/ Technology

I love music in TV shows – do you?

Music equaliser

It’s a bit like Marmite really, you either love it or you hate it. What are we talking about? Music in TV shows. Here’s Which? super-supporter Lee Beaumont on why music has an important place in the shows you watch.

I myself love music in TV shows. I can’t think of anything better than watching a really powerful moment and then to match it, a very powerful song plays alongside.

As an example, a few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Heartbeat’s The Royal where staff nurse Meryl Taylor sadly passes away. I was already on the edge of my seat, but when Gerry and the Pacemakers’ Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying started playing, that was it, I was gone – tears all over the place.

Another example is when Heartbeat has The Animals playing in an episode, I can’t stop singing ‘Oh lord please don’t let me be misunderstood’ for the rest of the day then.

We must really love music in our TV shows as ITV Yorkshire has even released more than 20 Heartbeat albums over the course of the 90s. If we hated the music, why would ITV have made so many albums? A lot of us must have been buying them.

Music of the past and present

I don’t just enjoy the music in TV shows that are set in the past. The first episode of the BBC’s Waterloo Road has Kaiser Chiefs’ I Predict A Riot playing right from the start. Plus, One Direction started trending on Twitter the first time one of their songs played in Coronation Street’s Rovers Return.

The BBC even has an app, BBC Playlister, where you can the save songs that play during BBC shows to a playlist so you can listen to them later. I could go on. To me it feels like everyone enjoys music in TV shows. And, let’s face it the shows would seem very flat and unemotional without it.

Do you enjoy a bit of One Direction in the Rovers while watching Steve McDonald eating his hotpot? What about Gerry and the Pacemakers playing when Claude Jeremiah Greengrass is up to no good over in Aidensfield?

This is a guest post from Which? super-supporter Lee Beaumont.


I like many of the theme tunes from TV shows and find them quite infectious. As Lee says, they certainly get inside your head.I like the theme tunes for a lot of programmes we never ever watch, or haven’t seen for years, and I can still recall them. I even like the synthetic BBC News intro “music”, and the “Countdown” count down tune [which is reminiscent of the “Beat the Clock” music from “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” [before your time Lee!]. In dramas and films, I wish there was a Red Button-type sub-title facility for checking the sources of tunes and melodies playing in the background – with movies they appear in the credits but they are usually so fast-running or compressed [or obliterated] by a next programme announcement that I can’t catch them. I suppose my all-time favourite was the theme tune from Steptoe & Son . . . clop, clop, clopty-clop, . . . and so on. I also liked the music payed while the Test Card was showing during the daytimes and I think I still have a CD somewhere with many of the tracks on it.

Kess says:
12 August 2014

I have no problem with music in TV shows or movies. What gets me is when the characters are speaking while music is being played and the music is too high meaning I cannot hear what is being said properly. No, I am not hard of hearing and I do put my TV volume up, but as I live in a flat, It is not always possible to have a TV show at top whack. We have a so called smart TV with Smart sound and sometimes we can adjust to improve the situation but it’s not the TV itself as this happens more and more with shows and I have watched on other TV’s and media centres.
Also, the difference in level of characters speaking and then dramatic music/shots being fired is a problem too. It may well be designed to emulate a cinematic experience…but I don’t think you ever can to be honest unless, you know, you go the cinema where extreme noise doesn’t matter.

I have to say I get frustrated by background music in TV shows. I get as annoyed by it as with narration or laughter tracks. I think it’s often used as a lazy device to manipulate our emotions when the writers aren’t good enough to achieve that through their script. Narration is a lazy way to show what a character is thinking, or to explain what’s happening, when the acting or script isn’t working hard enough to do that. And laughter tracks are trying to make you laugh at things that aren’t funny.

That’s not to say music can’t be used very well. It’s greatest strength is when it’s not overused in TV or films. If it can act as a counterpoint to the silence in films, where there hasn’t previously been music, then it can be very powerful. Films that get it right – Master & Commander (no music for an hour), Castaway (sound design is amazing), and who can’t help but enjoy the soundtrack to Drive (it’s basically a long music video).

