The Age of Sound: TV Series Sound and Narrative Complexity
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Sound is an increasingly rich and complex dimension of contemporary television. It has had a leading role since the late eighties, when legendary high-fidelity sound conquered the television world. The emancipation of TV sound started in the musical sphere (when MTV arrived in 1981); too often, however, it is limited to the field of music. What gradually changed, in fact, were the characteristics of TV sound and the TV experience itself. The abundance of sonic phenomena, not just musical ones, compels us to consider the television set not only as a source of idle chatter and background noise but also as a sonic presence and a relevant sound experience. Although, in some areas, TV sound is still a strong element of recognition that is often useful to substantiate genre identity (as in the quiz show), elsewhere sound mounts a strong challenge to the television genre and narration. This essay, therefore, informed by significant cases, spotlights the main issues raised by the complex interaction between genre and sound in contemporary TV series; the focus here is on the pop song’s role in contemporary TV drama. First, sound’s ambiguous role in defining and injecting variety into the genre (from The Sopranos to CSI) emerges; second, the recurring presence of song imposes its form on TV series’ syntax and conditions their narrative configuration, transcending the genre and the text (from Grey’s Anatomy to The Walking Dead). This essay does not claim to offer an exhaustive treatment of the problematic field of sound in TV series; instead, it seeks to shed light on the role of song. It is not simply a stylistic choice (with the spread of an “MTV aesthetic”). Rather, it creates many short narrative forms within the episode and the TV series – halfway between standalone video clips and musical numbers gravitating around the text – that dialogue with the whole narration in a challenging and deeply complex way.
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