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Tuning In: Studying Television Music and Sound

Prof. Dr. James Deaville
(Carleton University, Canada)

Tuning In:
Studying Television Music and Sound

James Deaville is a Musicologist specializing in music, composers and musical practices and institutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, having published and spoken about such diverse topics as Franz Liszt, music criticism, television news music, African-American entertainers in turn-of-the-century Vienna and “fascist” Nordic composers during the Third Reich.

It is so very satisfying to see how contemporary television music has inspired a generation of young scholars for whom the sights and sounds of these programs belong to everyday life. The sophistication of their analyses belies lingering biases against television as a low cultural form in comparison with cinema. We may inhabit a post-television mediascape, yet the concept of television persists whatever the format and platform, as long as it remains grounded by the core principle of serialization. The proliferation of scholarly studies about television argues for its growing importance within the academy, as does the increasing presence of the corollary field of television music studies, which has occasioned conferences, special issues of journals, and dedicated course offerings.

The work of the seminar students reflects the unique issues that arise when considering music (and sound) in the context of television. Ranging from the problems of library music in documentary film and the limitation of news music to the program’s opening, to the ability of leitmotifs to anticipate plot developments in Game of Thrones and the soundscapes of Breaking Bad as crucial contributions to the show’s narrative, the students took special efforts to point out the challenges music in television posed for composers, audiences and analysts. That such research combines aesthetic/cultural reflection with music analysis is indicative of the generation, which has returned to (informed) discussion of musical sounds after a period of heady engagement with concepts of “music” using the tools of cultural studies and related disciplines.

For example, the study of Westworld revealed the use of popular song covers as suggesting multiple layers of interpretation for the music, while comparing the music of the American series House, M.D. and the BBC show Sherlock insinuates a common origin in the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The presentations on Mad Men and Star Trek present interesting comparative perspectives on the relationship of series music to the concept of time: while Mad Men takes pains to sound like the period during which it takes place (the 1960s), Star Trek draws upon musical styles of the present to portray the sound worlds of the future. We also learn how music in the series How I Met Your Mother both helps to uncover untruths and supports the comic narrative.

Where does it all go from here? Quality television programming seems to be proliferating in North America if anything, granted the success of cable networks like AMC and HBO and the massive expenditures of entertainment provider Netflix. Some form of music underscores each of their programs, often used in novel ways that draw upon the latest popular music, exploit the boundaries of music and sound and rely upon silence for its sonic impact. And some of that music can become memic, like the notorious song “The Rains of Castamere” of the House of Lannister in Game of Thrones. An enterprising researcher might wish to unpack the contexts for that song, considering its ontological status within the diegesis of the show, tracing its roots as an expression of neomedievalism, and examining the meanings behind the various covers of “The Rains of Castamere.”

As musicologists continue to interrogate questions of identity in relation to music, television can provide the raw materials for analysis. Music’s complex role in subject formation certainly merits study, especially to the extent that identity categories now are considered in intersectional configurations. Race, gender, disability, and class all have their representations in screen media (including television and video games), and music typically serves to underscore these forms of difference, whether individually or in the variety of intersectional formations. As a person with multiple disabilities, I have recently become interested in how music and sound are implicated in cinematic and televisual depictions of disability, ranging from explicit constructions of stuttering in The King’s Speech and autism in The Good Doctor to secondary representations of disability in It’s a Wonderful Life (George’s hearing loss and madness) and The Walking Dead (the zombies’ muteness). With the complicity of music and sound, eugenics lurks behind these screen representations, whether Artie’s “release” from his wheelchair in musical dream sequences in Glee or the large-scale extermination of moaning zombies in The Walking Dead, where the lack of human voice establishes their inhumanity and thus the need for their eradication.

We can anticipate that television will remain a source of entertainment, but it will likewise continue to provide a site of memory, identity, and representation for future audiences. Music will perform its customary hidden roles as mood enhancer, persuader, and “space filler,” yet it may bear additional technical and technological responsibilities in the advancing world of audiovisual communications. Nevertheless, television music and sound will persist in affording the inquisitive scholar with countless opportunities for serious study in the years to come, even as the sub-discipline continues to expand and evolve.

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