The importance of good music in television

Leanna Thomson discusses how music enhances our television watching experience

Leanna Thomson
29th August 2020
Credit: HBO, IMDb
Try to imagine your favourite TV show without its accompanying music, and I can guarantee that you will be drawn to the commonly overlooked conclusion that music makes TV. How would Stranger Things transport us to the 80s without its synth-wave score and a scattering of hits from the era?  Could we even tell the soaps apart if it wasn’t for their classic openers?

A carefully curated soundtrack is key criteria for making a great series, and the talent it takes to be able to compose or select music that is perfectly fitting (or at times, comically jarring) to the atmosphere of a scene is immense. This is why there is an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Music Composition for a Series’, and why it is so shocking that this has only been a category since last year.

Music is one of the things that makes particular scenes memorable

As well as enhancing our TV experiences, music is one of the things that makes particular scenes memorable. Think of how many songs remind you of a TV show when you hear them, and how many you have shazamed and added to your playlist as a result. If you’re a Grey’s Anatomy fan, you probably won’t be able to hear ‘Chasing Cars’ without bursting into tears, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine viewers don’t even have to tell me why they love that Backstreet Boys song so much. 

Credit: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, YouTube

In addition, if done well, original compositions made for series cannot be mistaken for anything else: where else would you find the same, rousing cello pieces that punctuate Game of Thrones, the tension-building techno of Watchmen? To prove my point, I’ve gathered three of my most memorable TV music moments. If you haven’t realised by now, this article is inevitably full of spoilers, so if you see the name of a series you’re currently watching, keep on scrolling.

1.) Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 6 (Felina) - "Baby Blue" by Badfinger 

Is there anything more powerful than watching Walter White lying there, dying alone, as Pete Ham sings the words “Guess I got what I deserved”? Having committed several terrible deeds throughout the series, this line perfectly captures how karma has finally caught up with Walt, and things were always going to end this way. 

Credit: Captain Puppan, YouTube

Furthermore, the song proclaims a love for a “Baby Blue”, which in his case is the trademark blue crystal meth that took over his life. At the beginning of the series,  Walt enters the meth industry after a cancer diagnosis causes him to fear how his family will be able to pay his medical bills and cope financially if he dies, but in this finale episode, he explains that “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And...I was alive“. Therefore, the song perfectly highlights that, ultimately, Walt’s love for his criminal profession took over his love for his family.

2.) Game of Thrones: Season 6, Episode 10 (The Winds of Winter) - "Light of the Seven" by Ramin Djawadi

Djawadi’s award-winning score for Game of Thrones is nothing short of impeccable, so it was hard to choose just one moment. However, this 9-minute 49-second piece never fails to give me goosebumps, and flawlessly narrates its scene in a way that I’ve never seen done by instrumental music before. 

Credit: The Mountain, YouTube

The scene begins with a gentle, albeit somber, piano melody as all the key characters from King’s Landing prepare for the High Sparrow’s trial of Cersei and Loras. However, the pace and volume of the music begins to build once Cersei’s purge of her enemies begins, and as the panic and realisation of being locked in the Sept with no sign of her or her son dawns on the audience at the trial. The addition of an organ mocks the church, just like Cersei as she sips her wine and looks on, until the piece reaches a climatic crescendo and the Sept goes up in flames, taking down a substantial number of Cersei’s enemies with it.

3.) Stranger Things: Season 3, Episode 8 (The Battle of Starcourt) - "Never Ending Story" by Limahl

This is one of those scenes that you either love or hate - and I absolutely love it. This is not just because I’m deeply invested in Dustin’s love life, after seeing him without a date at the Snow Ball broke my heart, but because it embodies everything that Stranger Things is about. One: it’s ridiculously 80s, and adds just the right amount of cheese to remind us what era we’re in. Two: it’s incredibly jarring. Everyone is literally about to die, either at the hands of the Russians, a possessed Billy, or a six-legged monster, and Dustin needs the number of Plank’s Constant from Suzie in order to save the world, but, of course, she makes him sing their song before she’ll give it to him. This adds a characteristic moment of comic relief and schmaltz amongst all the mind-flaying chaos and tragedy that the rest of the episode consists of, something that this series is very good at.

Credit: Netflix UK & Ireland, YouTube

Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll start paying more attention to the music in the TV shows you watch. I would love to know what you think of my selections, and what your own top three would be, so please feel free to leave a reply using the form below!

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