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The Composer Of Serial’s Soundtrack Comes Clean About Its “Ambiguous” Score

If Serial‘s searching score is stuck in your head, Nick Thorburn is to blame. Here’s how he wove music into the podcast’s compelling tales.

The Composer Of Serial’s Soundtrack Comes Clean About Its “Ambiguous” Score
[Photo: Flickr user Daniel Foster]

The Serial score is perfect. Much like the storytelling in the viral podcast, which investigates the 15-year-old murder of Hae Min Lee, the song wavers in its tone, going from dark to lighthearted within seconds. It’s ambiguous, just like the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend in 1999, but to this day insists he didn’t do it. On Serial, host Sarah Koenig takes us through her reporting process, each week focusing on a different aspect of the case. Eight episodes in, and the audience (and Koenig) still can’t decide where the truth lies. One of the few constants are those familiar, searching, keyboard plinks.

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The man behind the music is Nick Thorburn, also known as Nick Diamonds, the frontman of the Unicorns and the Islands. (Update: Mark Henry Phillips has also composed some of Serial’s score. He also mixes the show.)

Thorburn, who had done some scoring in the past, created the signature theme song over a weekend, recording additional bits while on the road with his bands. Taking advantage of the spotlight, he is now selling a collection of tracks on his Bandcamp. Fast Company caught up with the musician to get inside his creative process.

Fast Company: Do you listen to Serial?

Nick ThorburnPhoto: Christian Faustus

Nick Thorburn: Oh yeah, of course. It’s distracting; I sometimes lose the thread of the story because I’m just like paying attention to the music and where it was placed and that kind of thing.

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What makes it distracting?

I don’t know, it takes you out of the story because you’re somehow in the story. I guess it would be like watching a movie you really liked and seeing yourself in the background as an extra. Your eyes would gravitate to yourself I would think. I’ve never been an extra, so I don’t know.

Actually, I was an extra in a Bollywood movie, I just remembered.

How did you get the job?

I guess they were looking for someone and [This American Life producer] Jane [Marie] recommended me, and that was all it took. There was no intense vetting process. I just got the job right away. I almost didn’t take it because I was really busy. This band of mine was reuniting after 10 years and it was taking up a lot of my time. I didn’t know if I had time to do it.

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What kind of parameters did Serial give you for making the music?

You know, there weren’t many parameters. Julie Snyder, the producer, reached out and it was kind of an open thing. It was just like, here is the script, let’s talk on the phone, and kind of I don’t know just, like, put music where you think music should go on the first episode. So I read the script of the first episode, and I heard the pilot, and got the feel for the tone and then they kind of just let me interpret and do my thing, which was really nice and they were happy with what I did so it worked out. There were no revisions.

Given the tone of the show, what did you have in mind for the music?

I wasn’t trying to overthink it too much. I just tried to keep it kind of natural and not try to infuse any of the songs with too much mood to lead one way or another. I could definitely tell there was a vague ambiguity to the show, what had happened, what they were uncovering, that it was still figuring it out as the show continued. I sort of let my instincts carry me, which is what I generally do. I play, and if it feels good I’ll keep going. If it feels forced then I’ll stop.

What were you playing the music on?

I was playing on this weird little Swedish keyboard I have called an Op-1. I’d had it for years and I decided to pull it out of the closet and tinker with it and I just came up with that opening riff.

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I was just sitting trying to conduct some inspiration. That kind of came to me and I liked it. It seemed evocative and kind of spooky, but neutral, in a way, because it wasn’t super heavy-handed or dramatic. I just kind of added bass and drums. It was very casual. I have a very casual approach to writing.

There is a Reddit thread that suggests you made the music ambiguous because you know the show has no resolution…

My friend Jason just emailed that link. I was just looking at it this morning, it’s really funny.


So you don’t know the ending?

No, that’s just a songwriting technique that I employ. I just keep things ambiguous, in general, because that way it’s open to wider interpretation, when it could go any direction.

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Who do you think did it?

I think, I don’t know. I don’t know. I hope that it–I mean, I hope that he didn’t do it, Adnan, because it seems too sad that Sarah has given herself to this guy and is vulnerable. We would all feel a little betrayed. But I don’t know who did it. It’s weird because it’s a true crime and it’s not like a TV series where we can speculate or postulate off who did it because these are real lives. Hopefully it was a random serial killer, but then they won’t find him and that would be sad for the family of Hae.

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.

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