Behind the sound of TFC

Behind the Sound of The Futures Channel

Second Skin

Stephen Jay is the composer of the music enhancing The Futures Channel’s popular documentaries. Photo by Jenna Bowles
Adam Blain (Special to The Futures Channel)

Driving through the desert-landscaped mountains of Ventura County, the lights, sounds and over-stimulation of Los Angeles feel much farther away than they are. Up the elevated winding miles known as “the Grapevine,” in a cut through prehistoric rock lies MUSE Ranch; the home, workplace, inspiration and counterweight to Stephen Jay.

Jay, a platinum, gold and Grammy-accredited musician, composer, producer and writer, has a unique relationship with music. In addition to his continuing work as Weird Al Yankovic’s bass player, composer for film and television, and numerous personal side projects, Jay is the architect and innovator of the original music heard in The Futures Channel’s popular documentaries.

A key objective of The Futures Channel’s mission is to engage students and enhance the learning experience. To help accomplish this, The Futures Channel seldom uses a narrator in its productions. Instead, it’s in their own words that professionals interviewed describe the jobs they do, convey the importance of math and science in their daily function and relay the excitement and passion they have for their professions to the viewing audience. While this gives authentic insight into the careers highlighted, it can also present a challenge to the producers and editors charged with the task of giving each piece a continuous flow and steady emotional connection, making it engaging, interesting and, ultimately, entertaining.

One of the adhesive elements that adds brilliance and life to the Futures Channel movies is music. A nearly tangible character of its own, the music in a Futures Channel movie can evoke in the viewer a sense of wonderment in learning about the surface of Mars, or compassion toward the endangered black-footed ferret. Music gives each piece a unique identity and strikes different calculated chords within.

Jay’s involvement in each project begins very early. Before the piece is edited, cut and strung together into a storyline, Jay receives rough video and audio of the documentaries to ignite his process of musical discovery.

“Everything speaks to me in musical voices,” says Jay when explaining his decisions on the instrumentation used in his work for The Futures Channel, “Sometimes, the characters themselves are what inspire the music.”

This character-driven inspiration is evident in “The Bakery,” in which the croissant-making skills of Norik Shebardarian are highlighted. “Norik stole this show and, being from Eastern Europe, it was only natural to create music that sounded like it was his.” So Stephen went to work, engineering a sound authentic to Norik’s profession and croissant-making trade. By using instruments, time signatures, keys and rhythms indigenous to the French culture, the music of “The Bakery” transports the viewer to a café along the River Seine—the smell of fresh-baked pastry is nearly palatable. [See clip below.]


When asked what first strikes him about the video content he receives, Jay responds, “The first thing I notice about a video is the geometry of it. I see the straight lines of the horizon, the sphere of the sun.” It is these geometric images he commonly uses as jumping-off points to spark his creativity in giving video what it’s asking for sonically. “Without that, I don’t think I’d know where to start,” he says.

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