STAR TREK: DISCOVERY’s non-stop background music (editorial)

NO SPOILERS, BUT BE WARNED: YOU WILL NEVER WATCH DISCOVERY THE SAME WAY AGAIN AFTER READING THIS BLOG (REALLY)!

I didn’t feel that this latest episode of STAR TREK: DISCOVERY was particularly blog-worthy, soI’m going off-Book (sorry) this week to focus on an aspect of the series that I’ve been wanting to cover: background music. This will be a different kind of Discovery blog, so much so that I’m not even calling it a “review.” But I think you’ll find it…fascinating!

In the TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles,” Captain Kirk tells Uhura: “Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing.” Is that also true of music? If so, then Discovery is definitely the tribbles of background music!

Why? Well, take a listen to any episode lately. Try to find a scene where there isn’t any background music playing. With the exception of a few seconds here and there, the background music is pretty much constant.

So the question follows (with all due respect to Captain Kirk): is too much background music not necessarily a good thing?

Let’s start off by talking a little bit about background music in film and television as a general concept. The first time I noticed the power of background music was in 2003 when I saw the film Lost In Translation with BILL MURRY and SCARLETT JOHANSSON. The reason I noticed the music was because director SOFIA COPPOLA made the conscious decision almost no background music in the entire movie! Actually, I should qualify that statement. There were scenes where the stereo was playing or they were singing karaoke or there was piano music in a bar, like this scene…

But as far as the typical Hollywood instrumental music that is usually inserted during scenes, there was virtually nothing throughout the entire film. And for me, that made the movie feel tedious and bland. Despite rave reviews from critics and even from audiences, I left the theater having felt almost nothing.

And in fact, that lack of connection is exactly what background music is supposed to prevent. Music added under a scene can help the audience know what emotions to feel when the scene is ambiguous. And beyond that, music can actually help to intensify the emotional experience of the viewer/listener. Take a look at this eye-opening (and ear-opening!) video…

One of the reasons that background music can be such a powerful tool is that it’s processed in the different part of the brain than spoken language (right temporal lobe versus left temporal lobe, respectively). So both music and dialog can exist simultaneously in a scene and work in tandem without competing or canceling each other out. Music can trigger emotions in the amygdala and limbic system while visual and language centers of the brain can still process what is being seen along with the words being spoken.

But how much music is too much?

This is a question almost as old as filmmaking itself—although silent movies almost always had a continuous music track. So perhaps I should say “s old as the talkies.”

Sometimes a long a continuous music track can add excitement, especially if the composer is JOHN WILLIAMS…

And try to imagine HUMPHREY BOGART telling INGRID BERGMAN to get on the planet without this epic musical score beneath his words…

So you can see how powerful a tool music can be! But then the next obvious question arises: when and why should you NOT include music in a scene? After all, if it’s such an amazing tool for adding emotion and guiding a movie watcher through a scene, then why not just use it everywhere?

As I said, such a question has been the subject of debate in Hollywood for nearly a century. And while my own experience with Lost in Translation opened my eyes to the effect that almost no background music whatsoever can have in a film, I also understand that it isn’t an all-or-nothing decision. Sometimes a scene can benefit when there is less music placed carefully only in certain key moments. Take a look at this very familiar sequence (at least, I hope it’s familiar to you!) and listen to where the music is—and isn’t…

When a director (and/or film editor) decides to include music, they are typically doing so in order to place the viewer into a specific state of mind to help better convey some aspect of the scene. And that’s usually a good thing. It can make an otherwise bland scene become much more impactful and take an impactful scene into the stratosphere of emotion.

But music also “traps” the viewer emotionally. There is no other feeling to be felt but the one that the music triggers in the amygdala and limbic system. If the music is scary, you feel fear. If the music is sad, you might feel a lump in your throat or a tear in you eye. Happy and triumphant music can make you smile, etc.

So again, why not use music everywhere, since every scene should make you feel something, right? Well, actually, no. Sometimes a scene best serves the audience by remaining ambiguous. For example, let’s say that the hero’s best friend is really the villain who will ultimately betray her. Including sinister or suspicious music too early might give away the surprise plot twist. Or worse, if you use happy friendship music, you might inadvertently “lock in” a positive feeling about the villain so that the audience feels sympathetic to the bad guy and doesn’t end up buying into the betrayal. Best to keep the music subtle or even leave it out entirely.

Or sometimes the scene just needs to breathe…or maybe the audience needs an emotional break. There’s such a thing as too much emotional intensity for too long. Remember the Death Star attack from Star Wars? Let’s watch the whole 14-minute sequence (you know you want to!).

