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  • Matt Tobin

How Music Conveys Plot In Television

Up until quarantine started, I had a more than embarrassing televisionary palate. I essentially only turned the television on for Jeopardy! and Saturday Night Live. While there isn’t anything wrong with these shows, they definitely shouldn’t be the only thing a person watches, as I did. In my defense, I only had cable, which severely limited my viewing options. That all changed in March when my family finally got Netflix. Since I had watched mostly live-recorded shows before then, I had never realized how large a role music plays in portraying the plot of television shows. If 90% of communication in real life is nonverbal, then music is the nonverbal communication of television.

Producers, directors, and composers all know to use music, too. Beyond theme songs (which can set the tone for the entire series), and the most musical moments (such as when music is the only sound in a scene), music is used to tell the story to the subconscious, appealing to the watcher-listener’s emotions and subtly contributing to the plot. A notable use of music in film that is easy to remember is the theme from Jaws. The music directly evokes a feeling of danger approaching.

Using Schitt’s Creek as an example, the only music used in the first episode is the theme song. The music here casts an inglorious and uneloquent mood on the protagonists, rightfully so, (spoiler alert) as they have lost their fortune and are forced to move to a quaint town not quite up to par with their previously lavish lifestyle. Apart from this theme, music is not used in the first episode. This gives it a stark, real feeling, like it is a disaster being witnessed firsthand, as well as centering the entire plot around this one event.

Another series that makes subtle but thorough use of music is The West Wing. Just about every scene has music used it in. Looking at the first scene of the first episode, suspense is added as the cast of characters is being introduced one by one with music in the background. The music is drawn out and solemn, fitting for a show about serving the president. Flourishing drums and cymbals in the music add to this subject, followed by a crescendo--the highest point in the progression of the music--as the White House is first shown, then transitioning to a fast pace staccato of notes, with each note separated from the others, reflecting the fast paced workplace. This is followed by a decrescendo, a decrease in volume, into a softer melody as the workday begins.

The West Wing has scenes almost completely filled with music in the background. This not only helps cast the mood of the scene, but it also creates a feeling that something is always happening, well representing the daily chaos of The West Wing. The West Wing displays a prestigious workplace, so filling it with music adds to the completeness that it wants to show. Compare this to Schitt’s Creek, which wants to show a natural and unappealing environment. In that case, no music can be best to showcase that mood.

Another good example of the use of music in television is Community. Through the entirety of the first scene, a simple, upbeat, and repetitive tune accompanied by whistling runs in the background. This gives the scene a school-like atmosphere, a faux-joyousness, exactly like the show wants to present, since the series follows a disbarred lawyer, fallen from grace and forced to attend a community college.

The use of music in shows is one of those “once you see it, you can’t unsee it” things. It is used, or purposely omitted, in just about every show in one way or another. The next time you watch a show, pay attention to the music. Listen for what the producers want you to hear and feel, and you might even pick up hints about what is going to happen next.

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