I remember thinking that one of the things I don’t like about old movies is all the silence. But, that’s okay, I thought, it’s just a different style. Not every scene needs to be bookmarked with some contemporary easy listening as cues to what emotion the audience should be experiencing, though it might be nice to enhance the mood a bit more. I don’t know the history at all about when background music started to become commonplace, but I didn’t even realise how ubiquitous it was until I watched an episode of Grey’s Anatomy—famous for its soundtrack—without music.

There was an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer without any voice or music. I gather that was a stylistic choice where the lack of soundtrack enhanced some of the stuff that was going on. In the case of this episode of Grey’s Anatomy, however, it was clear that there was supposed to be music, just something about the recording had left it out. At first it had an unfinished quality to it, but I got used to it, and enjoyed the episode just the same.

The real shock came on the episode after that, where all the musical cues came back. What surprised me was not how the actual songs, played under the narrative dialogue for example, contributed to the show, but how at all times there was some kind of elevator music going on punctuating every look or gesture. After being sobered by the previous episode of simple dialogue, it felt like watching a children’s cartoon with over the top sound effects pulling me by the hand through each step of the way. I actually had to stop watching, it seemed so juvenile.

Is this a bad thing, I wonder? Does this subtle but more constant kind of laugh-track enhance the experience or just dumb it down? I don’t even know if Grey’s Anatomy is exceptionally bad in this respect or representative of television in general. I just know it will be distracting me next time I watch a primetime television drama.

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