There are great dialogue-free scenes (most of Buffy’s Hush for one) and there are great silent or music-free moments (the credit sequences in Game of Thrones’ The Rains of Castamere and The Walking Dead’s The Killer Inside, most of Buffy’s The Body). But here, we’re celebrating musical moments where the score or soundtrack comes to the fore. The scene may or may not include dialogue, the music may be part of the scene (the technical term for this is diegetic) or part of the score, that is, music that does not exist for the characters but enhances the experience for the viewer (non-diegetic or extra-diegetic). However it’s set up, however it’s used, there are moments where the emotion and meaning of a scene is carried through acting, direction and most importantly music, with scripted dialogue taking a backseat. This list celebrates those moments.
In compiling this list, we’ve excluded anything from musical episodes like Buffy’s Once More With Feeling or Xena’s The Bitter Suite – that’s another list for another day! We have included one song, and some scenes with some dialogue, others with none at all; what they all have in common is that the music that plays over or during the scene is central to the viewing experience.
10. The Vampire Diaries, O Come All Ye Faithful
Klaus slaughters twelve hybrids
Music: ‘O Holy Night’ by Adolphe Adam and John Sullivan Dwight, performed by Cary Brothers. (The episode ends with the equally effective ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’).
Diegetic? Mostly, though Klaus probably can’t hear it in the basement. Then again, he is a vampire.
Teen soap operas and vampire shows both tend to feature a lot of quality, well-chosen pop music, and The Vampire Diaries is no exception. But the use of music in this Christmas-themed episode stands out as, rather than scoring dramatic, violent scenes with something heavy and suitably tragic, the power of the scene comes from the disconnect between the meaning of the music and the horror of the action.
Context: Klaus had been suffering the fate of the overly popular villain during the early part of season four – too popular to kill off, but for our heroes to put up with and socialise with him, he has to dial back the evil villainy a bit. In this episode, right before the Christmas break, both our heroes and the viewers are reminded just what sort of a person Klaus still is as he slaughters twelve hybrids and Tyler’s mother. To be fair, the hybrids were trying to kill him. Tyler’s mother wasn’t.
Well play it, Sam: ‘O Holy Night’ plays as Hayley explains to Tyler just how wrong he’s been about her and he realises just how badly he’s messed up. The melancholy tone of the song emphasises Tyler’s sense of betrayal even as the Christmassy subject matter sits awkwardly with the bloody violence unfolding in the woods. And then Tyler rushes off, too late, to save the hybrids, whose hearts lie strewn across the ground as the music plays, ‘Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices…’
9. Quantum Leap, M.I.A.
Al and Beth dance (er, dubbed into Italian here, unfortunately, but the dance is the same from about 1:39).
Music: ‘Georgia On My Mind’ by Ray Charles. Some DVD versions use different music for copyright reasons, and it just doesn’t work as well.
Diegetic? Yes, Beth is dancing to it.
Quantum Leap had several great musical moments, perhaps unsurprisingly since star Scott Bakula is a talented musician and singer. Sam singing ‘Imagine’ to his sister as she slowly realises that he’s not kidding and their brother is going to die in Vietnam is an especially moving moment, but for hardcore fans, nothing can quite beat this scene when it comes to tugging at the heartstrings.
Context: Two seasons in to Quantum Leap and we know and love Al as a hopeless womanizer and serial monogamist. Here, however, he spends most of the episode trying to persuade Sam that the purpose of this leap is to stop a woman called Beth from re-marrying, because her husband, who’s M.I.A., is still alive – only for Sam to discover that Al is her husband, and that she was the only woman he ever really wanted to grow old with. Sam gets on with the real job of the leap, but before they go, Al is given the chance to say goodbye to Beth.
Well play it, Sam: Beth is alone, listening to ‘Unchained Melody,’ when Al comes in and starts to talk to her. She can’t see or hear him, but sometimes she seems to respond to what he says. She gets up and puts on ‘Georgia on My Mind’ and starts dancing alone, with her arms held up. Al joins her and dances for a few minutes, before kissing her and leaping. ‘Al?’ she says. And if you got through all that without tearing up, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. So good a suspiciously similar scene appeared one year later in the movie Ghost…
Talking music: ‘Ziggy, he’ll give you all the right things to say, all the songs to play… that’ll remind her of how much she loves her husband’ (Al).
8. Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Inner Light
Picard plays the flute
Music: ‘The Inner Light Theme’ by Jay Chattaway.
