Music descriptions in TV captions

When I watch TV, I generally watch with captioning enabled. There’ve long been captions of various sorts to indicate when music is playing, but I feel like in the past couple of years, the captioners have started getting more creative in their descriptions of the music.

For example, in the first three episodes of the late lamented series Emerald City, the following music captions appeared:

  • [dark music]
  • [dramatic musical sting]
  • [eerie music]
  • [emotional music]
  • [epic music]
  • [fantastical music]
  • [intense musical buildup]
  • [intense percussive music]
  • [ominous music]
  • [uplifting music]
  • [whimsical music]

When I put together that list, I noted that there had been about seven such descriptions in the third episode alone. And then a few days later, I watched an episode of Timeless in which there were about 30 music-description captions. Here are the non-repeated ones:

  • [brooding dramatic music]
  • [brooding music]
  • [dark music]
  • [dramatic music]
  • [gentle music]
  • [pensive orchestration]
  • [rousing music]
  • [sinister tone]
  • [soft dramatic music]
  • [soft music]
  • [soft rousing music]
  • [soft tense music]
  • [somber music]
  • [somber orchestration]
  • [suspenseful music]
  • [tense music]

Note the rise of two-adjective descriptions, and of terms other than “music.” (I think “pensive orchestration” is my favorite of this batch.)

(Originally posted on Facebook in 2017.)

9 Responses to “Music descriptions in TV captions”

  1. Bunkers

    Well Jed, this is exactly what I was looking for, and you’re one of the only people to’ve written about this. I’ve seen a lot that are simply [ ♪♪♪ ], which doesn’t really help.

    As a side note, have you ever come across subtitles on a foreign show or movie, where the closed captioning uses a different translation than the voice over? They’ll both be saying pretty much the same thing, but they’re still wildly different. Or sometimes, even in an English-language production, the subtitles will be taken from the script, and don’t account for the actors going off-script?
    Regardless, cheers and thanks.

  2. Mary Hall

    hate music annotations in closed caption


    not necessary

    • Stacey Renee

      Wow! Your disgust for music annotations is very, VERY evident. And normally I would just ignore comments like these just because everyone is, in fact, entitled to their opinions. However, as a working transcription and caption specialist, I am curious as to why you think they are unnecessary? The music and other atmospherics are essential to the story-line of a show. Even when reading a book to my children, I include sound effects because it is more than just a story; it is an experience. Thus, the music descriptions are important, especially to those who are hard of hearing. But again, there must be a reason why you consider them unnecessary and I am extremely curious as to why. I hope to hear back soon.

    • Teresa King

      I’m sure this is for the benefit of the deaf, but I don’t really understand that concept. If you are deaf from birth I don’t see how this would have any meaning. I suppose it might benefit those that become deaf at some point in their life. Simply stating that the music is dramatic or whatever doesn’t really tell you a thing about how it really sounds. I understand though, that the deaf would not want to feel left out and sit before a blank screen and not know if the captions are malfunctioning or if music is playing. Personally, I find the descriptions very whimsical and amusing. And if it makes the deaf feel more in touch with the program I see no harm in that.

  3. Stacey Renee

    I must say that I agree with Bunkers and appreciate your post. The company I work for instruct us to get creative with our music descriptions, but I often like to look for examples to stir my creative juices. Like Bunkers said, there isn´t much online on this specific subject. So, again, thank you for sharing these.

  4. Jed

    I’ve recently taken some notes on music captions in the first three seasons of the TV show Legends of Tomorrow. Here are some I’ve seen there:

    • [bombastic music]
    • [distorted warbling] (this one is my favorite)
    • [dramatic musical flourish]
    • [exciting music]
    • [heroic music]
    • [inspiring music]
    • [rousing orchestral music]
    • [thrilling music]
  5. Jo Burgess

    I loved closed captioning. I wouldn’t purchase a video that did not have it. I can see hear, and feel the story. Having the music described also adds to the experience.

  6. Mags Musicfan

    Quite funny that I found this! Ive been watching an older British TV series called Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren. Last night a character said something and I must have replayed it 5 times and I still couldnt understand what they said so I rewound back to the part with closed captioning to find out what it was. It was only a couple of words but it had me drove crazy! Anyway, after that I forgot to turn it off right away and never really noticed it was still on til I seen “perplexing music” and thought what the hell is perplexing music? I guess it was the piece they played at that time. I just found it kinda funny when that title appeared.

    I dont used closed captioning a lot but I do remember just seeing the three music notes and I just watched a scene of a man, who had been stabbed, being wheeled into hospital and the caption said “troubled music!” Yeah, I guess you would feel kinda “troubled” if that happened to you. LOL

  7. Anonymous

    Do you really find it appropriate to finish that sentence with LOL? That seems a little to brutal.


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