Scoring the Scene on “Criminal Minds”

Criminal Minds Kellie Freeze
Marc & Steffan Fantini: Laying tracks for another episode of Criminal Minds

CBS’ hit Criminal Minds is one of the creepiest dramas on television. For the past decade, the FBI’s Behavior Analysis Unit has matched wits with entertainment’s most twisted unsubs “unknown subjects.” As the team profiles and hunts down the depraved and despicable villains, the action is set against the most riveting soundtrack on television. The show’s award-winning composers, brothers Steffan and Marc Fantini (along with composing partner Scott Gordon), create the disturbing music that sets the show’s dark mood.

Criminal Minds
Marc & Steffan Fantini: Laying tracks for another episode of Criminal Minds

Marc and Steffan, what is your background in music?
Marc: Our musical background started in recording: rock, pop and songwriting. My brother and I were signed to RCA records, under Fantini Brothers — our group name. We did a lot of stuff with other artists in Boston and we got the bug to want to do something a little bit different. Film and TV composing was something we’d always wanted to do because it the ability to work in fields that you’re very unfamiliar with, and it’s an exciting journey as a musician to go into places you’re scared of, and learn and grow. That’s what brought us to film ad TV composing — that desire…

When you’re composing for Criminal Minds, what is the process like? Do you see a rough cut of the episode score to that or are you given direction from the director?
Steffan: The way it works with Criminal Minds is,we “spot a show,” (which means you spot where music will go) at the beginning of a week, usually Monday or Tuesday. We meet with anybody who was really heavily involved — sometimes the director will be there, and producers — but usually the editors, and our music people — because Mark, Scott and I are the composers, — but we also have music editors who work for us. Sometimes a music supervisor will be there if there’s something related to a song and we will look at the picture.

It’s not a rough cut, it’s a locked picture, so they’re not going to change it. And sometimes they put in temp music which is a guide for us to say, “Hey — this part is gonna to be scary. This part is going to be emotional. This is going to be a chase scene. This might be a profiling scene.” And then we go home, strip away all that temporary music and the three of us compose a new score every single week. Every note is brand new.

The mandate for Criminal Minds since day 1 is: we’re making a movie every week, so it’s our job to make it feel cinematic and make it feel like you’re not watching a television show, that you’re escaping into this world. So that’s how we do it.

Criminal Minds
The Criminal Minds cast (L to R): Kirsten Vangsness, Shemar Moore, A. J. Cook, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Gibson, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Matthew Gray Gubler

Since each one of the episodes is a mini-scary movie, how do you differentiate between one episode and another?
Marc: my brother was talking about temporary music. Usually that’s the point where the music is going to start and end within a scene. It’s our job to delve into the story and decide how we can help tell the story with a clear mind every week.

We don’t reuse sounds and it is a challenge to come up with something new and fresh every week. But it’s also what keeps us excited about working on the show, because I don’t’ feel, “okay here comes this profiling scene, here comes the profiling music. Here comes the bad guy, so here comes the bad guy music.” Every week we forget everything, start again, and the three of us have a conversation and decide how we can best serve the picture.

That conversation can take 4-5 hours; on the very first day we get the picture. At the end of that conversation, we have our marching orders and we know that the concepts are. The way that we keep it fresh is to have a lot of discussions and we monitor each other. We are each other’s worst critics and we have a very healthy competition between the three of us to make sure that everything sounds fresh and new each week. It falls on our shoulders that we don’t muck it up.

Steffan: Criminal Minds, unlike some other projects, is orchestral, it’s a fusion of modern elements too. It’s a sonic palate that’s textural and not necessarily any instrument that you could recognize. A lot of that is stuff that we say, “Hey, here’s this sound — it’s pretty cool — but let’s go crazy on this sound, and rip it apart and make it almost sound like something unfamiliar.” It might have originally been played with a guitar, but by the time you hear it, you’re going to say, “What the heck is that? That could be someone in an orchestra playing a violin backwards under water!” So we really try to manipulate the sounds into something that no one has ever heard before.

