When Words Aren’t Enough – Top 10 Music Moments in TV

The ‘golden age of TV’ has also brought the dawn of the Music Supervisor as some God-like figure. These enigmatic creatures can now make a band overnight with the right placement of a song in their show. On MTV we even have a scrolling message for each song in their scripted shows so we know what we are listening to whilst we watch it. Personally I think this takes some of the dramatic power from the music, but it is a good indication of how vital it has become to the structure and production of shows. 10 years ago music was incidental to TV shows, but in the last decade it finally caught up with what film has known for a long time – Use the music wisely and it is transformative.

In film the ‘aha’ moment came in the 1960’s with Bernard Hermann’s score for ‘Psycho’. This was the first time music did more than support emotion but actually enhance and manipulate it. From there music infiltrated film more and more with songs from other artists being used as well as scores composed specifically for each film. Quentin Tarantino and Cameron Crowe are two directors who really use popular music well and helped make soundtracks commodities.

So… Why was TV so slow to the party? This is an old argument. It tallies pretty much with the dawn of what we call the ‘golden age’ of TV, or post-HBO era. Everything since The Sopranos and The West Wing has been rewriting production rules and this includes how music is used.

Music now shapes shows. Sometimes a little too much. But done right it is a powerful, emotive and emotional tool.

When it’s done right, paired with a scene that somehow gets to the core of the song in a way you never imagined, it is transformative. It can expand your understanding of a current favourite song or even change your mind completely about a song you never really liked. The flipside to this is that it can ruin favourite songs when they are used inappropriately. I’ve put together a list of my most memorable TV Soundtrack moments. There may be more powerful or important ones out there, but these are the ones that have really stuck with me. I’ve also been nice enough to create a Spotify playlist for your enjoyment here.

(Please note that some soundtracks are changed between air dates and DVD/Streaming releases for rights purposes. All the music in this article refers to the soundtracks as they aired).

  1. ER: The Beatles –  Blackbird
Dr. Susan Lewis in ER with Bob Newhart
Dr. Susan Lewis in ER with Bob Newhart

(Various Episodes)

This beautiful, reflective Beatles song becomes a theme for some of the most distressing moments in Dr. Susan Lewis’ (Sherry Stringfield) life as she and her troubled ex-addict sister talk of how their mother used to sing it to them when they were kids. Together they sing it when her sister is in labour (Season 1) and then it plays to convey the loss of her niece when she loses custody of ‘little susie’ back to her sister. The song is then also used in the traumatically poignant story arc in Season 10 that guests Bob Newhart as an architect losing his sight to an incurable illness who looks to Susan for support before taking his own life. Blub! Needless to say this song, regardless of what it ever originally meant, now makes me cry. That is the transformative power of melding together song and TV narrative.


  1. Grey’s Anatomy: Snow Patrol – Chasing Cars
Izzie and Denny
Izzie and Denny

Season 2: Episode 27 ‘Losing My Religion’

Many critics attribute Katherine Heigl’s Emmy to the choice of this one song. It plays as she lies in the arms of her dead fiance, Denny (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a romance that was central to the season and Izzie’s character. He was a patient she risked her and her friends’ careers over. The words ”Would you lie with me, and just forget the world” seem too relevant, too painful for the situation and provoke feelings in even the least feeling-y among us. Grey’s Anatomy overall, however, is also guilty of the biggest soundtracking sin; Lazy writing which relies on music. Grey’s Anatomy is soundtracked by Musical Supervisor powerhouse, Alexandra Patsavas of Chopshop Music (responsible for the Twilight and The O.C Soundtracks) and has broken some great bands and earned a well-deserved reputation for having good music. But as time goes one, with each episode that passes, every single scene relies on musical points of emotion rather than acting.


  1. The West Wing: New York Minute – Don Henley
Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe)
Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe)

Season 2: Episode 16: ‘Somebody’s going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail’

This is a great example of a song I previously had little to no feelings towards being transformed by its placement in my favourite show of the time. This is a special episode in many ways as it is the famed West Wing ‘big block of cheese day’ and Leo is making the west wingers listen to the complaints of the public. In this case the episode also revolves partly around Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) and the fact he has recently learned of his father’s infidelity. In a departure from the largely W. G. Snuffy Walden-composed sweeping string accompaniment, Henley’s song is used carefully and sparingly to thematically frame the episode. Broadcast in February 2001, using a song that later becomes synonymous with 9/11 obviously gives this episode weird foresight and extra clout when rewatching it.


  1. The Sopranos: Alabama 3 – Woke Up This Morning
The Sopranos opening Titles - James Gandolfini
The Sopranos opening Titles – James Gandolfini


(…and got myself a gun). The lyrics alone are perfect for the The Sopranos’ misguided New Jersey gangsters. It was also one of the first times that a song like this was used as a theme for a show and not a specially written track that was bland in atmosphere. This punched through your screen and made you listen, watch and wait for something different, something new. Which of course David Chase, James Gandolfini et al delivered over and over again right from the start of the credits that take us through New Jersey.


