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Why Major TV Shows Are Using Musical Easter Eggs

Eas·ter egg


1. a hard-boiled egg that is dyed and often decorated as part of the Easter celebration.

2. an unexpected or undocumented feature in a piece of computer software or on a DVD, included as a joke or a bonus.

Brains Love Surprise

It's no surprise that our brains love surprise. Sigmund Freud, of all people, defined humor primarily as incongruity, and the incongruity of Easter Eggs has elevated some digital content to a cult status, an indication of the fascination and delight we feel upon discovering these hidden gems. 

To wit: the entire premise of the recent film Ready Player One relied upon 1980's pop culture references packaged as Easter Eggs. 

Diving Deeper

Elevated beyond a simple joke or surprise, creative teams for popular television shows such as Westworld and Stranger Things are engaging their audiences at a complex level with musical Easter Eggs, by underscoring or presaging plot lines, strengthening semantic connections within the story, and creating a visceral, pleasurable response when we hear familiar, re-purposed musical content.  


In Westworld, the composer Ramin Djawadi discusses his use of piano covers of popular songs, heard as diegetic underscore on the saloon's player piano, as a way to convey a sense of unease: 

“... you would think the people in control would make everything authentic, including whatever is played on that player piano. It would be from that time period. And when it’s not, it’s that subtle reminder that, ‘Wait, there is something not right. This is not real.’" 

This is an example of familiar content in an unfamiliar context evoking just the right amount of cognitive dissonance. 

Westworld dives even deeper with its musical Easter Eggs by underscoring thematic content as well. 

In the show, "reveries," refers to the fragmented memories of the hosts that begin to bubble up as unpredictable behaviors, revealing layers of sentiency and autonomy. Accordingly, Debussy's Rêverie” is heard no less than six times in Season 1 alone

Similarly, Westworld's co-creator Jonathan Nolan has discussed how placing Radiohead's “Fake Plastic Trees” (again heard on a player-piano) mirrors the artifice that is Westworld's false reality.

Stranger Things

In Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers have an open sandbox for placing 1980's pop music references. In the final episode of Season 2, "Snow Ball," Eleven's appearance at the dance could have been accompanied by Cyndi Lauper's period-perfect "Time after Time," but the show's creators instead chose The Police's "Every Breath You Take," decidedly not romantic but creepy, lyrically underscoring the narrative themes closing Season 2. 

"The idea of 'I'll be watching you,' given how the season ends, and the fact that there is still something watching…[is] not accidental," - Shawn Levy, Director

Other examples can be best described as finessed music placements, bridging the diegeticaudio with thematic material, such as Motley Crue's "Shout at the Devil" at Tina's Halloween party, (S2, Ep2) and the mediocre-of-a-human Billy's car blaring Ted Nugent's "Wango Tango" in the same episode. 

It's heartening and exciting to see increasing degrees of complexity in music placement in some of the most popular shows, and the deeper engagement that emerges from those moments when the Easter Egg is found, or more accurately, understood — often subconsciously.



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