I became a parent in 2019. Which brought many surprises. Like what your hands look like after sterilising bottles for the fifth time that day. Or what it feels like to be up at 3.52 in the morning.
One of the big surprises is that some kids TV is actually really rather good. There’s one children’s show that stands head and shoulders above the rest in its brilliance. And not only is it made right here in Australia, but it goes out of its way to feature and champion classical music.
I started watching ‘Bluey’ long before my son could raise his head, never mind focus on the TV screen. And ever since, I’ve been itching to talk to Joff Bush, the lead composer for the show, about this love affair ‘Bluey’ has with classical music, and some of the episodes where it’s featured most prominently.
We caught up on video call recently, and after Joff had demonstrated how he’d written the ‘Bluey’ theme on melodica, we got down to business, chatting about the music, Joff’s previous life as a music teacher, and how the music for one episode of Bluey was written at the centre of the Bach universe.
Russell Torrance: Who decides which classical music to use?
Joff Bush: Every week we have what’s called a spotting session, where we sit down and decide all the ‘spots’ where the music is going to go, and we talk about the concept behind the episode, and what the story is. Things that might be missing that we want to highlight.
Joe Brumm, the creator [of ‘Bluey’], often has a lot of ideas for classical music. He’s a big fan of all music. And I’ll come up with a few ideas for music as well. It depends on the episode. That’s the short answer!
There is a big history of classical music in animation with ‘Looney Toons’ and things like that. And there’s a history of using these pieces and sort of murdering them. There’s something very fun about it. It’s been described as “putting ice cream on caviar”. It’s just a lot of fun!
Russell: This is classical music though. It’s ‘serious’ stuff! Do you feel as the composer on ‘Bluey’ that you have to do something to the music, to make it more accessible to little kids?
Joff: A hundred percent! Some pieces, there is this whole approach, the music is about sadness, and I’ve got to pour my heart out blah blah blah — and that’s great. But there’s a lot of music that’s held up.. I don’t know, on a pedestal or something. Which doesn’t need to be – it’s fun! And I think that that pedestal is something that turns a lot of kids off it.
One of the things we see in ‘Bluey’ is the number of kids who’re getting into classical music because they’re seeing it through, not in the light of we have to sit down and be really quiet in a concert, but in the light of, ‘Oh, this could mean this. This could be fun. Something like [the episode] ‘Tickle Crabs’, that sounds like tickley music, that’s fun!’ It can be light, it can be really fun.
And those composers are all long dead. They don’t care! I’ve never had anyone say, ‘I can’t believe you ruined that piece!’
Russell: Let’s go through some of the episodes of ‘Bluey’ that use classical music. I was watching ‘Ice Cream’ the other day. Talk me through that process of using Tchaikovsky.
Joff: Waltz of the Flowers! We were watching a rough, early version of the film – it’s called an ‘animatic’, a kind of animated storyboard, all in black in white, just these shapes moving across. And there was a good 2 minutes in the middle of the episode of them walking round in circles! So obviously it’s a big musical moment.
I think we probably originally had The Blue Danube or something like that. But it was a bit cliché. But we definitely wanted a waltz there. Just to show Bluey and Bingo going round in circles, trying to lick each other’s ice cream. It was kind of a dance in itself! We threw a lot of stuff up there, and Waltz of the Flowers just fit perfectly.
Russell: Another great moment was in ‘Featherwand’, and Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King. Was it a similar story? You just had this moment, and you thought, ‘will it fit?’
Joff: Yeah! A lot of the use of these pieces comes back to when I was a piano teacher. I remember using Hall of the Mountain King. You could play it in so many different ways! You can be sneaky, play it staccato, whatever you want. And you can play all sorts of games with kids with that one.
There’s something about that episode that is such a game for Bingo, it just reminded me of that theme. There’s also something magical about that music that fit in with the episode, something very Harry Potter!
Russell: Mozart pops up too.
