Music is an integral element of the hit television series House, MD. Music is often used to propel the narrative, as well as provide both solace and enjoyment to the series’ central character. Dr. Gregory House is a musician, and one gets the strong impression that his music is more than a casual hobby.
He plays several instruments, including piano, guitar (he owns several vintage models, including a “Flying V,” a Dobro, and a Gibson Jumbo acoustic), and owns a banjo. And, House was even seen repairing his own guitar in “The Right Stuff” after Wilson cruelly broke it. I just have all sorts of respect for the character for undertaking such an intricate and complex task — and for the writer who gave the musicians in the audience such a subtle little Easter egg. And no, it is not a common thing for people to repair their own guitars!
Of course, it certainly helps that Hugh Laurie, who plays the complex Dr. Gregory House, is an accomplished musician and composer, often lending his own musical talents to the series’ score — and lending credibility to House’s musical gifts.
In an interview during season two with NPR’s Elvis Mitchell, Laurie suggested that despite his cynical, sarcastic, crude demeanor, music provides a sort of emotional language for House, one that he uses primarily, but not exclusively, in isolation.
House’s musical interest extends beyond performance. He maintains an audiophile’s sound system both at home and in his office and keeps his iPod close at hand. But it is his dual (office and home) Sota turntables (which are incredibly expensive) and penchant for his vinyl collection of classic jazz, blues, and classic rock that suggest the important role music plays in House’s life. In times of stress, he is often shown in his office, eyes closed, lying on the floor or in his Eames chair, listening, transported by music of all genres.
House’s personal musical tastes are as eclectic as the musical choices that overlay the series’ trademark dialogue-free montages, which move the story forward, hit emotional notes that House himself hasn’t the ability to express, and set a tone and context for the scenes they illuminate.
In any event, here is my “essential” soundtrack for House: musical moments from the show, that when heard, evoke specific images of scenes and emotions from the show, from House’s inner life, and his never-ending turmoil — and occasionally, unbridled joy.
Caveat: I tend to gravitate toward the more melancholy and moody beats of the show, rather than its quirkiness and comedy, and my musical selections reflect that preference. A complete listing of songs used in the series is available at the official site’s music feature. Asterisked selections are included on the official House soundtrack album.
* “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, Rolling Stones (Pilot episode, “Honeymoon,” “Meaning”) — Very nearly an unofficial anthem for the series, it has been referenced musically and in dialogue throughout the series’ run, meaning different things at different times. In the pilot episode, House uses the words of the “philosopher” Jagger to tell dean of medicine Lisa Cuddy that he has no intention of fulfilling his tedious obligation in the hospital’s free clinic. “You can’t always get what you want,” he tells her. But later, after pulling his privileges without warning, an angry House bursts into her office. “I looked up that philosopher Jagger,” she zings. “And you know, you’re right: you can’t always get what you want. But sometimes,” she continues, quoting the song’s lyrics, “you just might get what you need.” Check and mate. Defeated, House gives in to Cuddy’s clinic demands.
A more bittersweet image is evoked when the song is underscores the final scenes of the first season (in “Honeymoon”). Faced with Stacy’s re-entry into his orbit, House tries to take a normal step, a vain attempt to “go back” to the way he was before her betrayal. When he stumbles, grabbing his leg in pain as it gives out beneath him, House “gets what he needs” in that little amber bottle of pain meds, after he tries and fails miserably trying to walk normally.
The song reprises at the start of season three in “Meaning.” Having undergone the radical ketamine therapy, he can run, skateboard, and turn on his heel and make a quick getaway. But weeks of living a “normal” life are but (as Wilson puts it) “a tortuous taste of the good life,” destined to cause a devastating crash should the procedure fail. Feeling the pain return, House turns to Wilson, who dismisses the pain as “the pangs of middle age.” Seriously freaked out, House steals into Wilson’s office to the Stones’ classic to get what he needs: prescription blanks — a safety net of Vicodin, which will come back to haunt him by mid-season.
Mick Jagger’s famous words make a final reappearance at the end of season four and “Wilson’s Heart.” “I don’t want to be in pain; I don’t want to be miserable; I don’t want Wilson to hate me,” pleads a broken, teary, and comatose House to the dead Amber (an avatar for his own subconscious mind) as they sit in a bright white bus. But her cold answer — “You can’t always get what you want” — sends him back to face the harsh reality of life.
“Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, Rickie Lee Jones (“Paternity”) — By this early season one episode, viewers have but a slight sense that there is something more to House than a snarky, cynical jerk. But the final scene of this episode reveals House as someone who can be wistful and even nostalgic as he watches a lacrosse game (or is it simply a vivid memory evoked on the sidelines of an empty field?) “So hold on to your special place /something to keep it in/and stay inside this foolish grave/though any day your secret’s/then again years may go by/years may go by.” Jones’ melancholy lyrics ring true, giving us a new prism through which to view the complex House.
