An Interview with Hey Arnold! Composer Jim Lang

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It was a quiet evening when we met for our interview, the chance of rain since dissipated. Sitting by the window, we discussed everything from storytelling to technology to what it’s like writing music for television and film.

Jim Lang, a prolific composer and all around nice guy, is perhaps best known for his work writing music for the hit Nickelodeon television series Hey Arnold! His styles are varied, jazzy, melodic and rhythmic; and to his credit many children have been introduced to jazz and other ‘grown up’ forms of music through his compositions.

Below is a transcription of our interview, recorded during Moogfest 2019 in Durham, NC.

Andrew Cheek: You have an extensive background scoring music for television and for film — writing the theme music and original songs for Nickelodeon’s Hey Arnold! (including the movies); composing for Ready, Jet, Go! on PBS; and scoring several independent films, too. How has this work applying music to more visual arts, and television, shaped your approach to music as a whole?

Jim Lang: The thing I really like about writing music for picture is — there are two things. One, you’re writing within a given framework, so, the picture is giving you a lot of information that you can choose to react to or not react to.

One of the great tips I got from Craig Bartlett, who was the animator who did Hey Arnold!, was that one way you can approach it is you can think you’re looking through, when you’re writing music for a scene, you’re always looking through some character’s eyes. You’re experiencing it the way that character is experiencing it, whether it’s fear or joy or love or whatever. The picture is giving you that framework, that information, and you get to respond to that in a kind of impressionistic way.

Traditional movie music and TV music is a lot about that. Now days there’s a lot more song-form stuff as opposed to through-composed operatic music like it was back in the day. But it still is serving that same purpose.

The other thing I love about working to picture is that it gives me the opportunity to be melodic and emotional. I like that kind of music. I don’t experience music as a cold thing, I experience it as a very warm thing.

At the same time, I’ve done a whole bunch of horror films! And that’s not very warm. But it’s the same kind of thing — you’re really being excited like you would excite a cymbal. You’re being excited by the picture and the circumstance there.

Andrew: What forms and stories do you explore in your music? As you mentioned, through film you’re exploring that specific story-world, but in the music beyond that — what forms and stories?

Jim: I’m not sure that I really always relate to it that way. When I’m not writing for film, I think I’m trying to find a little story (if you want to think of a musical idea as the beginning, or the middle, or the end of a story). For better or worse, I’m really tied to my hands as a composer. I love the rhythmic feel of playing a keyboard instrument. I love to just tap my fingers on the top of the table. I play a lot like a drummer in a certain way like, with my whole hand. I’m not terribly facile, you know, I’m not a great keyboard player I have really shitty keyboard technique to be honest.

But, that’s where the hook is for me, is trying to find those musical ideas that get me going. And then, expand outwards from there. Try to break it down or break it up. Find it, state it, and then put it away and go somewhere else. Whatever your oblique strategies are for composing.

Andrew: A book has a very specific story that it’s telling and, in music, you can almost pour in a story that you glean from the sound but the identity of a note is harder to pin down.

Jim: [Nodding] Yes.

Andrew: What questions are you asking as an artist? And, what questions does your art ask (through itself)? And it may not be direct, either.

Jim: You know, I’ve never thought of it in the context of asking questions. One question that the compositional process is asking me now has a lot to do with the kinds of tools that are available to me as a composer. And what we’re doing here in Durham [at Moogfest] is a perfect example.

You see this amazing proliferation of music-making technology based in electronics, and, the Meyer Sound arrays that are in these venues are just a further extension of that — the ability to compose something spatially. I mean, composers have done that for years where they have the brass players stand in the back of the hall, etc. But really, it’s a rarity that they’ve been able to take advantage of that.

What would you do if you could write in 360 degrees, you know?

I have this image in my head and I haven’t even been able to think of a way that I would do it, but, it’s of the feeling of somebody pouring something warm over your head and having it come down and surround you. That’s the kind of image you get or could think about achieving with this technology [Meyer Sound’s spatial audio].

Andrew: The band Shpongle works off of images kind of like that. One of their songs is about how it feels to walk under a cold waterfall. They have another song called “Brain in a Fishtank” and if you listen to it with headphones it’s like your brain is sitting there (in a fishtank) and there’s buzzing all around your brain, kind of like what you were describing where sound is pouring over your head.

Anyways, how does your music and art influence your life each day?, whether that’s how you live, what you seek, your routines, or really anything?

Jim: I spend a lot of everyday fooling around with some aspect of music. I feel like the ability to learn new tools is really valuable. For example, the software that I use to write. When I change that and spend a ton of time working in a different software it really is a whole new terrain. To get really conversant with a deep piece of software like this music software is, it requires a lot of time. Months, really, before you get to the point where the tool goes away and you’re just making the creative choices.

But there’s a huge difference between the software that I typically use to write linear stuff for film that starts one place then taxis through to the end, and Ableton where you’re sitting in this space and there are all these things that you can kind of reach in there and grab in a really spontaneous way. It’s made to be a spontaneous composition device. And it is really good at that.

Writing film and TV music you have to be really efficient. It’s like drinking from a firehouse. You start a show and the shows just keep coming into your inbox and you have to move the stuff from the inbox to the outbox.

