I still can’t get the music from Twin Peaks out of my head. To those who have never seen it, I find myself repeating: “the music will come to haunt your days and nights.” Twin Peaks is indeed haunting. It is also a supernatural, soap operatic, slapsticky, surreal, pulpy police procedural. They all seem to belong together, somehow, and the wonderful, totally unforgettable music and sound design play a special role in achieving this.

Laura Palmer in the Black Lodge with blue contacts making hand gesture and scary face

Like the extraordinary Laura Palmer’s Theme, which modulates between the extremes of gloom and melodrama, Twin Peaks music continually tracks the dramatic and tonal shifts on screen as they flow from surreality to schlock, suspense to sentiment. As creator and director David Lynch put it: “I always say that cinema is sound and picture, flowing together in time. And you know, you want to get every element in a film as good as you can get, so this thing will hold together. To me, the director is supposed to guide what people see from beginning to end and what people hear from beginning to end, to fulfill the ideas. It has to pass through one person. When all the elements come together, you can get this thing where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

A few seconds from the opening credits or perhaps a few sneaky footsteps and it all comes back!

More than a year since its premiere, The Return was nominated for nine Emmy awards (with zero wins!) and now the Internet continues to wait on rumors of a possible Season 4. Before we take a deeper dive into some of the most memorable music sequences of the show, an introduction to what what has made the music of Twin Peaks so wonderful and strange.

A brief introduction to the music of Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks was created by David Lynch and Mark Frost and ran on ABC for two tumultuous seasons in 1990–91, with a third—bearing the moniker The Return—airing in 2017 on Showtime. It is widely credited with helping usher in the age of auteur television and has been a cult favorite for nearly 30 years.

Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Cooper in Season 1 of Twin Peaks. In the morgue, he tells Sheriff Truman, "Sheriff, we've got a lot to talk about."

The original soundtrack was the result of a collaboration between Lynch, composer Angelo Badalamenti, and singer Julee Cruise, building on their earlier work for Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). “So much of what Twin Peaks is in people’s minds is Angelo’s music. And then I guess it’s that moaning wind. I love winds,” David Lynch told the New York Times. Mirroring the melange of genre and tone of the show, the music is itself an original and invitingly peculiar combination of jazz, 50s teen pop, 80s synthesizers, dream pop, horror/suspense tropes, ambient soundscapes, modernist composition, and other elements. The sound of jazz and 50s pop lends the music a nostalgic, timeless quality. Combined with synthesizers, electric instruments, dissonance, and slinky clarinet lines, the sound becomes uncanny and iconic.

1989 black and white photo of David Lynch, Julee Cruise, and Angelo Badalamenti

In Season 3, many of the droller, sillier aspects of the original soundtrack were set aside, with a greater emphasis placed on creepy, atmospheric soundscapes as well as on more serious music by a variety of other artists to go with the work of Badalamenti. As David Lynch’s music supervisor, Dean Hurley, recalled to Vulture, “I will say, first of all, I read the script before it was shot and even when you’re reading the script page, it was pretty obvious that the majority of that original finger-popping jazz quirk was not the tone of this thing.”

Most Iconic Music Scenes from Twin Peaks

So, what is this a list of? There is so much great music to choose from. Ultimately, this comes down to personal choice. In this case, it is not a list of the best tunes. Laura Palmer’s Theme, for instance, which may actually be one of the best tunes if not the best, is not represented on the list, even though I love it, and I, too, loved hearing it as Officer Bobby observed Laura’s picture early in Season 3. (And if you haven’t, be sure to check out Badalamenti’s wonderful account of how he came up with that music!) So while individual songs and themes are often incredible, and there are beyond that many amazing uses of background music and transition music one could point to, and even though the live performances at the Roadhouse in The Return are great, too, the following did not make the cut:

What made it in? I have tried to make my focus be the most substantial, iconic, or famous scenes from all three seasons of the show that are made extraordinary by the addition of an uncanny or unusual element brought about through the use of music—well-known scenes in which the action on screen is accompanied by music that adds a layer of irony, humor, playfulness, horror, or some other affect(s). Often, these involve the music and sound design contributing to a characteristic blurring of the real and the supernatural.

