Crime cues: production music tips for true crime content

Realscreen talked to composers and music house execs about how to ensure the music in your true crime project doesn't come off as criminally cliche.
June 7, 2016

(From left to right: Warner/Chappell Production Music’s David Mount, composer Steve Everitt, APM Music’s Sharon Jennings, and Audio Network U.S.’s Brad Burnside)

Tension, cliffhanger moments, the big reveal – all are part and parcel of the typical story arc for a true crime factual program. But while they may be staples of the structure of such content, producers can, and should, entertain several options when it comes to scoring the show. Realscreen talked to composers and music house execs about how to ensure the music in your true crime project doesn’t come off as criminally cliché.

Variations on a theme
While orchestral cues are most often affiliated with crime and dramatic shows, the sonic palette should take into account the different elements of the story – ranging from talking head interviews, to recreations.

“I feel like the audience is willing to go with wide ranges of music as long as they are cohesive and make sense for what is on the screen,” says Brad Burnside, head of television for Audio Network U.S. “There are traditional orchestral elements that give enough light tension to reflect the subject matter without overpowering dialogue, but electronic underscores or acoustic overtones could also help enhance mood and style just as effectively.”

Sharon Jennings, VP of music and marketing at APM Music, says atmospheric, sound design and drone tracks should be integrated into the mix, “often with a slight undertone of tension or impending disruption.”

Establish an atmosphere
Jennings adds that crime shows have story arcs that need their own musical approaches. “Not all is gloom and doom. Sometimes the happy calm-before-the-storm calls for happy-go-lucky tracks.”

Burnside is a fan of sonic branding – applying a consistent type of music or instrumentation to characters and situations. “One of your underdogs could always be accompanied by a sad solo violin with a subtle percussive underscore to show weakness but a drive to succeed,” he offers as an example.

Composer Steve Everitt, who works with APM and has scored such projects as Murder Made Me Famous and Very Bad Men, is a proponent of bypassing orchestral bombast in favor of more unconventional and perhaps unsettling instrumentation. “I think electronic and synthesised music is often overlooked in favor of traditional dramatic compositions in true crime and TV programming in general,” he offers. “I don’t mean generic dance or ambient music here, but rather dark futuristic and occasionally disturbing compositions, such as Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score for Ex Machina.”

Avoid cliché
“To me, there are certain sounds that have become predictable, the ‘Psycho strings’ effect coming to mind during a murder scene,” says Audio Network’s Burnside. “But it all depends on the creative direction the production is following. I like to approach each project as a fresh playing field, building on the musical elements that work best within individual scenes and characters.”

Everitt says that while dramatic orchestral flourish can work “in a genuinely epic context,” such tendencies should be kept on a short leash. “I feel that epic, orchestral movie-trailer cues on television have desensitized audiences to the point that these cues now sound clichéd and predictable. I also think that such emphatic and overwrought compositions in true crime programming can be inappropriate for more nuanced storylines.”

However, David Mount, VP of business development for Warner/Chappell Production Music, says that while the tide is turning and “not all crime series these days are your stereotypical dramatic and big orchestral sounds of years past,” some shows can use that approach effectively.

“The fact of the matter is some shows use the typical styles such as ambient, drones, or dramatic orchestral arrangements, and some shows are going in a completely different direction such as quirky and light. It depends on the music supervisor and the network.”

The key is to work closely with the music team to arrive at the right mix. “The more information we have, the quicker we can find the perfect cues for the project,” says Mount.

“Describing a tone you are looking for isn’t always as easy as calling out a few keywords, so bonding with someone on their favorite director’s musical choices and creative style absolutely establishes a baseline,” adds Burnside.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.