From ‘Only Murders in the Building’ to ‘The Dropout’: How Composers Approach Crime Series

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Crime stories have been a TV staple dating back to the beginnings of the medium. And composers continue to find fresh ways to dramatize murder, mayhem, investigations and convictions, as demonstrated by series from the past year 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 year’s catchiest themes for “Only Murders in the Building,” the Hulu comedy-mystery starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as amateur sleuths out to solve a murder in their Manhattan apartment building.

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“I read the script and I heard something that felt quirky and mysterious and dramatic and emotional,” Khosla says. “It harkened back to a ’60s-ish, Donovan-like thing, and I started singing this melody over that chord change.”

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

For the weekly scores, Khosla employed a 40-piece orchestra including bassoon, without (at first) realizing that a bassoonist would not only be a character later in the season but in fact play a pivotal role in the story. Episode 7, told without dialogue from a deaf person’s perspective, turned out to be his biggest challenge: “The score had to drive the emotional and dramatic beats of the entire episode,” Khosla says.

For NBC’s “The Thing About Pam,” with Renee Zellweger as a real-life housewife suspected of murdering her best friend, composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli (“The Witcher”) looked for offbeat sounds.

“Pam tromps through town like she’s larger than life,” explains Belousova. “She’s on a mission, marching to the beat of her own drum, and nothing will get in her way. Her theme is a very short, a few-note motive combined with a predatory march.

“Pam is not who she seems to be,” adds Belousova. “She seems to be a good friend, a loving daughter, a star witness, all these nice things, when in fact she’s not. We thought, how do we take very simple instruments and twist them in a way that they become something they are not?”

They took an English horn and manipulated its gorgeous sound downward into “a very low, uncomfortable, menacing sonority,” 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 “brooding, terrifying,” Ostinelli says.

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

Nikitin originally considered orchestral sounds for the people and synth sounds for the scientific 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 some chimes happening above it became the show’s sound.”

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

Finding the right tone for Starz’s Watergate drama “Gaslit” 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) as saying “the music finds the sweet spot between the absurdity and the paranoid anxiety of what was happening 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 grandness of the scandal,” while also conveying 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 just there, binding it all together. It’s funny, sad, dramatic, thrilling, weird, all these things.”

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