In 1990 there were catchy TV theme songs, and moody ones, but not many shows featured music that felt whole on its own. Most TV themes were jingles, barely different from five-note commercial ditties that sold soap and pizza. Their job was to give viewers an unforgettable connection to the show.
Then there was Twin Peaks, where one character is told in a dream, "There’s always music in the air." The show by David Lynch and Mark Frost opens with rich, unusual notes, immediately establishing the series as something unique. If you don’t know the music of Twin Peaks, press play just below before reading on.
Angelo Badalamenti — who had previously composed music for David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet — built the show’s songs from tones, chords, and melodies that capture the town’s particular vibe, and which channel the feeling of the dark woods nearby.
These cues don’t just herald new scenes and locations as the episodes play out; they provide rich backdrops for the action, shimmering and pulsing as the show’s mystery deepens. There are guitars with heavy reverb, a throaty Fender Rhodes piano, and synthesizers that sound like voices from places we don’t want to go, but desperately want to see.
Lynch was very specific in designing this sound. "David was the primary influence in verbalizing a mood to me," said Angelo Badalamenti in the documentary Secrets From Another Place. The composer recalls writing the show’s main theme, with Badalamenti at the Rhodes while Lynch sat nearby describing the show.
"David would say, 'OK Angelo, we’re in a dark woods now. And there’s a soft wind blowing through some sycamore trees. And there’s a moon out, and there's some animal sounds in the background, and you can hear the hoot of an owl. And you're in the dark woods. Just get me into that beautiful darkness with the soft wind.'"
Music in Twin Peaks doesn’t just sound different from most shows; it behaves differently as well. It seems like the characters can hear the same themes we hear. When Audrey dances to the jukebox in the Double R Diner, she’s swaying to "Audrey’s Dance." She swoons over the song, "God, I love this music. Isn’t it too dreamy?"
Waking from his first dream after arriving in town, Agent Cooper snaps his fingers to "Dance of the Dream Man" as we hear the cue play the episode to black. Lynch protege Julee Cruise sings on the soundtrack and appears essentially as herself in several episodes, singing the same songs, instrumental versions of which appear elsewhere in the show.
A familiar cliche might say that "the music is actually a character," but on Twin Peaks the music is something else. It’s the air, the atmosphere. Badalamenti and Lynch’s music bridges the gap between us and the town. We can’t feel the mist in the air at night or smell the Douglas firs that Agent Cooper adores, but we can hear the music. It fills in where other senses fail.
These three songs show how deep Badalamenti and Lynch go with some of their sounds.
The bikers are the sensitive ones in Lynch and Frost’s show, and Julee Cruise plays the woman who sings the songs they love at the local roadhouse. Moody, dark and very pretty, "Into the Night" is a perfect encapsulation of the show, all the essence of Twin Peaks captured in just under five minutes. Listen close early in this track for the whispered “now it’s dark,” a nice callback to Lynch’s prior project Blue Velvet.
Almost all the music on Twin Peaks is created by Lynch and Badalamenti and their coterie of creators, but this song has something extra. The music is pure Lynch and Badalamenti, but the vocals come from the astonishing Little Jimmy Scott, who rose to fame as a jazz singer in the 1950s. Scott’s voice, an angelically pure countertenor, was the result of a genetic condition that effectively prevented him from reaching puberty. The soundtrack for the most deeply freaky supernatural sequences in the show, "Sycamore Trees" is an invitation to the weirdness at the heart of Twin Peaks.
In Fire Walk with Me, which follows Laura Palmer in the last week of her life, Laura shows her innocent friend Donna what her world is really like after Donna follows her friend to a skeevy bar. Four dudes in cowboy hats and sunglasses provide the dance floor soundtrack, a droning repetitive riff over a pounding stomp beat that sounds like an infinite elongation of that moment where an intense drunk night transforms into a mighty hangover. Ominous and relentless, the song is weirdly seductive, like all the town’s unbridled urges poured into one musical idea.
The resurgence of Twin Peaks has led to new attention being given to the classic soundtracks. The original TV soundtrack and the soundtrack to Fire Walk with Me have enjoyed gorgeous vinyl releases from Mondo.
For the total obsessive, there’s The Twin Peaks Archive. This collection of more than 200 songs and cues features nearly every piece of music used in the two seasons and Fire Walk with Me, aside from the material previously released on official soundtracks. There are alternate versions of familiar tracks, brief cues and raw demos. Originally released as a set of MP3 files on Lynch’s website, you can now get the whole set of 212 tracks for under 10 bucks here — that’s better value than paying a quarter for coffee at the Double R Diner!
The new limited event series Twin Peaks premieres Sunday, May 21st at 9/8c – Only on SHOWTIME. Download the SHOWTIME app and start your free trial now.