It’s no secret that shows like The Bachelor and Bachelorette are highly produced, highly manipulated, barely real simulacrums of standard human behavior. For all we now know (or can guess) about the way these shows are built, there’s at least one aspect of reality production that a show like UnREAL never shows us: the way editors use music. And the easiest way to get to the bottom of things is to listen to the music — it builds the tone, it gives scenes an arc, and it pushes us toward mocking, loving, or loathing each contestant. The Bachelor is not a subtle franchise — it’s not hard to suss out who’s getting the romance edit and who’s getting sent straight to Meat Chads-ville.
The reverse cymbal
The Bachelor and Bachelorette use the reverse cymbal the way I would use the word “hey.” “Hey, a lady just got out of a limo.” “Hey, they’re kissing now.” “Hey, look at that helicopter.” “Hey, he just said something interesting.” It’s a sound that pivots, transitions, remarks upon, and directs attention. It is the audio version of drawing big purple arrows on your selfie snap to make sure everyone sees the weird guy in the background.
Just listen to this reverse cymbal as Luke comes riding into the season on a “unicorn”:
Or, consider this classic “emotional breakthrough” edit as Jordan is given a congratulatory reverse cymbal for participating in the classic “being honest about feelings” trope:
The pizzicatos of awkwardness
This is that music we all immediately recognize as the inevitable accompaniment to bad behavior and unfortunate choices. It sometimes comes as string pizzicatos, and other times in carnival–esque xylophones with waltzing oompah-oompah brass underneath. In blunter terms, it means, “Yeah, you are not making it to the end of this thing. It’ll be remarkable if you last more than two more episodes.”
Here’s a remarkably fast emotional turnaround, undergirded by a solid musical foundation. First, Bachelor Ben tells the ladies that he’s very upset by the loss of a family friend. And then, Olivia decides to talk about her cankles. CUE THE AWKWARD.
The sexy, vaguely Latin guitar
Are you on a date with the Bachelorette where a dubious yoga instructor has instructed you to perform a barely clothed sex act? Are you sitting on a bench somewhere in an economically appealing vacation spot, swapping spit with someone you’ve never had a private moment with? You’re getting the “great chemistry” edit, and you’re getting slapped with some sexy, fingerpicking guitar music.
If things have taken a real turn for the worse, and you’re getting a full-on villain edit, The Bachelor or Bachelorette might suggest that you’re a serial killer. They won’t actually say it. Not in so many words. (Unless you’re Chad, in which case — yeah, they’ll be pretty explicit about it.) But if things are going badly and it looks like the tension might lead to violence, particularly if this is among male contestants, The Bachelorette punches up the stress with a dash of high-pitched, atonal harmonics. It’s the sound you hear when you rub your finger along the lip of a wine glass. It’s also the sound you hear when your contestant is about to earn you gonzo villain-edit points in your fantasy league.
The sad piano chords of foregone conclusions
You know that pit you feel in your stomach when you just know that your response letter is about to read “I’m sorry to inform you” rather than “congrats”? Or that feeling when you realize, four seconds before it happens, that your vacation needs to be canceled? Or what about when you’re telling the guy you’re on a date with about your traumatic past? Yeah, on The Bachelor or Bachelorette, that sounds like melancholic minor piano chords, progressing slowly through unoriginal three-note motifs.
Bonus: Midway through that clip, Wells graduates from “piano chords of foregone conclusion” to “even more melancholic repeating piano motifs of the he-deserves-to-find-love elimination.” It’s sort of like Philip Glass’s The Hours score, if it were four times less interesting and also for some reason featured an occasional glockenspiel chime.
Triumphant throw the kitchen sink at it music
If you’ve reached the big final-two moment and the Bachelor or Bachelorette chooses to get engaged, you should be prepared for the producers to pull out all the stops. There will be slowly rising piano melodies of hopeful romance. There will be harp glissandos. There will be brass fanfares. There will be swelling strings. When things really get going, you’re going to start to get some drums and that glockenspiel again, and yeah, you’re definitely getting reverse cymbals.
Ostensibly, the host of Bachelor and Bachelorette is Chris Harrison, the man who guides us through the season and helps negotiate our feelings about major events. But the real narrator of The Bachelorette is whoever’s sitting in an editing bay, selecting “awkward string pizzicatos” and carefully finding exactly the right moment when that helicopter takes off to throw in some well-timed reverse cymbal punctuation.