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I’m the Guy Who Wrote the Sad Keyboard Music for ‘My 600-Lb Life’

Where do you even begin scoring a reality TV show about extreme surgical weight loss? For musician David Hamburger, there was a surprising amount of banjo involved

When watching My 600-Lb Life, the extreme weight loss reality show that’s currently in its eighth season on TLC, there are a few things you can expect out of every episode. There’s the sight of a 600-pound-plus person bathing; sobering scenes of weight-loss surgeon Dr. Now telling them they have to lose weight to qualify for surgery (and also to not die within, in some cases, months); the subject ultimately getting the (vividly depicted) surgery after a few setbacks; and people saying “It’s my last chance” so many times that it would honestly make a great drinking game. In addition to all that, one trademark element of the show is its fantastically earnest music, a soundtrack that’s now so familiar to regular viewers that it’s become a topic of discussion on Reddit

The man who first gave the show its distinct sound is 55-year-old Austin-based musician David Hamburger, who has worked on a number of documentaries and reality series as a composer. While a show like My 600-lb Life is plenty emotional on its own, it was Hamburger’s job to really tweak those scenes all the way up, turning footage of people eating, bathing and rubbing ointment into their lymphedemas into mini emotional powerhouses. Here, Hamburger explains exactly what goes into creating the score for a show like My 600-Lb Life.

Getting Started

I’m primarily a roots musician. I play guitar and a few other instruments in a bunch of different styles of American music, mostly blues, bluegrass, western swing and jazz. I’ve worked as a performer and as a session musician — which I did for 14 years in New York — and I write music for TV, which is one of the hustles you can do if you don’t want to be a starving musician. Strangely enough, I didn’t start working in TV and film until I moved to Austin, which is kind of weird, considering New York is probably a much better place to be involved in that kind of thing.

I got into it through friends who were in advertising, so I started by doing ad music. Austin isn’t that big a place and there aren’t a lot of composers, so once I started working as a composer in advertising, getting to documentaries and television stuff was not as big a jump as it might’ve been somewhere else. One of the companies I worked for in town was Alpheus Media, and through that job I was referred to another company called Megalomedia, where I was a composer for Quints By Surprise and then Shipping Wars. So by the time My 600-Lb Life came along, I’d already done some work for them.

The way shows like this work is, not every episode is scored, like a movie or a nightly drama is. Usually, reality shows are done much more under-the-gun, and there isn’t the time or money for that. Still, the goal for these shows is to replicate the feel of the music in a nightly drama. To do that, you make a package of stuff — or a library — and if there’s any particular scenes that need to be scored, then you’ll score them. 

The Sad Music of Rock Bottom

While I did have a pilot for reference, when writing the rest of the music, the way I score these shows isn’t like a film where I’m scoring to picture — it’s more about portraying a mood. Weirdly enough, I like to compare the job of a composer to that of a translator — the producers feed adjectives to you and you have to churn out music that makes them feel like those adjectives. So, when they were describing the show to me, they were like, “Look, there’s going to be moments in the show when people are at rock bottom and it’s got to feel super melancholy and sad. Then there’s going to be moments when things are starting to turn around, and they’re starting to feel optimistic. And then there’s gotta be moments when it’s near the end of the show and they get on the scale and it’s super triumphant.” 

So I take those notes and it’s my job to translate them, but it’s always a process. Like, I remember going in and showing them what the melancholy music was and they said, “No, this doesn’t feel like melancholia, this is more nostalgic,” and I showed them the triumphant music and they said, “This is more anthemic, not triumphant.” All of which is fair, but you’re trying to squeeze this abstract idea out of music, which is the challenge of it all.

Just to give you a broad idea, the way the episodes open is usually with them at their lowest point — when they’re bathing — so they’re at rock bottom. However, the point of a score is to provide forward motion and momentum, so how do you have momentum when they’re at rock bottom? That’s contradictory. So for those, I had some tracks that didn’t have that banjo pulse [that the more optimistic parts had]: Instead, it was mostly solo cello and pedal steel guitar, which are sounds that people associate with sadness. 

People associate the steel guitar with melancholy because of honky tonk music, which often has a sad, weepy sound. Even though there are tons of awesome songs with steel guitar that are really upbeat, generally, when they hear steel guitar, they think melancholy. And with solo cello, that’s the saddest string instrument because it’s the lowest sound except for the bass. I don’t literally think it’s the saddest instrument, but that’s how it’s perceived, so I used that. Then there’s reverb and production on top of that too, so that’s what shaped the sad, rock bottom scenes.

