The Musical Appeal of Twin Peaks


Last week, CV journalist Tom Bonan wrote about the role of music in one of his favorite movies, American Psycho. Of course, one could discuss the importance of music in any cinematic setting, but I was reminded in particular of one of my favorite serial dramas, the 90’s classic Twin Peaks. The show had a successful two seasons from 1990-1991, following FBI agent Cooper (played by Kyle MacLachlan) as he searches for the killer of a high school girl in the small town of Twin Peaks, Washington. The show has become a classic for many reasons. There is a colorful cast of characters, all of whom interact meaningfully (though not always nicely in this deceptively quiet town), and contribute to the mystery of the gruesome homicide. There is an engaging supernatural element to the story. It is not long before Agent Cooper realizes he may not be dealing with a killer of the material world, and the show takes a turn for the tantalizingly weird. Also, the show is campy and funny. Amidst the severity of this murder mystery, we see Lucy, the slow but strangely effective receptionist, we see the father of the deceased descend into madness by singing and dancing at inappropriate times, and we hear the witty observations of Agent Cooper as he verbally documents his investigation in a tape recorder. Somehow, all of these elements are synthesized into a coherent narrative that has earned a spot on Netflix’s streaming services, and the 25 spot on imdb’s top 50 TV shows. It event got a parody on Sesame Street:

One acclaimed aspect of the show that holds it all together is the music (you knew where this was going). Composer Angelo Badalamenti took a chance when he wrote for the show, fearing that it may be too weird for its time. But his minimalist compositions were the glue that held the Twin Peaks mythos together. Wavy synths, ethereally echoing voices, subtle snares, and snapping samples gave it the feel of a modern film noir. It shifts from gritty and dark—when you see that a character is up to no good—to sublime and soaring when love triumphs.

One notable piece is “Laura Palmer’s Theme”. The victim of the homicide, prom queen Laura Palmer, never makes a real appearance in the show. But she was known and loved by everyone, and so her presence lingers. The most emotionally charged scenes, many of which are spurred by memories of Laura, feature a tense build up to a lush piano melody that becomes familiar to viewers after just one episode. Keen listeners will find that the melody pervades many of the musical themes in the show, sneaking in as a jazzy riff or a less prominent synth line.

Also interesting is the use of source music, which is music produced within a scene rather than just playing in the background. For example, the bar in Twin Peaks is the setting for a number of dramatic events. The bar also features a lounge singer. Her songs are the themes heard throughout the series, but she gives them words. The transition of the music from background to source really solidifies the realism of the paradoxically surreal town of Twin Peaks. Another instance is the sappy love song written by three of the show’s teenage characters. As friends of the recently deceased and as angst-ridden high schoolers, they are hit with an emotional double whammy and express that in a song. Their song later gets played in scenes with other characters, reminding viewers of the shared experiences of this small community.

Plenty more could be (and has been) written about Twin Peaks. If you have not yet seen it, add it to your Netflix list. Between the cliff-hangers, humor, bizarreness, and of course its music, the show should be sufficient to capture your attention. Then again, what Netflix show hasn’t captured the attention of college students? At least this one features Mr. Mayor from Portlandia.

[image source:]

Beyond the BubbleIan Colley