Something Unpredictable, But in the End It’s Right- Music in Medical Dramas

To combat the acedia and tristia that have come along with our current reality, I have been watching medical dramas even more so than usual. Longtime readers of the blog and those who know me in real life know that I happen to love medical dramas. I’ve always been fascinated by medicine and the thrill of surgery and the rush of figuring out just what is killing the patient. A good medical drama mixes the human element with intrigue and genuine thrills. But as I’ve been trying to pass the time by living vicariously through the lives of fictional doctors, I noticed something curious: the music in these shows is fascinating and at times incredibly appropriate. 

Medical dramas have a lot to do in a little amount of time. Many of them are serialized and do their best by telling season-long or arc-long stories while also telling a day to day story. So a series like ER works best because you have characters you can follow for sometimes years and see their arc(s), see their loves, wins, losses and more while also seeing their day to day interactions and daily goings on in the hospital. House works in a similar fashion but is even tighter and has a team with less actor-based turnover so you spend even more time with one tight knit team going through nearly impossible cases for in the case of House literally a decade. 

At their core, though, a medical drama is still a drama and you need something to go along with all of the beeping machines, flatlining patients, heavy dialogue and euphoric highs. And it certainly can’t all be church music or public domain classical tunes. What has become truly curious is as I go through early seasons of shows I watched with my parents is that every once in a while as I work or write and my attention waivers from the show, a melody will catch my attention. 

It actually started with an early season of ER. A young man dies and a common thread during his arc was his love of Green Day. During his funeral, his loving and attentive nurse sings to his casket one of his favorite songs and in that acapella melody I noticed a song that I also shared a love for with my father who passed away. 

The song was a perfect encapsulation of all the themes of the arc and episode: loss, grief, regret, hoping that when it’s over it means something and that at the end; there will be someone there for us hoping that we had the time of our life. It was also a beautiful time capsule of the late 90s and the cynicism that came along with it.  

ER was pretty masterful with its use of music, even if some of the moments were ham handed. I wasn’t expecting to hear Clocks during an episode where a disabled surgeon comtemplates suicide via jumping off of the hospital as that all too familiar opening harmony begins to play, that same few bars on the piano that every basic high schooler I knew could play when I was younger. The music swells as the doctor loses his head covering in the wind and he backs away from the dizzying height to a song that was the anthem for most thoughtful emo kids when I was in high school. 

As ER plays in the background of many of my days I’ll notice more and more little songs that resonate and hit closer to home now as an adult than it did when I watched the show as a child with my parents. I noticed Claire de Lune (which may be my favorite piece of classical composition) during a romantic dinner which seems ironic since Verlaine wrote the poem that inspired the song and Verlaine was…I guess legally a romantic.  

House is a unique show in that it centers around a main character who is not just a sociopath but also a musician. Dr. House plays a lot of instruments and thus for a medical drama, there is a lot of music. I think House is one of the better series to handle its music choosing from a catalogue that includes folk, gospel, pop, rock and more all to fit the mood and tone of an episode. I’ve heard plenty of songs from House that sound like a Spotify playlist from your favorite Starbucks barista but they’re usually done with thought in mind. 

Which is I think best show here.

A funeral scene for a colleague lost where a sad song plays; but not just any sad song. It is, to quote a friend, the saddest song she had ever heard. I remember immediately using SoundHound (yes, I’m old) to find the song and once downloaded I rarely listened to it except for moments of extreme melancholy. I can still remember how viscerally the scene made me feel the first time I saw it. I had lost my mother, I was home from college, I was mentally exhausted and I laid in bed catatonic for a while in the dark as I processed the intense feelings behind the song and it’s scene. That’s what suicide does: it makes someone lose you and not to say that the scene in question wouldn’t have been powerful if filled with ambient noise or simply the heavy silence funerals tend to bring with them but it echoed so much more thanks to a brilliant soundtrack choice. 

This was a post I never expected to work on. A post I never expected to find so much intense interest in. I guess it’s the pandemic. I guess it’s pareidolia. Maybe it’s just the fact that now I’m more aware of music and soundtracks after years of film and television criticism and viewership. I went in hoping to find a simple curiosity behind some of the music choices in medical dramas and what I found were moments that brought me intense joy,