Sorry Lee!

Sounds like I should have been tuning in to Heartbeat and The Royal if it’s featuring the great music from my youth. I’ve heard Nick Berry’s version of the song “Heartbeat” hundreds of times on the radio but did not realise the TV programmes showcased other songs from that era [the original was by the great Buddy Holly in the late fifties]. I am so pleased to learn that Lee’s generation also appreciate this tuneful, melodious music with meaningful lyrics.

I agree with Patrick on getting the musical balance right in TV programmes and not just throwing it at us to fill a void or mask a weakness. I also think there is another problem these days and that is the audio reproduction quality of the domestic receiver. Having reached a good [but nowhere near excellent] state about twenty years ago in TV sound fidelity, recent set designs have compromised sound quality in order to put more emphasis on other features, like screen size, space saving, picture definition, and price. It has come to the point now that to get good TV sound reception you have to pay out as much again for a separate hi-fi speaker system [or at least a connexion to an existing system] or to buy a sound bar that does give enhanced fidelity but is still not going to give an aural experience to match the superior picture quality. For studio shows, and for TV productions made like films with advanced post-production enhancement, the originating audio quality is exceptionally high but the viewer is rarely able to experience a portion of that due to transcription and transmission defects, speaker deficiencies, and the acoustic environment; and the human ear is not perfect either. The original sound signal is probably, perhaps invariably, available in a multi-track form relaying voice, music, effects, backing, and other layers of sound and it’s high time we could have an economical decoder so that we can fine-tune the sound balance to suit our listening characteristics. This would help Kess above and lots of others who feel that producers have over-egged the dramatic tension in the music and sound effects at the expense of the dialogue. Many television sets have, in their set-up menu, about three alternative sound options to alter the spatial exerience and sound colour [for example boosting voice and suppressing background] but this is just digital tinkering with the internal speakers and neither satisfactory nor easily accessible while watching a programme. It might be worth trying for people who are struggling to hear the words above the music which has been a major criticism of some recent TV drama productions.

Kess says:
12 August 2014

I used to watch Heartbeat many years ago as I do love it and I think it (music) works with that type of show but is it really needed in everything? Yes the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same thing. I am one of those people who actually celebrate eclectic tastes but I have to admit that at times the music in shows makes me turn off. Not heartbeat, though I don’t watch it anymore. Does it still have Greengrass in it?

William Brazier says:
12 August 2014

Music has been dubbed onto nearly every documentary as well television productions of various types. Words are lost in surging noise and music is merely an irritant when hacked about like that.

“I love music in TV shows – do you?” No!
Generally drama should stand on its own feet, with a decent script and quality filming, with, when appropriate, good music sparingly used if, and when, it genuinely adds to the story or atmosphere. Much drama on TV is of such a low standard that it probably needs something in the background to cover its deficiencies. Soaps seem the epitomy of this – endless streams of unreal situations where half-decent pop music might provide the entertainment. But then, I’m an engineer with a practical approach to life, and a stiff upper lip.
You can see a play live at the theatre that is thoroughly enjoyable without a musical note in sight.
I enjoy factual programmes, but even these seem to have to have obligatory, and nondescript, background music that often takes over. I remember a recent Countryfile – a well-made programme – that had the commentary drowned out at times by pointless musical noise.
Cinema films rarely seem capable of existing without scores. There are very memorable ones – Lawrence of Arabia was a superb film, made even more so by Maurice Jarre’s score – remember the introduction was a just black screen whilst the overture played? And would Apocalypse Now be the same without helicopters charging to Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries? But then, this was real music by proper composers!
For many programmes (and indeed for shop Muzak) I’d highly recommend a piece entitled 4′ 33″ by the late John Cage.

Nicely done Malcolm R on the John Cage recommendation 😉

Although more melodic than that, I like a bit of Brian Eno for the background.

