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?
Oh God. There’s so many. How do I begin?
1. “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas – Supernatural all seasons [http://youtu.be/GJCnMc5zY8o]. This song has been used as the season finale recap since season 2, and it captures the show so perfectly, it’s almost like it was written for it. Even though I was quite familiar with the song before Supernatural, now I can’t hear it without thinking of Supernatural, of Sam and Dean and all they’ve been through, what they’ve lost, and that the only hope they have for rest is the grave. Yeah, spn is a sad depressing show lol, but I love it.
2. “My Ghost” by Glass Pear – Bones 5×07 [http://youtu.be/FMj5yPDp32Q] This song played in an episode of Bones and it was really memorable. Basically over the previous 5 years, Booth had slowly been falling in love with his partner, Brennan. At the end of the fourth season he was found to have a brain tumor, and while he was in a post-op coma, he had a dream that he and Brennan were married and happy. The dream was so real that when he first woke up, he couldn’t remember his real life and he thought he actually was married to her. When he realized that was not the case, he spent most of the year kind of pining for her. It was really sad. Anyways, after his recovery he goes to recertify for his marksmanship test (he’s an FBI agent) and finds that he’s unable to hit the target, even though he’s a world class sniper. At first he thinks it’s brain damage from his tumor, but his friend, a psychiatrist, tells him the truth: that the reason he can’t hit the target is due to the sadness and depression he feels about being in love with someone he doesn’t think loves him back. But his friend tells him to bring Brennan to the test, and to think about a bad guy coming after her and how he needs to protect her, and that he “won’t miss in front of her”. Sure enough, he brings Brennan to the shooting test and with her watching he hits the bullseye dead on. This song is playing in the background.
3. “Breathe Me” by Sia – Six Feet Under Series Finale [http://youtu.be/el4eUKmLujg] This one is the best. I don’t know if you watched this show, but it was amazing. It was about a family that ran a funeral home. The series finale takes place shortly after the eldest brother, Nate, has died, and the family has been grieving. In the last episode, the youngest daughter Claire, an unruly teen when the show began and now a thoughtful young woman decides to move to NYC to pursue her art career. The last scene is her reluctantly saying goodbye to her family with her dead brother (who she can actually see and hear) looking on, encouraging her to live her life and not waste time. As she drives off down the highway, she experiences a vision (or we the audience do) of how every main character on the show dies (and how their lives go beforehand). Far from being morbid, it’s beautiful and life affirming, a reminder that our time here is fleeting, and that we should live as fully as we can. This song is playing throughout. It’s pretty much the most breathtaking 10 minutes of TV I’ve ever watched.
I ADORE “Breathe Me,” and it makes me cry just listening to it, so I can’t even imagine how emotional that scene must have been. I’ve been reading critics’ responses to this topic, too, and that Six Feet Under moment is always near the top of most lists.
The description the scene from Bones made me a little misty-eyed, and it further confirms my belief that once the show is over I really need to watch all of it from the beginning.
Yeah it makes a lot of lists for “best last scene of a series”.
Oh I do hope you will watch Bones. It really is great. I will say seasons 1-5 are the best. It has struggled a bit since then. The writers took a little too long getting the main couple together because I think they feared the “moonlighting curse” lol. But hey, you’d be a lot less stressed out watching it since you already kind of know what happens. 😛 The first half of season 6 had me practically tearing my hair out. But season 7 was great even though it was short because of Emily Deschanel’s maternity leave. And I have high hopes for 8. Don’t start it until you have time to commit though, because I started watching it at the end of season 4 (before season five began) and I only meant to watch the first couple episodes and just slowly watch like one or two a week. Nope. I ended up watching all 88 episodes in like three weeks. XD
I definitely want to wait to watch it until both my sister and I have time to commit to it. Plus, I kind of want to wait until after its series finale because then I can just watch it all at once. lol
YES. The Bones scene featuring “My Ghost” was the moment I realized I loved this show (I started watching regularly with season five. After this scene, I dropped almost all of my other shows and spent the next few weeks watching Bones from the beginning.) I’ll also add Marc Scibilia’s “How Bad We Need Each Other” from Bones 7.7, because it perfectly encapsulates the warm feeling of introducing your new baby to all of your best friends and knowing you’ve earned this happiness, and Sleeping at Last’s “From the Ground Up,” which played at the end of the Bones S7 finale. It was a fantastically suspenseful episode that I wouldn’t dare spoil, but let’s just say that the lyrics keep repeating “home sweet home” as Booth and Brennan are watching their home life get ripped apart, and they’re just trying to share time together while they can. Devastating and effective and now officially ALL OVER my iPod (as is this whole show, really).
