Music As Sound Design

I like music in television, provided it doesn’t get in the way.

And it occurs to me that in putting together a TV show, the producers would know that the content—the subject matter of the show itself—would be the focus of it. In “reality” TV, what we’re supposed to be shown, I would assume, is an informative presentation.

But I think that depends on the “channel” you’re watching. And of course cable television has innumerable places to catch the kind of show you want to view, especially if it is reality based. But finding what you want to see may be tricky. In the relatively formative years of cable channel lineups, it was easier to find shows based on the format of the channel. For example, TLC used to be The Learning Channel, but these days that moniker does not actually encompass what is generally offered there. Historic shows aren’t necessarily found on The History Channel—they could be on The Smithsonian Network or even Discovery. So it goes.

My wife and I have been up and down the “dial” in finding shows we like, and like most people, we stick to what we find enjoyable. But I notice that even with a show whose content I might find interesting, the accompanying music can be annoying. And so today’s column is about that: music as sound design. (I won’t add a sound design category just for this.)

If design is everything (which I believe is and which I postulated back in 2017), then everything you see and feel (and even hear) watching TV is part of the show or commercial, and therefore part of the overall presentation—and planned. The producers want you to hear that music. And if that music is weaved into the fabric of the presentation, if it truly becomes incidental, you almost don’t consciously hear it. Unless of course it becomes intrusive.

I was watching Tiny House, Big Living this morning on DIY Network, a show about building small, convertible mobile houses for people on modest budgets. They’ll build you a home that has less than 500 square feet of living space and make it livable for two people. They make the place with spaces that double as kitchen and laundry areas, living room/bedroom spaces, etc., and with nice appointments made from quality materials. Their work is actually impressive the way they can maximize space. But in watching the construction crew, the producers have you listening to guitar music that might’ve been played by the band who did the transition music from Friends. And it sounds much louder than it needs to be.

Another show we watch is Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel. This show, if you’ve never seen it, is about gold mining in Alaska. It follows three crews of miners using bulldozers, scoop loaders, and other earth moving machines along with standard gold sifters such as sluices to find gold. And they do a very good job of getting the gold, some better that others. Here, because of the continuing crews, you get attached to them and tend to root for your favorites because of the contentious yet friendly atmosphere. But once again, there’s music, for the most part when the crews suffer damages to equipment and then must rally to fix it, whereupon the producers will have you listening to heroic, almost Olympic style music so you can enjoy the comeback-from-disaster challenges along with the crew. It’s empathetic, I would guess. But the music tends to be repetitious, and it happens every week, and generally with all three crews.

Then we have another example for intrusive music with The Great British Baking Show on PBS. And here, like a lot of things British (or so it seems), the producers have you listening to what I’d call tedious music passages. The home-based bakers are all given time limits for baking anything from complicated breads and cakes to thematic monstrosities that would challenge any home cook. And during the competition, the camera crew is focusing on closeups of the process, the facial expressions of the contenders, and often the mistakes they may make, which then of course, like all other shows, is edited down to the quick cuts necessary to give maximum impact for anxious expectancy. And that anxiousness is accompanied by the tedious music, always recorded by a chamber orchestra with violins twittering their repetitious tinny notes, practically like Flight of the Bumblebee.

I will say, however, that if it weren’t for the music here on this baking show, you wouldn’t feel nearly as much in tune with the bakers’ nervousness.

So music does help you along in viewing and in empathy for the performers (or miners and carpenters) if two things don’t happen to make you tired of it: repetition of the same music, and if the music isn’t played at volume.

Design can encompass many senses: visual, tactile, and even aural. Good design uses them proportionately to achieve an end result that’s a harmonious, and pleasing experience. Bad design will use one or more of them to a disproportionate degree, with an annoying result.


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One thought on “Music As Sound Design

  1. Dan,

    Interesting column: music as design element.

    I’ve often listened to shows while working on the computer.
    Dialogue (often wooden). Music predictable.

    In fact, I could tell (generally) what was happening just by listening to the music.

    Not particularly inspiring either.

    Like laugh tracks. Crutches.

    Devices to help us forget we’re taking an hour/half hour out of our lives to be ‘entertained’ by something lame.

    Often wondered if a director would ever have the courage to produce a show ‘naked.’ No music. No laugh track. No crutches. Just great writing and talented acting.

    As Shakespeare wrote: The play’s the thing.

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