GIF of Sheriff Truman, Agent Cooper, and the Log Lady tapping their feet at the Roadhouse

#6: “I am the F.B.I.”

I doubt very many thought going in that Twin Peaks: The Return would indulge in too much fan service—with scene after scene of Agent Cooper performing his greatest hits—but I’m sure we all expected some Agent Cooper. We didn’t get much: the series, it turns out, was short on Cooper and very, very long on Dougie Jones. One can debate the merits of giving Dougie that much screen time, but the payoff in the form of the return of Agent Cooper during Episode 16 was an undeniably wonderful surprise.

This is a marvelous moment. Finally, we have the old Cooper back. There is initially no music in the scene; we have only the sounds of dialog and of Cooper adjusting his suit. At 5:12 (“Let’s go for a plane ride”), the music enters, and it’s “Falling,” the music from the opening credits. The only time this song was used outside the opening credits was during the pilot, where it was performed by Cruise at The Roadhouse. Its inclusion here is perfect, elevating the sense of return.

Agent Cooper wakes up in the hospital and tells Bushnell Mullins, "I am the F.B.I."

Lynch queues up the credits music from the top. That beautiful oscillation. It begins stately and with a sigh—a cool and deliberate lower guitar part and the wistful exhalation in the keyboards. At 5:19, there’s a quick transition to a new passage, and the scene shifts back to Cooper. The low guitar plays longer, sustained notes while the keyboards play rising figures. The tone is warmer and more hopeful. Tension builds as the melody slowly and a little achingly over the much slower bassline and chord progression. All of this leads strongly to the return of the opening at 5:45. When Cooper says, “You’re a fine man, Bushnell Mullins. I will not soon forget your kindness and decency,” the music initiates yet another new ascent, with six step-wise rising notes leading directly to the thematic return. The scene is floating when Mullins asks, “What about the F.B.I.?” Cooper fits in his reply (“I am the F.B.I.”) just before the conclusion of this ascent. A moment after Cooper provides this final confirmation we hear thematic return to the opening, catching us as we swoon.

Another subtle touch is the way the swirling shots of the hospital parking lot allude to the swirling introduced in the new opening credits, for which “Falling” was also used. The combination of sappiness, bright colors, and Cooper’s wry humor throughout makes this a really special moment and an incredible payoff for the audience for being so patient through all the Dougie episodes.

#5: “Get Happy”

This scene is a symphony of creepiness. (The “Mairzy Doats” scene from earlier in the episode might be even better, but that has less music and has already been covered elsewhere.) It opens with “Laura Palmer’s Theme” playing softly in the background. The camera slowly pans in and a dial tone gives way to dinner at the Hayward household. The dark lighting, shaky camera, and unusual perspectives throughout the scene prevent us from ever feeling settled.

Leland Palmer and Sarah Palmer at the dinner table at the Hayward household. Leland is wearing a tuxedo.

Behind the shot of the dinner table, the music shifts to a less recognizable theme played in the soft, sustained synths as the Laura Palmer theme moments ago. This bit of textural continuity as the scene unfolds allows us to temporarily shift our focus from Laura without her ever fully withdrawing from view. A white-haired Leland and shaky camera further underscore the tragedy, a community turned upside down.

Donna’s sister, Harriet, recites a tender, haunting poem about Laura. As she gets up to address the table, the background synth grows in volume. Listen at 1:46 as her sister Gersten’s mysterious piano accompaniment joins the background synths. It is a ghoulish and surreal moment, a very well coordinated entrance. The composite harmony of the diegetic and non-diegetic keyboards effects a subtle but pronounced lurch into tragedy and the supernatural.

The music behind the poem is a duet of conflicting tonalities between the piano and the synthesizer. The chords in the synthesizer are steady and persistent, while Gersten’s piano playing is both more active in its figuration and roving in harmony. The ringing piano chord (2:47) played at the end of the poem adds a gesturally conclusive figure to go with the end of the poem, yet it still clashes harmonically with the tonality of the background synthesizer. It’s subtly playful, winking at us, as if to say, “see how out of sync this has been the entire time?” The absurd, uncanny humor, emphasized by, among other things, Gersten’s and Leland’s attire, is very Twin Peaks.