“Silent Night” (“Damned if You Do”) — “You can’t be angry at God and not believe in him,” accuses this week’s patient, a nun, arguing with him about God’s existence. We’ve gotten clues here and there over the years that House’s religious views are more complex than he lets on (so what else is new?). Over the final scenes of this early episode, House plays a starkly beautiful rendition of “Silent Night” (Hugh Laurie is credited with the arrangement). House sits alone, as he so often does, sipping a whiskey and reflecting. Perhaps he plays the song, grateful for the quiet and calm that Christmas eve brings to him, a man who is so private and guarded that it is a relief to be simply left alone. Whatever his connection to it, the song clearly means something to him, and Laurie and the producers have given us this lovely gift of hearing and watching House play piano.
“Baba O’Reilly”, The Who (“Control”) — This selection is included because it provides us with an all-too-rare peek at House truly and simply having fun. He has lied to the transplant committee and saved the life of a young woman by so doing. As the song plays loudly through his iPod, House plays along with it on “air” piano and drums, completely into the music and the moment. And then enters into House’s inner sanctum the new evil billionaire chairman of the board Vogler, who comes in to introduce himself to the rebellious Dr. House, abruptly ending the moment of bliss.
“Some Devil”, Dave Matthews (“Love Hurts”) — “It’s been a long time since he’s opened up to anybody. I’m afraid if he opens up and gets hurt, there won’t be a next time.” Wilson explains House’s unexpected fragility to Cameron before their one (and only) date. But Cameron lays it on the line to House, wanting to know plainly how he feels about her. But (of course) House deflects, telling her that the only reason she’s interested is that he is damaged and she thinks she can fix him.
Late the next night, House sits alone in his office, listening to Dave Matthews’ forlorn lyrics on his turntable. “I’m broken don’t break me/When I hit the ground…” His date with Cameron has brought out feelings in House long buried, as he gazes yearningly at an old photograph pulled from his wallet. The scene foreshadows the next two episodes in which we are introduced to Stacy, a woman for whom he pines five years after she left him — and who betrayed him with tragic results.
“Delia”, Blind Willie McTell (“Honeymoon”) — “Delia, Delia, how can it be?/You love that old rounder/ but you don’t love me.” House’s own musical choices are always telling. And after gazing in on Stacy and her husband (who House has cured), House knows that he cannot win back her love, damaged as he is… and married as she is. Back in his office, he puts the old Delta blues “78” on his turntable before Stacy surprises him to thank him for curing her husband. She confesses that he will always be “the one,” embracing him, but chooses not to be with him. Embracing him, Stacy cannot see the devastation in House’s face, and when she walks away, we know that she has (once again) shattered the man she claims to love.
“Hallelujah”, Jeff Buckley (“Acceptance”) — I really like this song for the way it explains so elegantly what simmers in House’s heart regarding Stacy. He is conflicted, clearly, and he vacillates between being simply an ass and tentatively reaching out — pulling back when his confidence in her isn’t validated. “Wilson’s a fool,” he tells her. “And I’m an idiot.” Wilson has told him to trust her, but she fails her first test. There will not be a second for weeks later. I can’t quote the entire song, which all fits, but here’s a bit: “Well baby I’ve been here before/I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor/I used to live alone before I knew ya/I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch/Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah”.
“Nessum Dorma”, Puccini (“Autopsy”) — All I can say here is that House listens to opera? How cool is that? Our pop culture aficionado harbors a penchant for Puccini. The pleasure evident on his face as House listens to this Turandot aria on his iPod is a delight to behold, as he tries to relax in the face of his own hay fever and a very difficult case.
* “Beautiful”, Elvis Costello (“Autopsy”) — Recorded exclusively for this House episode by Elvis Costello, House listens to it on his iPod at the end of the episode, echoing the Christina Aguilera original that plays on the tape player of Andie, House’s young cancer patient, in the teaser. “Now and then, I get insecure/From all the pain, I’m so ashamed…/To all your friends, you’re delirious/So consumed in all your doom/Trying hard to fill the emptiness/The pieces is gone left the puzzle undone…I am beautiful, no matter what they say…” By the end of the episode, House has connected (as always, privately) with young Andie, listening to her advice to forget about his pain and sadness and find something to enjoy about the day. Which he does, window shopping for a new motorcycle.
