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The Art of the Soundtrack

Arts & Culture | April 16, 2010

The technology of music is always evolving. Not just in the obvious ways either—the synthesized beats and computer noises that are so prevalent in modern music aren’t the only contribution technology has made. Software that allows programs like iTunes Genius and Pandora to choose complementary music has revolutionized the way we listen. Even before our computers could make us the perfect playlist in a matter of moments, there was a premium put on choosing the right song, especially when it came to soundtracking movies and television. Is technology making a great soundtrack irrelevant or more important to the production of a successful show or film?

Picking the right song for the moment is not only an art form, it’s a career. The minds behind the music on many shows have become famous in their own right. Alexandra Patsvas, who works as the music supervisor on many popular TV series, including The OC, Grey’s Anatomy, and Gossip Girl, has been recognized as especially influential in the trend of music promotion through television. A great music supervisor is an incredible asset to a TV show or film; not everyone has Zach Braff’s famously good taste or Patsavas’ notoriety. And music choice is important: bands have become famous after being featured on popular shows, and the shows have become better known based on their musical choices.  Imogen Heap’s feature song in the season two finale of The OC immensely popularized the band and became one of the best-known moments on the show, one that has been both commended and parodied. In Garden State, The Shins’ well known song “New Slang” plays a prominent role; the film put the band on the map and became famous for its well-chosen soundtrack. Many other artists have skyrocketed to success after having a song used as a theme or after being prominently featured in a movie or TV episode.

As television shows begin to heavily feature music, the soundtrack gets as much attention in the credits as the actors and crew do. Many shows put the songs featured in every episode on display after the credits roll, letting you know the song name, artist, and where to buy the tune. Most shows have a section of their website devoted to the soundtrack of the series; some even let you in on the logic behind their music choices. Most recently, MTV has begun to feature the music as a key player in the very scene it plays in—on most of the network’s reality shows, you can find out what song is playing the moment in comes on, as it appears in subtitle form. Perhaps more obvious is the choice to feature the actual band in a movie or TV show—many shows chose to put musicians front and center, playing fictionalized live shows onscreen. In other cases, music takes the lead in plot form; films like Almost Famous (2000) and Pirate Radio (2009) have put music in the spotlight.

So, is a soundtrack a more personalized version of product placement? Is it an art form? Is it a star in its own right? One thing is certain: music is no longer just a backdrop for acting. As technology enables us to be both increasingly fickle and more diverse in our musical preferences, film and television adapt to accommodate the modern mindset. Television shows and films are paying as much attention to their soundtracks as the viewers are, whether for a show whose music can be described as a perfect blend of complementary beats per minute and instrumental compatibility, or a movie that chooses to have one band produce their entire score. Even as technology makes it possible for a computer to compile an outstanding playlist, music supervisors’ jobs become more crucial; picking the right songs for a well-scripted moment is just as important as choosing pieces that go well together; music supervisors need both the eyes and the ears for the job.