The best books about film and television composers

Why am I passionate about this?

I've been a working journalist for 50 years, and as a child of TV, especially in the 1960s, I grew up with some of the most memorable TV themes ever written. I started writing about TV in the 1980s, and since moving to Los Angeles in 1986, have used every opportunity to meet and interview all of my favorite composers of movie and TV music. The result is this book, which looks at the history of TV themes and, in a larger sense, music written for TV generally. Every genre of TV, from crime to sitcoms, westerns to adventure, has had fun, often compelling, and truly memorable music, and I've tried to celebrate it here.


I wrote...

Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring

By Jon Burlingame,

Book cover of Music for Prime Time: A History of American Television Themes and Scoring

What is my book about?

Music composed for television has never been taken seriously by scholars or critics. Catchy TV themes, often for popular weekly series, are fondly remembered but not considered much more culturally significant than commercial jingles. Yet noted composers like John Williams, Henry Mancini, and Jerry Goldsmith learned and/or honed their craft in television before going on to major success in feature films.
Music for Prime Time is the first thorough history of music for American television. This engaging, wide-ranging narrative – the product of 35 years of research and more than 450 interviews – not only tells the backstory of every great TV theme but also examines the many neglected and frequently underrated orchestral and jazz compositions for television dating back to the late 1940s.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Music by Max Steiner: The Epic Life of Hollywood's Most Influential Composer

Jon Burlingame Why did I love this book?

Steiner was a film-music pioneer, scoring such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and The Searchers.

He won three Oscars and added music of emotion and drama to movies starring Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and other Golden Age stars while also serving as music director on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals of the '30s.

I didn't think it was possible for Smith to uncover anything more about Steiner's life, as the composer and so many of his contemporaries are long dead.

But he astonished me with his detailed and sometimes jaw-dropping discoveries about Steiner's early life in late 19th-century Vienna, his stints in the London and Broadway theater, and his lengthy Hollywood career (and practically every other page contains some funny Steiner anecdote or remark).

By Steven C. Smith,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Music by Max Steiner as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

During a seven-decade career that spanned from 19th century Vienna to 1920s Broadway to the golden age of Hollywood, three-time Academy Award winner Max Steiner did more than any other composer to introduce and establish the language of film music. Indeed, revered contemporary film composers like John Williams and Danny Elfman use the same techniques that Steiner himself perfected in his iconic work for such classics as Casablanca, King Kong,
Gone with the Wind, The Searchers, Now, Voyager, the Astaire-Rogers musicals, and over 200 other titles. And Steiner's private life was a drama all its own. Born into a legendary…


Book cover of Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music

Jon Burlingame Why did I love this book?

Mancini wrote "Moon River," "Days of Wine and Roses," the Pink Panther theme and, for TV, music for Peter Gunn, Newhart, and The Thorn Birds.

He was the first film composer to become a household name in the 1960s and '70s. His cool jazz for Peter Gunn was so popular and influential that every cop and detective for the next 20 years was accompanied by "crime jazz," as it became known.

This is less about Mancini's personal life than about his career (the composer covered that already in his autobiography, Did They Mention the Music?), but I was captivated, particularly with Caps' ability to convey the essence of Mancini's music in descriptive words and phrases.

And it's a thorough chronicle of the work.

By John Caps,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Henry Mancini as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Through film composer Henry Mancini, mere background music in movies became part of pop culture--an expression of sophistication and wit with a modern sense of cool and a lasting lyricism that has not dated. The first comprehensive study of Mancini's music, Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music describes how the composer served as a bridge between the Big Band period of World War II and the impatient eclecticism of the Baby Boomer generation, between the grand formal orchestral film scores of the past and a modern American minimalist approach. Mancini's sound seemed to capture the bright, confident, welcoming voice of the…


Book cover of The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Jon Burlingame Why did I love this book?

Maybe the last of the great Viennese-born classical composers, Korngold enjoyed enormous success in Europe in the 1920s.