  1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Joss Whedon – “I’ve Got a Theory/Bunnies/If We’re Together”
Once More With Feeling
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Once More With Feeling

Season 6: Episode 7 ‘Once More With Feeling’

So… You’ve got a show about a teenage vampire slayer? Right. Ok. I’m just about with you. You want to make it into a musical? For a whole episode? Ermmmm I don’t think so… Though somehow, it works. It is a fun romp of an episode which could convert the stoniest hearts to a Broadway kind of mindset. Each movement or song is memorable but perhaps none more than “I’ve Got a Theory/Bunnies/If We’re Together” which is a song made from a conversation in the magic shop refrained with Anya’s unforgettable line of “Except for bunnies” which promises the apocalypse at the hands of thumper and friends. If this had not been so successful we may not have seen musical episodes of Scrubs and Psych!


  1. Homicide: Life on the Streets: Tom Waits – Cold, Cold Ground
Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton
Andre Braugher as Frank Pembleton

Season 5: Episode 4 ‘Bad Medicine’

The Wire’s precursor (both adapted from The Wire’s creator David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets) uses Tom Waits more than once. Waits’ gravelly, dirty voice is a perfect accompaniment to the bleak circumstances of the Baltimore homicide unit who are always up against impossible odds.  In this episode the mighty Frank Pembleton (best TV detective ever, played by Andre Braugher) fails to requalify for field work after suffering a stroke, a cruel blow to such an acrobatic mind. Generally, however, this episode is typical of the show in many ways and the sadness and themes of death of the song just fit perfectly. Strangely enough its sister show The Wire went on to use music dazzlingly too with the reappropriation of ‘Way Down in the Hole’ – Blind Boys of Alabama, by different artists for each season as the theme.


  1. Gilmore Girls: Dolly Parton – I Will Always Love You
Lorelai serenading Luke by mistake
Lorelai serenading Luke by mistake

Season 7: Episode 20 ‘Lorelai? Lorelai?’

Lorelai’s unintentional drunken serenade to her on again off again love of her life Luke is a perfect example of how music can do more than any script. The fast-paced Gilmore Girls was famed for lengthy scripts and witty dialogue, but Dolly Parton karaoke (thank you for using the proper version Amy Palladino) communicated more than anything else could. With Lorelai’s crackling, broken voice, looking Luke, not fully realising the weight of her words – GAWD – I was blubbing like an idiot! You can see that scene here.


  1. Scrubs: The Fray – How To Save a Life
JD and Dr. Cox in 'My Lunch'
JD and Dr. Cox in ‘My Lunch’

Season 5: Episode 20 ‘My Lunch’

Scrubs was a feat of TV for so many reasons (forgetting the final season of course). I have many medic friends who watch it because it actually somehow stays true to life working in a hospital whilst introducing whimsy, fantasy and the destructive ability to cut through all the crap with a punch to the gut of emotion and poignancy. Zach Braff is responsible for the eclectic and beautiful soundtrack for the show (and for making The Shins mainstream!). Something he then went on to do again for his first feature Garden State. He mixed acoustic pieces with contemporary songs. One very memorable and apt use of soundtracking was The Fray’s How to Save a Life. It may seem a given for a hospital-based show that this would be used, but Scrubs used nostalgia and cliche so sparingly that this song brought urgency and an immediate sense of loss to the episode where JD and Dr. Cox are unable to prevent a patient from committing suicide. The


  1. Six Feet Under: Sia – ‘Breathe Me’
Claire Drives Away
Claire Drives Away

Season 5: Episode 12 ‘Everyone’s Waiting’

Another show that memorialises (excuse the pun) it’s most moving moments with fitting music. A diverse, anglophilic soundtrack that would include over the show’s run Radiohead, PJ Harvey and Coldplay it went out on a beautiful, sad moment as we watch Claire drive away to her fate with Sia’s ‘Breathe Me’ capturing our collective sadness and fear for her perfectly. It is incidentally also one of the best endings to a show, ever.


  1. The O.C.: Imogen Heap – Hide and Seek
Merissa Shoots Trey - The O.C. Season 2
Merissa Shoots Trey – The O.C. Season 2

Season 2: Episode 24 ‘The Dearly Beloved’

The O.C (another ChopShop Music show) introduced us to some amazing bands – Death Cab for Cutie, Rooney, Nada Surf, Phantom Planet. The music was used in live performances and in the background for cute moments like Summer and Seth dancing to Ryan Adams’ cover of Wonderwall, but also to dramatic effect as in the case of this episode as it plays twice. Once at Caleb’s funeral and once again when Marissa shoots Trey to save Ryan, the line “Mm, that you only meant well” echoing in the aftermath.


Please enjoy my playlist here


Fun fact – Ricky Gervais, long before ever appearing infront of the camera was once a Music Supervisor for the BBC

The Author

Pippa Bennett

Pippa Bennett

Always happy when writing (preferably about all things geeky), Pippa's two other favourite things in life are her French Bulldog Reuben and to consume gross amounts of TV.

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