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.)

14 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.

    • Lindsey

      is that what causes that primarily – using the script to create the captions directly? I know it would depend on when the show/film was produced and how long its been out etc but I notice a lot of english as the original spoken language that have incorrect captions but they seem to be the result of what would be a voice recognition type program which would make sense these days since it would allow so many more media forms to have captions added not just for those hearing impaired but anything international which requires more than just the normal caption but several for say a netflix show idk some new one ha but thats a lot of work and employees I dont see that company being eager to want to spend more money on and would probably go with less subtitle languages or voice overs etc BUT if they used a voice recognition software even just on certain shows where its more likely to be accurate because of whatever reasons whether accents, audio in the program etc and then could focus their efforts on the other things I mentioned?

      I honestly could be 100% wrong I just was throwing out the idea haha ive seen lke a word get mangled in the subtitle and notice its because the person happened to say it in an odd way that could be heard as the way it appeared type of thing…

      curious to look it up now all of that but also thats a rabbit hole I know not to start since I go down enough as it is haha

  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.

      • Johnson

        Hi, could you please reach out to me? I would like you to mentor me in my profession as a movie captioner. Here is my email: I should have asked for your email but I don’t want you to expose it here. Thanks.

    • 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.

      • Jed

        Belated response to Teresa King: There are a variety of reasons that captions describing music are useful, for a variety of different people.

        For example:

        • Music conveys a mood for people who can hear and interpret it. The people who created the show and included that music wanted to convey a mood to watchers. Describing the music in captions means that watchers can understand what mood the show intended to convey, regardless of whether those viewers have ever heard music. The caption isn’t meant to make viewers understand what the music sounds like—it doesn’t describe the instruments or the melody or the beat or anything like that. It’s meant to indicate what mood the music is trying to convey.
        • As you guessed, there are lots of people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing who were born hearing.
        • As you guessed, it can be useful to viewers to be told that there is sound going on, it’s just not in the form of dialogue.
        • Sometimes even hearing people watch some kinds of video with the sound off. Captions (including captions describing music) can help a lot with that experience.
  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

    • Chichimomo

      I think this is perceived as unnecessary to well-hearing people that are looking for regular English subtitles, which unfortunately are not always available. It can be annoying to have the subtitles predefine with a single (or even double) adjective what sort of emotional reaction a song should provoke in the middle of a complex multimedia experience impossibly defined in such a narrow way. For me, it can be very distracting at times (e.g. stabbed person troubling music). But I always think about the people that have to come up with these descriptions and am impressed with the creativity. It makes me wonder what I would come up with if I had to choose an adjective to describe music that way. It’s a different way of analyzing the music and I think spotify’s algorithm could learn a lot from these professionals!

  7. Anonymous

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

  8. Mysterious Warbling – Words & Stuff

    […] For more about captions, see Music descriptions in TV captions. […]


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