Since the simultaneous release of its first 13 episodes by Netflix on March 31, the drama-mystery series “13 Reasons Why,” with its powerful theme of teen suicide, has stirred fears that it could inspire vulnerable, mentally troubled kids to take their own lives. Nonetheless, critics have praised the show and its sensitive depiction of teenagers’ emotional confusion.
Flashback narration by lead character Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) drives the series forward as her friend Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) listens to her 13 prerecorded tapes — each one addressing individuals who wronged her as she reveals the reasons why she made her decision.
But if Hannah’s words propel the series, it’s the music that helps guide the viewer from episode to episode, serving as a road map to the characters. The score portrays the people she blames, giving each a distinct theme that interweaves with Hannah’s.
From the start, showrunner Brian Yorkey emphasized the importance of music. He used licensed tracks — including Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and the Cure’s “Fascination Street” — but it’s mainly the score of composer Eskmo (aka Brendan Angelides) that carries the show.
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Eskmo, who has released several solo albums and EPs, has a passionate connection with music. “It was a saving grace for me in high school,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons I was so stoked to be a part of this show.”
The composer quickly hit it off with Yorkey, who asked him to devise a score that blended the comedy of “The Breakfast Club” with the drama of “My So-Called Life.” Yorkey, who wrote the Tony Award-winning play on mental health “Next to Normal,” also advised him to think thematically.
Initially, Eskmo found the task intimidating, since he needed to write melodies to accompany graphic scenes of bullying, rape and suicide. With only seven days to compose each episode, he quickly found himself invested in the lives of the characters, from Tyler, the bullied peeping Tom, to Courtney, the closeted queen bee. When the darkest moments finally arrived, Eskmo’s strong understanding of each character’s distinctive sound, based on their emotions and struggles, made the work less daunting.
As the reasons for Hannah’s suicide reveal themselves, strings begin to play a larger role in the music. The short timeline kept the composer from using an orchestra, so he relied on his piano and computer to do the heavy lifting.
The score merges traditional aesthetics with electronic elements, making it easier for teens accustomed to this younger sound to relate to the show. Notes are often pitched a few octaves up and down to create layers of chords. Eskmo even threw tinfoil into his piano to give a hint of metallic harshness.
From these tools a cast of themes was born. Rich jock and rapist Bryce sounded intentionally simple, brooding and testosterone fueled. Tyler grew more retro-electronic, especially as the urge to lash out against those bullying him grew stronger.
Hannah’s theme, on the other hand, demonstrates her natural innocence. There’s a beauty to it but also a foreboding warble that hints at what’s to come. Eskmo doesn’t shy away from the melancholia that progressively looms over her life.
“A huge part of this work was maintaining the integrity of the original story and maintaining the integrity around these imaginary kids,” Eskmo says. “They have to be real.”