“In the Deep”, Bird York (“Autopsy”) — Three songs from one episode? What can I say? Waiting for Andie to come out of the radical and experimental procedure House has performed on her, everyone is tense and concerned, even House, who is in full denial about the effect that Andie has had on him. The lyrics are deeply evocative of House’s state of mind at this point in season two, conflicted about Stacy; conflicted about living at all, his cynicism shaken by an eight-year-old cancer patient. York’s lyrics so beautifully tell House’s story on several levels: “Thought you had all the answers/to rest your heart upon./But something happens,/don’t see it coming, now/you can’t stop yourself/Now you’re out there swimming…In the deep…”
“Serenade” from The Student Prince, Sigmund Romberg (“Need to Know”) — We have only heard House sing three times in the entire run of the show, two of those times have been when he is being smugly right about something (“Ain’t She Sweet” in “Deception” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in “A Wonderful Lie”). But in this incredibly rare moment, House is simply happy, in high spirits, and filled with a post-coital bliss. He sings this romantic (“Would my heart but still it’s beating/Only you can tell it how beloved/From your window give me greeting/Hear my eternal vow”) serenade from Romberg’s operetta! And why not?! He has won back (he thinks) his one true love.
“French Suite Number 5”, JS Bach (“Skin Deep”) — One of the series’ most heartbreaking moments comes at the end of “Skin Deep.” House, trying desperately to distract himself from the escalating leg pain (which Cuddy and Wilson insist is psychosomatic, and not physical), plays this piano piece. As the camera pans in, we get brief sense that it may be working, as House seems to attain some solace, easily scaling the piece’s trills and mellismas. But then it hits him, an intense pain causing him to miss a note as he clutches his thigh in agony. Cuddy and Wilson are wrong (or at least misguided); no amount of distraction (not even Bach) is going to alleviate his particular pain. Still, it is a beautiful piece; I love Bach — and I have no doubt that the logic and precision of his music appeals to the rationalist House.
“Hymn To Freedom”, Oscar Peterson (“All In”) — In “All In” we learn that House not only listens to jazz, but plays it as well. We were incredibly spoiled during the latter half of season two, as several episodes featured House’s (and Hugh Laurie’s) lovely playing. His rendition of Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom” at the end of the episode represents House’s freedom from Esther, his long-ago patient — the one he could not cure. Vindicated and having saved a young boy from a similar fate, House is free from the puzzle that has eluded him, and the case that haunted him for 12 years. There are no lyrics, but House’s playing of that particular piece suggests to us that he is finally free of Esther’s ghost.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (“House vs. God”) — House, the self-proclaimed atheist, knows a lot about lots of things, including theology. He can quote the Bible, knows the names of Talmudic rabbis and Jewish customs, and is at least familiar with the Church of the Latter Day Saints. And he can play (from memory) gospel renditions of church hymns like this one. We rarely see House with music on his piano, but the presence of the sheet music suggests to us that this piece may be something he played long ago, perhaps no longer remembers quite how to play. The fact that he’s pulled out this piece of music in an episode that addresses House’s views about God, tells us that he’s thinking about it. Because, more than being an atheist, House is really a seeker of truths, and he is unafraid to be wrong (about anything). Even God. His comment to Wilson, late in the episode, saying that God “knows where to find me,” suggests that House is open to any possibility. On the other hand, he may just like the song.
“Gravity”, John Mayer (“Cane and Able”) — The final scene of this episode puts a lump in my throat every time I watch it: House, wearily returning to his apartment, in terrible pain, the ketamine treatment a disappointing failure. He had flown so high in “Meaning,” running eight miles a day, euphoric and drug free. And now as he opens his closet door, his old cane sits patiently awaiting his return. Sighing, he reaches for it before disappearing into his bedroom. His crash to earth, as Cuddy predicted, has begun: “Gravity/Is working against me/And gravity/Wants to bring me down…”
* “Waiting on an Angel”, Ben Harper (“Lines in the Sand”) — “Waiting on an angel/one to carry me home /hope you come to see me soon/cause I don’t want to go alone…” There can be little more frightening to a boy who is sick to be unable to express his pain. To tell anyone what’s wrong. As the young autistic Adam cannot express the pain he feels except to draw squiggly lines and struggle against anyone who wants to “do” anything for him, House seems to be the one (almost despite himself) who can make it better. House calms him down by understanding that Adam simply needed to “see” someone else take the anesthesia; just as House was the one able to decode Adam’s non-verbal cues and language to figure out how to help him. Is House Adam’s angel? And what about House, who is emotionally stifled to the extent that he, too, cannot express the pain and disappointment he must feel now the ketamine has failed. Unable to ask for help or for sympathy from anyone, House is destined to face his demons alone, as he stands vigil, watching his old, blood stained carpet restored to its place.
