From ‘Only Murders’ to ‘The Dropout’: How Composers Score a Crime Series

Crime stories have been a staple of television since the medium’s early days. And composers continue to find new ways to dramatize murder, mayhem, investigations and convictions, as evidenced by last year’s series like “Only Murders in the Building”, “The Thing About Pam”, ” The Dropout” and “Gaslit”.

Siddhartha Khosla (“This Is Us”) came up with one of the most catchy themes of the year for “Only the murders in the building”, the Hulu comedy-mystery starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as amateur sleuths to solve a murder in their apartment building in Manhattan.

“I read the script and heard something that sounded weird and mysterious and dramatic and moving,” Khosla says. “It was reminiscent of a ’60s, Donovan-esque thing, and I started singing that melody over that chord change.”

But when producers asked Khosla to “do more New York,” he started thinking about musicians on the subway and added a drummer playing “Home Depot paint buckets.”

For the weekly scores, Khosla employed a 40-piece orchestra including a bassoon, not (at first) realizing that a bassoonist would not only be a character later in the season, but would actually play a central role in the story. Episode 7, told without dialogue from the perspective of a deaf person, proved to be her biggest challenge: “The score had to drive the emotional and dramatic rhythms of the whole episode,” says Khosla.

For the NBCs “The Thing About Pam,” with Renee Zellweger as a real housewife suspected of the murder of her best friend, composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli (“The Witcher”) have sought out offbeat sounds.

“Pam walks through the city as if she were larger than life,” says Belousova. “She’s on a mission, marching to the beat of her own drum, and nothing will stop her. Its theme is a very short motif of a few notes combined with a predatory march.

“Pam is not what she appears to be,” adds Belousova. “She appears to be a good friend, a loving daughter, a star witness, all those lovely things, when in fact she is not. We thought, how can we take very simple instruments and twist them so that they become something that they are not? »

They took an English horn and manipulated its beautiful sound downward into “a very low, uncomfortable and menacing tone,” she says. They used a prepared piano, placing coins between the strings (“because Pam is all about the money”); and transposed the sound of a harmonica into something “smoldering, terrifying”, says Ostinelli.

London composer Anne Nikitin (“American Animals”) wrote her first all-electronic score for Hulu’s “The Stall” about the rise and fall of biotech company Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried).

Nikitin originally considered orchestral sounds for people and synth sounds for science scenes, but one of her early demos (“an all-synth ditty I wrote just for fun,” she says ) impressed showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether. “That simple bass line with a few chimes on top became the sound of the show.”

She soon realized that the entire score could be created in her studio – “emotional, aggressive and sympathetic music, using only synths. Elizabeth Holmes is such a robotic character, almost like a machine, crushing people in her path. As the plot thickens, the score becomes denser and darker,” Nikitin notes.

Finding the Right Tone for Starz’s Watergate Drama “Gas” was the challenge for Mac Quayle (“Mr. Robot”) as the story constantly shifts from funny to serious. He quotes Patton Oswalt (who plays Charles Colson) saying that “the music strikes a balance between the absurdity and the paranoid anxiety of what was going on with all these people”.

Using just 10 musicians, while playing piano and marimba himself, Quayle managed to create a dark orchestral piece “that speaks to the whole story, the greatness of the scandal”, while telling the human story. of Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts), the outspoken wife of Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn) who paid a heavy price for her role.

The series, he says, is not really about Watergate. “It’s more about the people, John and Martha, John and Mo Dean,” he says. “Watergate is right there, tying it all together. It’s funny, sad, dramatic, exciting, weird, all of those things.

Comments are closed.