Diegetic? Yes – the importance of the scene is that Picard is deliberately playing this music.
Aside from the awesome theme tunes, Star Trek isn’t overly well known for emphasising the importance of music. Every now and then, though, an episode will highlight certain musical choices for one reason or another, probably to the greatest effect in Star Trek: Voyager’s Counterpoint, in which Janeway’s relationship with a slippery Space Nazi is scored with intricate classical music. Star Trek’s most memorable musical moment, though, is probably this short, simple scene from The Next Generation’s season five.
Context: Picard has been out cold on the bridge for about twenty minutes, during which he experienced an entire lifetime as an alien on a doomed planet; the inhabitants, unable to save themselves, implanted him with their memories to preserve something of their culture (this is, by the way, a horrible thing to do to an unsuspecting stranger, now traumatised for life! As if assimilation by the Borg wasn’t enough for Picard to deal with…). In the course of his life on the planet, the not-usually-artistic Picard learned to play an alien flute to relax.
Well play it, Sam: Since only just over twenty minutes have passed for everyone else and Picard is still the Captain, he tries to pull himself together as quickly as possible, but when Riker gives him the only physical remains of the planet – the flute his counterpart played – he quietly plays his favorite tune, demonstrating that he has been forever changed by the experience.
Talking music: ‘I’m not brooding. I’m immersed in my music… I find that it helps me to think, but the real surprise is that I enjoy it so much’ (Kamin/Picard).
7. True Blood, Cold Ground
Sookie eats Gran’s last pie
Music: ‘Take Me Home’ by Lisbeth Scott and Nathan Barr.
True Blood, a series that names every episode after a song featured in it, has some great musical moments, like the four main vampires’ cheesy-awesome power walk to ‘Burning Down the House’ in the episode of the same name, or the use of ‘I Will Rise Up’ following Godric’s messianic death scene. The most emotionally powerful, however, is this quieter early scene from season one.
Context: Orphans Sookie and Jason have been raised by their grandmother, so her brutal murder by someone looking for Sookie hits them especially hard. As all the neighbours come round to ‘help’ (a house full of people to play hostess to when you’ve just been bereaved sounds horrific to us, but maybe that’s the British in us talking), Sookie screams at Maxine Fortenberry when she goes to serve the last pecan pie her Gran made before she was killed.
Well play it, Sam: After Gran’s funeral, Sookie comes home to her newly empty house. Alone, she sits down to eat the last thing she has left of the cooking she’s lived on for most of her life. There is no dialogue, but a specially composed song with the feel of a Southern spiritual plays over the soundtrack as Sookie weeps while she eats the pie (Anna Paquin’s performance will remind you why she won an Oscar at the age of nine). True Blood is a crazy show most of the time, but in this moment, it is painfully, beautifully real.
6. Community, Environmental Science
Troy and Abed sing ‘Somewhere Out There’
Music: ‘Somewhere Out There’ by James Horner, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, performed by Danny Pudi and Donald Glover (with added bits of Irish folk music).
Diegetic? Yes and no – Troy and Abed are singing the song, and the Irish music fed through it is what the band are playing, but Shirley and Pierce presumably don’t hear anything.
What with Greendale Community College holding at least five dances every year, there are quite a few fun musical moments in Community. Environmental Science isn’t a particularly brilliant episode, but it all comes together rather wonderfully at the end in three intercut scenes backed by Troy and Abed’s rendition of ‘Somewhere Out There.’
Context: Back when Pierce was still occasionally useful and Chang was still a human being, Shirley has refused to take Pierce’s public speaking advice seriously, Chang has split up with his wife and Troy is refusing to help Abed with their joint Biology project because he’s terrified of rats (perhaps this is why they apparently failed, and re-took Biology 101 in season three).
Well play it, Sam: How do you show Abed that you really care about him and about your friendship? By overcoming your fear and singing a pop-culture-relevant song to Fievel the rat, of course. Chang and his wife remember that they love each by dancing salsa to Irish folk music, and Shirley realises that Pierce does occasionally offer quite good advice. Oh, and something about Jeff being less selfish. It’s a bit mad, it’s funny and it’s warm-hearted – all the things that Community does best.
Talking music: ‘If Señor Chang gets any crazier he’s going to win one of those Grammy awards’ (Pierce, and later Jeff).
5. Battlestar Galactica (reboot),Valley of Darkness
Starbuck and Helo listen to a recording of her father playing the piano. Watch the clip, here.
Music: ‘Metamorphosis’ by Philip Glass.
