Editor’s Note: MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” which carries on the tradition of teen dramas introducing new music and artists to their fans, returns Monday night at 10pm.
Since the dawn of the motion picture, music has been an integral part in creating film – and perhaps more recently, serialized television. Whether scenes are backed by the sweeping sounds of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, or accompanied by a bit of classic rock, music has become a centerpiece of modern film and television around the world.
In its ideal form, music creates an atmosphere for an emotional response from the audience – whether it be a smile, laughter, tears or all three. In both film and television, music supervisors have the tricky task of helping carry out the writer's vision, without distracting us from what's happening on screen. Their choices establish time periods, help to shape the characters, and within the last few years, have determined the musical preferences of the next generation.
While there's a certain joy that accompanies kicking off a musical revolution, it's still possible for music selection to go very wrong. According to Brian Yessian, partner and CCO at Yessian Music in Farmington Hills, Michigan, collaborating with several producers and creative directors can occasionally complicate things and result in music that just doesn't work. "Sometimes it can be that there [are] just too many cooks in the kitchen, everyone's trying to make a decision and the process gets diluted..." At its worst, poor music choices can unintentionally refocus the audience's attention at a pivotal moment in the script, disengaging them from the situation on screen. Yessian continues, "In the end, if the music isn't right or fitting...it's just not going to help that scene at all or help people connect with it."
Though music supervisors like Yessian are hired to find the just the right song for just the right moment, they also have to be aware that sometimes there's beauty in silence. Yessian and his team "work on projects all the time where...[a] scene really may not need a full on music track...because the music may step on the scene too much."
But when a show is set during a specific time period, music becomes a crucial component in immersing the viewer into a decade that's come and gone. In The CW's “The Carrie Diaries,” a teenage Carrie Bradshaw's life is set to the sounds of '80s classics like Madonna's "Material Girl" and Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." Songs show up diegetically (as music the characters are listening to) and non-diegetically (as music only the audience can hear), serving as a connecting piece between millennial and a decade of music they probably weren't familiar with before the show premiered.
In addition to creating a sense of authenticity in a certain time period, music also plays a role in setting the tone of a show. “The Carrie Diaries” totes an upbeat soundtrack – largely compiled of dance hits, mixing originals and contemporary covers – and before the end of its first episode, gives off the impression that the show is primarily a happy one. There aren't any moments where music foreshadows imminent death, or warns us of a dangerous character because it simply isn't that kind of show.
On the other hand, shows like “Supernatural,” trade '80s dance tracks for classic rock to tell their story. The music is darker, wilder and in some cases, downright haunting, because that's exactly what the series is about. It has become something of a running joke to play songs like AC/DC's "Highway To Hell" during happy occasions, and during times of complete chaos, play something like, "Do You Love Me?" by The Contours.
Furthermore, the music on “Supernatural” occasionally pulls double duty and gives insight into a character, a concept known as characterization. In one particularly haunting sequence, Death (one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse) is introduced over Jen Titus's rendition of Ralph Stanley's "O, Death" and though there is no dialogue to indicate that he isn't just a random man walking down the street, his entrance music gives us all the information we need to conclude that he is, in fact, Death.This style of scoring reinforces how we are meant to perceive Death as a powerful figure shrouded by a terrifying sense of calm.
Unfortunately, scenes that place the music on equal footing as the characters haven't always been the norm. Back in the early 2000s, “The O.C.” was heralded as Generation X's “Beverly Hills, 90210,” in part because everyone loves teenage drama, but mostly because it was the only show to feature songs and bands that weren't necessarily popular at the time. “The O.C.” turned music into its own character, and in the process, revolutionized an industry. Scored by music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas, the teen soap became something of a launch pad for several now famous acts like The Killers and Death Cab for Cutie. Referred to as the "instigator for the mainstreaming of indie rock," Patsavas has stated that "the music that fits ‘The O.C.’ best has an indie sensibility: stuff that's innovative, different, that hasn't been overplayed and overhyped." After an episode aired, there was so much chatter about the music that the show subsequently released six soundtracks over its four season run.
In recent years, since “The O.C.” no longer guides our musical tastes, several of MTV's scripted series, namely “Teen Wolf,” “Awkward” and “Faking It,” feature indie songs that are later available for download from their website, taking Patsavas' model and moving it forward into the digital age.
As a music supervisor, there are a lot of bases to cover. The setting and tone of the show must be taken into account, along with whether or not the music will help tell a story about the characters or simply act as a background piece. In shows that target young people, fresh and exciting music always creates a buzz and can result in an overlooked genre becoming more mainstream. Thanks to music supervisors like Brian Yessian and Alexandra Patsavas, audiences can enjoy film and television for more than just they see. Film composer Bernard Hermann said it best when he described music on the screen as "the communicating link between the screen and the audience, reaching out and enveloping all into one single experience."
Source: Kot, Greg. Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. New York: Scribner, 2009. Print.