* “Walter Reed”, Michael Penn (“Fools for Love”) — In the aftermath of the ketamine’s failure, House is even more bitter than usual; apathetic in the clinic, and a particular ass to the wrong patient — Detective Michael Tritter. Tritter, we surmise, wants more than an apology from House for his rudeness: he wants nothing less than House’s ruination. Speeding along on his motorbike home from the hospital, House is surprised by the cop, who lies in wait along House’s route home. With no sense of self-preservation, House refuses to play by the cop’s rules, and instead pushes back, verbally provoking him. But showing him who holds all the cards, Tritter arrests House for possession. And so House’s really big problems begin, as the song foreshadows: “…And there’s a few things I gotta say/Make no mistake, I’m mad/Cause every good thing I had/Abandoned me…/A sad and lonesome me/I’m the walking wounded/And I’d say it to your face/But I can’t find my place.”
* “See the World”, Gomez (“Half Wit”) — In an episode built around music and musicians, I could have chosen any of several songs: “I Don’t Like Mondays,” played in duet by House and his patient Patrick (played by musician Dave Matthews) is a great fun choice; and the lovely piano piece ascribed to House, begun as a kid and completed by Patrick, is certainly another. But the Gomez song “See the World” perfectly describes House’s state of mind at this point in season three. Shell-shocked and broken, House soldiers on, afraid to enter back into society, but wanting desperately to try. The song is a great overlay to the closing scene of the episode, which leaves unanswered the question as to whether House has the courage to take a deep breath and move outside himself and his solitude and into society. The song is so perfect, I would quote the entire thing, but these lyrics especially resonated: “Day to day/Where do you want to be?/’cause now you’re trying to pick a fight/With everyone you need./You seem like a soldier/Who’s lost his composure/You’re wounded and playing a waiting game/In no-man’s land no-one’s to blame…” and then… “You’ve got a chance to put things right/So how’s it going to be?/Lay down your arms now/And put us beyond doubt/So reach out it’s not too far away/Don’t mess around now, don’t delay…”
* “Are You Alright”, Lucinda Williams (“Fetal Position”) — This song, played over the final scenes of “Fetal Position,” could be an anthem for Wilson, Cuddy, and Cameron and their unending concern for House’s well-being: “Are you sleeping through the night?/Do you have someone to hold you tight?/Do you have someone to hang out with?/Do you have someone to hug and kiss you/Are you alright?” Planning a vacation throughout the episode, all to places of awe-inspiring natural beauty, House cannot ultimately go through with it, ripping up a first class ticket (a gift from Cuddy) and instead taking the phone off the hook, nursing his leg, taking a Vicodin and watching a Galapagos Islands documentary. But he captures a bit of wonder, then, thinking about the miniature hand of a fetus as it grabs onto his finger during surgery long after it’s over. And maybe it’s enough for him.
“Human”, Civil Twilight (“Frozen”) — “You’d rather show me your soul than your leg,” Cate tells House, as he performs an intimate examination of her from thousands of miles away. Her intelligence, strength, and her inaccessibility make her what Wilson calls “the perfect woman” for the reclusive House. House does connect with her, expressing his concern for her and shocking both Wilson and Foreman. House never wears his feelings where anyone can see him, so more’s the shock when he calls Cate by her first name in Wilson’s presence, and assures her colleague that “I won’t let you do anything to hurt her,” when he perceives that the base mechanic is in love with her, and (according to House’s more romantic notions) will “do anything to save her.” Believing that the attraction between Cate and her mechanic may be mutual, House backs away, clearly disappointed, but unwilling to show it. The song’s lyrics are evocative of House’s tentative feelings for Cate: “There’s one way out and one way in/Back to the beginning/There’s one way back to home again/To where I feel forgiven/What is this I feel, why is it so real/What am I to say…”
“Passing Afternoon”, Iron and Wine (“Wilson’s Head”) — Unlike the other songs in this collection, this is Wilson’s song, the avatar for his grief over Amber’s tragic death. As it plays over the final scenes of season four, we see the grief-stricken Wilson clutch a note from Amber that she has gone to collect House, who is drunk in a bar after work. But at the end of the shattering “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart,” they are all fragile china dolls on the brink of fracture. We don’t know the effects of the brain stimulation on House, nor how his relationship with Wilson has been affected. We are left with only the song’s words to us and them: “There are things we can’t recall, blind as night that finds us all/Winter tucks her children in, her fragile china dolls/But my hands remember hers, rolling ’round the shaded ferns/Naked arms, her secrets still like songs I’d never learned…” Fade out ‘til season five.
House returns with new episodes Tuesday, September 16; the DVD will be released August 19. Catch up with season four Monday nights on FOX — and keep your fingers and toes crossed for the series and star Hugh Laurie as we await the announcement of this year’s Emmy Awards nominees!