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Listening Closer to the New KQED Forum Theme Songs

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KQED Forum debuted its new theme songs by Ramtin Arablouei on Monday, May 16, 2022. (Logo by Rebecca Kao / Illustration by Kelly Heigert)

This week on Pass The Aux, we’re doing something a little different. While we typically review new songs from local artists that are available on streaming, Bandcamp or your local record store, this week’s entry is on your radio waves.

Since 1997, listeners of KQED Forum have heard the same theme music: “Peter Pan,” by Mike Marshall and Darol Anger, a galloping, noodly mandolin composition that fits into the bluegrass-fusion “newgrass” genre, which hit its peak cultural impact in the ’80s and ’90s. (Before 1997, it was Bach.) I will be honest: when I first started at KQED, in 2014, I thought to myself, “This sounds embarrassingly dated.” Then, like everybody else, I got used to it, and let inertia do its thing in my listening brain.

So while Forum’s two new theme songs might take some getting used to, I can’t help but welcome the change. There’s one for the 9am hour and one for the 10am hour, both created by Ramtin Arablouei, a composer and the co-host and co-producer of NPR’s Throughline. They are undeniably more modern, and to my ears, a better fit.

You can listen to KQED Forum’s Alexis Madrigal discuss the new theme songs, and the world’s best theme songs in general, on Forum’s Monday, May 16 episode. Let’s debut them in full here, and take a closer listen.

The 9am Hour

This one reminds me a lot of The XX’s “Intro.” The use of a minor key here is a curious choice for a morning show, which generally wants to wake viewers up and energize them for the day ahead—not provide reflection, or sadness, emotional states both associated with minor keys.

But Arablouei employs a trick here: the melody is straight out of a C-major scale, probably the simplest, happiest scale in music. Beneath that melody, the relative minor (Am) alternates with its fourth (Dm) on a repeating pattern. The drums have less swing than “Intro,” and instead carry a marching-band drive. It all adds up to a mix of verve, reflection, and possibility.

You’ll notice that the reverb-drenched guitar dips out for a while; on the radio, that’s where I’ve heard the host announcing the show. After it comes back in, right near the end, the guitar skips the fourth note of its ascending pattern, which drove me crazy at first but now reminds me of the small flubs we make, both on live radio and in life, reminding us of our humanity.

The 10am Hour

This one threw me for a loop. Like the 9am theme, it opens with the cymbal crescendo so familiar to Forum listeners from the start of its former theme song, but soon shoots into space. The drums have that swing feel, and the string loop—heavily reminiscent, to me, of Dr. Octagon’s “Blue Flowers”—contains an Eric Dolphy-esque “blue” note. Listen and you’ll hear it, a weird-sounding little grace note, the fifth note in the pattern.

Because this G# note occurs when the C-major composition has moved to a Dm chord, the effect here is a flat fifth, also known as a tritone, or “The Devil’s Interval.” The tritone was once shunned by the church before being embraced by composers like Wagner and, more recently, metal bands like Neurosis, from the Bay Area.

It may just be a tiny note, but the tritone holds a lot of power. It can convey tension, sometimes even terror. But people like Lizst used it elegantly, and I think it works here. After all, state-wide issues, the subject of the 10am hour, are often larger and more thorny than local issues. In addition, a descending string counterpoint to the main ascending melody reflects what the best Forum episodes do: hosts Alexis Madrigal and Mina Kim take a ground-level problem, elevate it into intellectual analysis and public discussion, and then bring it back down to Earth with applications in the listener’s own life.

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