Criminal Minds
Insert dramatic music here…

So how do you find that originality?
Marc: If you can go down to guitar center and get software and you have a sound. Pretty much anyone can get that sound. For us, to feel like we’re making something special, we want to make sure we’ve done something different. We want to make sure that we put our signature on everything we do. Sometimes it take a long time, sometimes it’s a quick alteration of something, but that exploration and that exploratory journey, is, I think what gives each episode a fresh and sound so it doesn’t feel like, “Okay, here we go again. The guy is going to kill… and we know what’s going to happen.”

Steffan: I wanted to add to that. When you’re composing, this goes for and composer; there are a million decisions you can make per minute. If you put the wrong sound in, if you use the wrong chord, if you use the wrong tenor — the feel of things — any thing can mess up the scene. If they want it to sound emotional, if you use the wrong chord, it can feel corny or tacky. So there are a million decisions we can make and each one is indigenous to every composer. So I think that our originality comes form watching movies since we were babies and loving that medium and learning from the masters, and like everyone who grows up listening to music, your influenced by that, and it goes through your system and it comes out with your original touch on it. And that’s the way that you work.

It seems like your work requires a lot of trial and error. How do you know when you’ve got the right song in the right moment?
Steffan: You get a feeling inside that something’s working. There’s a connection between the music and the picture and the story and you feel like all of a sudden there’s this magic. It’s just an instinct form doing that for a long time.

Having said that, sometimes you do something and you think it’s incredible and you can’t wait for the show and the network to hear it and they go, “That’s not good.” So that’s part of our business and it doesn’t mean that we’re not good composers, it just means we didn’t go where they wanted us to go and that’s part of the notes process. Writers get notes, actors get notes, everybody gets notes, and to us, it’s great to get notes because it’s a chance to learn from great. We might find something that we think is magical, and it might be to us, but we also have to be prepared to change it. Sometimes they love it just as much as we do, but sometimes, part of the job is changing thing and being happy about that.

Marc: It’s interesting, there have been times when we’ve sat down with a movie, (usually we don’t have this luxury on television) and you sit down in front of your keyboard and…there’s nothing there. You doubt yourself, you feel like there’s nothing there. But — I don’t know how to explain it — it’s like when the space shuttle launches off and the boosters fall off when they’re no longer necessary. And the space shuttle keeps going and the secondary rockets drop away because they’re not really necessary and then you’re left with, ultimately, what you’ve come up with. But there’s all this stuff that drops away as you’re starting to get your sound and your ideas and your thoughts. It was all necessary to get there but a lot of it gets thrown away. For me, that’s how composing works. Sometimes I sit down, and I know exactly what to do and it comes out quickly. And other times you sit in front of the keyboard and nothing comes out. You have to dig deep within. That’s also why it’s nice to have a partnership. I have my brother and Scott. We play things for each other. That camaraderie helps you find the vision. For me that’s how it works. But there are times when it’s a panic.

You’ve both scored Criminal Minds since it premiered, how has your sound evolved in the last decade?
Marc: I’ll try to answer that. At the beginning of Criminal Minds there was a tremendous fear of not screwing it up. As our confidence grew, we were more able to put our imprint on the score and halfway through the first season, that started to happen for us. In the very beginning, the music played over the scenes and not a lot of the story and movement was recognized by the music.

As the show has progressed, and TV has changed a little bit, there’s more emphasis on — okay, the bad guy is picking up his leg; we want to acknowledge that. Okay, he’s walking down the street; we want to know that he might not do anything at this point, we want an acknowledgment of that, and then we want to know when he’s about to do something. A lot of different acknowledgements are happening now than were at the beginning of the show. Now, in the 10th season of the show, it’s a challenge to make it a musical thing to acknowledge and hit all of these moments of action that are happening on the screen. I think that is how it’s changed, and our confidence has changed which has allowed us to be more creative in a good way. Creative and engaging the viewers. And understanding that this is an interesting story that we’re helping to tell, and how to we get the viewers more engaged and letting the viewer know that we’re putting our best foot forward every week.

