Annoying sound effect

What is that Annoying Sound Effect On Reality Shows? – Yes I Hate It Too

Bev Tjoe

Bev Tjoe

Senior Editor

Reality TV is alive, with the sound of drama... and the bowed cymbal

“Because reality TV, by itself, without enhancements, is just not enough to capture an audience’s attention.”

For those of you watch reality TV or even work on reality TV, there is one sound, known as reality’s most annoying sound effect and we now most strongly associate it with drama, tension, conflict, whatever you want to call it.

Tension is the mainstay of reality TV. Storylines are crafted to emphasise conflict. But before you start hating on the fact that reality TV is not ‘real’, I think we can all acknowledge that conflict just makes for good TV.

Reality shows are designed to be entertaining, and that experience has been curated just for you. Now, if manipulation feels like a bad word, think of it as persuasion – a designed experience. Besides the story and the edit, a lot of this experience is crafted with sound design.

Sound works to affect mood by creating illusions. It’s used to heighten emotions. What different sounds mean to different people is subjective, and there are a myriad of sounds that are used to bring out different emotions in a scene.

But this one, well, it’s annoying.

This is the most annoying sound effect on reality TV.

(Trust, google says it is too)
There are forums dedicated to this sound.

Familiar, is it not?
You’ve heard it on all your major reality shows, probably 79 times in each episode. I exaggerate, but it is used a lot. It is used a lot. I say this twice for emphasis.

And now, a video clip of how we’ve conformed to reality sound design.

I hate it but I use it, because it’s what is expected of reality TV.

And who, you may ask (but probably won’t), is to blame for the prevalence of this most annoying sound effect?

It’s this guy (I’m 90% sure this is a picture of him).

Bowed Cymbal Rick Livingstone

Okay, now history lesson – when this sound first came about.
It was the year 2000, and a show about a group of strangers who had to outwit, outplay and outlast each other, aired on TV screens around the world.

Yes, the show was Survivor. And Mr Livingstone was a part of that – it was his first job as a music editor.

When working on the first season of Survivor, Livingstone came across a particular sound and thought,
“Oh, this is unique, wow, kinda cool” and that sound was the bowed cymbal. He thought it encompassed the feeling of “tension”.

Fast forward to today, Rick Livingstone, now a renowned reality TV music editor, has worked on more than 5000 reality TV episodes. Besides, Survivor, his credits include The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, Hell’s Kitchen, the list goes on.

The sound creates the drama.
In the podcast Every Little Thing Livingstone says, “reality TV, by itself, without enhancements, is just not enough to capture an audience’s attention. You need to sort of direct their emotions to certain things.”

Livingstone also notes that, “No matter what kind of show you have in reality TV, you want to develop tension, you want to put people on edge because apparently, that’s how you keep them watching.”

Survivor, clearly a massive phenomenon, now with 40 seasons in 2020, became the template for reality TV shows. And the use of the bowed cymbal to develop tension within scenes was copied by everyone in the reality TV business and now populates all your major reality TV shows.

Side note, Livingstone now hates the sound.

So there you go.
A cycle of shit that was created by this one guy, adopted by others, that has now become the standard for reality shows.

Does it work? Sure.
Does it work because it stirs deep feelings in the depths of your soul? Lights up the parts of your brain that process deep deep emotions? Maybe.
My feeling is no. Overused is what I think it is. And that is the reason why we know it to be the sound of “drama” or as it’s more affectionately known, the most annoying sound effect on reality TV. But if it works, it works. Who am I to complain?

“Add a sting” your producer will say, “Make it dramatic”.
F**k your bowed cymbal – and then add a bowed cymbal.

So who am I and why should you take my word for anything? I’m a person that sits in a room in editlounge, in front of a computer, putting pictures of nothing together and adding sounds under it to make it 6000% more dramatic than it is. Because it’s what makes good TV.
And I read things on Google.

Check out Asia’s Next Top Model here. Just try not to count the bowed cymbals: https://www.youtube.com/user/AsNTM2

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