If you haven’t seen Succession, drop what you’re doing and fire up HBO Max. The Emmy and Golden Globe–winning show centers on the dysfunctional Roy family, whose patriarch (Brian Cox) owns a global media and entertainment company. As he considers retirement, his children—Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), Siobhan “Shiv” (Sarah Snook), and Connor (Alan Ruck)—vie for the top spot in the company. This show has so much to offer, like top-notch acting, complicated characters you might root for one minute and despise the next, and breathtaking cinematography. But the most fascinating aspect of Succession is its theme song, which has played non-stop in my head since I started Episode One.
A lot of people skip the theme song when they stream shows, but this isn’t the case for most Succession fans. The song went viral on TikTok, and it also inspired many people (like Pusha T, Kevin T. Porter and Sam Sanders, and Demi Adejuigbe) to share their own renditions on social media. The song has a cult-like status among fans, and it has drawn in listeners along the way. This begs the question: What separates a skippable theme song from an iconic theme song?
The answer is simple—memorability. But the musical elements that make a theme song memorable are a little more complicated. Succession’s theme song is unlike anything that you would hear on the radio today. It’s dissonant, jarring, and it manages to blend two distinct genres together—classical music and hip-hop.
The song starts with bass, which sets the intensity and drives the theme forward until the end. The theme is in the key of C minor, but dissonance is used throughout the song to add a sense of urgency and discomfort. In an interview, Succession’s composer Nicholas Britell explains that the theme immediately sounds “off” because the C-minor chord is played with a B natural, a tone that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the chord.
The melody is played on the piano, and the chromatic tune spans multiple octaves in one phrase, both drawing in and overwhelming the listener. The piano itself is distorted, sounding more like a music box than the instrument itself. Then come the strings, which create a back-and-forth effect as they strike dissonant fortissimo chords during the offbeats. The strings then split, half taking on the melody and half taking on a quiet and intense ostinato during the bridge, which builds up until the chorus returns.
Grainy clips of stone-faced children—presumably, the Roy siblings in their youth—flash on screen while the theme plays. As the song progresses, the vintage clips are juxtaposed with crystal-clear shots that represent the present, like the New York City skyline, daunting skyscrapers, and newspapers whirling through a machine. The shots work in tandem with the music to create a cold and intense mood that perfectly embodies the Roy family’s world.
But the theme doesn’t end when the title flashes across the screen. Britell brilliantly weaves the theme’s melody and underlying chords throughout each episode. For example, the theme is often twisted to represent different locations. When the Roy family visits Connor’s ranch in New Mexico, we hear an acoustic version of the main sequence as the camera pans across the unfamiliar landscape.
The majority of Succession’s soundtrack consists of the same chords, but each variation of the song twists the music to subvert the listener’s expectations and evoke a different emotion. During some of the most dramatic moments, like a shocking twist in the season three finale, the theme is slowed down and reduced to the piano, creating a haunting melody.
If we can learn one thing from the popularity of the Succession theme song, it’s that a melody doesn’t need to sound pleasant for it to be effective. Succession’s dissonant and chromatic theme works because it throws the viewer into the cold and unforgiving world of the show.
Try listening to the soundtrack on your next walk to class; the captivating melodies will transform the brick buildings of Oxford into the high-rises of New York City. But don’t blame me if the theme gets stuck in your head!