Donna Hayward's sister Gersten in fair princess costume getting ready to play the piano

At the conclusion of the poem (2:54), the brooding synthesizers swell as Leland expresses his gratitude to Harriet. (“That was wonderful. Thank you.”) The artificially close and intimate audio of Leland’s voice—and you can even hear the ruffling of clothing in their embrace—is a total mismatch with the camera’s perspective, the disturbing synthesizers, and the ostensible coziness of a family dinner. It’s all very unnatural. As the shaky camera pans across the table, ask yourself: do you feel any warmth at all? Everything is so discomfiting! Gersten favors the diners with Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 and with it, a moment’s reprieve from the synthesizers in the background. Following the lilting opening section, there is a subtly haunting transition at 3:58; there is now a just a touch more sturm und drang in the piano as Donna shares her plans with Maddy. The piano volume rises as with the intensity of the music as Doc Hayward declares he feels like he’s sat through back-to-back operas (4:19).

All of this sets up the most iconic part of the scene—Leland singing Harold Arlen’s “Get Happy.” (5:30, “God, I feel like singing!”) The Christian overtones of the lyrics are appropriate for the suburban dinner table and the enjoinder to “Pack up your troubles and just get happy” are suited to Leland’s newfound hope. The mood is jovial, though an upbeat, white-haired Leland singing old songs is specifically terrifying following his impromptu performance of “Mairzy Doats” earlier in the episode. (For a deep dive on Lynch and dance, see this excellent piece over on Senses of Cinema.) Leland urges a faster and faster tempo before collapsing to the floor. No more jazz. The scene ends on an unresolved note: amidst everyone’s shock and concern, Leland is revived, though we find him in the same whipped up state as before—“Begin the Beguine!”—and aren’t sure whether he’s “back,” or what that would even mean at this point.

#4: The Birth of BOB

Episode 8 of The Return is absolutely enthralling and might be the headiest, weirdest episode of the entire series, rivaling the Season 2 finale. It begins with Mr. C and his associate, Ray. After seven episodes, finally we’re getting to the heart of what Mr. C has been up to. Ray winds up shooting Mr. C., who is promptly tended to by a host of filthy supernatural Woodsmen (5:20–9:02).

Right as Ray shoots Mr. C, Lynch adds the sound of static (5:30). It’s very subtle at first. Ray’s footsteps on the gravel are muffled but audible; the only other sounds included in this sequence are Ray’s screams after the 7-minute mark, which are likewise muffled and slowed down. The imagery is strange, terrifying, and vivid, but instead of the sounds that would actually be occurring, we hear static, slowed down screams, and music that is eerily serene, heightening sequence’s surreal horror. The Woodsmen music (5:35) resembles an underwater tuba playing arpeggios and matches the slowed down perspective we have on Ray. The harmony is surprisingly classical, especially starting at 6:24, and even has a proper harmonic resolution at 7:03. (Probably neither here nor there, but the dancing Woodsmen and steadier notes at 6:33 immediately made me think of the last movement of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and its combining a “vulgar dance tune” with the Dies irae.)

After Ray shoots Mr. C., three filthy Woodsmen appear and begin to revive him.

In a structurally unexpected turn, Lynch cuts to the musical performance at Roadhouse, an immediate sign we’re in for something different. We’re treated to a satisfyingly grimy performance by “The” Nine Inch Nails. Back in the woods (14:21), the music modulates into supernatural reverb. A dazed Mr. C sits up, apparently revived, and that’s when the real magic happens. Lynch depicts the Trinity atomic bomb test at White Sands, New Mexico; this, it turns out, is the origin of BOB. The camera inches forward and tension mounts as a military guy initiates the countdown. The bomb goes off, and we hear the opening cries of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, which will accompany much of the forthcoming sequence.