What you’ll notice is that the sequence begins (once the rebel squadron is launched) with lots of exciting, suspenseful music. But at 5:46, the music stops for nearly a full FOUR minutes! It stops because the attention shifts away from Luke to the first two trench runs by the other pilots. In fact, for those four music-free minutes, we hardly see Luke at all. Go back and take another look (and a listen).

Removing the music for those sequences gives the audience a little “break” to just marvel at the amazing visual effects and see these brave X and Y-wing pilots die without investing too much emotionally. At 9:42, however, just as the last of the “veteran” pilots goes down in a blaze of glory, the music starts up again as the scene shifts back to Luke Skywalker. And for the next four minutes, as our young hero is now in the spotlight, the music continues right up until the Death Star explodes and Obi Wan tells Luke: “The Force will be with you…always.”

In other words, NOT having music is often just as powerful a tool as having music. When you don’t have music in certain places, it allows those places with music to stand out and have their own identity. But if you have non-stop music, then you lose that important tool.

And so we (finally!) circle around back to Discovery

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Lost in Translation, the creators of Star Trek: Discovery seem to have made a conscious decision to put music everywhere, in every scene pretty much from beginning to end. Oh, sure, there are a few spots scattered here and there where there isn’t music—or there is a single very low note held for a long while as to be almost unnoticeable—but for the most part, the music is nearly omnipresent, start-to-finish, throughout every episode.

In order to check for yourself, you’ll need to watch all of the episodes and concentrate on the music…which, believe it on not, is not an easy task. But as just one random example, I grabbed most of the first act of the fifth episode of Discovery‘s third season, “Die Trying.” Due to the size limits of WordPress, I need to break up the act into two segments…

(Ya want more than that? Subscribe to CBS All Access.)

Anywhoo, that is a LOT of music. And there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that creative decision. Honestly, after suffering through Lost in Translation for 104 minutes (sorry, I just did not like that movie), I’d rather have too much music than no music. But there are some definite “side effects” from having wall-to-wall music in your movie or TV show, and one of the most noticeable is that it can make the darn thing exhausting to watch!

This happens often for me when watching Discovery. It’s on an almost subconscious level, but I feel emotionally drained when I finish most episodes. Sometimes it’s in a good way, sometimes not. Essentially, the music is dragging me along, like a dog on a leash, through each episode…except I’m not allowed to stop and sniff the grass or lift my leg at the occasional tree or fire hydrant. So if I watch through in one sitting (which I try to do), I finish the 50-or-so-minute episodes having had quite the emotional workout!

Now, you might be wondering if it has always been this way with Discovery? The answer is yes…and no. While Discovery has always has a lot of background music—even from the first episode “The Vulcan Hello”—it wasn’t as omnipresent as it is now. Having just rewatched a whole bunch of episodes from seasons one and two (believe it or not, they’re actually better when you go back to them), I can estimate that season one averaged about 70% background music, and season two upped that to around 80-85%. Season three, so far, feels like 90-95% music.

Another interesting question would be: is this a trend? Are other modern shows, specifically sci-fi, increasing their background music? Granted, I’m not watching EVERYTHING that’s out there, but let’s take a quick look at two examples of recent cutting-edge sci-fi—The Mandalorian and The Expanse—and get a feel for the amount of music they include.

First, let’s do a 9-minute segment of a recent Mandalorian episode (again, divided into two parts)…

In the first part, the background music is pretty much non-stop. But the second part starts with a full minute of no background music, then the music comes back with just a few moments here and there without it. On average, The Mandalorian has about 85% background music in most episodes, which is pretty close to season two of Discovery and just under season three.

So maybe nearly non-stop music is the new normal? Not so fast!

Let’s take a look at a segment of similar length from the most recent season of The Expanse

As you can see (er, hear), The Expanse still has a lot of background music, but I’d estimate the percentage as closer to 65%. The suspenseful space scenes have continuous music (when they’re exciting), but the “quiet” dialogue scenes often start with no music and then add it only toward the end of the scene to build drama. Indeed, if you go back to the second Mandalorian clip above, you’ll see it starts off with one of those “quiet” dialog scenes, as well. And like The Expanse, that Mandalorian scene introduces music subtly as the scene progresses in order to build the gravitas of what is being discussed. In fact, a good portion of what you’ll see on TV and in movies follows this pattern.

Discovery doesn’t, however. It used to, but as of season three, nearly all “quiet” dialog scenes aren’t all that quiet. The music is nearly ubiquitous. Perhaps it’s more subtle in certain places, especially at the beginning of scenes and building toward the end, but background music nearly always there in some way.

And in case you’re curious and don’t want to rewatch all of Picard and Lower Decks, it was pretty obvious as I skimmed through episodes of both series that each has noticeably less background music than Discovery. Picard has significantly more than Lower Decks—probably comparable to The Mandalorian—but neither has hit the almost-constant presence of background music that Discovery has right now.