Talking about classic movies with great compositions, where would “Brief Encounter” have been without Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto? . . . or “Dangerous Moonlight” without Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto”? . . . and “Room with a View” without Puccini’s heart-tugging melodies? Interestingly, Maurice Jarre also supplied the sumptuous Lara’s Theme for “Doctor Zhivago” [which also featured other work by Rachmaninov]. On a different level, I also enjoy the BBC’s music for cricket matches and for the Wimbledon tennis championships; they set you up for the games that follow and help you wind down afterwards. On the other hand I get bored every time the “Chariots of Fire” music by Vangelis comes on as soon as someone does a bit of running.

Background music is there to enhance the storyline, arousing ones emotions by enabling you to experience and ‘feel’ the sadness of the tragedy or the elation of the victory or the excitement of the adventure or the joy of the romance of the subject characters, adding soul to the whole event.

A film without music to me would be like the coffee without the cream or the stew without the salt.

Made me think of Walt Disney’s cartoon masterpiece “Fantasia” where he put the action to the music rather than the other way round. Never shown on television I believe.

No I don’t have any problems with music playing on TV shows, it can enhance the atmosphere. What really gets my Goat is canned laughter, the audience seem to laugh at every sentence spoken.It ain’t funny !

It all goes back to the same principle, which is that choice of music is a highly personal thing and if you oblige people to listen to your choice of music then you will please some and annoy others. In my case I often annoyed by music used in documentaries. A few years ago the BBC trialled a documentary in which viewers had the choice of music or no music by pressing a button on their remote control. The beeb chose not to let us have a choice following that program, despite constant complaints to them on this subject.

Just as a programme can be ruined by bad acting, directing, lighting, editing, storylines and dozens of other things, so it can be spoiled by bad music. Done properly it will enhance the programme, but pick the wrong music, or play the right music too loud, or in an inappropriate place and it will wreck it.

And just one more thing. Background music does NOT belong on the news!

Does anyone else hate the snippets of ‘music’ behind every trailer on BBC Radio 4? Do they do this because they don’t think we will realise it’s a trailer?

One major part of TV lacking music is in sports programmes – football, cricket, bowls, Olympics, tennis…… Surely with the gaps between significant moments there is scope for the musical fanatics to insert their wares? I wonder why not. Long may it continue. So if not here, why do we have to tolerate it in other programmes? Is it a contract with the musicians’ union?

I have just stopped watching another potentially interesting programme – How We Got to Now – because it was completely ruined by the maddening background so-called music. If programme makers insist on adding this noise to virtually every programme these days, why can’t we have a choice about listening to it in the same way that we can choose to use sub-titles? In many cases it is virtually impossible to hear what is being said, because speech is drowned by the added noise. My only choice these days is to switch off completely, which I do very often with the result that I hardly watch television at all.

We can turn subtitles on and off for TV programmes. It would be very welcome if we could do this with music too. Obviously this is not a solution for films, but being able to turn off music wherever possible would be a great help, especially to those with hearing difficulties.

I can live without music on the News, thank you.

Vivienne says:
13 August 2015

I’m not averse to music on TV shows, but when it is so loud you can’t hear the dialogue, then it is very annoying. I have a hearing problem, and as I live in a flat, I wear headphones in order to listen without disturbing my neighbours. I am missing a lot of the dialogue because the accompanying music is too loud. Are the powers that be doing anything about this problem, as I imagine many viewers must be experiencing the same? If the programme makers are taking any notice, please tone it down to acceptable levels. Thank you, in anticipation!

What gets to me is when shows like The Walking Dead feel the need to fill the first/last 3 minutes with a musical track every episode. It feels repetitive, predictable and lazy. When used sparingly or to serve a particular purpose I am not against music being used in shows, but it does sometimes feel like the writers or directors just use it as a form of padding. This is particularly bad if the song doesn’t happen to be your cup of tea and serves to grate on your nerves until the track ends (I don’t like country/bluegrass at all so TWD and a few other series can have this effect on me at times).