The face of BOB as he is brought into the world, barfed out of the entity known as "The Experiment"

It’s an incredible call to attention and for me, one of the most memorable moments from the 2017 season. We don’t even hear the explosion, only the piercing violin entrance, an indication that we’re to attend not just to the physical aspect of the explosion, but the spiritual, metaphysical consequences as well. Threnody is a work for 52 string instruments, composed in 1960. It features non-conventional (“extended”) playing techniques and is a strikingly dissonant, intense work, with startling emotional immediacy. Lynch uses the entire work to accompany the explosion and to illustrate the sinister, abstract forces (including BOB) that were unleashed that day.

There is even a touch of playfulness: check out at 19:41 how Lynch uses newly introduced violin—the screeches and pizzicato (plucking instead of bowing)—as a counterpoint to the Woodsmen scurrying to their new haunt. Perhaps Lynch is thumbing his nose at Hollywood’s obsession with origin stories.

Either way, the stream of abstract images, the Woodsmen’s arrival at the gas station, and The Experiment barfing out BOB are all so gloriously intense and weird. Anyone remember the Maxell guy? That’s what I feel like watching this exhilarating sequence. The music produces effects ranging from ghostly, quasi-comic grotesqueness to searing space Odyssey, providing an astonishing counterpoint to this sui generis origin story.

#3: “No, it can wait until morning.”

What began as a quirky, melodramatic police procedural had, by the conclusion of the third episode, become (also) a surrealist mindfuck. We have up to now been involved in the details of the case and the community; with Cooper’s dream, the show takes on this whole other dimension (literally and figuratively). Cooper’s dream was the show’s first truly iconic sequence. It’s magnificent.

The Man From Another Place, a.k.a. "the dancing dwarf," dancing in the Black Lodge during Agent Cooper's dream

Musically, my favorite part is what happens right after the dream. Cooper’s dream marks his first real encounter with the denizens of the Black Lodge. The Man From Another Place gets up and dances to the slinky jazz music, and Laura whispers a secret into an old Cooper’s ear.

Cooper awakens, startled (1:22), and the music abruptly stops. He turns on the light and reaches for the phone. Then, he tells Truman that he knows who killed Laura Palmer and that it can wait until morning. Following that exchange, the jazz music comes back. Conscious of it—on some level, at least—Cooper starts to snap his fingers. It’s not until right before Lynch cuts the scene that MacLachlan cracks even the slightest smirk, though, in one of my favorite details, he has had that ridiculous cowlick the entire time. And poof! The episode ends. Wow.

GIF of Agent Cooper: he is in his room at the Great Northern Hotel wearing pajamas, snapping his fingers to the music he heard during the previous night's dream.

About that smirk: there’s a bit of musical punning going on. Notice when Cooper starts snapping his fingers to the music at 1:48. As he begins, find the beat, and starting with his first snap, start counting those beats 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, etc. Cooper begins by snapping his fingers on 1 and 3, so 1-2-3-4, etc. For comparison, the hi-hat is emphasizing 2 and 4. (You can use the GIF to practice finding the beat and counting: the beat is about as fast as his hand is moving, so follow his hand and count 1-2-3-4 as the GIF loops.) Groups of beats like this are called measures, and this one has four beats on it. In jazz, it is considered somewhere between wrong and square to snap your fingers on 1 and 3 rather than 2 and 4. The entire end of the scene is silly, the site of Cooper in his pajamas snapping on 1 and 3 particularly so. After Cooper’s third snap (1:51), notice how he skips a beat and starts snapping again. He’s not yet really finding the beat, but his smirk starts to form at 1:55, exactly as his snaps finally align with 2 and 4. It’s a slick, subtly wacky and playful musical cue to us that Cooper is onto something.

According to musicologist Brooke McCorkle, “The blurring between the real and the fantastic is a Lynchian aesthetic prominent in many of his works, including The Return. In other words, sound punctures the boundary between the ‘real’ sound of the diegetic world and the ‘fantastic’ sound of the non-diegetic realm.” This is central to the experience of Twin Peaks. Here, the blend of surreality, murder, absurdity, goofiness, and the way the jazz uncannily inhabits both the dream and waking worlds (perhaps others, too)—all as the show shocks its audience with the bold turn to the supernatural—makes this an iconic, unforgettable, musical moment.