Joff: For ‘Magic Xylophone’, that was one of the ones where [show creator] Joe Brumm had a very clear idea from the get-go that it’d be Mozart, Rondo à la turca. Even Bandit [Bluey’s dad] says it right at the beginning of the episode.
The version we did of it starts off very close to the original, then it slowly morphs into pantomime, a silent movie version, trying to keep it as fun as possible!
That might be one of the first times when we realised that using these classical tunes in the show really works, that you can have a lot of fun with it.
From that episode, I got a message from someone saying, ‘My three year old just asked Alexa to play some Mozart!’
Russell: A lot of episodes of Bluey feature Bach too. What is it about Bach that seems to work for you?
Joff: Yes there is a lot of Bach in ‘Bluey’. Or I should say, a lot of ‘bark’ in Bluey…
The good thing about Bach is that it’s pre-Romantic. There’s less of an idea about the music meaning something already in itself. So you can follow these lines and how it interlocks, and you can create your own meaning with how it fits into the story. And it’s just such beautiful music!
For ‘Mums and Dads’ — I actually did that episode in Leipzig! Which is, you know, the home of Bach. I was living in Berlin at the time, and we did a little trip over. That’s just an interesting point — it’s actually nothing to do with why I chose the music! I wasn’t inspired looking at the Thomaskirche and thought, well I’ve got to use Bach! I just felt like the music ‘Sheep may safely graze’, and the name of it, fitted in really well with the episode.
For ‘Stumpfest’, Joe Brumm wanted something that went between the Brandenburg Concertos and ACDC, so we brought that together!
‘Postman’ uses Bach’s Prelude in F sharp. That whole story is that Mum and Dad have had a bit of a fight. Bluey and Bingo eventually decide to get Dad to write a letter to Mum. They become the postman and they get the letter to her.
You hear the Prelude in F sharp whenever you see the letter, and it’s just something about that piece. It’s a metaphor for what’s happening. You never hear melodic lines at the same time, until the resolution at the end.
Russell: A lot Beethoven in ‘Bluey’ too, at very important moments. The one that springs to mind is ‘Bike’.
Joff: Yeah ‘Bike’ is another one that goes back to when I was a piano teacher. Bluey, at the beginning of the episode, is getting frustrated trying to learn to ride her bike. And in her frustration, she sits down with her dad at the park, and they watch all the other kids trying to do their own tasks. It keeps cutting to Muffin trying to put on a backpack, another kid trying to go reach the monkey bars, and Bingo trying to drink from the bubbler.
That mirrors practicing piano for me. It reminds me of that. And so the main piece I used to teach was Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, because it fits perfectly under five fingers on the piano. It’s a really great way to start learning.
The whole score mirrors that — it starts off with someone trying to play the tune, but it’s all a bit broken. As they get closer and closer to achieving the task, the score changes and by the end, we’ve got the full version we me singing faux opera over the top!
Russell: A lot of ABC Classic listeners text me about classical music used in ‘Bluey’, particularly when I play music from Holst’s The Planets. They tell me about ‘Sleepytime’.
Joff: ‘Sleepytime’! It’s a very emotional experience watching it. It’s an amazing episode! Again, I really have to tip my hat to Joe Brumm for coming up with the idea of using Jupiter.
We went through that episode and found the point which show the parents’ love, and tried to seed little echoes of that tune in the soundscape. It’s a very synthy soundscape, then it has these bursts of orchestral music swelling up.
We did make some changes to Holst’s music to make it fit the picture at the end, but mainly it doesn’t stray too far from the original. Then we went back and took hints of the main melody from Jupiter and tried to create an association with the parents’ love. So whenever the parents are carrying their kid, or walking past, or trying to get them to go to sleep, we have this echo, the orchestra swelling up over those 80s synth pads!
I really think that that structure in the musical storytelling adds to the impact at the end of the episode, when it’s really like, ‘This is what it’s about’.
Russell Torrance presents Classic Breakfast on ABC Classic (Monday to Friday, 6am–10am).