FROM THE MAGAZINE

Behind the Music of TV’s Top Shows

Thanks to the creative vision of music supervisors on series like Euphoria and Bridgerton, today’s must-see TV is also a must-listen.

Illustration by Jose Berrio

The first time I heard Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” wasn’t in a bar, at a party, or on the radio. It was at my grandmother’s house. I was a teenager, glued to the second season finale of Grey’s Anatomy, trying not to cry after a patient took his last breath. Some years later, watching Girls in my college dorm room, I discovered Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” which came as a cathartic release after Hannah Horvath’s hilariously harrowing STI diagnosis. The first became one of the most played songs on my iPod Mini, an anthem for many melodramatic bus rides to school. The second, thanks to this new app called Spotify, inspired countless streams of Robyn’s Body Talk Pt. 1, which became a soundtrack to my messy young millennial life in New York.

When it comes to our taste in music, many of us owe a debt to music supervisors, the mostly unknown figures responsible for selecting tracks that support a film’s or television show’s narrative. It sounds like a dream job, but it entails far more than “just making playlists,” says Jen Malone, the music supervisor for Atlanta, Yellowjackets, Euphoria, and WeCrashed, among others. “It’s dictated by picture and story.” Malone’s work on Euphoria and Yellowjackets, which have vastly different sonic DNA—one is hip-hop and oldies heavy, the other leans into ’90s alt-rock—has ignited interest in the profession. But there’s a whole crop of shows, including Bridgerton and The Dropout, with signature sounds that set them apart, start conversations, and inspire new generations to go down musical rabbit holes.

Being a music supervisor requires a unique skill set: a deep understanding of music history and audience desires, a detective’s tenacity, savvy budgeting, and the instinctive ability to select the hidden gem that makes for the perfect needle drop to complete a scene. The role of the music supervisor dates back to nearly a century ago, but of course it wasn’t called that back then. In the silent film era, a musician, often an organist, would play live music to accompany the images on the screen. Cinemas were loud because of the mechanical cranking and clawing from the film projector, so the live soundtrack was both practical, drowning out that racket, and artistic, heightening the emotions audiences could see playing out on-screen.

According to Guild of Music Supervisors president Joel C. High, Hollywood started using the official title for this profession around the 1950s, when Universal Pictures producer Joseph Gershenson took that credit on one of the Abbott and Costello films. A few decades later, after Dolly Parton and Quincy Jones gave themselves music supervisor credits for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Wiz, respectively, executives started taking the role more seriously. Soundtracks for blockbusters became a draw for more audiences, and studio heads cut deals in order to fund the music budgets for their films. “As people saw the value, not just artistically, but financially, for the use of music, music supervisors started taking off,” High tells me. When network sitcoms, from I Love Lucy to The Golden Girls, were the most popular form of small-screen entertainment, it was the original theme songs and jingles that stuck in the minds of the viewers and fans. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, during the explosion of what we now call “prestige television,” the medium started to look and sound a lot more cinematic.

The Sopranos, which debuted in 1999, was unique at the time for how it brought viewers into the mind of the anxiety-afflicted mobster Tony Soprano, through its use of songs by artists like Mazzy Star, Jefferson Airplane, Journey, and, of course, the undisputed King of New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen. They were expensive tunes to purchase, surely, but it wasn’t TV, it was HBO. Soon, more networks began to follow—not just those on paid cable, but also the big three commercial broadcast networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS. High also credits big-name dramas for teens, like Beverly Hills, 90210, Dawson’s Creek, and The O.C., with bringing the importance of the music supervisor to light in the ’90s and aughts.