#2: “It is happening again.”

I mentioned earlier how the music of Twin Peaks came to haunt my days and nights, and to my mind, there has been no more haunting scene than the sequence at the end of Season 2, Episode 7. It’s tender, weird, suspenseful, surreal, soapy, comic, and terrifying. The show is firing on all cylinders.

(Warning: The following clip is particularly violent, and some readers may find it upsetting.)

Wow. That aired on network TV! David Lynch famously never wanted to reveal who killed Laura Palmer, but pressure from the network won out. That’s a shame, though of course many, including me, regard the show’s handling of the who-killed-Laura-Palmer? arc as still really satisfying. This sequence powerfully builds momentum toward that reveal.

Ray Wise as a white-haired Leland Palmer wearing a devilish grin, gazing into the mirror as we come to learn that he is possessed by BOB

Everything about this entire sequence (except Pete and Catherine) is memorable. With the opening sounds, our attention is immediately arrested: a high-pitched, artificial wind accompanying treetops before a night sky. A low synthesizer drone is crossfaded in, creating an absolutely hair-raising interval. Unlike the crossfade, the wind cuts out immediately and is replaced by the skipping record that will accompany the events that take place in the Palmer living room. The effect is unnerving. A drugged Sarah Palmer slithers desperately down the staircase. The low synth continues through the following shots in the sheriff’s office, then Pete’s midnight snack, and then back to the Palmer living room, maintaining a special tension throughout. Lasting nearly the first five minutes of the sequence, it stitches the individual scenes together, building a great deal of tension and energy as it goes. Notice, too, how the pitch, timbre, and intensity of the drone changes as the Log Lady enters the frame (1:18) and later (4:44), when the camera moves from Sarah to the record player, to Leland straightening his tie in the mirror, his white hair visible to the camera but not in the mirror.

The drone fades after Lynch cuts to the Roadhouse (4:55). The sound is replaced by a lush 50s rock pastiche, “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart.” The transition from the low synths and the creepy, supernatural sound effects from the Palmer household to the smooth soft rock of the Roadhouse leaves me spellbound. I love, too, the way the volume goes way up all of a sudden as the camera cuts from the reflection in the puddle to Cruise on stage (5:04). It’s such a different sonic, visual, and narrative world to inhabit, and yet in no way have I shaken the feel from the previous scene. I’m still as affected as I was, only now there is the music, melodrama, and the slight silliness of the Roadhouse. It’s beautiful, a little goofy, but chilling. This interplay is fundamental to why this sequence is so special.

Julee Cruise in Twin Peaks wearing a red dress against a red curtain singing "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart"

The next transition occurs at 7:59. Cooper, Truman, and the Log Lady are grooving. The contrasting section of “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart” is teased for a moment (“Shadow in my house …”) before the sound of thunder heralds an abrupt shift to the hauntingly beautiful “The World Spins.” (Both songs were performed by Julee Cruise with music by Angelo Badalamenti and lyrics by David Lynch.)

With this, the scene changes from the soap operatic (Donna and James) to the supernatural. Already Cooper is looking around, as though he feels a presence; he even sees the room service man who brought Cooper his milk as he lay wounded, an immediate foreshadowing and perhaps some sort of avatar of the giant. The lack of ambient noise allows the music to envelop us and lends the scene an ethereal quality that is delicate yet foreboding. Cooper fixes his gaze on the stage (8:30), this time more knowingly. He has a vision, and the music fades out, replaced by the low synth of the opening, signaling to the audience that Cooper has somehow tapped into what is unfolding in the Palmer household. The giant warns: “It is happening again.”

Giant with a red bowtie on stage at the Roadhouse warning Agent Cooper. "It is happening again."

The scene continues with the delicious reveal that BOB has been inhabiting Leland. The 45” continues to skip during the horrifying seizure and murder of Maddy. The sonic continuity from Leland back to the giant reinforces Cooper’s psychic connection to the events we have just witnessed. It is a nice touch that the record continues to skip even after the scene has returned to the Roadhouse. A last, with the resumption of “The World Spins” (14:03), we are finally allowed to exhale. The remainder of the scene is calm, but sadness pervades: the room service man apologizes, Bobby looks troubled, and Donna begins to weep. Cooper isn’t the only one who feels it. The episode ends with Cooper dissolving into the red curtains of the Black Lodge.

