- Television Genre / Musical Genre / Expressive Genre
Here’s the story, of a lovely lady,Who was bringing up three very lovely girls.
It’s 1970 in Anytown, USA. You walk over to the television set, pull the on/off button, twist the channel selection knob, adjust the “rabbit ears,” and tune into your favorite situation comedy, The Brady Bunch, a squeaky-clean story of a blended family living in southern California. And you sing along with the catchy opening theme song, which tells the backstory of the show in tune and verse. Now you are ready to enjoy thirty minutes of madcap family fun.
Fast forward to 2018. You turn on all three of your remote controls, push the Cbl/Sat button on one remote, and then select the Netflix option for your cable server selections. From the Netflix menu, you select the program The Crown, which you heard was a highly acclaimed docudrama about Queen Elizabeth II. The episode opens not with a singsong jingle about blended families but with a grand, cinema-like opening theme by Hans Zimmer (a renowned film composer). So while you consider pressing the Skip Intro button to get right to the program, there is something about the musical opening that keeps you watching.
How are these two viewing experiences in different times and televisual space similar, and how are they different? In both cases, the theme music serves as a sort of frame that sets the program apart from anything else that surrounds it. In the case of The Brady Bunch, the theme [End Page 435] song separated interdiegetic televisual space with intradiegetic televisual space; that is, the song separates a discrete program from the other inter-texts of televisual “flow,” and prepares the viewer for this particular program.1 In the case of the Netflix program, there may or may not be the issue of flow, since it is a cable feature, and we do not have to watch other programs and commercials to access the program. But the music still entices us into the narrative world of the show, pulling us out of our nontelevisual lives and into the television’s storyworld. As Jason Mittell explains, in addition to providing information on the makers of a particular television program, television openings help to introduce characters, plot types, story lines, production values, and other facets of programs.2 While Mittell is referring to the visual and scripted aspects of TV openings, another important aspect of an opening is the music that is presented.
This appellative function of TV theme music is a communicative act, one that Charles Morris calls “ascription.”3 Ascription basically means that a sign vehicle can signify in many modes of signification simultaneously. In the case of television, theme music is ascriptive because it communicates in several different ways. According to Roland Jakobsen’s theory of modes of communication, TV theme music is both phatic, in that it searches for contact (“Hello? Your show is on!”), and conative (“Come to the TV set and watch!”). Music is also referential and meta-lingual, as the referential code serves to identify the specific theme itself (“This is the theme to The Brady Bunch, composed by Sherwood Schwartz and Frank DeVol”). The metalingual code refers to the practice of playing theme music at the beginning of TV shows in general, a code that was familiar to TV viewers in the 1970s but has been increasingly transgressed from the 1990s onward, as deregulation of TV air time has caused many productions to attenuate theme music altogether. Finally, TV music functions through the emotive, or expressive, code of communication.4
In the twenty-first century, television music codes have evolved and become much more complex, or at least multifaceted. Due to the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and others, the phatic and conative codes of music are no longer as vital to the viewer. Since programs (like The Crown) are selected by the viewer rather than streaming on the televisual flow, television themes really do not have to alert viewers that the program is about to air. And with the Skip Intro button available on many...