John Sereda is a talented composer who has worked on more than 40 movies and 100 television specials. He currently composes the score for Hallmark Channel’s hit series, When Calls the Heart, for which he received a 2019 ASCAP Screen Music Award.
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career?
Well, I was born in Edmonton Alberta Canada, youngest of four. Piano lessons as a kid, music as a hobby most of my teens. My dad was a classical music fan and I, of course, was into the pop music of the day: Beatles, Rolling Stones, Motown etc.
I was well into becoming a lawyer when music sort of took over my life. Can’t really explain it. Most of my career from there on has been kind of organic. In other words, no master plan, just evolving and rolling with the punches.
What role did music play in your life as a teenager?
Well I would say that my relationship to music was fairly typical growing up. Early teens I was an avid fan of The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc., and later on Motown, Chicago and Delta blues, black music in general. I played keyboards in a few short-lived basement bands but nothing serious as a musician until later on in my early 20s.
When did you realize you wanted to make composition a career?
I don’t remember ever sitting down and making a ‘momentous decision about my career. While in university (not in music) I bought a bass guitar thinking it would be an easy hobby. I was soon playing in bands and then over the next few years I found myself doing studio work and then producing sessions.
Playing music just became a part of me. The transition to composing was very gradual. I started by writing arrangements for various bands I was in. Then just by chance a friend needed some music for a theatre piece. I would say that was the start of a real attraction to composing music that functioned in support of a larger vision.
Who are a few of your favorite composers and how do they influence your work?
Thomas Newman looms pretty large, I was /am always impressed by his ability to reflect the emotion of a scene back onto the screen. Often in the simplest possible way.
Of course, I have learned a lot from many different composers, names we all know: Williams, Goldsmith, Zimmer, Shore, Horner, Newton-Howard, Sylvestri, Elfman, Desplat, Jackman, Burwel I could go on and on.
I am drawn to composers who take chances, offer something new and surprising. Thomas Newman’s score for American Beauty comes to mind, as well as Hans Zimmer’s score for Rain Man.
What was your first musical contribution to a TV show or movie?
I believe my first actual broadcast TV gig was a news magazine show for a local cable station. If memory serves, I think it was called Around Town or something equally memorable.
How did you get started with When Calls the Heart?
I got a call from my good friend Shona Miko. She is the Post Production Producer, one of the best in Canada for sure. They were looking for someone to take over from Lee Holdridge (a great composer, by the way) after four episodes of Season 1, so very near the beginning.
I was really drawn to the general vibe of the scripts after scoring my fair share of ‘dark and edgy’ TV. I met Michael Landon Jr., the original showrunner, and he was great. Very smart, experienced, thoughtful, super nice guy.
After more than 60 episodes of WCTH under my belt, I am still grateful for that call.
Walk us through the process of composing a typical episode of When Calls the Heart.
Quite a bit happens before I actually sit down to score an episode.
Firstly, I try to read the scripts well ahead of time. I let the shows percolate inside my head. I feel it gives me a head start for when I sit down to write. The schedules are so tight these days that anything I can do to aid the process is welcome. I also identify at this time if the script calls for any ‘pre-record,’ which is music that will have to be prepared ahead of the shoot. For instance, if the scene requires to characters to sing or dance.
After the shoot during the picture editing process an episode will go through a number of stages. There is input/notes from a number of sources as the episode is refined and polished. Directors, producers and the network each in turn have the opportunity to contribute. I try to keep track of comments as the process moves forward. It is important for me to know the ‘intention’ of various scenes in the show. The general intention is mostly obvious, but there is quite often nuance which may affect how I approach the music. There is also ‘temp’ music added by the editors. There may be comments regarding the temp score which will also inform my approach.
Once the episode has been approved it will then be ‘locked’. This means that the picture editing is done and no more changes will be made to the picture.
And that is when I sit down with the locked episode in front of me. I first watch the entire episode and make a cue list, which includes the IN and OUT times for each cue. Often called ‘spotting the music.’ Nowadays, the temp score serves as a good indication of music placement within the episode.