Diegetic? Yes. Although Glass’ music is used as soundtrack later in the episode, here it represents the life that Starbuck has lost (and by extension, the world and society that everyone has lost).
Like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica makes limited use of recognisable music. Even the theme tune, while ethereally beautiful, is light on melody and alien-sounding. This makes the instances, such as this, when it does use more traditional music especially moving, and Philip Glass’ other-worldly style fits in perfectly with the show.
Context: Having never expected to see it again, Starbuck has returned to her flat on Caprica, having been injured on a mission for President Roslin. With her is Helo, who is experiencing conflicted feelings about his pregnant Cylon girlfriend Sharon, who has disappeared with Starbuck’s Raider.
Well play it, Sam: As Starbuck and Helo snatch a few minutes’ rest in her old apartment, Starbuck plays a recording of her father playing the piano. Her dialogue explains that she never pines for her old life and never misses any of it, but the way she wraps herself in her old art jacket would suggest otherwise. It certainly seems safe to say that both she and Helo miss the people they’ve lost, if nothing else, and the dark, resounding music underlines that sense of sorrow.
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Becoming Part 2
Buffy leaves Sunnydale (this version doesn’t seem to be in perfect sync with the song, but it gives you the idea)
Music: ‘Full of Grace’ by Sarah McLachlan.
Buffy featured some great music over the years, much of it performed by various bands at the Bronze, and much of it underscoring some of the series’ most heart-breaking moments, like ‘Goodbye To You’ playing as Tara leaves Willow and Giles leaves Sunnydale in season six. The original music composed for the show was equally brilliant, and often equally heart-breaking; Buffy’s final leap and its aftermath in The Gift stands out. But our favorite is the aftermath of the scene that really defines what Buffy was as a show, and was probably the highlight of the series overall.
Context: Buffy and Angel had sex, Angel lost his soul, he raised a demon and opened a portal to destroy the world, they fought, Buffy won but just before she could finish him off Willow restored his soul, but the only way to close the portal was to kill him, so Buffy kisses him and then kills him. In a nutshell.
Well play it, Sam: A shocked-looking Angel is sucked through some slightly dodgy 1990s special effects as Christophe Beck’s beautiful Buffy/Angel love theme ‘Close Your Eyes’ plays. But in the immediate aftermath, as Buffy weeps and wanders the streets in a daze, Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Full of Grace’ comes on, the lyrics perfectly encapsulating the mood. ‘Too long, too far from home,’ warbles the song as Buffy walks towards the house Joyce threw her out off a few hours earlier. ‘I’m pulled down by the undertow,’ sings McLachlan as Joyce finds Buffy’s goodbye note. After fading out for some dialogue, the song comes back; ‘Everything we say and do hurts us all the more,’ says McLachlan as the other Scoobies try to convince themselves that Buffy will be back soon. ‘We’ve stayed too long in the same old sickly skin… oh darkness I feel like letting go,’ she continues as Buffy stares at the school from which she’s been expelled and walks away. Finally, as Buffy stares out of the window from a coach leaving town, we hear ‘All of the strength and all of the courage come and elevator me from this place. I know I can love you much better than this… it’s better this way.’ It’s the perfect marriage of music and story.
3. Game of Thrones, The Climb
Jon and Ygritte finally reach the top of the Wall, where they enjoy the view and an epic makeout session.
Music: Original soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi.
Game of Thrones is well known for its spectacular theme music and gorgeous original score, and over the past couple of seasons that’s been enhanced with The National’s ‘The Rains of Castamere’ and The Hold Steady’s ‘The Bear and the Maiden Fair.’ Season three certainly wasn’t short of great musical moments, including one spine-chilling one that formed the signal for a major plot development. But today we want to highlight a slightly less mournful example.
Context: The climactic moments of The Climb follow hard on the heels of a scene that’s dark even by Game of Thrones’ standards. Littlefinger’s monologue about how he sees chaos as a ladder for him to climb may not involve the slaughter of half a dozen series regulars – though it is set against the murder of a character present since the pilot and the reveal of just how deeply unpleasant Joffrey is, as if we didn’t know already – but it is thematically dark, and it’s backed with equally dark and ominous-sounding music on the soundtrack.
