Online Originals

Member Profile: Brian Tyler

Academy member and composer Brian Tyler started on Dune, and is now writing music for the American west.

Tom Knapp
  • Brian Tyler conducts the score for Paramount Network's Yellowstone

  • Yellowstone

    Paramount Network
  • Yellowstone

    Paramount Network
  • Yellowstone

    Paramount Network

As a child, Brian Tyler loved Frank Herbert's Children of Dune novel so much, he wrote a soundtrack for a hypothetical movie based on the book.

Years later, he got the chance to use elements of that music - revised, of course, after years of experience as a soundtrack composer - when he was hired to score the 2003 Children of Dune miniseries directed by Greg Yaitanes.

Now Tyler, with more than 100 movie and television soundtrack credits to his name - including Sleepy Hollow, Magnum PI and Hawaii Five-0, Marvel blockbusters Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, and the NFL theme on ESPN - is providing the music for another of his passions: the American western.

Tyler is the man behind the music of Yellowstone, a series by Paramount, helmed by Taylor Sheridan and starring Kevin Costner, Luke Grimes, Kelly Reilly and Wes Bentley, among others, as members, associates, lovers and foes of the powerful Dutton family.

Costner's John Dutton rules the biggest ranch in America. Set in modern-day Montana, the series details Dutton's efforts to corral his willful children while fighting off land grabs and political maneuvers that could break up his empire.

The music, which won the Soundtrackfest Award Best TV Score of 2018, evokes a modern sensibility while harkening back to the classic western, Tyler explains.

In fact, he says, when Sheridan first showed him clips from the series, he urged Tyler to "approach it without overthinking anything. Just go with the flow and do something that's evocative" of the action on screen.

"Although the story is set in a modern time, the nature of being out in the plains of Montana and the struggles of these archetypal families - it felt almost mythological to me," he says. "Epic. So, at first blush, my go-to was to do something quintessentially western, which is something I love."

His inspirations ranged from the work of American composer Aaron Copland to the soundtracks of classic spaghetti westerns, Tyler says. He also drew on the folk traditions of poor immigrants who came to America, bringing music and instruments with them.

That gave him liberty to draw on any number of styles as he composed the soundtrack, he says - "from Chinese folk tunes to Irish jigs, from sacramental religious music to funeral dirges."

But the signature sound of the dramatic series is strings, Tyler notes.

"It's a sound that worked very well, both instrumentally and tone-wise," he says. "Fiddles and cellos. Basses. Even some different stringed instruments from the Middle East."

"A string vibrates in a way that feels very human," he adds. "For instance, I used a lot of viola solos on Yellowstone. ... I wanted melodies that might normally sound more at ease with a human voice, but I would port it over to the strings. That made it feel more melancholy."

Tyler's work on the series earned him a 2019 nomination for an International Film Music Critics Award for Best Original Score for a Television Series. He credits his success, in part, on his reliance on the classic western sound.

"There are slights hints of modernity that are invading their world," he said, "but if you live in that world, there are very few signs of anything modern. There might be a pickup truck, maybe a cellphone, but otherwise it's miles and miles of vista. And cattle. So any time we brought any modern sounds into the music, it sounded like we were telling a different story.

"So I stuck with things that could be recorded with a microphone. I stayed away from anything electronic."

Other music that creeps into the series - more modern tracks that add ambience to certain scenes - are selected by music supervisor Andrea von Foerster, Tyler says. Her selections set the series firmly in the 21st century.

Tyler's approach to scoring each new installment is "the mysterious part" of the process, he says.

"The first thing I do is, I watch the whole episode and take it all in," he explains. "Then I'll go back, maybe go to a specific scene - I'll watch it once, then step away from it. I'll walk into the area where all my instruments are and I'll sit down with the cello, or the dobro, or whatever. I'll start trying things out - I want to capture what I just felt as a viewer.

"It's very hard to grab onto what the viewer experiences if you watch a scene over and over and over. I stay away from it for a while, just to get an idea of the flow and the vibe, then I'll go back and watch the scene again when it's already 85 percent there.

"I don't want to overthink it too much. It's writing with my soul instead of my brain."

However, Tyler says he avoided developing unique themes for each character. Instead, he says, he created themes around narrative developments and emotions that could apply to anyone in the series, depending on what's happening at the time.

For the most part, he says, his technique for scoring movies and TV shows are the same. One big difference, however, is the scale of the project.

A season of Yellowstone, for example, is "essentially a 10-hour movie," he says. "You can really get into the themes and involve them in a way you couldn't in a two- or three-hour movie. That's kind of liberating."

Viewers are already stoked for season 2, which is scheduled to begin its 10-episode run on June 19.

"Oh my gosh, I can't wait for people to see the second season," Tyler enthuses. "It's unbelievably great. I'm really excited about it."

Over the years, Tyler has received 26 BMI Music Awards, five ASCAP Music Awards and three Emmy Award nominations. He won 12 Goldspirit Awards, including Composer of the Year.

Membership in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, he says, "is huge to me."

"Anyone that is writing music for television - you have a community out there. You have events and support and a sense that we're all looking out for each other."

"As musicians and composers, we all kind of work in isolated rooms with no windows and no clocks," he adds. "To know there's an organization that's championing our cause - it makes me sleep better at night. I can't recommend it enough."

A multi-instrumentalist, Tyler says he plays upwards of 40 instruments, although he's "not an expert" on all of them, he concedes.

"But I love going around the world and picking up different instruments. I'll see a street performer, or something in the theater that I'm not familiar with, and I'll buy it. I'll learn to play it, one way or another. I'm obsessed with trying to learn new things."

Most recently, he added a Japanese koto to his collection.

He also travels the world conducting symphonic concerts of his work. Yellowstone, he notes, has become a popular request on his tours.