Music in Cartoons

Are there any purer memories than watching cartoons as a kid?

Saturday mornings, bowl of cereal, a meter away from the television. Eyes glued.

This is why I’m sad to hear the news of Joe Ruby’s passing this week – the creator of Scooby-Doo. 

The cartoons we watch define our childhood; and Scooby-Dooby-Doo defined mine. 

They teach us so much culturally, without ever breaking their fun façade. 

I’ve only just started to realise the impact of cartoons on our musical learning. 

You see, music makes us feel. But we don’t enter the world, fresh faced, knowing that a perfect cadence will make us feel happy, or that any of Lewis Capaldi’s songs will make us feel sad (for whatever reason that might be). 

Everything we know about music is contextually learned. 

And cartoons, for many people, are exactly where their musical experience begins to take shape. 


Well, there’s two key reasons: 

First, cartoons exaggerate everything. So when you’re supposed to feel scared, everything on the screen is dark; and the music is appropriately distorted. 

If Shaggy and Scoob’ were ever walking alone in a dark graveyard, they would without doubt be accompanied by some high-pitched, nervous violins. 

Similarly, when our heroes won, as the colourful frame is frozen mid-leap, the music was overtly triumphant: most often a big brass fanfare, ascending in celebration. 

Making the music so over the top made it completely obvious to our young minds what we were supposed to feel when we heard it. 

Second, they use such a variety of musical styles and instrumentation

Take Scooby-Doo’s Latin inspired chase scenes, which are entwined with 60’s psychedelic rock drums and an interrupting descending glockenspiel, that when amalgamated give an overwhelming sense of fast-paced chaos and tension – whilst remaining, overall, fun. 

These blended styles introduced us to the qualities of different musical genres. 

Or take literally any episode of Looney Tunes: soundtracked almost constantly by orchestral music, the show uses classical techniques to exaggerate the already ludicrous storylines, weaving seamlessly from imperious to cheeky. 

Each character had a motif, using different instrumentation: this was, for the vast majority of people, our first introduction to timbre – or musical texture. 

Or Take Hong Kong Phooey – who aside from granting me my ‘mild-mannered audio brander’ moniker, expertly blended the sounds of jazz with instrumentation and techniques lifted from Chinese music. 

This, amongst countless other classics, introduced us to the beautiful sounds of foreign cultures. 

This contextual learning is what makes music so powerful. 

It’s how we know, subconsciously, how to receive music. 

And now, we can use this to tell people everything they need to know about your brand, without wasting a word. 

Come and ask me how I’d (scooby-dooby) do it.