This is dear to me. It haunts my days and nights. I love it so much.

Julee Cruise performing "The World Spins" at the Roadhouse

#1: Audrey’s Dance

If there is one good thing about the James and Evelyn plot line, it’s when James throws on the jukebox before they leave the bar together. (“We in a hurry? Mind if I play the box first?”) This is the song James picked. What? Now, the 12/8 meter is a trope that connotes 50s pop, especially appropriate for a James scene. The searing saxophone and pipe organ, however, are completely outrageous, and bring the scene to a whole new level of silliness; it’s very Season 2. And there is just no way that song is coming out of that jukebox in that room! Of course, that very disjunction and the surreal, uncanny element is what Twin Peaks is all about. (Typically, as is the case here, 12/8 is when groups of four beats are divided into three subdivisions. Find the steady beat, then listen for the cymbals in particular, which articulate the three-part division of each individual beat.)

Evelyn, a tall blonde woman we understand to be much older, adopts a flirtatious pose she talks to James Hurley at the bar

Audrey’s Dance from Season 1 was the template for the absurd diegetic jukebox and is way less goofy and way better than James and Evelyn.

The sounds during the opening seconds map out the scene: The scene opens to an exterior shot, and the wind whooshes above Twin Peaks, an intimation of the Black Lodge and the supernatural, further emphasized visually by the diner floor and Audrey’s red top, which matches the red booths, and her dance, a clear allusion to Cooper’s Dream. We are immediately escorted back to reality with the doorbell, Audrey’s footsteps, the sounds of the diner (the clinking of dishes at Donna’s family’s table are turned way up), and Donna’s mother’s announcement that, “Audrey Horne just walked in.” Then comes probably the show’s most extraordinary and memorable blend of reality and surreality to follow. Audrey makes a selection on the jukebox: a sneaky, slinky, dreamy vamp, with perhaps a whiff of “Cool” from West Side Story. The interjections from the clarinet and horns along with other dissonant wailings make this a totally surreal backdrop for this iconic scene. It’s a very alluring and very strange tune. All sounds from the diner are completely rolled back until Norma approaches the bar.

Audrey Horne talks to Donna Hayward at the counter at the Double R Diner before Audrey's Dance

I have so many questions already: again, how on Earth is that song in that jukebox? Who decided, oh, that definitely belongs in there? On the contrary, is stuff like this actually common in the reality the characters inhabit? Moreover, why does no one seem to be responding in any way to her selection? As a result, we the audience begin to lose track of whether this is even diegetic or not. On the one hand, we saw Audrey choose this at the jukebox. On the other, no one gives even the slightest hint of a response to such a seemingly weird song, and Audrey simply sits down and orders coffee from Norma (whose dress is the significant blue thing in the scene).

Image depicting the visual similarity between the dancing dwarf from the Black Lodge in Cooper's Dream and Audrey's Dance at the Double R Diner. The red coloring and patterned floor are the most immediately striking.

“God, I love this music,” declares Audrey, actually referring to the music which has been playing the entire time. “Isn’t it too dreamy?”, Audrey asks. As she gets up to dance, the diner sounds once again disappear completely so that we only hear the music, leaving us in a place that is irreducibly real and surreal at the same time. The scene closes with a 3/4 perspective that Lynch uses to emphasizes comic strangeness. (Think of Albert Rosenfield’s arrival at the Sheriff’s office.)

At its best, Twin Peaks music exposes and articulates the boundaries between the real and the surreal. In so doing, it is able to heighten the narrative and affective content of the show, creating unique, unforgettable experiences. Perhaps above all, the music—especially from the original seasons—has such a unique feel to it. Nothing else is quite like it. Frightening, delicate, droll, the music of Twin Peaks haunts as it enthralls.

Daniel DiPaolo teaches music theory at NYU.

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