“The vibe and the feel and tone that they’re setting is … The Sims. It sounds exactly like the build-a-Sim music in The Sims 2,” said an employee in the NPR newsroom who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press. The Sims 2, for reference, was a best-selling PC game in 2004.
“So maybe NPR is always 15 years behind,” mused the employee. “The last time [Morning Edition] refreshed the music, which I want to say was the late ’90s, it sounded like 1980s smooth jazz.”
The employee is right: What I’ve been calling the old theme came out in 1999. But that version was just a rearrangement of the original theme, which B. J. Leiderman—then an undergraduate at American University—composed in 1978. Yet his work held up, and it was arranged and rearranged through the years with sincere attention to detail.
Listen to the first second of the 1999 theme. Seriously: just the first second, which stands alone as its own micro-composition. There’s a shimmery roll of the hi-hat, a relaxed trill on the guitar, a crescendo of the strings, and then the first expectant piano chord hits—and suddenly the sun has peeked over the horizon, the coffee’s in the pot, the morning’s begun. That sound was intentionally written to segue out of silence, to alert listeners while putting them at ease. For the past approximately 5,000 weekdays, millions of clock radios have roused themselves awake with that sound. If it was a little corny, well, sometimes kindness can be corny.
Compare that with the first second of the new theme. It will be a hard task, because there really isn’t any gateway sound at the start of the new work. The theme appears out of nowhere and immediately barrels down the tracks, providing only an electronic yowl as a How do you do? Its first several seconds are dominated by a string instrument—perhaps a mandolin—clacking away like a teletype machine. (A teletype machine was an antiquated form of Twitter that vanished from newsrooms around the time Millennials were born.)
At the five-second mark, a new sequence of piano chords kicks in. But it turns out to be mere prologue for the sonic equivalent of the confetti emoji, which bursts at the 13-second mark, announcing the arrival of the main theme. At which point the mood becomes EDM meets PBS Kids.
This new “main” melody nods at Leiderman’s work. According to the reporter Adam Ragusea, the show will continue crediting him on air every week. But the new version harmonically neuters the old one. Where Leiderman’s theme leaned forward, giving way to a waterfall of interesting modulations, the new theme leaps up and down and goes nowhere. Rhythmically, we live in the age of triplet-based flow, yet the new theme is less syncopated than the old one.
The theme is not a gentle salve for the American underslept; it is several swimming pools of Red Bull, delivered via helicopter drop, to a stadium full of management consultants. In a behind-the-scenes video, Matt Myers, NPR’s vice president of marketing, actually encapsulates its vibe far better than I can: “We think [the new theme] is going to be a great way to set the stage, the expectation, that awesome content is gonna follow.”