Alias had some AMAZING musical moments! The ones you named are some of my favorites. Coldplay’s “God Put a Smile Upon Your Face” from 2.14 is a standout for me, just because Sydney and Vaughn and the dinner they’ll have to reheat are all so HOT, and the song feels like such a release of tension in a way that is completely good and welcome and yet just a little bit wrong, since they do technically still work together (“Yeah, when you work it out I’m worse than you/ Yeah, when you work it out I want it too”).
Oakenfold’s “Ready, Steady, Go” was also a great action scene soundtrack for 1.19, and Vertical Horizon’s “Give You Back” is just the right kind of wistful note on which to end the pilot (the last scene of the Alias pilot might be my favorite Alias scene ever, if only because it made me realize I HAD to come back next week).
And Scrubs pretty much had a great musical moment every episode, so I can’t even begin to choose.
Anyway, I love your blog! Thanks for sharing.
Thank you so much for the comment (and for further cementing my belief that I need to watch Bones asap)! I loved your Alias selections. Your thoughts about “God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” are exactly the same as mine. It builds in such a sexy way, and you can almost feel the tension being released in that song. It was the perfect choice for that moment. I swear I played that song an embarrassing number of times after I saw that episode. 😉
I think I still youtube that moment more than I care to admit 🙂 YES, definitely watch Bones, and definitely give yourself time to marathon it up. It was a sudden addiction for me, but it also took me a while to hit that moment, in that it took a few episodes of actual disinterest and a few more of growing interest before suddenly, in one scene, I felt like I knew and cared about Booth and Brennan. And then I was just HOOKED. So if it takes a few episodes, give it time and let yourself get invested in the people, because they definitely make the show. (They also carry it through a lot of shifting tones. Season 1 was serious, 2 was dramatic but in a better way, and with more focus on the characters, 3 balanced I think the most intense and also most hilarious moments, 4 was light and fluffy, 5 was swoon-worthy, 6 was angsty, 7 happy, and 8 feels so far like it’s darker and richer. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it’s mostly all good, and it’s so worth the journey!)
Also, the fact that Chuck used Rivers and Roads is reason enough for me to watch it. I’ve been waiting for that show to hit the internet for years, but I might just have to find DVDs somewhere. Chuck and I are meant to spend some quality time together.
You definitely need to spend some quality time with Chuck whenever you get the time to. It’s entertaining, emotional, and absolutely addicting. I would recommend it to anyone who wanted a new TV show to watch!
I love this post. Musical choices on TV shows are not things that I tend to remember very frequently, beyond an overall impression of how well a show uses music.
That said, I really do love the use of “Angel” on Alias. It was such a good scene and the musical choice just made it even better. I don’t have any specific examples for Chuck, but I’ve been really enjoying their use of music as well.
I’m on a huge Battlestar Galactica kick right now, so I’m going to apologize in advance if I mention it on a ton of your posts in the near future, but Bear McCreary did a phenomenal job composing the music for the show. It reminds me a lot of Lord of the Rings in that regard, since both really took advantage of the possibilities of instrumental music to create an epic feel and distinguishable character themes.
I’m a bit crazy when it comes to songs on TV shows. If it’s a moment that I loved, I will do whatever research it takes to find the song and put it on my iPod. I also have an app on my phone that recognizes songs and links me to iTunes, so I use that if I have my phone handy during an episode. I have huge iPod playlists from Alias, Castle, and Grey’s Anatomy. 😀
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