That really discursive writing style that you get into in Ableton is a very different thing. For me, the more I can disconnect my clock and just be in the space with the software and the musical tools that are in there, the better it is. Because I’ve done this for a long time, I have a lot of things to unlearn.

One of my big challenges is not doing the things that fall easily to hand. When you’re writing a film score you have a set of habitual tools and ways that you solve something, especially if you work on the same show for a couple of years. There’s a musical language that develops for the show. Then if you go out and want to be composing something that doesn’t have anything to do with that, you really have to make sure you take all those clothes off and get into that different headspace.

Andrew: This next question kind of goes off of that idea, actually. You’ve been making music for a long time, really since you were a child. How do the themes of memory, of change, of nostalgia or even over-sentimentality (or an anti-sentimentality) tie into your music, and into your evolution as a musician?

Jim: In this Proustian way I love to re-visit things that I did before. The first music that I really absorbed was in the way that you absorb music when it’s new to you, like when you’re a kid, when there’s this new thing you can do called listening to music and it’s such a powerful thing. I just gorged myself on it. And what I listened to was what was in my house. The first record that I completely wore out was Rhapsody in Blue.

I listened to Rhapsody in Blue hundreds and hundreds of times in the first year that I was interested in it. So, there was that. Gershwin and that early twentieth century harmony that French guys — Debussy and the people that inspired Gershwin — that harmony really is a part of my musical landscape.

Then, certain songs that I listened to when I was a kid really have stuck with me. Some early Brahms that I listened to… I like the super simple stuff, like the lullaby, that’s essentially just pure melody. That stuff just completely kills me. I wish I had listened to Bach in the same way. I didn’t listen to Bach until I was much older but Bach is like, you know. He’s kind of the guy!

Until my children got old enough to where they’re turning me on to music, I kind of quit listening. And I’m not an adventurous listener. Even with NPR and the really good resources that you have — everybody’s great playlists that you can get — I kind of don’t go there. Every now and then someone will play something for me that will completely blow my mind.

Andrew: I’ll send you a page full of links after this!

Jim: Please do, send me a playlist! But, yeah. I was completely blindsided by Kendrick Lamar. I was like “Oh my god! This is the second coming of Sergeant Pepper.” So, I’m happy to say of myself that I still find music that I really like that I’m really moved by. And things that I want to wear out in that same way.

Andrew: And then any of that just comes through your music in, I guess, a natural reference. Not necessarily a specific allusion or sampling, but more that you really like it, it influences you, and then you go make music because of how you were changed by that experience.

Jim: Yeah. I mean you hope for that, really. And, I always used to worry about copying other people because, Hey, we do. Fortunately we’re influenced by the sounds that we love that other people make. At one point I sat down — this is so stupid — and I tried to make a Beatles song.

I don’t even remember what song it was. But I thought “I’m going to try to copy this Beatles song from memory and just make a recording that sounds exactly like it.” And I couldn’t. After about three hours I just said “This is stupid! There’s absolutely no way I can do that. Even if I’m intentionally trying to rip them off I can’t do it.” So, it’s sort of liberating in a way.

Plus, popular music really conscripts other ideas. Especially if you’re trying to write a pop song you’re trying to be a good top liner and get an idea that people are going to relate to immediately. And for those ideas there are a lot of footprints in that territory.

Andrew: Sometimes it can be repetitive too. For radio music.

Jim: It certainly is. We’re so living in the world of the two-chord jam. It makes me a little crazy because I used to play the same two chords over and over again and make cassette tapes of me playing the same two chords over and over again. And then jam over them.

Then I got really disgusted with myself because I thought “This is so fucking useless. It’s only two chords! How can that be any good?” And then here we are in an era where almost everything you hear is the same two changes, just back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Andrew: Last year at Moogfest, KRS-One, who’s a hip-hop artist, said something along the lines of “The success you see on the radio isn’t successful.” And not just on the radio, but that mainstream media can uphold, not always (not as a total rule of thumb), this image of success that’s wealth, money, cars, women… which is a materialistic success.

Even the aspect of being on the radio doesn’t mean you’re successful. Or mean that you’re touring, or mean that you’re doing things that are really meaningful either.

Jim: Don’t you think we have to determine what’s meaningful? And, hopefully we spend some time thinking about what really has meaning for us, lasting meaning. I’m a geezer now. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. I feel like I have a lot better idea now than I did before.

At the same time, I still like all that stuff. I like being comfortable, I like having good food, I mean, I don’t dress very well but I like having clothes that I like to wear. I like having a comfortable bed to sleep in, and all that. I’m certainly not disconnected from that desire.

Andrew: And I don’t think KRS-One’s statement was an anti-materialistic comment entirely. It’s an interesting debate. If music, such as something you may hear on the radio… the lyrics may be shallow, right, or there’s not a lot of content to it. But it sounds nice and you like the way it sounds. There’s nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand you can say, well, it’s kind of corruptive or it doesn’t have a lot of value. But not everything has to have value and be profound.

Jim: Right. There’s candy out there too. And candy’s okay.

Andrew: Just go to the dentist!

(This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.)

For more from Jim Lang, check out his music here or head over to your favorite streaming platform for a few episodes of Hey Arnold!

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Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.