Music In The Great British Bake Off

While music doesn’t have inherent universal meanings, it is one of the most potent steerers of emotion. Perhaps in a more visceral way than painting or literature, music is literally airborne affect—sound waves vibrating us—that ushers listeners though realms of emotion in real time. Music moves us from happy to sad in a chord, or surety to doubt in a gong tone. It’s because of music’s easy and instant affective power that we depend on it to sell products in commercials or lend dimensionality to films and TV shows via soundtracks. Music says, feel this, and, well, we obey.

This summer I re-watched a fair bit the Great British Bake Off, not because I bake but because watching others do it and then subjecting themselves to Paul Hollywood’s critiques is Quality TV. Is the cake light and fluffy or a bit stodgy? Can you taste the cardamom, or not really? Is the pudding dry, or just under baked? And why would you put so many hot peppers in that anyway?

Tasting food has some things in common with listening to music. You take in something: food through the mouth, music in the ears. As you eat, you can’t turn off your sense of taste, so as you chew you evaluate in real time what’s going down. A pie might strike you as too sweet and cloying. Similarly with a piece of music: as you listen your aesthetic taste runs vast calculations towards quick judgments, like this is needlessly sentimental or it’s too busy.

Re-watching the Bake Off confirmed what I first thought about a few years ago, which is that the show’s soundtrack does its work extraordinarily well. The music steers us into what we imagine are the feelings of the show’s contestants. Depending on where we are in an episode, the music creates drama, lightens the mood, and above all acts as a stand in for elapsing time. The bakers are always under a time crunch—“Bakers you have 30 minutes left!”—and the music lets us know how little that left time is. Come to think of it, the entire show is about running out of time.

Composed by Tom Howe, the Bake Off’s soundtrack is scored for orchestral percussion, strings, harp, some woodwinds, and not much else. For me, a percussionist, the percussion steals the show because the parts are so idiomatic to how the instruments are generally played. We hear piano, marimba, vibraphone, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, shakers, and glockenspiel. Alongside this, the strings bow melodies and pluck them when a quirky situation demands it. With this limited instrumentation, the soundtrack is organized more around a steady pulse than memorable melodies. A typical texture might begin with a single marimba note sounded once every four beats, then joined by shakers, string pizzicatos, and eventually ever larger percussion instruments. The score sounds like sequenced music (which it probably is), albeit with acoustic instruments and without loops. 

Tonally, the music doesn’t travel far. Instead, its role is to articulate the increasing franticness of the bakers as they rush to assemble their breads, pies, and cookies from vague printed directions. To my ear, the show’s musical cues sound like pieces in progress that never quite arrive, and the more I watched the show the more I wondered about why this is. One explanation is that Howe uses variations on recurring themes in each episode so that, for instance, the initial bake has a playful quality (cue pizzicato strings), the more involved technical challenges build to great intensities (cue passionate bowed strings, snare drums, bass drums and cymbals), and the moments of finishing and presenting to the judges have a dreamy, Harry Potter-esque quality. For example, Howe’s aptly titled piece “Sparkle” soundtracks the scenes when the bakers behold their finished creations and then offer them to the judges. What makes this music sparkle? It could be that it’s in a Lydian mode, which is similar to major scale but whose fourth degree is raised (sharpened) by a semitone. (To hear the mode, play the notes c,d, e, f-sharp, g, a, and b on the piano. In “Sparkle” you hear this sharp fourth sounding on the fifth note of the piano melody.) I always hear this semitone difference as a kind of enchantment that evokes or signifies a sense of magic. More than the orchestral percussion and quirky pizzicato strings, it’s this enchanted quality that best captures the earnest Englishness that The Bake Off seeks to convey. Like listening to music, baking can bring us back to our childhood. Baking is sweetly expressive music, making wherever we are home. 

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