Music as an essential part of storytelling in television series such as "Breaking Bad"

Seminar Paper, 2015

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Theory of Television Music
2.1 Functions of Television Music
2.2 Music as a source of emotion
2.3 Diegetic vs. Nondiegetic Sound
2.4 Musical Association

3. Music in “Breaking Bad”
3.1 Negro y Azul
3.2 Ozymandias
3.3 Felina

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Television series have become more and more popular in the course of time. Analyses of this kind of scripted entertainment deal with quality and quantity of content and form.

The following term paper focuses on the aspect of music in television and in this sense intents to show, that the soundtrack is an essential part of the narrative storytelling in television series. Breaking bad, an American crime drama television series, serves as an example within the context of this term paper.

The so called “auteur series” express a historical turn, from the silent film era to todays new American television culture, on the level of content and form, by acquiring innovative stylistic devises (from both, cinema and television). Many scientific researches survey television series in terms of dramaturgy or the pictorial design, whereby the area of sound design has received less attention for a long time. Television without sound is unthinkable, since only the combination of both, sound and image, can ensure the conveying of a meaningful content (Boecker 2014: 15-16).

“Breaking Bad” is one example for an auteur series, which implicates multifarious music having a great impact on the narrative part. Through new narrative forms emerging in prevailing TV series, the characters are also more “ambivalent, transgressive, morally ambiguous, conflicted, multi-faceted [and] oftentimes they don’t follow conventional rules of character development” (Ruhm n.y.).

The purpose of this work is first of all to consider the expression and significance of musical ideas and concepts in televisual structures in theory, and secondly to analyze in how far the music supports the narrated story, especially the character change of one of the main characters in Breaking Bad, namely Walter White, who - as the series’ title says – “breaks bad”[1].

2. Theory of Television Music

Television sound and its specific techniques are crucial for a deeper understanding of the program. The music performs independently on the level of communication and is able to accentuate meaning while giving emotional qualities and room for interpretations to the visuals. The viewer gets emotionally involved through music and the mood that is supposed to be created by the film itself, gets enhanced. A primary feature of music is the functionalization, which is also revealed through the stereotyping of certain phrases and motives (Hickethier 2012: 96-98).

Sound in television can basically be categorized into three types: voice, music, and environment (Mittell 2010: 205). The vocal sounds include scripted and unscripted dialogues, monologues and voiceover narrations, which mainly convey the content of the program. Environmental sound is also, just like music, used to influence the viewer’s perception and emotional mood, but first of all it is supposed to create naturalistic qualities of the show (Mittell 2010: 206). Since this term paper focuses only on music, it is not necessary to go into any more detail in terms of vocal and environmental sounds.

2.1 Functions of Television Music

As one of the sensory channels of television, music has the potential of being a semiotic system, that is, a system of signs that transmit meaning or signification to receivers (Rodman 2010: 33).

Considering the historical changes in the use of adequate film music, one has to mention the gradual development of specific techniques or strategies in terms of composition. In the following there will be only the three most important ones explained.

- Thedescriptivetechniquemeans the use of musical illustration to complement the image through imitation or stylization of sounds and the underlining of movements. Significant is the exactly calculated synchronicity between the music and the picture, in order to create a two-dimensional image. In some cases music does not only complement the action, but is rather one major element of it, since the movements of persons or things are greatly dependent on the musical rhythm (Bullerjahn 2001: 77-80).

- Themood techniqueis the organized procedure of adding musical atmospheric pictures to film scenes. The sound is used to support the mood of the visual events. The aim is to emphasize the protagonists’ frame of mind and to evoke certain feelings, such as joy, compassion, tension, etc., on the side of the viewer (Bullerjahn 2001:83).

- Theleitmotif techniquecharacterizes the figures or the setting of a film, by repeating a certain theme over and over again. Richard Wagner Wagner also explains it as the “recurrence of melodic elements" that create "a unified artistic form which stretches not merely over restricted parts of the drama but over the whole drama, linking it together“ (Rieger 2010: 155).

Besides conveying emotion, which is one major function of music in film and television, music plays many more decisive roles in visual media:

In addition to the obvious phatic and emotive function of the music, music also functions poetically within a semiotic system to convey the narrative world of the program. Of note here is that the syntactical elements of the main title music reinforce the narrative subject of the show. These syntactical elements include pitch in the form of melody and harmony and temporality in the form of surface rhythm but also duration, pacing, form, timbre or use of instrumental color, and volume or loudness (Rodman 2010: 34).

Music can indeed act like dialogues or monologues, namely in form of lyrics of a played song or the character singing. Apart from the use of words in music, “the musical soundtrack […] can define a scene’s tone, mood, and genre” (Mittell 2010: 206). Independent from the visuals, through music the viewer is able to dedicate a certain scene to a specific genre. Many times television series use licensed, pre-existing music, “such as popular songs, that highlight a show’s mood or a character’s personality” (Mittell 2010: 207).

