The Rise of TV Soundtracks: Top three to watch

Image courtesy of The New Yorker, originally from Enda Bowe / Hulu

When we watch a movie the soundtrack to the music is an important part of the experience – Oscars are awarded for it, CDs are made of it – but when we watch a TV show, the soundtrack is very likely. sound goes unnoticed. TV soundtracks haven’t been given the same prestige as film music, but I think that’s wrong. When done right, the soundtrack of a TV show can fade into the background of a scene and can be so subtle that we don’t recognize it at all. It’s only when we remove the soundtrack that a difference is noticed and suddenly our most beloved shows seem devoid of one.

I think a good soundtrack can add a lot to a TV show. A single song can capture its essence, or a specific scene, much more than a repeated musical theme ever could. For example, I can’t hear “Should I stay or should I go” from The Clash without the haunting images of Strange things (2016) popping up in my mind. Likewise, David Lynch’s use of The Chromatics is immediately recognizable as his way of foreshadowing the events that are about to unfold in Twin Peaks: the return (2017).

Here are a few recent shows that I think have some memorable TV soundtracks to accompany the on-screen actors and add depth and meaning to the story and the viewing experience.

Normal people

The 2020 romantic drama is an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel. It tells the story of Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) throughout their teenage years and early adulthood, as they move from Sligo to Dublin and beyond. The show details the ups and downs of their relationship, and this roller coaster of emotions is accompanied by a soundtrack to match, with contributions from music supervisors Juliet Martin and Maggie Philips, as well as collaborations from the director. and fitters.

They use many modern artists, such as the mellow folk sounds of Mazzy Star to the electronic ballads of Imogen Heap, as well as emerging Irish artists, like Orla Gartland. I found the use of Elliot Smith’s “Angeles,” a folk song about the competitive atmosphere of LA, to be a particularly inspired choice. It seems an odd contrast to the storyline as it plays out in the series as Connell and Marianne still live in their suburban town. However, the song almost serves as a premonition for the couple’s experiences when they move to Dublin for college, where they find themselves enveloped in the city’s “sink or swim” environment.

This show also uses music to highlight differences in experience, such as Carley Rae Jepsen’s use of “Too Much”. This stellar pop song, which describes controlling relationships and partners criticizing aspects of each other, is used in the series to emphasize the strength of Connell and Marianne’s relationship – because unlike the characters in the song, they can see beyond the faults of the other. While “Too much” is used to illustrate a contradiction between the characters in the song and those on screen, in contrast, Frank Ocean’s “Nikes” does the opposite, as his lyrics about the shallowness of relationships accurately reflect the feelings. de Connell on the superficial nature of a party he is at. All of these examples show how the choice of music can add depth to the storyline and inspire audiences to think more deeply about the lives of the characters.


Described by The New Yorker as “the black comedy about black life,” Donald Glover Atlanta’s show (2016) follows the lives of two cousins ​​trying to make a career in music for a living. Glover, who wrote and starred in the series, grew up just outside of town and cites music as being crucial to his life experiences. The show itself juxtaposes moments of comedic absurdity with the harsh reality of black working-class families struggling for a living.

Its soundtrack even bridges these two dynamics with artists ranging from the classic soul tones of Bill Withers and Nina Simone to 21st century rappers 21 Savage and Rich the Kid.

The importance of music to the show is also demonstrated by Glover’s desire to include a wide range of musical artists, including the dream pop group Beach House and the youthful jazz of Yellow Days, as well as songs from Michael Kiwanuka and George Benson. The use of Tay K’s “The Race” in Season 2, which was written when the young rapper was “sixteen and on the run for murder,” as Glover describes in The New Yorker. Glover insisted on wanting this song so badly that the management team had to visit Tay K in prison to approve its use. These extraordinary lengths demonstrate how important music has been throughout Glover’s life, which is reflected in his personal choices in the show.

I can destroy you

Michaela Coel, the genius behind the 2020 series called I can destroy you, entered the series with a strong vision of how his music would reflect the messages of each episode. The series details different types of sexual assault, both in men and women, as well as in the context of race and same-sex relationships. Ciara Elwis, the show’s music supervisor, told the New York Times that she “wanted to choose songs that wouldn’t telegraph what the audience should be feeling, as well as tracks that the characters themselves would enjoy.”

The groundbreaking show has a soundtrack that features several up-and-coming black artists: Little-Simz, Arlo Parks, and Greentea Peng to name a few, while also featuring classics like Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter”. In this show, the music reinforces the characterization of the actors themselves. For example, Daft Punk’s use of “Something About Us” perfectly mirrors the main character’s portrayal of a steadfast, bubbly exterior, completely dealing with the trauma evident after his assault.

The music also seems to deliver a larger message that the writer is trying to convey, as shown in the gospel track “It’s Gonna Rain” (Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers). Coel herself has chosen this religious track which, at first glance, seems to contrast sharply with the acute and vivid trauma experienced by the characters in the series. However, I wonder if that perhaps sheds light on a message of hope, not only in the face of such dark events that plague the characters’ lives, but also in the face of our own storms.

Nonetheless, I hope this brief analysis of the soundtracks from three very different TV shows has shown that a well-designed soundtrack can bring as much to the small screen as it does to the cinematic experience. The next time you watch your favorite show, in addition to thinking about the characters and the action, also take some time to consider the meanings behind the music and how that adds to the caliber of the viewing experience.

Written by Adèle Fennessy

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