Contemplating music captioning in TV shows and movies

For the past two years thanks to being inside all the time (Netflixing) and the classes and talks I gave, I have thought a lot about captioning and transcripts. D/deaf people are not all the same and like and needs regarding captioning and transcription differ often.

Before losing all my hearing I wasn’t consciously aware of how much songs impacted a scene in a TV show or movie. It was a typical case of not appreciating what you have until it’s gone. Even today when rewatching old TV shows I will recall how it made me feel back then thanks to the music that was playing during a scene. It helped also in understanding what was leading up to certain moments.

Once deaf I had to adjust to a new reality and being aware of how a TV show or movie made me feel wasn’t on top of my list. Back then captions were the bare minimum too, if available. Netflix changed all that.

  • The Adam Project - captioned song title
  • The Adam Project - captioned song lyrics

If you never saw Dexter or The Sopranos and are planning to, skip this blog, spoiler ahead.

[SPOILERS]

This year I watched Dexter New Blood and before watching it I had to look up how Dexter season 8 ended. For me, the show jumped the shark when Deb fell in love (?) with Dexter. I stopped watching it then. Hence I had to look up how it ended to be able to follow New Blood.

And I read this piece that brought back to me how much music plays a part in a scene. Several other recaps I read mentioned how Dexter’s voice-over would change or go quiet, his Dark Passenger. Now voice-overs are captioned but you don’t stand still and realise, oh..it is quiet.

At this point, if not sooner, you’re probably noticing the music this hour. It’s been much more prominent and evocative than usual.
We see at the hospital all the patients are being moved due to the hurricane. Dex goes to Deb’s room where she’s laying brain dead. We wonder why he’s wearing his stalker-kill outfit. Or maybe we don’t. “I’d change everything if I could. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I can’t leave you like this. I’m your big brother.”

Dexter Series Finale Recap

Some movies, especially horror or thrillers do caption things like “creaking door”, “thunderstorm”, “tense music”. I think because with these genres people are more aware of how much music and sounds influence the scene. But other genres don’t tend to take this into account when captioning.

Personally, I like when they caption what kind of music is playing, or if it is a specific song, that the caption mentions the song – artist. Lyrics captioning are great too.

When I saw the scene in The Sopranos where Tony kills Christopher I was baffled. It’s almost the end of the series, we know Tony is a cold-blooded and impulsive killer. But never did I think he would kill Christopher who is like a son to him. I feel the one time he came close to killing Christopher was when Christopher thought he had an affair with Adriana and was intent on killing Tony, leaving Tony no choice.

I had to look up what others thought about what happened in this scene. Low and behold music plays a big part in this scene. I saw it in HBO Max and there is no music captioning at all. Except for Christopher putting on a CD in the car and mentioning it’s “The Departed” soundtrack. Besides that, I had no way of knowing which specific song was playing.

Although the moment was shocking, Tony’s motivations in The Sopranos presciently link to a song that plays before the accident, with Christopher referencing The Departed soundtrack and playing Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” In Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film, the track plays as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan spirals out of control during an undercover investigation and contemplates suicide. As Tony and Christopher drive, “Kennedy and Heidi” plays, with the lyric “the dream is gone” underlining the central message of the scene and foreshadowing Tony’s subsequent actions as the mob boss kills his underworld son to save him from a more tragic death. Prophetically, David Chase shows audiences that in Christopher’s final moments, he isn’t terrified but rather “comfortably numb.”

The Sopranos: Why Tony Killed Christopher in Season 6
[END SPOILERS]

These impactful scenes have me thinking. A late deaf person like me who grew up hearing and knows music up until becoming deaf appreciates when it’s captioned which song is playing. Even if I don’t know the song. I can do a quick internet search for the lyrics if I want to understand the deeper meaning of a scene.

On the other hand, I don’t know if a person born Deaf would like the same. Chances are one person would like it, the other doesn’t really care.

I pledge for making it as accessible as possible and it will benefit many. I know for a fact many hearing people regularly do an internet search: “What song was playing when Meredith and Burke were operating on the patient with the bomb?“, “What song was playing when Christopher crashed the car?” I used to do this too before losing my hearing.

I’m aware CC (closed captions) is supposed to be more specific than language subtitles. CC is supposed to cover all sounds including dialogue. But in practice, I don’t see this often. I hope people will think more about these aspects of accessibility and improve movies and TV shows’ captioning.