How sound creates atmosphere in TV and movies
Television is a medium that engages both sight and sound. Just as shows can be visually compelling, so too can they make powerful use of audio through music and sound. Many famous television shows have used soundtracks in combination with their visuals in order to convey time period, set a tone, or develop a mood. Typically, this is the job of the music supervisor—overseeing the combination of music with visuals in television. Some television shows eschew this role, instead employing composers to apply music to visuals appropriately. Composers simply create original music for television shows. Both music supervisors and composers are integral to the quality of a show but, with the exception of a few superstar composers like Danny Elfman (“The Simpsons,” “Desperate Housewives” ) or Hans Zimmer (“Through the Wormhole,” “The Bible”), generally do not receive due appreciation for their achievements.
Some examples of masterful, albeit relatively unknown, music supervisors include John McCullough and Gary Calamar. In “The Wonder Years,” McCullough developed a soundtrack that rooted the show in a time and place but also captured the inner turmoil of adolescence. McCullough also supervised the music for many famous situational comedies such as “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “That ‘70s Show.” In collaboration with composer Ben Vaughn, these shows used music to amplify the light-hearted and comedic tone of the visuals they accompanied. Gary Calamar, on the other hand, often combines music with visuals interdependently, conveying messages more powerfully than either could alone. By juxtaposing smooth, relaxing music with gruesome, brutal imagery in “Dexter,” Calamar creates a sense of unease in the viewer. In “House M.D.,” Calamar used songs across a variety of time periods and genres in order to convey a variety of internal states. His work shows just how powerful a soundtrack can be in terms of enhancing the emotional content of a show.
In ‘The Wonder Years,’ McCullough developed a soundtrack that rooted the show in a time and place but also captured the inner turmoil of adolescence.
Nowhere is music as a means of conveying a variety of emotions better exemplified than in the work of Aivi Trana and Steven “Surasshu” Velema. This dynamic duo of composers created the entire soundtrack for “Steven Universe.” By seamlessly blending together sounds and styles from a variety of musical genres, Aivi and Surasshu have created songs spanning the emotional spectrum. The contrast of hard crashes and blaring synths with the gentle sounds of piano and violin in “I Am Lapis Lazuli,” for example, is a window on the character’s inner torment—fearful of capture and imprisonment but isolated and unable to return to the home world. On the other end of the spectrum, the song “Alone Together” uses the pleasant sound of acoustic guitar together with vibraphone and bells to represent the beautiful friendship between the titular protagonist and the lonely introvert, Connie. In many ways, Aivi and Surasshu have done for “Steven Universe” what John McCullough and Alexandra Patsavas, discussed below, have done for the shows they’ve worked on.
Alexandra Patsavas is a woefully underrated music supervisor. In addition to incorporating XTC’s “Dear God” as part of the angsty soundtrack of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” she created exceptional soundtracks for countless television series. In “Mad Men,” the soundtrack of ‘60s music establishes the time period and sets a backdrop to a look into professional life and the shifting moral values of the era. In “The O.C.,” she used alternative artists such as Death Cab for Cutie and The Killers to deepen the melodrama of the show. Likewise, in “Grey’s Anatomy,” the songs she chose complement their scenes. This is often very overt with songs like “How to Save a Life” by The Fray and “Monster Hospital” by Metric. Across her career, Patsavas has consistently provided the shows she has worked on with memorable soundtracks that strengthen the content within.
From the dramatic retrospective of “Mad Men” to the comedic perspective on social attitudes and interpersonal relationships in “That ‘70s Show,” the importance of a soundtrack to a television show is clear. The use of audio often has an immediate impact on how you view the events in a show. When you’re watching a program, it’s worth recognizing that television is not just a visual medium, but a collaboration between visuals and music—a dance between the visible and invisible. Part of the power of television as a medium is its ability to seamlessly combine visuals and sound to transport the viewer to different times and places, to convey thoughts and emotions, and to stimulate the imagination.