Image Credit: RobotSkirts

Spoiler alert: this column discusses a number of emotional moments in television drama. But, honestly, if you haven’t watched these shows, you’re doing it wrong.

Popular music and television both came of age in the 1950s, and pop songs have been conspiring with TV dramas to tug our heartstrings ever since. What are some of the tricks and techniques that a program’s music supervisor can employ to manipulate our emotions?

Telling us how to feel

Music psychologist Glenn Schellenberg notes that happy-sounding songs tend to be arranged in a major key and fast in tempo, while sad-sounding songs tend to be slower and in a minor key. A textbook happy-sounding song can be found in the scene that opens the Gossip Girl series, in which the scandalous Serena van der Woodsen returns by train to Manhattan after a year’s absence to the tune of Peter Bjorn and John’s ‘Young Folks’. The jauntily whistled melody sits under Gossip Girl’s dulcet voice-over to herald the arrival of a drama filled with slick, witty, high-fashion bitchiness. By contrast, the dirge evoked in ‘Dauðalogn’ by Sigur Ros, with its sedate tempo and plucking of minor-chord strings, delicately cocoons the scene that ends season 3 of The Vampire Diaries, in which the heroine, Elena, submits to one tragic fate only to have that prised open to reveal a worse one, like a rotten Babushka doll.

Fusing the melody with the melodrama

The interesting thing about pop songs, according to musician-slash-neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, is that we hear them ‘hundreds of times for just a few weeks … and then we often don’t hear them again for years’. This can cause our brains to fix a certain song ‘to a particular time, place, and set of circumstances’. I know a Grey’s Anatomy fan who still cries whenever she hears Snow Patrol’s ‘Chasing Cars’ – because it’s the soundtrack to Izzie’s discovery that her fiancé Denny has died – despite the six years that have elapsed since the episode aired. A recent example of a melded pop and TV moment can be found in Girls, where the main character, Hannah, fittingly starts off dancing on her own to Robyn’s anthemic ‘Dancing on My Own’, before her best friend arrives home to share her worries and help dance the blues away. Whenever I’ve heard this song since, I’ve been instantly transported back to Hannah’s bedroom to bask in the warmth of that intimate friendship.

Reminding us with leitmotifs

Leitmotifs, or musical themes that shadow particular characters, have been floating around since Wagner’s operas in the nineteenth century. In a less highfalutin fashion, The OC’s bad boy Ryan and bad girl Marissa take cover versions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ as their relationship theme, with Marissa even telling Ryan that the Jeff Buckley rendition of the song, which plays during their first romantic encounter, reminds her of him. The Buckley version recurs in the season 1 finale when Ryan is separated from Marissa on his return to the wrong side of the tracks. An a cappella version of ‘Hallelujah’, sung by Imogen Heap, acts as emotional kindling in season 3 when Ryan carries Marissa, who has just died in his arms, away from a burning car wreck.

It takes a montage

Most TV dramas use montages to efficiently progress a story, and the team behind Breaking Bad has shown a mastery of the craft, even slipping two montages into its recent mid-season finale: one racks up ten brutal prison killings in the time it takes Nat King Cole to croon ‘Pick Yourself Up’; the other showcases the latest production and distribution chain for the show’s blue-coloured crystal meth, hilariously set to the laid-back groove of ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’ by Tommy James & the Shondells. One of the most ambitious montages in recent TV history, however, is the final scene in Six Feet Under, which extends Sia’s achingly sweet song ‘Breathe Me’ to six and a half minutes in order to document the ageing and deaths of those Fisher family members (and friends) still living.

Blowing. Our. Minds.

Finally, Joss Whedon in Buffy the Vampire Slayer annihilates the competition by composing enough catchy pop songs to fill a whole episode, and having the show’s characters sing them. The singing is woven into the plot, with Buffy’s little sister summoning a demon who forces everyone to give lyrical voice to their feelings – a not unusual occurrence given the supernatural fabric of the show. But Buffy also delivers one of the biggest emotional left hooks of her troubled life. THROUGH SONG. And that’s how Whedon earns my biggest hat tip in the pop-drama spectrum.

Nikki Lusk is a
 Killings columnist and an editor based in Melbourne. She matches books to music at The Book Tuner.