There are a lot of reasons why The Great British Baking Show is one of the most beloved cooking competition shows ever to hit television. Pretty much every contestant is adorably likable, the structure of the challenges is relatively novel, and the hosts treat tense situations with equal amounts of levity and affection.
Many loyal viewers describe GBBS as a kind of balm, and it has a reputation for being soothing watching, but this is only half of the truth. GBBS cultivates the same tension that most other reality competition shows do. Some contestants describe certain challenges as the most stress they’ve ever faced in their lives, and others seem to have full-on panic attacks when something goes wrong. But unlike other cooking shows, GBBS has the good sense to vary things up. Each section of each episode has a very distinct emotional timbre, and every aspect of the production plays into that intended tone. A major part of that work is done by composer Tom Howe’s score.
Shows like Hell’s Kitchen or Iron Chef are devoted to raising the stakes at every turn, implicitly telling the viewer that they’ll never believe how intense this next cooking challenge will be. You could easily score a thriller or an action movie with some of the tracks from those shows, as the production’s goal is a consistently simple one: increase the tension to keep the viewers on the hook.
The music of GBBS has a much more varied role, though, and each track sets a specific mood: there are songs for an optimistic start to a challenge, the hectic mania of attempting to finish the bake in time, and the twitchy, sedentary apprehension of awaiting the judging. A bittersweet leitmotif plays at the end of each episode when one baker has to go home. A tinkling melody seems to marvel at the bakers’ completed creations. The rest of the show shifts with the tone as well — camerawork is shakier and editing cuts faster during challenges, tense moments are followed with humor or shots of verdant landscapes — but the ultimate cue for how the show wants us to feel at a given moment is the music.
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The reason that people feel soothed by GBBS, then, isn’t that it avoids tension. The show goes well out of its way to make its audience feel every part of the process — the highs and lows, the optimism and the nerves. It always ends on a happy — if bittersweet — note, and it makes sure to pepper in relaxing scenes here and there, and those emotions feel all the sweeter because GBBS is so adept at bringing us into each mood.
Through it all, Howe’s score maintains a whimsical, magical air, his strings and piano evoking something between The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and Hogwarts. The music hammers home the atmosphere created by the cast and the setting, guiding us through the ups and downs before finishing with a big exhale. The score of The Great British Baking Show isn’t the greatest instrumental music ever recorded, but it is always emotionally on point, and it’s one of the many subtler reasons we keep watching.