Bear McCreary in the Wall St. Journal

If television is in a new golden age, some credit for the revival is due to the composers whose music has enriched the mood, story and character of the programs they score. Yet to the viewing public, composers of TV music are a near-invisible breed.

"I've learned over the years to labor in obscurity," said Jeff Beal, the three-time Emmy Award winner nominated this year for his work on Netflix's "House of Cards."

Not long ago, composing for TV was seen by some as a next-best gig. "Even my mentor Elmer Bernstein said TV would hurt my film career," said Bear McCreary, who has been nominated for his theme to Starz's "Da Vinci's Demons."

But today there's a sense that music for TV is as compelling and effective as it's ever been.

"There's a trend toward quality," said David Schwartz, who has been nominated for his music for "Arrested Development," also on Netflix. Cable and webcasting are generating more-innovative projects. "It's much easier to write great music" for a great TV series, he said.

And yet original TV music is not given the respect that feature-film scores get. In the press release announcing the Emmy candidates, the music categories come after the list of nominees for outstanding prosthetic makeup for a series, miniseries, movie or a special. And unlike the Oscars, where the nominated music is celebrated as part of the televised ceremony, the Emmys' music categories will not be presented during the Sept. 22 broadcast, but instead at a separate ceremony, excerpts of which will be telecast the following Saturday on the FXX channel.

For the composers, relative obscurity may be inevitable, given the task.

"In general, the function of music is to help tell the story—to be the subconscious of the story," said composer Michael Levine, a governor of the music peer group of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which presents the Emmys. Accordingly, he added, viewers are not supposed to be aware of the underscoring or themes that reintroduce characters or hint at motivation. "If you listen to television shows from the '50s and '60s, [the music] is saying 'be happy here.' 'Be sad here.' It's not like that today."

Original main-title theme music, an aural indicator of a series' tone and scope, is intended to be memorable. "People may not remember the score to 'The X Files,' but they remember the theme," said Mr. Levine, who has written music for "Cold Case" and "Close to Home." Themes like those for "Mission Impossible" by Lalo Schifrin and "Hawaii Five-O" by Morton Stevens remain memorable several decades after they were introduced.

Much of the music nominated in the outstanding music composition for a series category seems to go unheard. Few, if any, viewers can recall the cues in "Downton Abbey" that helped define the many characters. But underscoring and bridge themes do heighten the experience. "Music is a huge part of any story," Mr. Beal said. "So much of the power of film is nonverbal. A good score can make or break it."

For "House of Cards," Mr. Beal wrote recurring phrases for the major characters, including a rumbling bass part for the malevolent House majority whip played by Kevin Spacey. And like other composers who write for programs online or on cable, Mr. Beal took advantage of the longer programs. It begins with his opening title theme, which runs about 95 seconds. Earle Hagen's memorable theme for "The Andy Griffith Show" ran for 23 seconds; Mark Snow's "The X-Files" title theme was 45 seconds long.

Scoring multiepisode and multiseason series requires massive amounts of compelling music. The 13 episodes of "House of Cards," for example, span more than 11 hours. As Mr. McCreary points out, he's written more music for AMC's "The Walking Dead" than John Williams did for the "Star Wars" franchise or Howard Shore for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

"When the canvas was expanded, TV started to embrace dynamic scoring," Mr. McCreary said, referring to the power and color of orchestras. "When I speak to directors, we're not thinking TV. We're thinking of eight hours or more of music." He said he's writing music for a 70-piece orchestra for Joss Whedon's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," to premiere later this month on ABC.

"It's a combination of things," said Anton Sanko, who has been nominated for his score for "Ring of Fire," Lifetime's June Carter Cash biopic. "Studios and creators are aware of the importance of music, coupled with the fact that we're dealing with long forms. Directors are taking their time. They will linger on a reaction or a vista." Those scenes require evocative music.

"For the most part, the music is more subtle now," Mr. Levine said. "It allows for sublime ideas."

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @wsjrock.