Telegraphing emotion through music in reality shows

My deep love of movies has many facets to it. Sometimes I’m simply enraptured by the visual side; jaw-dropping imagery that instills excitement. Other times, it’s a really good story, that wraps me into a completely fictional world and makes me care as if it were my own. And then, there’s the wonder of the soundtrack.

I could probably devote several blog posts to the art of soundtrack music, but we’ll start here for now.

Music is telling you how to feel

Okay, spooky, but why?

I believe it’s a carry-over from ye olden days of early film, when movies were jittery black and white moving pictures projected without sound in dark theaters. Well, not completely without sound, because the projectors could be loud, rattling things. To cover up that noise, pianists would hammer away at their ivory keys, playing to the action on the screen and covering up the annoying racket of the projector.

By the time sound film came along, the idea of music playing during the story had already become ingrained in people’s minds. Movies are now almost never without some sort of musical soundtrack. The soundtrack, like the moving picture itself, evolved into its own art form.

Reality Shows

I don’t watch a lot of reality shows (don’t have much patience for something without a plot) but the few I have watched I’ve begun to notice the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle cues present in the production music. In order to up the drama, the show does a little subliminal mind control.

The music utilized in reality shows tries to tell you how to feel about a situation by playing something with a direct emotional response: i.e. sad, slow music for a depressing moment, upbeat quick tempo music for a happy moment.

I’ve noticed this “telegraphing” (aka Mickey Mousing) happening in reality competition shows….a lot. I watch very few reality shows, but the few I have seen have been so obvious with their use of telegraphing, I can’t help but mention them.

Face Off – Syfy

This competition show pits a number of movie makeup artists against each other for a grand prize that includes working in the film industry. It’s a great show for anyone interested in filmmaking to check out, because you see the level of planning and immense amount of work that goes into creating fantastical creatures.

It’s a reality competition show, so there’s all the emotional drama you’d expect. Now, if you notice, whenever something is good or bad for a contestant during the judging portion, certain tracks will play:

The editor of this show dramatizes emotions and makes you feel positive or negative about a contestant’s results by what music and sound effects they play over the judges’ commentary.

If you watched the clip above,  you’ll see several contestants showing off their creations to the judges. The music underscores the initial discussion, adding a layer of unease and concern for the artists through its use of echoing undertones and dark, minor key notes. Are they going to make it? Did they make a mistake with some of their choices?

Then, as an emotional shift takes place and the judge says something kind, a snare drum/cymbal”Whoosh” plays and the music changes tempo, with higher, brighter notes. It automatically feels more upbeat.

Chopped Jr. – Food Network

I was watching Chopped Jr. recently and realized they do the exact same thing. I’m now assuming this is standard operating procedure in most, if not all, reality-based TV shows.

When the judges are telling the kids what they did well, the music is upbeat. As soon as they mention a misstep (their fish was overcooked, sauce was runny, whatever) the music immediately shifts. Combined with the reaction shots of the kids responding to these comments, we’re supposed to wonder who is next on the chopping block.

In the clip below, we see a contestant named Emma creating her dish. When things start to go wrong, the music mirrors her anxiety:

Chopped Jr uses a sort of staccato, picked guitar to indicate something bad is going down. Emma’s candy is burning, and she has none left. Uh-oh! This is grounds for being chopped. Tensions are running high.

To show Emma has some hope, the music shifts into a quicker tempo, now strumming and a little rock-n-roll.

Final Thoughts

The next time you find yourself watching a reality show, pay special attention to the music in the background. There’s a reason why it’s there. Ask yourself what this show might be like with completely different music, or no music at all.

Now that you’ve noticed the role of soundtrack music in reality TV, it’s going to be hard to be oblivious to its influence.