So…am I complaining that there’s too much music in Discovery? Not really. When I want to criticize Discovery, I don’t beat around the bush. The worst thing I can say about the show’s nearly-continuous music track is that I often find it emotionally draining. But as I said, that’s not inherently a bad or a good thing. It’s just a thing.

No, I’m not complaining—only sharing something interesting and unique about this show. The amount of background music on Star Trek: Discovery is, at least at this moment, as much of an outlier as was the complete lack of background music in Lost in Translation. Both are bold choices. But in Discovery‘s case, perhaps it is boldly going and leading the way for others. As I said, other shows like The Mandalorian have ALMOST as much music. Perhaps this is indeed the wave of the future for television and movies.

Or maybe it’s just demonstrating Kirk’s old adage that too much of anything…isn’t necessarily a good thing.

19 thoughts on “STAR TREK: DISCOVERY’s non-stop background music (editorial)”

  1. it’s interesting that you bring this up. a friend of mine said that he was having problems watching discovery because the music was non-stop and he thought overly dramatic.

    I didn’t notice that (before), but it does often seem to me that the music is supposed to make me feel things that the script isn’t because the writing and the characterizations are so poorly done (I realize that many people will not agree with that sentiment, so that’s just my opinion; I’m not interested in fighting about it).

    having said that, I’m interested to hear whether people think that the score augments what is going on on screen or compensates for it. because now that my friend brought this up, I can’t escape the music. it’s overwhelming.

    having said that, there’s fun word you can use to talk about movie sounds.

    diegetic noises and sounds are those that occur in the onscreen world (footsteps, gunshots, music from a stereo, etc)

    non-diegetic sounds and noises are the noises that are not generated from the world on screen (score, voiceover, etc).

    use them in good health!

  2. “NO SPOILERS, BUT BE WARNED: YOU WILL NEVER WATCH DISCOVERY THE SAME WAY AGAIN AFTER READING THIS BLOG . . .”

    I don’t want it now, so . . .

  3. We’ve been noticing this “trend” on other shows, notably Station 19 and Grey’s Anatomy, where the background music becomes so loud that we cannot hear or understand the dialogue.

  4. Jonathan:

    An interesting commentary, and one that resonates to me especially, as a musician/teacher. My wife is also a musician, so we talk about music in series all the time. I’m a huge music soundtrack buff, having written a number of essays on the use of thematic music throughout history – think of Scheherazade, where you can almost see the ship being thrown against the rocks during the storm. Composers like Rimsky-Korsakhov, Wagner, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky led the way for Erich Korngold (the Sea Witch), Max Steiner (Now Voyager), and Bernard Hermann (Psycho, North by Northwest), which begat our giants – Barry, Williams, Goldsmith and so forth.

    The goal for a movie composer is to develop motifs (motives) to focus on a particular character/place/thing/idea to help move and shape the drama, a device championed by the works of Wagner and Strauss. In fact, many people champion the TOS episode “The Doomsday Machine” as a perfect marriage of high drama (with some light humor) and motivic music. There are definitive motives for the Enterprise, the Constellation (the only ship in TOS that really gets its own theme), Kirk, and Decker, and they are weaved into the framework of the drama to underscore what the writer/director wants you to feel. Is the exploitation? Definitely. But when it is used to to an effect which it CONTRIBUTES and not hits you over the head, it’s magic.

    I’m thinking that DISCOVERY is now playing to the “new” style of soundtrack – music for effect, which you hear a lot in the recent work of Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman. Yes, there are underlying themes (think INCEPTION), but it’s mostly for mood generation. Jeff Russo, DISCO’s composer, follows in this same way, although every now and then he’ll bring in old Trek themes, or variances of them, to stir the heartstrings.

    HOWEVER…

    I feel that there is a specific reason for the music in this season (SPOILERS AHEAD) – and it has to do with the melody that everyone is familiar with and doesn’t know why, with the exception of the Discovery crew. In the last episode, Adira, Stamets, and Tilly are able to find the sector where the Burn began, and isolating the data, find a sound – the melody everyone’s humming/playing. With Saru’s help, they isolate it further, finding it’s a Federation distress call. While the data continues to be crunched by the Discovery/Sphere computer system, Adira and Stamets have a scene where they end up playing a duet based on the melody – in g minor, as Stamets surmises (and what a better way to showcase the skills of Anthony Rapp). G minor is considered one of Mozart’s favorite keys to express sadness and tragedy, and many of Mozart’s minor-based works are in g minor. I haven’t taken the time to analyze the music in DISCO this season, but I would bet that Russo is putting everything that is heard when the Burn is mentioned in g minor. In this case, the music – the melody AND the soundtrack – is another character in the show.