After building the cue list, I start at the beginning of the show and start actually composing the score on the computer. In any given show, I will use a combination of recurring themes and original composition. Each scene will have its own needs and even if I use an existing theme, I will nearly always adapt it in some way to serve a particular scene in the best way I can.
After the cues are written, I screen the music with Shona Miko for approval. We go through the show, cue by cue and discuss possible changes and adjustments. Shona knows the show intimately and it is really wonderful to have another set of ears respond to the music. This is, after all, a collaborative process.
After approval of the music, the recording process begins. At this point my engineer, Paul Shatto gets involved. He is responsible for the recording and mixing of the final music delivery. He is a fantastic talent, adding his excellent ears to the process.
Generally speaking, there are 10 days to two weeks allotted for composing, recording, and mixing the music for each episode. Despite best efforts, the process sometimes gets compressed to seven days. Whew!!!
Alfonso Moreno said the doorbell to the writer’s room is rigged to play the theme from When Calls the Heart. What does it feel like to know your music not only moves fans, but inspires the writers?
Honestly, I am honored and proud that the writers may find some inspiration in the music. Like I said, this is collaborative and if I can ‘give back’ in some way to the creative process, that’s great. And let’s not forget, every episode starts with Alfonso and the writers.
What is the biggest compliment a TV / Movie composer can receive from fans of a show? From studio execs?
The biggest compliment from fans is for them to continue watching and supporting the show. Biggest compliment from execs has always been to hire me again.
Jen Heebink (one of your fans) asks, It seems each person has a “walk up” song like baseball before they get their turn at bat. How do you decide the key and melody for each person/couple’s theme? It seems like the music wants us to feel a certain way about a situation. I think it’s so AWESOME that music has power.
Hey Jen, you hit the nail on the head. Screen music is powerful and almost exclusively about feeling. I like to think of the music as an emotional mirror to the scene. Difficult to define and quantify but powerful nonetheless. There is a great quote that comes to mind whenever this comes up in a discussion. “Music expresses that which cannot be said, but about which it is impossible to remain silent” Victor Hugo
Pam Hyer (one of your fans) asks, I know there are several recurring themes that we hear often that may be pre-recorded, but is there original music in each episode as well? How much time crunch is there to compose/record/edit in?
See above; Very little is pre-recorded. Recurring themes and new music in every show. The recurring themes are most often adapted in some way.
What is your impression of Hagood Hardy?
As a Canadian, I was always aware of Hagood’s phenomenal success in what then seemed to be a field dominated by American composers. As I recall, his was the first sort of ‘household name’ in commercial music in Canada. He was able to diversify and use his considerable talents to great advantage in a number of contexts. He is a great example of what all screen composers strive to be.
Kaycee (one of your fans) asks, Will piano sheet music ever be available? I would love to buy!
That is indeed a great compliment. Thank you. Unfortunately, it isn’t my decision to make. Because of the way our legal agreements work, the executive producers and publishers would have to make that decision.
Jordan Blackstone (one of your fans and an artist for WCTH) asks, How long does the composing process take and what inspires it?
Each episode takes between 10 days and two weeks. The inspiration is always the story itself. And sometimes the deadline.
Karinn (one of your fans) asks, How do you go about writing certain theme music – like for certain couples? I remember that Jack/Elizabeth had bg music.
Even after doing this for 35 years or so, the core substance of creativity is still somewhat of a mystery. Some people use a metaphor. Creativity is like a muscle, it requires training, discipline, a good diet and constant use.
Laura Chamberlain (one of your fans) asks, For me, music can make or break a scene. How do you decide what music would fit best in a particular moment?
Once again, it all comes down to making the choices that I feel best allow the emotion of the moment to be reflected back onto the screen.
Jennilyn (one of your fans) asks, How do you choose a musical piece for a specific scene? I’ve said it before… the music always seems so perfectly fit for whatever is happening!
Same answer. It’s all about the feeling.