How did the music in ‘Succession’ become so iconic?

Succession characters huddled around a table together
Photograph by David Russell/HBO

This Sunday’s episode of “Succession” will be the last time fans get to see their favorite family of sociopaths, the Roys, bicker, backstab and barter for the soul of America. The series finale of HBO’s hit drama is also the last time fans will hear the now iconic, skip-if-you-dare theme music.

Composed by Nicholas Britell, the classical music meets old school hip hop theme has, over the course of four seasons, come to define “Succession.” Able to send a dagger through your heart with pinpoint precision or punctuate moments of hilariously outsized pettiness, Britell’s music has been perfect for a show that traffics equally in tragedy and comedy.

“The score for ‘Succession’ has a similar duality that the show has, which is this combination of elements of absurdity and also a deep gravitas under the surface because the show itself is dealing with very serious issues of concentrations of power and wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people focused in the media industry,” Britell told Vanity Fair. “But at the same time there’s a human side of the story which focuses on some of the day to day absurdities and pettiness and strife among the cast of characters.”

headshot of Matthew McDonald
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

But how did it become the show’s secret weapon? It all starts with Beethoven, says Matthew McDonald, an associate professor of music at Northeastern University.

McDonald, who has written extensively about music in film, says Britell clearly drew inspiration from late 18th century and early 19th century classical composers like Beethoven and Shubert. McDonald says Britell’s classical influences run so deep that he even directly references Beethoven’s work in “Succession.” 

The iconic piano melody from the opening title music, as distorted and out of tune as it is, paraphrases a piece of Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata. And in the third season, McDonald says you can hear fragments of Beethoven’s iconic “Symphony No. 3,” the Eroica symphony. 

“Interestingly, both of those pieces are in the key of C minor, which was a really important key for Beethoven. It was a key of heroic struggle,” McDonald says. “It’s almost putting the story and narrative on this grand stage.”

Whether or not you’re a classical music obsessive, Britell’s musical references work on multiple levels. The music captures the way the characters think about themselves, as heroic, titanic figures, even though it’s clear to the audience that they’re more like tragic, clownish figures. 

“It works well, and it gives it this kind of seriousness––or maybe a mock seriousness,” McDonald says. “It maintains that tone of ultra-seriousness, which tows that line between ‘is it genuine or is it mocking?’ And I think it’s important that it doesn’t go into mocking.”

The second ingredient in Britell’s secret sauce is hip hop. Alongside the piano, string and orchestral arrangements are 808 synthesizers and old school hip hop beats. It’s a clever reference to elder son Kendall Roy’s unknowingly ironic taste in Jay-Z and the Beastie Boys. It also underlines the intergenerational story that the show is telling.

The title theme embodies all these musical ideas and sits at the center of the show’s sonic landscape. Swelling strings combine with booming, bassy 808s, while a piano that sounds like it’s been submerged in water plays a Beethoven-like melody. The sound of the show’s theme has become iconic in its own right. Very few theme’s are able to conjure the tone of an entire show from just a few notes.

“Before even starting the show, what you get from the theme is a whole world that’s about to open up for you,” says James Gutierrez, a composer and visiting assistant teaching professor of music at Northeastern. 

The “firm stride” of the theme and the rich orchestral strings convey a sense of power and royalty, Gutierrez explains, while the slow hip hop beat drags and plods along behind it. The combination of sounds creates a “struggle of energies” that keys viewers into the familial dysfunction and power struggle before the first scene has even started.

What’s helped elevate the theme to the next level is when––and how often––the creators choose to use it. Unlike a lot of other shows where the theme music is isolated to the title sequences, the “Succession” theme recurs throughout the show, as it “develops and grows and comments as its own consciousness,” Gutierrez says. It’s a constant presence for the audience, an earworm that becomes more like another member of the Roy family.

When combined with the visuals of the title sequence––a combination of sepia-toned Roy home movies and shots of modern day New York City––all these musical ideas take on new meaning. The old and the new, the classical and the contemporary, collide like the characters on screen. 

Like the best music for film or TV, the music in “Succession” is a valuable storytelling tool. For four seasons, it helped convey the show’s preoccupation with the poisonous, intergenerational effect of wealth and how the sins of the father get passed down.

“What I try to convey to all my students … is that a good score presents the whole psychological drama with a scalpel-like precision, and it rewards further analysis,” Gutierrez says. “[Brittel’s score] is incisive and the variations open themselves up to a wide variety of interpretations and applications and it unifies the whole. It’s a shining example of what we need more shows to strive for musically.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.