    As always, my opinion – your mileage may vary.

    Great work as always, my friend – LLAP!

    1. Wow, I feel so much smarter now, Steve! 🙂

      I like the idea of having the “eerie” Burn music by a repeating musical element of the series, but the background music is very diverse in different scenes. Compare the sound track in Admiral Vance’s office to Georgiou’s interrogation. Even if they’re both in the key of G-minor (I wouldn’t know), they don’t sound anything alike…at least to me. I would think that the strange music would be more of a constant, but I suspect it’s just that background music itself is the constant.

  5. Interesting exposition – and you have put a great deal of work into it. I have had a great interest in film music for many (very many!) years. The film-makers in the 30s and 40s really knew the importance of the music, giving birth to quite a few famous names although my particular hero was Korngold.

    Into the 50s and 60s film music went largely into decline; and then, along came ‘Star Wars’ in the 70s. real, creative scoring had returned, and much to my delight, the main theme to ‘Star Wars’ was VERY reminiscent of Korngold’s main theme to ‘King’s Row’. I was beside myself, buying the double album of the score before most people had heard of the movie.

    These days, a lot of money can be poured into block-buster movies and more than one film has been saved from box office disaster by the quality of its score.

    ‘Background music’ isn’t really a good name to give to the score as the music contributes to the drama, being an integral part in telling the story, frequently doing so more effectively than words ─ as you have amply illustrated. What’s more, silence can be even more powerful than a spectacular orchestral climax. If music is wall to wall during a movie, or TV episode, this is more often than not, an attempt to save what was otherwise doomed to failure.

    Sorry if I have overlapped some of what you stated in your excellent article, but the topic being of such great interest to me, as a musician, I had to say my little but. What’s more, at a rather senior age, I’m just commencing a course in composing film music!

  6. Hi Jonathan, I noticed the score on Discovery was incessant…it’s not really to my taste. I used to publish a magazine about movie soundtracks, we also had a CD label and I’ve worked on most of the Star Trek collector’s edition soundtracks. You can visit our site at http://www.filmscoremonthly.com for a lot more on this subject!

  7. Music is a regular gripe with some people whenever Doctor Who returns to the screen. Usually it’s a case that it’s too loud or overbearing. It’s funny, I tend to be able to compartmentalise Discovery’s music – plus it’s not half bad in the main . Also, I happen to be left handed which ought to mean the right side of my brain is dominant, so the music ought to be more of an issue (perhaps all I’m really doing is screening out the dialogue instead? 🙂 ).

    Have to say, I am really enjoying this show now (there, I said it). Sure, it would be great if there was a bit more team work a la SG1 – but I’m OK with Burnham doing her thing.

    Music wise, John Williams really is the gold standard. When Luke goes for his final run and the music rallies it never fails to get the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up. Someone get me an X-wing!!!

    1. There’s no question that season three is Discovery’s strongest thus far…although the most recent episode was nothing to write home about (or write a blog about). Fortunately, though, that mediocrity allowed me an opening to cover the music, which I’ve been wanting to write about for a few weeks, ever since I first noticed it.

  8. Lecturing film school students about writing music for a scene, Jerry Goldsmith famously said, “If you are scoring a scene for a man on a horse galloping away – you don’t score the gallop but you score the fear of the rider.”

    Goldsmith’s films were a collected master class in spotting: deciding where underscore starts and stops. He knew how to write nearly wall-to-wall (“Total Recall”) but also knew how to be sparing in order for his music to have its largest impact (“Patton” runs 170 minutes and contains less than thirty minutes of score).

    A lot of TV showrunners these days either ignore their composers’ advice about spotting music or their composers also believe that more is better. It’s often hard to know who’s driving spotting decisions. But all of this is to emphasize: when underscore just starts and doesn’t stop, it can become annoying and intrusive. If (and usually when) that happens, score no longer helps to advance or enhance the narrative. Instead, it becomes an active hindrance to telling the story.

  9. Wow. This is a great discussion which brought up a couple of significant memories of mine.

    I remember watching the LoTR EE entirely and coming across an exposition about how sound was layered for an attack scene. The internet saved my bacon: Sound Demonstrations on the TTT EE: “Helm’s Deep.” SFX #1. SFX #2. SFX #3. SFX #4. SFX #5. SFX #6. SFX #7. Final Film

    I saw the scene with no sound, then with arrows, then with rain etc and in SFX#7 the music standing alone. That I remembered this short EE segment from many years ago is telling. Clearly it impacted me enough to stay in my memory banks.

    Also, when I studied psychology back in the dark ages, 1970’s, I spent time learning about music therapy. I saw a scene where innocent and threatening music was played to illustrate the emotional impact of music.

    So: thanks.

Comments are closed.