The Sinner: Crafting A Whydunnit

Ronit Kirchman explains why concocting a palette of sonic nausea is key to keeping viewers feeling uneasy when watching The Sinner.

“Finding different flavours of sonic nausea is one of my jobs,” confesses Kirchman – a composer, music producer, songwriter, conductor, singer, and multi-instrumentalist whose most recent project saw her score season three of thriller-mystery series, The Sinner.

More of a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit, The Sinner was originally intended to run as an eight-part miniseries. Following the success of the first season, the Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated show was swiftly expanded into an anthology series, following detective Harry Ambrose as he investigates various atrocious murder cases and tries to analyze the reasons behind ordinary people committing heinous crimes.

Speaking to Headliner from her home in LA, Kirchman explains that music has always felt like a native language to her. She began playing violin at the age of four, and trained with some of the world’s finest violinists.

“Music is like my mother tongue,” she says. “The more I’ve been able to study, the more I've been able to articulate that. I think that the affinity with music is definitely something that comes from within, and luckily I was encouraged to pursue it without a tonne of pressure on the parental side. The self-education part of music is a lifelong activity for me; there's such a rich world. It's pretty infinite, so it's never boring. I'll never retire!”

Kirchman says that a series of small breaks combined to get her on the radar to score the first season of The Sinner – “the more you work, the more you work” – and she is thrilled with how the show has been received so far:

“One of the cool things about the show is that I’m learning what it is about through doing it. It’s all about exploring aspects of the collective unconscious that relate to violence and crime. I remember after season one people were like, ‘Where could it go from here? The crime is resolved!’”

The Sinner’s showrunner, Derek Simonds (a friend of Kirchman’s from university) asked her to read the script for season one to get a feel for the story, and then was asked to work on new compositions for the pilot that they could pull from and cut in while they were editing. Since there was going to be a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, the whole series suddenly needed a score.

“It's great to start to simmer in the story that early, because you can let your imagination run free for a while,” she points out.

Finding different flavors of sonic nausea is one of my jobs!

In terms of the process of writing the music for each episode, Kirchman likens it to “a ramp that increases in speed”, producing an episode’s worth of music every week in a round-the-clock endeavour.

“Once they've shot footage, I'm working to picture and to scene, and when the cut is close enough to final, we'll sit down for a spotting session and discuss the ins and outs and then our points and comments,” she explains.

“It's a really important opportunity for me to hear from the showrunner, as sometimes things evolve as we work on it – like how they want to position a certain theme dramatically in the arc of the episode or season. With The Sinner, there is so much about nuance, relationships and subverted expectations, and things can change in a very finely calibrated way to create tension.

"Those discussions are really important because there are usually multiple options for how you can play a scene, so building that language and the dramatic attitude of the show is very collaborative, and on the composer side requires a lot of listening.”

Kirchman says that for each season, the palette for the instrumentation is renewed, while simultaneously retaining the continuity of the programme’s overall feel.

“In season three – electronically speaking – it becomes darker and edgier, and a little bit more into IBM territory. I was able to conduct a string ensemble that sounds like an intimate chamber ensemble. It sounds really detailed and it contrasts with some of the electronic elements in a really interesting way.”

An unsuspecting signature sound emerges from the third season, highlighting the duality of relationships by juxtaposing live string players mixed against aggressive electronics.

“In terms of the instrumentation, having a lot of ensembles really added to the dimensionality and the kinds of things that I wanted to do, like have this delicate lyricism that could morph into threat or menace. That string ensemble was a great expressive tool for that. On the electronic side, designing moments that felt reflective of that intensity, darkness and edginess was a lot of fun.”

The Sinner's third installment follows detective Harry Ambrose as he begins a seemingly routine investigation of a tragic car accident in upstate New York, soon uncovering a hidden crime that pulls him into the most dangerous and disturbing case of his career.

“It's a darker season,” she agrees. “In a lot of ways, it's about the absence of love and what fills that void – which can be very destructive. Previous seasons have had elements that soften the blow, so it's kind of unmitigated in certain ways. I think it's a good thing that the show is able to go to dark places, because it's coming from a desire to understand that despair. I definitely got to know the energy of the project, and this season it felt heavier and more intense.”

Kirchman’s score has a way of making the viewer feel uneasy, and even during the most seemingly mundane scenes the audience is braced for impact.

“That was definitely one of the goals! It's challenging because when we started the show, part of the aesthetic concept was to have a fresh take on the genre. We wanted to inject something new so that people feel the thrills and some of the dark beauty of the world. So, from season one, making people feel uneasy in that way required reinventing the meta vocabulary of, ‘what makes people sit on edge?’

"Once you've done a certain thing in season one, you can't just trot it out again because then people are more used to it and then it doesn't have that same effect. It's a little bit of a drug, I guess!”

During one fraught episode, Ambrose choses to ignore police protocol and accompany Jamie into New York, whom (spoiler alert) we know is a murderer on the cusp of a breakdown – oh, and another murder.

“He’s been in pursuit of Jamie the whole night, and they've become intertwined in a new and disturbing way. There are certain motifs and melodies that have been developing and mutating in relationship to this kind of criminal, sickly thread of activity with Jamie. I don't want to use the word ‘sludge’ because that doesn't sound very appealing,” she laughs, "but he's entered the swamp of Jamie's world and he's starting to get engulfed by it.

"Ambrose has acted in a way that's not really by the book for a detective – it's an unorthodox way of policing – and he's kind of in danger of falling into the psychological abyss himself. That is a little bit nauseating for him. There is a thread of nausea with Ambrose and with him confronting his abusive past, which is something that predates this this season.”


One of the key themes that generated cue material throughout the series is a piece called Fractal, which can be heard in different forms in the ending cues of many other pieces of music written for season three. It's a longer theme that evolves slowly, so when it emerges in different places in the score – and in different keys or tempi or processing styles – it takes on different shades of functionality and tone.

“It's a slow evolution, and this theme of loss and grief and is revisited and reimagined at different places. We never get to hear the entire theme from start to finish, but it serves as the basis for a lot of cues. We hear it at the end of episode one in a cue called Slow Seath where Jamie leaves his friend to die, and it's interesting because it's paired with a stuttery and almost subliminal electronic dark groove.”

The Fractal cue can also be heard in a scene showing the birth of Jamie’s child, which is accompanied by Kirchman’s gloriously woozy score – perfectly underpinning the new father’s descent into succumbing to his violent impulses, and his impending psychological tailspin.

“This season really is a tragedy – it's both a thriller and also about personal loss,” she elaborates. “In Jamie's case, it’s the loss of himself and his understanding of who he is, which maybe he never really had. He goes down this path of complete obliteration and he loses his identity. The through line of the Fractal theme lets us express that overarching sadness in the context of more energetic elements.

With The Sinner, there’s always a subtext that runs counter to what you would expect a moment to be about. There's a very substantial vocabulary of dark sound cues and atmospheres that have been brewing. It's an unusual but catalytic combination.”

Following the success of series three, series four of The Sinner was quickly commissioned and is expected to debut on Netflix in 2021. Kirchman says the content of the score is very much “TBC” at the moment, but that she’s looking forward to the next chapter in the disturbing saga:

“It's very early in the process, and we can’t reveal too much about it until it’s time for the teaser trailer to drop. I'm sure that it's going to be an exciting new season with unexpected shifts, because that's the brand!”