Well play it, Sam: Littlefinger’s climb will only be complete if and when he actually manages to get his evil little backside on the Iron Throne (gods forbid) but Jon and Ygritte’s climb to the top of the world has a more immediate and satisfying conclusion. Earlier in the episode, Ygritte revealed that she knows Jon is still working for the Night’s Watch, and insisted that whatever happens, he must not betray her. When they reach the top of the Wall, she gets her wish to look down on her world, and then Jon takes her hand and crosses to the Seven Kingdoms side of the Wall to show her his. On some level, both know that she belongs to one side and he to the other, and that their relationship is ultimately doomed. But while they stand on top of the Wall, overlooking both worlds, they are, for the only time, equally in both. Technically the Wall belongs to the Seven Kingdoms, but since it marks the border between the Kingdoms and the northern lands, it is the only place in the world where they are equally in her world and in his, and that’s why they embrace so passionately while standing there, while the soundtrack plays something at once romantic and bittersweet.
It’s not often we get to experience an epic and vaguely nice moment on Game of Thrones, so enjoy it while it lasts!
2. Fringe, Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11
Walter listens to music in an abandoned car
Music: ‘Only You’ by Yazoo.
Music was always integral to Fringe, and to the character of Walter Bishop in particular. Music helps him to concentrate, to keep a grip on what remains of his sanity, to remember important forgotten details and to connect with other people.
Context: Fringe regularly reinvented itself, but the abbreviated season five was the most extreme reinvention. Set entirely in a grim future in which the world has been conquered by Observers, there’s no proper food (only eggsticks), Olivia’s being used as a coffee table by Peter’s pervy friend, Peter and Olivia’s relationship is clearly not doing so well, and the weird science and crazy concepts on display in the title sequence now read ‘Free Will’ ‘Joy’ ‘Imagination’ and ‘Freedom.’ The world we knew seems completely lost, music included.
Walter Bishop himself just can’t catch a break; he opens this episode with his brain put back together, but has been tortured back into madness by the episode’s end. During his interrogation by a particularly unpleasant Observer, Walter tries to think of music to protect his thoughts and the Observer notes that he misses it, as there isn’t much music in this new world.
Well play it, Sam: By the episode’s conclusion, Walter is at his lowest point. He feels he’s failed himself and the world, unable to remember his grand plan and with parts of his brain permanently destroyed (again). He’s attracted by the light of broken CDs glinting near abandoned cars and takes an intact one from a bag and puts it in the player of one of the cars (don’t ask how the radio still works). As he listens, he sees a dandelion blooming in the wasteland.
It isn’t the lyrics so much as the beat and slightly melancholic but overall upbeat tone of the music that if effective here. As Walter closes his eyes (in a wonderfully subtle performance from John Noble), you can almost see the music lifting his spirits and offering him hope in an apparently hopeless situation
Talking music: ‘Music helps you shift perspective, to see things differently if you need to’ (Walter).
1. Life on Mars UK, Episode 1
Sam stands up in the 1970s
Music: ‘Life on Mars?’ by David Bowie.
Diegetic? Half and half – ‘Life on Mars?’ is playing in Sam’s car, but the louder sections are non-diegetic soundtrack.
Sometimes we wonder if the reason Life on Mars exists is basically to support the soundtrack. Cherry-picking the best of the 1970s, this show features great tune after great tune – and none more so than the title track itself.
Context: His girlfriend abducted by a serial killer, Sam Tyler’s tough cop façade starts to crack as he breaks down while driving his car. Stopping to pull himself back together, he’s hit by a mysterious and rather ancient-looking vehicle and starts hearing voices and seeing flashes of a woman in a red dress…
Well play it, Sam: …when he finally wakes up, he’s wearing a leather jacket, wide collar and flared shorts, and the overpass has disappeared. ‘Life on Mars?’ is playing on Sam’s ipod before the accident; we hear snatches of it on the soundtrack while he hallucinates, then as he sits up in 1973 with his new costume, the music swells to its full volume. As Sam stands up, Bowie belts out ‘Take a look at the law man, beating up the wrong guy! Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know, he’s in the best-selling show; is there life on Mars?’. When Sam turns around to his now much older car, the song is still playing – in the cassette player.
Life on Mars is a quirky show with a slightly mad concept, but this critical scene from Episode 1 absolutely sells it. Perhaps it’s the innate weirdness of anything by David Bowie, perhaps it’s the smoothness with which the story segues from the 21st century to the 20th, perhaps it’s simply a great tune, but this is a fantastic and strangely satisfying moment. And of course, it’s one half of the two scenes that bookend the series and give it one of the best series finales in television history…
Juliette Harrisson is a Classicist, a writer and a Trekkie. Her thoughts on what the Greeks and Romans have done for us can be found here.
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