You may not have given it much thought because it generally served as background noise, but the famous slap bass theme song for Seinfeld was actually kind of groundbreaking. In an interview with Noisey, composer Jonathan Wolff revealed the song’s origin story, including how he came to work with Jerry Seinfeld and how he created all those “poppy” sounds.
One thing that’s really important to remember about the Seinfeld theme song is that when it was being written in 1989, it was a serious departure from other famous TV theme songs, some of which were written by Wolff. (“Guilty.”) Think about shows like Full House, Growing Pains, Cheers, etc. They sounded like easy listening songs you’d hear on the radio. (See: Too Many Cooks. If you dare.) But the Seinfeld theme, as Seinfeld pitched it, was intended to serve as accompaniment to the monologues that opened every show.
Every monologue was going to be a variation on the theme. So whatever I did, I needed to architect it modularly so that it could be shiftable, changeable, like Lego music. It needed to not conflict with his voice. His human voice was really organic. It wasn’t a trumpet or a clarinet. It was a human voice. So I chose to build this percolating rhythm, this New York groove, using the organic human sounds from my lips and tongue. So we’re already into a different species and genus of music. On TV at least.
Those “organic human sounds” became key players in the Seinfeld theme, so Wolff recorded and sampled them, but took them to different levels to up the ante a bit:
…[I]t was sampled, as were the lips and the tongues and clicks and things, so that I could do super human lip stuff. And super human bass licks for transitions. There were things like pulls and bends that a real bass, even my six-string, couldn’t do. It was a more efficient, more flexible, stronger, better to do it that way.
This was when sampling was just starting to become part of musical productions, so Wolff was an early adopter. But his musical contribution went several steps further than the traditional TV theme in that it was different every time. Wolff composed themes to go with each of Seinfeld’s standup openings, making slight variations that were timed to punctuate the jokes.
My music editor would do a detailed timing list. An EDL, an edit decision list, of each line, what he said, what the timing was. And from that, I would kind of map out the music. Here’s where this will start, that will start. I would build each monologue based on this list, this computer print out of his voice and what he was saying, how long it was. I knew that I had to end up with the whole theme and the instruments that would build towards that end. It was a little bit more labor intensive than most other shows because I had to re-do that opening every time. But it was worth it. It was a worthwhile venture. It made sense. It wasn’t a waste, even as I was doing them I knew it wasn’t a waste. He was funny. He was creating new material. As long as he’s creating new material, I’ll do the same thing, and I will create along with him.
There were so many risky things going on with The Seinfeld Chronicles when it was in its earliest phases, but all those risks paid off and allowed Seinfeld to take its eventual form. It was clear that there was a lot of trust between Seinfeld, the producers, and all the other supporting players like Wolff.