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Your Guide to Music & Media Genres

Music is used a lot in visual media, to varying degrees of success. While there’s always an exception to be found, music tends to work best when it gels with what is seen on screen. There are patterns that can be figured out; you won’t find disco music in a Western. Here are examples showing how music is used to enhance certain genres.

Pop Music & Reality TV

First, let’s get pop music out of the way. This is a tricky genre, some would argue not a genre at all, due to how fluid it is. What classes as pop music changes with the times, though right now we can identify the artists who are pop and what their sound is.

If a TV genre can be matched to pop music, it’d be daytime and reality TV. The audience hasn’t bought into a dramatic fiction, they’re tuning in for some easy watching. This is why pop music genres, and hit pop songs themselves, are used for popular reality TV shows. In Britain, one of the most popular shows is Love Island. Viewership is so widespread that bookmakers now give Love Island betting odds on what may or may not happen in the season. While rare, the competition element of reality TV does sometimes create special bets odds where people wager who wins the show. The sheer popularity of some media, like pop music and TV like Love Island, brings a meta element here. That is, some of the song choices are old pop classics chosen simply because they’re iconic, memorable and get people excited.

Where pop songs are used in more dramatic media, it typically has a deeper meaning or it’s being spun in some way. Juxtaposition – where two things are placed together but contrast – has been used a lot in Hollywood. If you’ve ever watched a sad scene in a movie where the soundtrack is a happy pop song, you’ve witnessed musical juxtaposition. They’re tapping into the same thing when they use a sad cover of a typically upbeat song, for both drama and irony’s sake.

Strings & Horror

Classical music, and particularly the strings, have been used to great effect in horror for almost a hundred years. There are three main reasons why this is the case. First, strings and other classical arrangements jam well with your typical horror setting – grand, typically old dwellings like old mansions or rundown infrastructure.

The other two are inherent to strings themselves. Music played with strings can pace itself, setting and manipulating audience expectations. Yes, this is that slow-building, whining violin effect that reaches its peak, only for nothing to be on-screen. Then something creepy happens. That shrill, controllable, slow building of a violin is just something that a piano can’t do.

The last reason is dissonance, where the harmony is off. You may have heard how the minor key is sad, so we know that the way music is presented changes how we react to it. Dissonance plays two (or more) of these tones together. It’s not very pleasant to the ear but, when it’s a theme to a shambling creature or an unknowable horror, it doesn’t have to be. Strings aren’t exclusively used for this – synths and other electronic instruments are also used, especially in sci-fi horror settings.

Electronic Music & Sci-Fi

Speaking of sci-fi – electronic music is interesting because it was popularised through sci-fi media. While an early instrument, the theremin became a staple through ‘50s science fiction. Think The Day the Earth Stood Still and Doctor Who.

The genre associations are pretty obvious – new synth and electronic machines created sounds that hadn’t been heard before. So, when looking for otherworldly music for spacefaring adventures, filmmakers found their natural candidate.

Interestingly, electronic music still evolves with media genres and phases. Creators online make synth-wave renditions of songs, imagining them as if they were from an ‘80s movie. Cyberpunk is also a huge media influence that has rocketed in popularity in recent years.

About the author

There’s a lot of music out there - good music. At Essentially Pop our remit is that we cover music that deserves to be heard, with a particular focus on independent artists. That doesn't mean we won't cover your old favourites - rather we hope to give you some new favourites as well.

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