Furthermore, the show’s theme song is on common and essential feature of the sound, which differs in its narrative function and genre and primarily facilitates a high recognition value of the program. “In TV dramas, a reprise of a program’s theme song is usually used for the transition of a program back into the extra diegetic flow” (Rodman 2010: 147).

On the extra diegetic level, theme songs function as leitmotifs identifying the program that is about to air or has just finished airing. These serve also as framing devices for the televisual flow (Rodman 2010: 134).

The leitmotif expressed through the theme song of a show refers to characters and settings and already conveys emotional states within the narrative. The musical gesture of theme song can reveal aspects of the genre, such as heroic, tragic and comedic (Rodman 2010: 135).

2.2 Music as a source of emotion

Highly interesting is the contribution music makes to the emotional aspects in television series. Typically music compromises a substantial part of the duration of one episode and therefore it is of importance in how far music is conducive to the “emotional meaning, the establishment of general mood, and the experience of genuine deep emotions” (Cohen 2001: 250).

To evoke certain feelings on the side of the viewer, filmmakers make use of a range of standardized music forms: Threatening danger, fear or catastrophes are usually supported by dissonant intervals, a relentless and permanent beat, or instrumentals which produce an alarm like sound, whereas moods of happiness, richness and love scenes are encouraged through string music for instance (Hickethier 2012: 98).

Usually the viewer pays particular attention to the music only when it is related to the narrative, whereas low background music is often just subliminally perceived. Bullerjahn and Güldenring, two professional composers of film music, conducted a study where a film sequence of about ten minutes was showed including five different soundtracks. The result was clear: The impact of the music is great, since the different types “lead to different judgments of the appropriateness of emotional categories (e.g. sad, thrilling, sentimental, vivid), choice of genre (horror, comedy, thriller, crime, etc.), reasons for the actions of the protagonist, and expectations about the completion of the film” (Cohen 2001: 255).

The relationship between the film itself and the music can either follow the concept ofparallelismor the concept ofcounterpoint. In other words: “either the music ‘resembles or contradicts’ the action or mood of what happens on the screen” (Gorbmann 1980: 189). The effects of film montage lead to a contrary conveying of meaning through picture and music. Siegfried Kracauer explains this phenomenon as follows:

Imagine the close-up of a sleeping face, which appears to the rhythms of nightmarish music: it is all but inevitable that the intriguing discrepancy between these sounds and so peaceful a picture should puzzle us (1965: 141).

Finally he summarizes that whenever music is added to visuals, it will have an effect, and compares this to the combination of two words producing a different meaning, as it has each word read separately (1965: 141).

2.3 Diegetic vs. Nondiegetic Sound

In general and respecting all three types of sound sources, one has to distinguish between the“diegetic”and the “nondiegetic” sound (Mittell 2010: 209). The former includes all acoustics that belong to the reality on-screen, in other words: all sounds that we think the protagonists can also perceive. According to this, the term implicates direct speech in the form of dialogues between the protagonists, where the speakers are visible on screen or their presence is obvious, as well as all the other sound effects that can be ascribed to visual happenings. Most of those sounds are not original ones, they are rather produced in the postproduction and added later. Last but not least, the realistic (film) music[2]is also attributed to the first category, which means every piece of music that is on-screen either produced by one of the actors, is played from a music device such as a radio, a record player, etc., or its presence originates logically out of the scenic context (Bullerjahn 2001: 19-20)[3].

Under the term “non-diegetic” sound we shall understand all acoustic events, we assume are not perceived by the participants of the film scene, what means that they do not go with the filmic reality. In the narrow sense music is being classified as background music at this point. The sound sources are not visible and the music “plays an intermediary role between the film and the viewers” (Pauli 1978: 12)[4]. A further element of this category is language when it is used commentarial, in most cases in the form of a voice-over narration, where the speaking person is not visible on screen. Nevertheless, it is possible, that the person who reflects or comments, appears as an acting person on camera. The voice is then interpreted as the thoughts or as an inner monologue of the person (Bullerjahn 2001: 20-21).


[1]„Break Bad: Comes from the American Southwest slang phrase "to break bad," meaning to challenge conventions, to defy authority and to skirt the edges of the law“ (Jawesome 2011: n.p.).

[2]In German literature one speaks of „Realmusik“ (Thiel 1981: 63).

[3]All translations from the German are by the author

[4]The original reads: „die Musik schiebt sich als vermittelnde Ebene zwischen den Film und den Filmbesucher“.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Music as an essential part of storytelling in television series such as "Breaking Bad"
Justus-Liebig-University Giessen  (Englisch)
Scripted Entertainment
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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551 KB
Music, Breaking Bad, Scripted Entertainment, TV Series
Quote paper
Pauline Hein (Author), 2015, Music as an essential part of storytelling in television series such as "Breaking Bad", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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