Invited to Hollywood in 1934, he began writing film music for the swashbucklers, costume dramas, and historical pageants of Warner Bros., often starring the likes of Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, and Claude Rains: Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Kings Row, and others.

Korngold thought of movies as "operas without singing" and wrote lavish, richly orchestrated scores filled with memorable melodies. Fleeing the Nazi tyranny in 1938, he became one of the greatest composers in the Golden Age of movies.

Carroll spent decades researching his life, it's a thorough and compelling read, and it saddens me that the book is now long out of print.

Book cover of September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle

Jon Burlingame Why did I love this book?

Longtime jazz publicist Peter Levinson wrote four books on musical figures and this is my favorite.

I'm fudging on the topic just a little bit because Riddle was far more than just a film and TV composer; he was arguably the greatest arranger of the 20th century, working with such giants as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, and Rosemary Clooney.

I was especially interested in Riddle's TV career, which included a hit theme for Route 66 but also music for The Untouchables, Batman, The Blue Knight, and Emergency (as well as film scores from Ocean's 11 to The Great Gatsby).

Levinson captures not only the ambiance of the recording studio but also the surprising insecurities and melancholy that dogged the composer throughout his career.

By Peter J. Levinson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked September in the Rain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Known for single-handedly saving Frank Sinatra's career in the mid-1950s with his stunning orchestral arrangements, Riddle's "intelligent, seductive style" also attracted such singers as Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Johnny Mathis, and Linda Ronstadt. Peter Levinson, a friend of Riddle's, presents the musical side of Riddle as well as the private, including details of his marriage-ending affair with Rosemary Clooney.


Book cover of A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann

Jon Burlingame Why did I love this book?

Bernard Herrmann is revered as one of the movies' greatest composers.

Imagine starting your Hollywood career with music for Citizen Kane!

He enjoyed a very productive 10-year relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock, which produced such masterpieces as Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest; he also worked with Francois Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451, composed the original Twilight Zone theme, and capped his career with music for Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

Yet he could be cantankerous and difficult, antagonizing both friends and colleagues with his temperamental behavior and insistence upon the highest standards of music and drama.

I love the fact that Smith writes as well about the music as he does about the composer, and the reader walks away knowing lots about both.

By Steven C. Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Heart at Fire's Center as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

No composer contributed more to film than Bernard Herrmann, who in over 40 scores enriched the work of such directors as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, and Martin Scorsese. In this first major biography of the composer, Steven C. Smith explores the interrelationships between Herrmann's music and his turbulent personal life, using much previously unpublished information to illustrate Herrmann's often outrageous behavior, his working methods, and why his music has had such lasting impact. From his first film ("Citizen Kane") to his last ("Taxi Driver"), Herrmann was a master of evoking psychological nuance and dramatic tension through music, often…


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Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

Book cover of Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

Felice Picano Author Of Six Strange Stories and an Essay on H.P. Lovecraft

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author

Felice's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood.

Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart.

He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano exits his boyhood sooner than most, but with this sense of self intact and armed with a fuller understanding of the world, he is about to enter.

Controversial when it first came out, Ambidextrous was burned on the docks of London in 1989 by Her Majesty Inland Service and decried by many. This reprint, with a Foreword by the author, discusses its banned book history and how it has become a classic depiction used by professionals involved in modern childhood studies.

Ambidextrous: The Secret Lives of Children

By Felice Picano,

What is this book about?

Bold, funny, and shockingly honest, Ambidextrous is like no other memoir of 1950s urban childhood. Picano appears to his parents and siblings to be a happy, cheerful eleven-year-old, possessed of the remarkable talent of being able to draw beautifully and write fluently with either hand. But then he runs into the mindless bigotry of a middle school teacher who insists that left-handedness is "wrong," and his idyllic world falls apart. He uncovers the insatiable appetites of a trio of neighboring sisters, falls for another boy with a glue-sniffing habit, and discovers the hidden world of adult desire and hypocrisy. Picano…


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