'Dexter' Composer Daniel Licht on Using Human Bones as Instruments and the Season Finale

'Dexter' Composer Daniel Licht on Using Human Bones as Instruments and the Season Finale
Danielle Bacher/ OC Weekly
There is only one episode left in the fifth season of Dexter, and the suspense is killing everyone...perhaps even Dexter himself. The wickedly enjoyable Showtime series centers on the protagonist Dexter Morgan, a forensics expert by day and a serial killer by night, and how those identities merge to create one fascinating and disturbing character. But the program's secret weapon is Award-winning composer Daniel Licht's creepy, indelible score.

"It all started on season four when I included an ancient instrument called a bone rap that was actually made out of human bones," says Licht. His use of unusual methods and traditional instruments enhances the original score on the show by creating eerie, even otherworldly tones. During his time working on the series, Licht has employed medical tools, animal and human bones, duct tape and uncommon musical instruments to match the creepy vibe of the characters and their surroundings.

Even though Licht is given the episodes to score in advance, he watches each episode like any other viewer. He prefers to see the show without any expectation. After, he makes mental notes of his emotions, and tries to create those same feelings when composing the music in his personal studio in Los Angeles. Although Licht wouldn't reveal any hints about the finale, he did confirm that there will be a Season Six filming in June (perhaps shooting again in Long Beach)! Stay tuned for the last episode on December 12, you won't want to miss it.

OC Weekly (Danielle Bacher): How did you start composing for Dexter?

How involved are the producers and music editors for the show?

The producers and editors have a little input into the show, and they edit the music that I've written in the form of a temp score. Sometimes we use that as a jumping-off point. A lot of the cues they cut in are placeholders, and that's usually a starting point for the pace and the mood they are looking for. Generally, I'm left on my own. Either the music works or it doesn't. In terms of plotting the overall episodes, I try to get the arc of each episode and try to push the story along. If it feels slow, I pick up the pace. If it feels fast, I'll try and slow down the pace. The acting is very good, so when you work with good acting, you have to learn how to not make it bad acting through poor decisions--which composers can do if you have a very complex scene, basically you can wash over and simplify it. 

Are you given the script to score ahead of time? And do you create the music for each specific scene?
I don't actually read the scripts in advance. I get the show as its cut because I want to be surprised by it. Whenever I watch a show for the first time, I take physical or mental notes on my reaction to the scene. Then I can try and stay out of the way of what's working and help what is not working. Frequently, I ask questions for both the writer and producers on the characters and their importance. In general, I don't know any more than the audience. I'm seeing the video three or four months ahead of the viewer, but I see it per episode. 
Do you have specific instruments you tend to lean toward for each character?
Not for each character. But I do have specific instruments for different moods. It depends on the season, too. The music has shifted-- in the first and second seasons, I had a guitar that I tuned down a fifth lower, and I played a lot of soulful sounds. Actually, I went to Guitar Center, and I tuned every guitar they had down to hear which one sounded the best--which I'm sure they weren't happy with at all [laughs]. It wasn't the most expensive guitar in the place, but, for some reason, this one guitar had this really nice, low response that sounds like a guitar and bass. I'm giving away all my secrets here!

What was one of your favorite instruments to use?

I worked with a metal-string Irish harp, which is an uncommon instrument. It's so uncommon because the strings break any time you touch it. When I did the first season of Dexter, I was really interested in this instrument. I brought over a harp player to do some recording, and I told her I wanted to use it. She tried to convince me not to--she really didn't want to do it because it's so hard to get in tune. But it has a really unique sound, and it appears a lot in Dexter.

'Dexter' Composer Daniel Licht on Using Human Bones as Instruments and the Season Finale
Danielle Bacher/ OC Weekly

Have you ever gone on set?

I did in Season Three. I was playing in the wedding band, and you can see me in the last frame behind Rita. That was a lot of fun. I go on set when I am needed, like last year to work with the choir.I haven't been on set this year because I've been too busy.

Do you feel like you have to connect with Dexter on a deeper level, to understand his character and get the sound you want?
I do have to understand his headspace. The music is creating a lot of the mood behind it. People say to me that the music makes them empathize with him. That's the hard part of the show--how do you empathize with a serial killer? So from that point of view, I have to understand him. But, it's all in the writing and the acting, and I just help bring it alive. Michael's acting is so great, and a lot of the mood and the music keys off his monologues and internal thought. If you watch the show, you will notice that when he talks to himself, a lot of the time that is when the music starts. It always has a bitter-sweet, lost innocence feel to it--so you do emphasize with him. You feel like he's always trying to get back to his childhood and find his way back to becoming more human.

'Dexter' Composer Daniel Licht on Using Human Bones as Instruments and the Season Finale

As far as the Season Five finale, were there any different sounds you used to end the season?

Well, I don't want to give anything away. I did go back to some of the classic themes, and the episode just wrapped up a lot of the themes. With Jordan Chase, I used some didgeridoos--Jordan's entire spiel is getting back to his primal self, and I gave him an aspect of tribal sound. 

While Dexter is on hiatus, will you be working on any other projects?
I'm working on the video game Silent Hill. It's a very dark, moody game. I'm working on the ABC show called Body of Proof. Once again, I'm working on a show where someone is cutting up bodies, but it's not a serial killer!

Lastly, do you have any predictions for what's going to happen on Season Six? Any interesting instrument ideas?
If I were to guess... maybe Harrison is older and he becomes a serial killer? You know, who knows. There is still a lot of things left up in the air this season. Who knows what is going to happen with Quinn, and maybe the FBI investigation will come back at him? I am interested in working with an Earth harp. We just have to see what happens next year.

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