So I wasn’t building tracks to people bathing, eating, stepping on the scale or anything specific, it was more these broad emotional strokes. The editors would figure out what they wanted to do with it after that and drop it into episodes later on. Many editors are really musically inclined and the software is all the same with music and video. From what I understand, that’s one of the more fun parts of an editor’s job, lining up the music with a scene. 

The Banjo: The Secret Driving Force Behind My 600-Lb Life

When they first came to me about My 600-Lb Life, they had reference music with these downtempo synths and banjo music, and I was like, “Are you sure this is what you want? You know there’s banjo on here, right?” And they were like, “Yeah, we like these tracks!” That’s what they wanted, so I said, “If they want banjo, fine, I’ll give them banjo.” 

While people might think of something like dueling banjos — or banjo licks — when they think of a banjo, in a bluegrass band the banjo is what keeps things moving — it provides a pulse. In the stuff I did for My 600-Lb Life, it might sound a little more like guitar since there’s so much more stuff in there, but much of what you’re hearing is banjo.

When I started writing the music they’d asked for, I decided to do some things to make it amp-y and more interesting, so I included as close as I could get to EDM drums, then I did some synth stuff that I thought sounded cool. All of this was done on a controller — or keyboard  — and then I wrapped all that around these grooves that were basically banjo and pedal steel guitar, which I do live. Once they were in the program, I took the banjo and steel guitar and flipped them upside down and put them backwards, then washed them out a bit to build texture. I didn’t have a lot of time to do all this, either — I had to do about 35 tracks in four weeks, which is crazy. Plus, you can’t just put your head down and do it, you have to do a few, get it approved, and then the network has to approve it, so it’s a whole thing.

When I gave them those first few tracks — which would set the overall sound of the show — the first thing they said was, “Is that backwards banjo?” But they ended up really liking it, so I was off to make the rest.

I did the initial library for the series, so it was just those 35 tracks, and they likely supplemented that with a larger library of thousands of songs provided to them from the network, and I’m also sure they’ve hired other musicians since then to add to the library. Over time, they need more music because they don’t want to use the same few tracks in every episode. So you’ll hear stuff that’s similar, but it’s not always the same music, as people would get tired of that. 

A Composer’s Quiet Victory

During the more uplifting scenes, like when Dr. Now [Younan Nowzaradan, the surgeon who performs the weight loss surgeries on the show] might say they’re ready for surgery, that would have more of the banjo and it might shift to a major key. There may also be some electric guitar that comes in at that point, but even at the end of the episode, when things are at their highest point, things are still understated. It’s not like a Hollywood movie where everything has worked out perfectly and there’s this triumphant music — in My 600-Lb Life, it’s more like they’ve turned a corner, not reached an apex. There’s still a long way to go for them.

Being understated is really the job when you’re scoring a picture. I mean, you’re trying to do two things at once: You’re trying to write something that you think is cool, but that makes the show work. And really, making the show work comes first, cool comes second. I kind of think of it like this — before I did any music for pictures, I played with tons of singers and singer/songwriters as an accompanist, and I think the reason I was able to move into the world of music for pictures is because it’s similar. The picture is your diva, that’s who matters. If you’re playing guitar for some singer/songwriter, it doesn’t matter if you can play an amazing guitar, nobody cares. Even if you get a cool solo, you do that for eight bars and then you shut up, and if you don’t, you’re fired. 

In that situation, 98 percent of your job is to come up with the cool thing that makes the singer sound better. So when you’re scoring a picture, it’s the same thing. It doesn’t matter what you’re capable of, what matters is that you make the picture shine. That’s the job.

Recently, I tried to explain this to my daughter. She’s 12 and she’s taking percussion in school, and I was talking about drummers. I told her, “The best drummers, you don’t really think about them. The best ones make things tasteful, and they put things in the right place. They don’t distract you.” When it comes to a score — unless you’re a music nerd — you shouldn’t notice the music, and if you do, it’s a fail on the part of somebody. I like to think of it as the frame around the picture — a score is supposed to make the audience feel something without really noticing it.

Not My Last Chance

When I did the library for My 600-Lb Life, to be honest, it was just another job. Like so many other things I’d done, I did it and moved on. I did learn from it, as the experience taught me how to do more electronic music, but I wasn’t with the show for its entire run, so I moved on. 

As a creative person, so much of what you do is like throwing spaghetti against the wall and then it later disappears. But I have to say, thinking back on it now and seeing what an impact My 600-Lb Life has had and continues to have, I have to say it’s really cool. I don’t want to say it’s “humbling” because that’s such a bullshit internet word, but it feels really good to be a part of something that’s lasted for so long and has become part of the culture. That’s kind of amazing.