Steffan: As we’ve matured, everyone we’ve worked with has wanted to push the envelope and push the music. So they’ve encouraged us to walk on the wire and do something that’s never been heard before. When you have that kind of encouragement, the show grows in to new places instead of being told. “Hey you guys know your thing and don’t change it.” And I know a lot of shows are like that; they get a formula, it’ works and they don’t go outside of those boundaries.

On Criminal Minds, we’ve done such massively diverse musical scores from things that sound right out of Film Noir; Crazy mountain man music with banjos; orchestral stuff. There’s so much diversity and a lot of that comes from us feeling comfortable, and being encouraged to go outside of the box. It’s great to work on a team that encourages that.

What are some of the weird implements or instruments you’ve used this season?
Marc: Steffan was talking about the Mountain Man episode … We used a lap steel, it’s a country instrument, and it’s also used in Hawaiian music. On the surface, it is an obviously instrument for a specific kind of music. In the first episode of this season, we took that lap steel and we did a lot of interesting stuff to it. Scott is a tremendous engineer as well as a great composer and through trial and error, we just went crazy with that thing and it ended up being this interesting, almost expressive, sound. It was haunting.

Steffan: We’ve done horrible things to a piano; things that would get us arrested. We have a beautiful piano in Hollywood that we do horrible things to. We’ve opened the lid and put weird textures on top of it. We might put beads on top of it, or a bag of nails and just take that sound a distort it and hit it with weird objects that we find around to make it sound horrible. We bang on the soundboard and distort the sound with echoes. We take our human voices and talking into a microphone that’s distorted and putting that through weird effects and instruments. Stuff like that, we kind of go nuts. We just play all day. We just get to play all day.
How does music set the mood for a scene?
Steffan: I’m a fan of the show too, so I want to make sure that when I’m watching it, when we finish scoring it, we make sure we’re getting the right feeling. It’s married- the music and the picture and the story and it’s just a feeling that you get and a confidence.

Marc: For me, it’s creating a world each week. You don’t want any world to be the same. You want to feel like you’re being dropped into a different dark, scary, riveting world each week. And that’s how I feel the music affects the scene and the story. It puts you in the world so that all of a sudden you’re transported and you suspend disbelief and you’re in the story. And that’s our job, to bring you into that world and let it unfold.

Steffan: I think that one of the reasons that Criminal Minds does so well in syndication is that you don’t have to have watched an episode or seasons before to get involved in the show. You can just turn it on and you’re in this new world that hopefully, we’ve helped create. And, you’re watching a movie. You don’t have to have had any knowledge of a storyline from before. You could turn on an episode from Season 2 or a fan could start watching in Season 10, and they can get hooked immediately

Criminal Minds
Steffan and Mark Fantini at the premiere of Mom’s Night Out.

In addition to composing Criminal Minds, what else have you worked on?
Marc: We composed the music on Army Wives for 7 seasons, and we did a season of the Criminal Minds spin-off, Suspect Behavior.
Steffan: We just did 2 really cool movies. One was called Mom’s Night Out, a comedy, which has nothing to do with Criminal Minds, and we just did a movie called Space Station 76, about what the future might be like if you were in the 1970’s looking at the future. That’s s sci-fi dark dramedy.

It’s nice to flex your creative muscles. That’s the great love we have. You never know where your talents will be pulled. It could be a jazz score, it could be something Euro feeling It could make you feel terrorized. It could be Sci-fi. So many areas we can pull out our chops and dig our teeth into, and it’s exciting. Not a lot of people get that “what are we going to do at work today?” feeling.

Criminal Minds > CBS > Wednesdays

Criminal Minds cast photo by Cliff Lipson/CBS © 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Criminal Minds cast photographed in Los Angeles in August 2014: Kirsten Vangsness, Shemar Moore, A. J. Cook, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Gibson, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Matthew Gray Gubler. Photo:

1 Comment

  1. As both a church organist and devoted Criminal Minds fan I have always had an interest in the music that accompanies this show (and indeed other shows). Perhaps it’s a curse of being a musician that for me the music often invites especially in composers’ use of leitmotifs – anyway this was a very interesting article, thanks for posting it. (this is the same text that put on the FB post)

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