In the contemporary streaming era, viewers are incentivized to tune in to a show not just for the laughs or the drama, but to chronicle every track as it plays on-screen. “It’s all changed with the explosion of content in the streaming world,” says Maggie Phillips, who supervised music for The Dropout, on Hulu. “If TV is going to be elevated, we’re going to make it like the movies, and we’re going to have an elevated soundtrack.” Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, who Malone says has an “encyclopedic knowledge of music,” sometimes writes specific songs into his scripts. For a scene in which the protagonist, Rue, robs a stranger’s home, Levinson chose “Fever,” by Sharon Cash. “It was such an obscure recording, and it was from this label that was only in existence from ’67 to ’70,” Malone tells me. “That’s what Sam wanted, so that’s what I had to go find.” Malone’s journey involved searching in the online music database Discogs for the man who owned that record label; finding his daughter, who was name-checked in his obituary; cross-referencing a photo of her on Google Images and Facebook; sifting through Whitepages; and finally tracking down the right phone number to get licensing approval.

On Yellowjackets, an initial hard pass from Enya on a request to use “Only Time” for a particularly nostalgic moment prompted a pleading letter. “We had backups, and they were good, but nothing was as impactful as Enya,” Malone remembers. Last December, two days before the team was to start mixing the season finale, the musician emailed back to reverse the denial. “It was very much like, ‘Merry Christmas, everybody. We got Enya.’ ”

Sometimes, though, it’s just more effective to get an original score or performance for a particular scene, which a music supervisor might discuss with the showrunner before the pilot has even been written. “That’s when those key creative conversations can really happen, and it allows the supervisor to plan as episodes are shot,” says Alexandra Patsavas, who oversaw the first season of Bridgerton. The show’s sound is dominated by orchestral covers of contemporary pop songs, such as Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams,” Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” and Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” that create a deliberate dissonance with the period in which the show takes place. Patsavas says that decision was made “to invite the audience to embrace the Regency era, but also to give a little wink at these songs that everyone is hopefully really familiar with.” This anachronism speaks to the revisionist tone of the show, which presents early-19th-century high society as a remixed post-racial fantasy.

One highlight of the job is introducing emerging talent. Malone knew Levinson was a fan of the hyperpop duo 100 Gecs. Before Euphoria went into production for season 2, she learned that one half of the band, Laura Les, had plans to release her own song, “Haunted,” which Malone felt would be perfect for soundtracking the arc of Maude Apatow’s character, Lexi, a mousy underdog who gets the last word. “Not everybody knows 100 Gecs or Laura Les, but that song ended up exploding,” Malone says, citing a nearly 300 percent increase in Spotify streams of “Haunted” the morning after the episode aired. And it’s not just newcomers who get a bump: “Some of our audience is discovering Tupac or Bobby Darin or Townes Van Zandt in the same way that they may have discovered Laura Les or Megan Thee Stallion. Now they’re getting into INXS or Depeche Mode.” (After the Yellowjackets series premiere played the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 hit, “Today,” Google searches for the band kept spiking on a near weekly basis, as new episodes were released.)

A few decades ago, there were several dozen people in the industry who called themselves music supervisors. The Guild of Music Supervisors was only founded in 2010 because, as High tells it, nobody knew exactly what they did. Now, the guild has more than 500 members worldwide who work across film, television, and video games. As new streaming platforms continue to pop up, it’s unclear what the future of the role will look like. When every show is trying to get your attention with jaw-dropping, emotionally resonant music cues, one has to wonder if we’ll reach an oversaturation point, when the expensive, nostalgia-driven soundtracks will start to feel a little formulaic. There’s also the question of resources. “Everyone’s trying to do it for less and less money, because so much content is being produced,” Phillips says. “There’s not enough time to have the quality like we used to even three or four years ago.” But High doesn’t see things slowing down anytime soon. Success is a matter of taste: “Your ears can get numb to it at some point,” he says, but not if a show finds itself “in the hands of a good music supervisor and showrunner.”

As sublime as it feels to watch Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes awkwardly dancing in her Patagonia vest in The Dropout, being in the editing room and making the call on which song to use for that particular moment is “like a drug,” High says. As the music supervisor role evolves and grows in prominence, it will be fascinating to hear what the next generation of multitalented maestros has in store. Whatever it sounds like, my ears—and my Shazam app—are ready.