Reality TV. It’s great, isn’t it? Whether you’re into escaping to the mansions of Beverly Hills, the cabins of superyachts in the Caribbean or the Love Island villa, there’s a little something for everyone.
Of course, the degree of reality included in these shows is up for question sometimes – from full-blown soap-style drama on The Hills to coincidently running into your ex’s mum down the toiletries aisle of a supermarket à la TOWIE.
But whether they’re manufactured or not, the reason we love reality TV is because it’s just so incredibly entertaining. Both in scripted and non-scripted shows, storylines are an integral part of keeping us hooked, whether they come about naturally or are more produced. Under direction from bosses, shows have been known to chop and flip clips to stir up drama and bolster particular narratives.
For some viewers, these tricks might feel obvious, while others might take everything they see as the truth. But there are other, more obscure ways that producers can use to get us to buy in, and one of them is through sound.
Menacing violins and shady slices
An obvious instance of when this happens is when, on a show like Married At First Sight or Love Island, sad music is played during a recoupling scene or when a couple argue, and conversely, happy, uplifting music is used during a scene of a kiss (although Love Island producers really need to give the acoustic covers of love songs a rest, imo).
The same goes for the likes of Hell’s Kitchen or Britain’s Got Talent – if a tense scene is building its climax (maybe a dish has gone wrong or a bad audition has escalated), menacing violins and other pieces of orchestral music set a looming, dramatic tone to match the building suspense.
For instance, pay attention to how the background music shifts during Zoe Alexander’s infamous audition for The X Factor [below, especially at the end.
On the flip side, more obscure examples of how sound is used tactically are often seen in RuPaul’s Drag Race. With the competition aspect of the show upping the stakes (and the drama), the producers plant seeds throughout episodes that can foreshadow results, justify the judge’s decisions and push how contestants come across to viewers. For example, once a fan favourite and Miss Congeniality, some viewers suggested that Latrice Royale received a very different portrayal on the fourth series of the show’s All Stars edition. [Watch below between 4:17 and 6:46.]
As the clip shows, pretty much whenever Royale talks, a ‘shady’ noise – whether it’s a symbol, percussion or a slicing noise – is used to stir up unsettling feelings among viewers. It’s used when she’s pleading her case to stay in the competition, reflecting on her challenge performance or as one commenter pointed out, eating a slice of cake. Subconsciously, these effects can tell viewers what to think when a contestant is speaking.
“Surreal sounds will heighten drama”
“Music and sound design are heavily used to hit these moments and narratives home,” Nick Bridge Butler, an audio engineer and lecturer at the MetFilm School says of reality TV. “Whether it be a big booming hit, a deep ominous drone or a whooshing blast, all of these creative, surreal sounds will heighten drama.”
Butler compares the use of sound in reality TV to how it’s used in documentaries and drama programmes. “There is a fine line between reporting the truth and slightly embellishing the facts to create a more exciting narrative,” he says of the likes of travel, adventure, crime and disaster documentaries.
“The truth is that the facts aren’t always enough to hit the point home. Adding the right emotional note in the music or sound design to reinforce the point is commonplace.”
He continues that keeping a viewer strapped into an emotional journey is essential in keeping them engaged in a show, and using sound to reflect the tone of visual scenes can help drive moments of excitement, sadness, tension and terror.
“Music is the keystone to pushing the audience into an emotional state in any kind of filmmaking,” Butler explains. “I call it ‘messing with the audience’s subconscious disposition’. I, as a sound designer, can make you feel scared or anxious or comfortable without you realising why.”
Explaining that we don’t even realise the use of these noises because they blend into a show so effortlessly, Butler draws a distinction between sound and visual production.
“Sound (and particularly music) goes straight from our ears to our hearts. Whether it be music, film, or the voice of a loved one. Our visual world is mostly informative, but our sonic world is emotional,” he says. “That’s why people don’t tend to notice they are being manipulated sonically. It happens on a subconscious and emotional level.”
However, compared to other genres, Butler argues that reality TV is based on exaggeration, and in some cases, artificial tension.
“It’s shock TV, and producers of this medium need their show to be more shocking than the last for the sake of their paycheques,” he says, pointing out that it’s not the fault of the sound engineers and editors for these edits, but the producers and directors. “Just picture an edit session with an editor and a director. They look at the footage and say, ‘Well this is a bit boring… what can we do to spice it up?’” he says.
“The choice of these sound effects in reality TV is a moral line which is chosen by a director. The fact is shock TV is just that – it’s mostly embellished and exaggerated by the way it’s edited.”
Butler and many others have pointed out how the use of these sound effects can be problematic.
“If the programme makers are editing events in an untrue way and heightening it with audio cues, then yes, it’s problematic for the people filmed, because they have been misrepresented, which could lead to negative ramifications in their real lives,” Butler says.
In an interview after her stint on All Stars 4, Latrice Royale called out the editing of the show (“I wasn’t in the editing room, clearly.”) and said that the difference between what she experienced and what she watched on TV was “night and day”. Royale’s also said she received a barrage of online hate from some Drag Race fans after appearing on All Stars 4 in 2018.
However, the role of sound in reality TV isn’t always problematic – it can be fun and lighter, too.
Drag Race’s sound effects have become just as famous as the show, especially its ‘shady’ percussion noise which is played during a take-down, a disagreement or a read. The production company even sells a ‘Shade Button’ which makes the noise for $10.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Matthew D. Miller – the editor of behind-the-scenes Drag Race spin-off Untucked – opened up about the use of sound effects on the show.
“It’s something we like to have fun with… It can be a little campy at times, but I think that’s all that eclectic thing with drag,” he said, explaining that executive producers and members of RuPaul’s team feed heavily into the edits.
“You can get away with a lot of things like that. I wouldn’t necessarily do that in another show. But in this show, it just feels right.”