The New York Times
Published: March 15, 1981

One of the most familiar pieces of music on television is the ABC News theme, a punchy, martial tune that lasts exactly one minute and two seconds. Variations on this incisive ditty are used by the network for most of its news-oriented programming. For ''ABC's World News Tonight,'' it was recorded with a symphony orchestra to suggest the grand surge of events. For the network's coverage of the 1980 elections, it was arranged for a fife-and-drum corps to evoke patriotism.

The creating of this type of brief yet distinctive music is an exacting craft, one practiced by a handful of well-trained composers, whose musical ingenuity earns them lucrative rewards.

For example, the creator of that ABC News theme, Bob Israel, is a classically trained New York musician, whose television-theme business, Score Productions, is the most successful operation of its kind on the East Coast, grossing more than a million dollars a year. In addition to news and sports programs, Mr. Israel provides the underscoring - the music that accompanies dialogue - for 55 daily episodes of continuing dramas, including five installments each week of the soap operas ''Texas'' and ''Another World,'' as well as the bouncy musical tracks for the editions, both daytime and night, of several game shows, including ''Family Feud'' and ''The Price Is Right.''

Score Productions, with a staff of five, has its headquarters in an East 49th Street townhouse. Mr. Israel, a dapper, articulate man of 49, works in a small room, the main features of which are a couch, a desk and an upright piano. Above the piano hangs a drawing of the late Maurice Chevalier, for whom Mr. Israel once produced a record album.

''I am particularly happy with the ABC News theme because the network had the courage to strike out and put a thematic piece of music in front of their news,'' Mr. Israel said in a recent interview. ''CBS has had nothing but the sound of a tickertape, because they think that putting music in front of a news broadcast would lessen its factual quality. I'm a great believer in melody. When I first started to do work for ABC, I listened to some of the music for their news shows and it was a lot of abstract sound that was effective only when you looked at the graphics that accompanied it. But if you went out of the room and I asked you to hum it for me, you couldn't.''

One of Mr. Israel's specialties is sports programs, and his sportsshow themes include those for ''The 1980 Winter Olympics,'' ''ABC Monday Night Football'' and ''ABC Wide World of Sports.''

''Each sport is different,'' he said. ''Basketball is almost a dance. Though it has a lot of strengths, it's also very lyrical. I use strings and woodwinds and accoustic instruments to emphasize that lyricism. Football is more macho than basketball, but it has its lyric moments, such as long passes. When I did a theme for a boxing series, I started it by using a real fight-ring bell. It was really a muscle theme in that it had the kind of insistent pounding that goes along with the sport. For toughness, I use a lot of brass and electric guitars, with Fender bass as a underpinning.''

The success of Score Productions is evidence that a significant segment of the television-music business exists in New York. The national newscasts, most daytime dramas and many game shows and sports events originate here, and all of them require thematic music of one sort or another. Indeed, in an effort to call attention to the vitality of the television- and film-scoring business in New York, ASCAP, the performing-rights society, recently held a television/film-scoring workshop led by Phil Chihara, the composer/arranger who used to write music for daytime dramas and who is currently a music consultant to the Broadway hit that uses Duke Ellington's music, ''Sophisticated Ladies.''

Morton Gould, who scored the NBC mini-series ''Holocaust,'' is also based in New York, as is Charles Strouse (composer of the Broadway musical ''Annie''), who was responsible for the piano-roll-like theme for ''All in the Family.'' So, too, is Elliot Lawrence, a composer/conductor for the daytime dramas ''Edge of Night'' and ''Search for Tomorrow.'' Mr. Lawrence orchestrated and conducted the original Broadway production of ''Bye Bye Birdie''; in addition to his television work, Mr. Lawrence's recent scoring credits include films (''Network''), television specials (''Miss Universe'') and commercials (for 7-Up and Pan Am).

Although the similarities between television themes and commercial jingles are obvious - both have to convey a great deal in a brief period of time -Mr. Lawrence is quick to point out the differences.

''Ads are even shorter than television themes, and they have lyrics that punch out a message. The major function of television theme music is to set a mood,'' he says.

Mr. Israel, who prefers to concentrate exclusively on theme music for television, agrees. ''A television theme has to illustrate what a particular show is about,'' he said. ''It has to prepare the viewer emotionally for what he or she is about to experience.''

Often, according to Mr. Israel, a producer doesn't know what he wants until it's delivered. Therefore, for every assignment he is given, Mr. Israel usually works up a half-dozen different themes for the show's executives to choose from.

''Sometimes a producer will come in with the storyboards of a show's opening credits, and I'll work a theme around the graphics. Other times, a producer will simply tell me what he wants, and I'll take it from there. For the daytime serial 'Texas,' I was asked for a cosmopolitan theme that also retained some sense of the sweep of the land, as in a John Ford movie.''

Once underscoring has been composed, it is integrated into a program by music supervisors, hired by Score. In the case of daytime dramas, which require a lot of underscoring, these supervisors work closely with the program directors, weaving the music into the daily installments during run-through rehearsals.

''Underscoring is very different from theme music in that you can't have jagged peaks that would grab the ear and make the viewer stop listening to the dialogue,'' Mr. Israel explained. ''The best underscoring is only perceived subliminally. It also can mask a lot of deficiencies in a script by filling holes and supplying an emotional content that was missing.''

Like most composers who write for television, Mr. Israel has a thorough classical training. New York-bred, he attended the Fieldston School, Juilliard and the Columbia University School of Music. Among his teachers were the composer Henry Cowell and the director Pierre Monteux. After college, Mr. Israel founded Heritage Records, an eclectic label that produced more than 250 albums, including records by the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich when he was still unknown in America and ''documentary'' albums of the lyricists Alan Jay Lerner and Ira Gershwin performing their own material.

Mr. Israel eventually sold Heritage and went to work for the Society of Songwriters and Composers (SESAC), where he learned more of the business side of music. He first became involved in television while heading up the music division of a talent agency; he left that job to found Score Productions 17 years ago. The company's first project was to provide the music for a pilot that eventually became the daytime serial ''The Doctors.''

Mr. Israel sees television music as basically an offshoot of film music. ''Like movie music, television music has progressed as the state of the art has progressed,'' he said. ''Nowadays, we use a lot of very abstract snythesized sound that would never have been accepted 25 years ago. It would have been considered noise then.''

As with movies and records, the cost of television-theme music is in an inflationary spiral. Fifteen years ago, the average cost of producing a television theme was around $3,500. Today, it's closer to $20,000, with studio-rental time running around $250 an hour. Mr. Israel prefers classical musicians on his sessions, because they can sight read music and get the job done as efficiently as possible. Mr. Israel's musical contractor, Herb Harris, is a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic; he selects players from a pool of roughly 250 local musicians.

Television theme music is copyrighted and logged for performance residuals in much the same way as commercials. It is timed and listed on music cue sheets, which are sent to the performing-rights societies (ASCAP, BMID). Revenue is determined by multiplying the number of minutes of music by the number of stations carrying the show. The system is monitored closely.

Money is a primary attraction for people like Mr. Israel to turn from the classical field to the composing of television themes. But Mr. Israel is not cynical about his work. ''For all the effort I put in, television gives me the most return monetarily. The ABC News theme alone brings me more than $100,000 a year. People often ask me if I mind pouring all this creative energy into something that goes under dialogue or that opens a boxing or news show. But I don't mind, because the material and the specifics really fascinate me.''