Composers Find a Tempo for True Crime With ‘Murdaugh Murders,’ ‘Madoff,’ ‘Crime Scene’ Scores

Every composer who scores a true crime series is dealing with ghosts. Their challenge is to help make a show riveting, dramatic — even entertaining — while trying not to exploit a real tragedy with real victims.

For Danielle Furst and Khari Mateen, the composers behind “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal,” an added challenge was writing music knowing that the families and friends of victims would likely be watching.

“Every time we were working on it, I was thinking about the parents,” says Furst, “listening to what was behind their testimonies and their story and wanting them to feel good about it.”

At the heart of “Murdaugh” is the death of Mallory Beach, a teenager whose death in a boating accident instigates a series of other calamities and murders.

“It was a big responsibility,” Furst says.

Then there are all the usual scoring considerations of tempo, orchestration and mood. Furst found a hurdy-gurdy, an old hand-cranked string instrument, and used it to create drones throughout.

The textbook techniques of scoring a thriller — relentless pulse and accelerating tension — were fair play, while other scenes called for a string elegy.

Sometimes images feel dry and stark without music, but there were 911 calls and on-camera testimonies used in the series that were heartbreaking without any accompaniment. Music can make a scene “not feel so heavy,” says Furst. “Or it can give it more of an investigative feeling rather than a heavy tragedy. It’s so important, yet it’s so in the background and shouldn’t be noticed too much.”

“We don’t want to over-dramatize what’s already happening,” adds Mateen. “As the composers, we have a huge part in how the story is told. We want our part in this to be done right, that shows the gravity of what’s happening.”

With viewer appetite for true crime docuseries seemingly endless, there have been investigations into mysterious murders, serial killers, sex cults, financial fraud, drug cartels and the Boston Marathon bombing — all in the past year. The scores are as disparate as the subject matter and the composers themselves; more than most genres, it’s a field that embraces newcomers and musicians from diverse backgrounds.

When Serj Tankian, frontman of the band System of a Down, first got into scoring a decade ago, he was approached to score a true crime series. “And I said something like, ‘Man, I don’t know — it’s kind of grotesque,’” he said. “I’m not sure I’d be the right person for it.” But then his friend Joe Berlinger, a veteran true crime documentarian, convinced him to score the Netflix series “Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer,” and Tankian went on to score the follow-up season devoted to the so-called Texas killing fields — both co-scored with Vincent Pedulla — as well as a Berlinger crime series that didn’t involve violence: “Madoff: The Monster of Wall Street.”

Tankian doesn’t score to picture, but rather starts writing music well before seeing any footage. The nature of these kinds of productions requires him to build a vast library of mood pieces that might be inspired by the synopsis, script, subject matter, explanation — “anything we can get our hands on,” he says.

He hands that library to the editors, who cut scenes and sequences to various tracks. There’s a back and forth with notes from the show’s producers and, in his case, Netflix, and Tankian has a chance to make final adjustments or changes before each episode is complete.

In other words, he’s not sitting there at a monitor watching gruesome crime scene photos over and over. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t write emotional music.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of composer friends, and they have this incredible dynamic capability to have this line of going really emotional and dramatic, or coming back and being kind of neutral,” Tankian says. “I don’t know how to do neutral. If I come across a director that wants it more neutral, I will likely fail that project. For me, music is speaking. It’s a language.”

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