Ever noticed that your favourite reality TV shows all kind of sound the same, and not necessarily good? We’re taking a deeper look into reality TV music.

The television is sometimes referred to as the “idiot box”, however it can be a great source of educational information. We enjoy documentaries about the natural world, narrated by legends like David Attenborough. But, to balance that out, we also watch 40 plus hour series of strangers marrying one another, much to the chagrin of their friends and family, and for seemingly no good reason.

It might sound like these two types of televisual content involve a varying amount of thought, work, and care. Whilst I’m well aware I wouldn’t know where to begin making a passable reality TV show, I do feel comfortable saying the cinematic, adverse-habitat defying camerawork that features in many David Attenborough documentaries trumps the shots captured in Married at First Sight.

There is also a stark contrast in the quality and nature of music used. The soundtrack for A Life On Our Planet garnered an Emmy Award. Attention to themes and motifs representing moods, creatures, and events is often paid in music featured on Attenborough docs. Whereas reality TV music tends to be over-simplified, over-dramatic, and applied incredibly heavy handedly.

Besides time and budget constraints, why would reality TV music differ so much to the rest of television?

Why Is Reality TV Music Different?

I’m not saying that every programme on television should have an outstanding soundtrack. Award-winning scores or complete silence, thanks.

No, that would be silly.

However, even other types of TV show don’t have the over-stimulating, hyperbolic music in the background that reality TV does. So, why is it so different?

You’re probably more than familiar with the concept of stringed instruments representing sadness and sorrow. This is a trope that is hundreds of years old. But, oh boy, have reality TV producers run with it. Every Got Talent sob story is accompanied by hammed up, woeful string quartets. If you’ve watched any show fronted by Gordon Ramsay you’ll know that his rage and fury is always backed by menacing drums, horror-inducing stabs, and generally panicky sounding programmed orchestral instruments.

The music in reality TV does a great job of cleansing any situation or person of nuance or complexity. In other words, the music takes an emotion, such as sadness or joy, and emphasises the most basic aspects of it. It’s done so consistently and forcefully that it acts as subconscious signposting for the viewer. This, in turn, creates one dimensional characters, rather than complicated and multi-faceted human beings on our screens.

So What?

You might be wondering why any of this matters at all, and why we’re pointing it out. It’s interesting to recognise how the implementation of music in reality TV affects our perception of those taking part. It’s also helpful to be aware of how the music takes away the need to think deeply, or even at all, whilst watching these shows.

Because “sad music” is used so liberally whenever events turn slightly south, we, as the viewer, immediately know something sad is happening. Ditto anything scary, happy, or when someone is being a bit dumb. The elimination of the need to assess and analyse situations even slightly means you end up thinking too much about whom any of the people on the show really are. They end up being simple caricatures, existing only to entertain.

Whilst these programmes can be entertaining or fun to watch, they can be problematic when it comes to the way we understand other people. Our ability to empathise with others can be stunted, as we disconnect people from the real world and categorise them as made up characters with no real feelings.

Explaining the reification of music, animals, and human beings in a far more succinct way, Tantacrul breaks down the relationship between reality TV and stock music.

As he puts it in his video, consuming too much reality TV can feel a lot like eating too much fast food. It can be tasty, it’s easy, and might give pleasure in that moment. However, afterwards you can feel sluggish, not properly nourished, and a little gross.

Without giving your brain the nutrition of informative, or even just well edited programmes, it can start to feel kind of unhealthy.

To Conclude

If you’ve ever wondered why your brain feels particularly mushy after watching lots of reality TV, now you know why. Your brain doesn’t need to do any work because the music already has it covered.

If you enjoy these sorts of shows, that’s fine. Who isn’t partial to a bit of The Apprentice? It’s just always helpful to remember the people shown on “reality” TV, are in fact real human with emotions, hopes, and dreams. It’s nice to be nice, and don’t let pizzicato strings fool you!