The people who watch Pushing Daisies probably get that it’s a quirky modern-day fairy tale: the stylized production design and the arch narration give it away. But in case we don’t get it, the producers have an ace in the hole: music. Lots of it. Composer James Dooley won an Emmy this year for providing Pushing Daisies with the most haunting, romantic music on TV—and maybe the most music, period. Asked to name some scenes where he doesn’t add music, Dooley replied: “You’d have to show me where those spots are. It doesn’t really happen that often.” Music is such a huge part of Daisies that there will be a soundtrack CD of Dooley’s themes and musical arrangements (to be released Dec. 9). TV shows used to use music sparingly, saving it for action scenes or sentimental moments where we would notice it. But in today’s TV, we don’t only notice music because it’s good, we notice it because it never stops.
Pushing Daisies isn’t the only show that’s saturated in music, though it’s the most extreme example. Dooley points out that “music has gone up in all the media. In film and TV, there’s more music than we ever used to have.” In modern network dramas, music comes in to punctuate the mood of almost any kind of scene. Even shows that use a lot of pop songs, like Brothers & Sisters, have a huge amount of original music. Blake Neely, the composer for Brothers & Sisters, says he’s noticed that the show is in danger of being over-scored, and the producer has noticed it too: “I was talking to Ken Olin about how one of the episodes had too much music, and we should look at that in the future. So sometimes it gets away from us.” It’s not only hour-long shows that have increased their musical content: reality shows also feature wall-to-wall music, and the Emmy-winning comedy 30 Rock frequently uses music to fill in pauses between jokes.
How did music go from special effect to a wall of background noise? For one thing, shows need more music because they’re trying to do more things at once. Since so many shows today are a mix of comedy and drama, they need music to tell us which is which; shows like Brothers & Sisters, Pushing Daisies or Desperate Housewives need wacky music for comedy scenes and serious music for the dramatic moments. Shows used to use a laugh track to tell us when a scene was funny; now they’re using music in the same way, to remove doubt about what reaction a scene is going for. Dooley explains that his music on Pushing Daisies always has to “reinforce that this is a special and different place,” but even apart from that, the music has a huge number of functions: “It needs to keep the pacing up, tell the story, underline the characters, and sometimes mislead you so you don’t know who the murderer is.” When music has a lot to do, you need a lot of music.
TV composers may also be working extra hard because they have to do jobs that the rest of the crew can’t. Unlike feature films, TV episodes don’t have a lot of time for editing, meaning that the cutting and sound mixes can be imperfect. Adding music helps cover up those flaws. And music lends a sense of rhythm and pace to a scene, whether or not the actors and director were able to create it in filming. In an era when TV shows are trying to tell increasingly complicated stories in ever-shorter running times, the composer sometimes has to fill in the gaps, Neely says: “It’s hard to convey emotions without music in some cases.”
But while music can add a lot to a show, not using music can also help at times. Shows that use little or no musical scoring, like The Office or The Wire, can get more mileage out of realistic background noises or that old standby, silence: Dooley acknowledges that “sometimes silence is more effective than the use of music.” Because there’s so much music in modern television, it may be in danger of diluting the big moments. “Where a piece of music comes in, it usually cues something; that’s why they call them cues,” Neely says. “If it never goes out, I think it’s hard for music to be effective.”
But TV can’t cut down too much on its music addiction, not when shows continue to get shorter and faster-paced. The question is whether composers and producers can cut down just a little bit: “That’s what Ken and I were talking about,” Neely says. “In this next episode, let’s have less music because that way it’ll have a chance of making more of an impact.” If there’s too much music, it can turn into muzak. And nobody wants that.