from Hanna-Barbera to work on what became a defining show for a generation: DuckTales. Though he didn't write the catchiest of catchy theme songs (woo-oo!), he did help refine it, and he composed the underscore for all 100+ episodes of the show.
"The [theme song] was already composed and the tracks recorded, but the producers asked me to rev it up, so I arranged some additional rhythm section tracks, wrote those killer horn parts, and called the Tower of Power horn section. It seemed like the kiddies loved Tower of Power funk licks with their duck shows."
At the same time as he was working for Disney down in Duckburg, he was also creating the sound of another generation-defining show – Star Trek: The Next Generation. But that's another story for another time.
After leaving the 24th century, Jones returned to animation, writing the theme for Nickelodeon's The Fairly OddParents and eventually finding his way to Seth MacFarlane and Family Guy. Over the course of a decade (and still going), Jones consistently worked with MacFarlane on the themes and scores for Family Guy, American Dad!, and more.
"I have always been called upon in all my work to be the guy who can make any group sound like a large canvas. It's my special superpower. You have to know orchestration inside and out to pull that off. There is an art and craft to this. It's not just some guy with a laptop and some music samples."
And for those of you who are now scoping out Jones's IMDb page, don't expect it to be correct. A vast majority of his work (particularly his Hanna-Barbera work) doesn't even appear there. And that mention of The Force Awakens? No, he didn't orchestrate it. Laughing, he jokes, "I'm pretty sure John Williams wrote that whole score by himself."