Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building has a very distinct sound, and it’s hard to describe. It’s sprightly and sneaky, and it perfectly conveys both the comedy and the danger as Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez come closer to solving a murder in their very own apartment building. Emmy-nominated composer, Siddhartha Khosla, came on board to the project very early, and he nails the tricky tone nimbly by giving every cue a character and focus. It’s the best original score of the year.
One of the first things that Khosla had to figure out quickly was the theme of the already iconic Arconia building. There are three leads investigating the crime, but there are truly four lead characters in Only Murders in the Building. Khosla gives us a sense of the space and history, and he is able to infuse the personalities of all the residents old and new. When you listen to some of the music about the building itself, it feels like we can see darkened hallways and historical architecture.
“In my early conversations with John Hoffman and the other producers, the only mandate I had was that it felt as classic as much as it was contemporary. Whatever that meant to me. I needed to stay within those confines even though it is very broad. When I talked with John, I knew it was going to be a pre-war building, and it was going to be a character in the show. Off of reading the scripts, I came up with this motif, which is what you hear in the theme. I played the melody for John, and he told me that it was going to be the theme of the show. Now the question is you have to apply the hook to the rest of the show. I wanted there to be something regal about this score, so there is a large orchestral ensemble playing it in part because the music had to have been around for the last one hundred years. Staying to very classic themes–the “Arconia Elevator Theme” is something I played on my piano–I think giving the sense of majesty to the Arconia was very important. There is an old world charm to it, and the modern feel comes from the people who have been living there forever–these people who are grandfathered in huge apartments and they wouldn’t normally be able to live there otherwise. There is a diverse mix in that building, and you had to cover that socioeconomic feel. We did that with the main title.”
The main title theme is already iconic–it’s one of those themes that indicates exactly what you’re in for. The nimble, propulsive movements add mystery to the visuals, and it all feels very New York City. Khosla and I laughed about how the city is home to such a diverse group of people, and that variety is something he was really trying to hone in on.
“The main title was one of the first pieces I gave John. I had this bouncy, clinky piano piece with a lot of quarter notes, and I was, honestly, messing around. I have always been influenced by 60s rock like The Beach Boys and Donovan. Right away, he told me that he heard mystery and drama in it. Melancholy, too. He heard the entire show within the melody, the vocal progressions. It was the melody and the changes around it that he really responded to.”
“The sound of the main title isn’t really in the show. It has a different sound than the rest of the score–almost like an ensemble of live players or band-like. The rest is orchestral. When I sent that into the producers, the one note they gave me was to make it more New York. I kept thinking of how diverse the city is and how you can have a perfectly nice stroll and then someone walks by you and gives you the finger. Or you could be on one block and you can see all different types of theater. Everything you could possibly want is in a theater like New York. When I thought about the socioeconomic diversity, I thought we could have the drummers play on Home Depot buckets like they are on the subway. My drummer, James, is so great, and I asked him if he could get some buckets and play this groove on top of the theme. It was so cool.”
When the killer is revealed to be a bassoon player, it immediately made me wonder how much bassoon was used throughout the first season of Only Murders. The instrument isn’t one that you typically hear very much, especially as a solo, but Khosla used it as an homage to classic music. The use of the bassoon in the first season is, according to Khosla, a happy accident.
“I had no idea when I started the show, where I was going. My instinct, off of reading the script, was to write variations of my theme for orchestra in different places. I heard bassoon. That’s something you rarely hear in score anymore, and we are tipping our hat to old and new. I had never used a bassoon used in a very long time, and it’s very rarely used as the lead instrument. In the pilot, the bassoon is playing the “doo doo doo” that you hear. It ended up being a happy accident, honestly. The instrument is in the main title, too. When I found out that the bassoonist was the killer, it made me look way better than I intended. It was like I planted it intentionally, but, hey, I’ll take the credit for it.”
Our mystery is given some heavier weight in the score in the track titled, “Who Was Tim Kono,” and it was a moment in the show that the composer realized how serious the crime was. There is slow, intentional piano movements in the track, and, even though we are watching a series with powerhouse comedic actors, Khosla’s cues support the gravity of the murder. It’s only the beginning, and the mystery gets darker from that point.
“I wrote that piece for the end of episode two, and that was all about Mabel’s journey with Tim Kono. Up until that point, the score lived in this quirkier place, and I was still trying to understand the show. That’s the thing about any of these shows–you never figure them out after the first episode. Fortunately, we were gelling right away, but in terms of how big the score could go, I never thought of the score as being this huge score until Mabel is going through that bookshelf and she finds the jewelry. To me, that is the moment that I felt a mystery was truly unfolding. It was weighty. There is this shot of her typing on her computer where she is determined to find out who he is, and when Selena [Gomez] perform it, I felt it. I wanted to make the most operatic version of that feeling, and the producers loved it. That excitement from the producers–and by director Jamie Babbitt–that allowed me to push into a larger direction.”
In the track titled, “Jan,” there is a painful anticipation at the beginning before it descends. It feels as if we are descending a spiral staircase, and we are trying to make sure we don’t lose our footing. There are are gorgeous flairs throughout the track, and Khosla keeps us on the edge of our seat with the Hitchcockian vibe.
“What was fun about scoring Jan towards the end of the season, I imagined Amy Ryan as the lead singer of this band. I was decorating around anything that she was saying or doing. She is very visual with her physical comedy–and drama. The physicality of her work is incredible, even if it’s an eyebrow raise. The way she toys with Steve is a criminal playfulness in which delivers herself. It teeters on that line, and if it goes over, it’s too creepy. I had to stay in that space with her. If the music was too menacing, it would be overwrought and feel like a horror movie. It needed to feel dangerous with the tiniest dash of comedy. I don’t know what a comedy score is–I couldn’t write that if you told me to. I always need to play to the drama of the scene.”
The show ends with a somber touch. The theme we’ve come to know and love feels slower–maybe tired from solving the mystery. The “Finale” cue comes in when Jan thinks she has Charles fully in her grasp. There is a mournful and sad quality for Steve Martin’s character since he trusted Jan so much. It was the only time that Khosla fully leaned into the darkness.
“It’s a moment where Jan is messing with Steve’s character in the finale. It’s sad. She is sitting with Steve on the couch, and he is taking stage sips of his drink. She is recounting the story of the night when Tim Kono died. It was the only time that I leaned into the show being darker–it was the darkest moment of the entire season. You see her stabbing Tim over the music. It’s very operatic and there is something unwinding throughout the cue, and then you hear these dancing bassoon parts. I could lean into the menace more there.”
Khosla rocketed to recognition when NBC’s This Is Us became a huge sensation. The composer is close friends with creator, Dan Fogelman, and it was more than just a job to him. He was scoring the lives of a family, but he was honoring the relationship with a close companion. Khosla has the potential to become a multiple nominee this year. He is on the ballot for Only Murders and This Is Us, but he co-wrote the song, “The Forever Now” for Kate’s wedding.
“This show put me on the map as a composer. It made my career in many ways. I worked on some stuff before, but it never reached this level of success, so from that perspective, it was instrumental for me. I’ve been so grateful for This Is Us. On a personal level, Dan Fogelman, who created the show, is someone I went to college with. He lost his mother when he was young, and her death informs a lot of the show. These are things that you know when you are so close with someone. It’s been so special, because I’ve been able to write this music for my friend. It’s a meta experience for me. I am writing the music for my friend as much as I am writing it for the characters on screen. That’s a special feeling, and I’m not sure I will ever feel it again.”
Only Murders in the Building is streaming now on Hulu, and This Is Us is streaming now on Peacock.