I love television, and I love music. When those two things are put together in the right way, they create magic and have the potential to elicit incredibly strong emotions. The right song choice has the ability to enhance a scene in a way that even the best writing or the most talented actors can’t accomplish.
Today at NGN, I want to take a look at five of the television shows I’ve watched over the years that I feel best use music to advance the story and enhance the emotional resonance of a scene. For each series, I’ve picked three musical moments that best represent why the show made my list. You never know—maybe you’ll find some new music to add to your iPod thanks to these shows (I know I have!).
“California” (Phantom Planet) – 1.01 (“Pilot”): This song will always remind me of The O.C. It was the show’s theme song, but it was also used brilliantly in the pilot episode, with the intensity of the song growing as Ryan leaves Chino and enters the world of Orange County. That moment perfectly set the tone for the show, and the use of this song plays a huge part in that.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” (Jem) – 1.27 (“The Ties That Bind”): There is something hauntingly sad about this stripped-down version of such a classic love song. This makes it the perfect accompaniment to a scene of love and loss for Marissa and Ryan. The song is simple, and this moment is simple—free of the over-the-top drama this show was famous for but still heartbreaking in its own quiet way.
“Hallelujah” (Jeff Buckley) – 1.27 (“The Ties That Bind”): This episode of The O.C. clearly had some phenomenal music choices. This is one of those moments where all that an episode needs is the right song to reduce audiences to a weeping mess. The pure longing in this song (which is one of my all-time favorites) perfectly encapsulates the mood of each character in the closing minutes of the finale. No dialogue is needed, just the voice of Jeff Buckley reminding us all that “love is not a victory march.”
“Skinny Love” (Bon Iver) – 2.03 (“Chuck Versus the Breakup”): It’s hard enough watching Chuck tell Sarah that he can’t ever have a relationship with her because she’ll never be “normal.” To make matters worse, this heartbreaking speech is given while an equally heartbreaking song plays in the background. “I told you to be patient. And I told you to be fine,” Bon Iver sings as Sarah tries to push back her pain; the anger and hurt in the song perfectly matching the moment.
“Creature Fear” (Bon Iver) – 2.21 (“Chuck Versus the Colonel”): This scene is like a well-choreographed dance to an expertly chosen piece of music. The pacing of this intimate moment between Chuck and Sarah—moving so naturally from tentative to passionate—is perfectly matched with the pacing of the music.
“Rivers and Roads” (The Head and the Heart) – 5.13 (“Chuck Versus the Goodbye”): “Rivers ‘til I reach you.” With those simple, poignant lyrics, Chuck ended its run on a truly poetic note. We’ll never know what happens to Sarah and her memories or if she and Chuck become what they once were, but this final moment is infused with hope, starting from the choice of music. It’s as beautiful as it is bittersweet, much like this finale. Those final lyrics speak to the fact that there are still rivers and roads for Chuck to cross to get his Sarah back, but he’ll cross all of them.
“Breathe (2 AM)” (Anna Nalick) – 2.17 (“As We Know It”): Playing throughout a montage of so many characters facing horrifically intense scenarios, this song fluidly complements what is going on in each scene. From the beats in the music matching the monitor noises as Dr. Bailey’s husband’s heart starts again to the lyrics “It’s no longer inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to,” as Meredith removes a bomb from a patient’s body, this is as perfect a match of song and scenes as you’re apt to find on TV.
“Chasing Cars” (Snow Patrol) – 2.27 (“Losing My Religion”): “Would you lie with me and just forget the world?” the song asks as we see each central relationship on the show tested: Izzie sobbing over Denny’s body before being cradled by Alex, who clearly still loves her; Cristina finally showing her support for Burke; and Meredith caught between the man she should love and the man she loves. The end of the episode is still a truly emotional viewing experience, and so much of that comes from the power of this song.
“Turn to Stone” (Ingrid Michaelson) – 5.22 (“What a Difference a Day Makes”): This is a song about finding a reason to live and to love in the fleeting amount of time we’re given. As such, it’s the perfect accompaniment to a cancer-stricken Izzie’s wedding to Alex. The way the song builds like the scene, until both reach a joyful crescendo, gives me goose bumps every time I watch it.
“Stop and Stare” (OneRepublic) – 1.01 (“Flowers For Your Grave”): All great television love stories have a beginning, and this is where Castle and Beckett’s story really begins. A man searching for substance and meaning meets a strong, smart woman who challenges him. There’s no better song to capture the moment both Castle and the audience fall for Kate Beckett than “Stop and Stare.” It’s the musical equivalent of the awestruck, hopeful look on Nathan Fillion’s expressive face.
“Into the Blue” (Sarah Jackson-Holman) – 2.24 (“A Deadly Game”): This song plays throughout the setup for and fallout from one of the most heartbreaking moments in Castle and Beckett’s relationship. Just as Beckett is about to tell Castle that she wants to be with him (as her entire precinct family looks on), his ex-wife shows up to reveal that they rekindled their romance. To see the normally stoic Beckett fight back tears is bad enough, but what makes it even harder is to see it while Sarah Jackson Holman sings, “I’m grasping at straws and I’m chasing the wind, as I fall on my face over and over again.”
“In My Veins” (Andrew Belle) – 4.23 (“Always”): “Nothing goes as planned. Everything will change.” With those lyrics, the fourth season of Castle ends with a variety of major changes in the lives of its characters. Alexis delivers her valedictorian speech. Esposito is put on administrative leave. Ryan is left painfully alone at the precinct. And Beckett resigns before deciding to finally dive into a relationship with Castle. This song fits with all of these changes, and it beautifully sets the tone for what is about to happen between Castle and Beckett after four years of waiting.
“Angel” (Sarah McLachlan) – 1.04 (“A Broken Heart”): For the first time in the series, we get a glimpse of what Sydney and Vaughn’s relationship will become—an anchor in the sea of betrayal (both personal and professional) that is her life. He’s her “guardian angel,” so this song is an ideal fit for their first real moments of emotional honesty with one another.
“River” (Joni Mitchell) – 2.05 (“The Indicator”): There is no better song for a heartbreaking Christmas episode than “River.” After confronting her father about spy-training tests he performed on her as a child, Sydney seeks out Vaughn, looking as if the weight of the entire world is on her shoulders. In that moment, you can almost imagine Sydney and Joni merging into one lost woman, looking for a river to skate away on.
“All My Life” (Rosie Thomas) – 3.15 (“Façade”): For much of the third season of Alias, Sydney had to struggle alone with the repercussions of her two-year disappearance. In this episode, that finally takes its toll, and she breaks down over the delicate voice of Rosie Thomas singing, “I swear I tried to convince myself it’d be much easier just being alone.” When Vaughn finally comforts her, the song reflects the relief in that moment: “I’ve been waiting for you to come.” It’s like one song was able to sum up an entire season of pain, longing, and reconciliation between them.
You’ve seen (and heard) my choices; now I want to know yours. What are your favorite musical moments from the world of television?