Walking Dead composer Sam Ewing talks about creating the sounds of the series

Cailey Fleming as Judith Grimes, Danai Gurira as Michonne, Antony Azor as RJ Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 10 - Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
Cailey Fleming as Judith Grimes, Danai Gurira as Michonne, Antony Azor as RJ Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 10 - Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC /

The Walking Dead is officially back for its Season 10. We chatted with one of the series composers, Sam Ewing about the process of crafting a horror score.

What does it take to manifest the eerie and often terrifying atmosphere of AMC’s long-running zombie apocalypse series, The Walking Dead? We chatted with Sam Ewing who, along with Bear McCreary, is responsible for scoring the upcoming tenth season.

From discussing the instruments utilized to manufacture particular moods to discussing his favorite character themes, Sam gave us the behind-the-scenes scoop on all things musical.

1428 Elm: It seems like you and Bear McCreary have a stable working relationship, you also worked together on Outlander. What makes your partnership work so well?

Sam Ewing: We’ve worked together for about six years. I think what makes us a solid creative match is our passion for great orchestral music and genuine excitement for cool musical ideas. It’s something that bonds people, even across languages, and in our case, there is an endless well of musical geeking out.

1428 Elm: How do you go about preparing to score a horror show like The Walking Dead versus scoring shows from other genres with less suspenseful elements?

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SE: A lot of our job revolves around preparation, and specifically seeking out sounds and colors that will become the DNA of a score. So for a horror score, I will spend weeks recording creepy violin drones, detuned guitar textures, and dissonant synth beds that will essentially do all of the heavy liftings when it’s time to score.

It’s like a painter limiting herself to a palette of really dark colors for one project vs. light, pastel colors for another. No matter how she strokes the brush, the colors will determine so much of the mood. Preparation is really important in scoring, especially on television, when you might have a week to score 35 minutes.

1428 Elm: When you begin composing a new season of the series, do you decide ahead of time on specific themes or elements you want to incorporate into your music depending on the theme?

SE: Absolutely. It’s often as simple as the Whisperers are back in Season 10 of The Walking Dead. We established a theme for these guys in Season 9 that Bear, showrunner Angela Kang and I all love, so it will be making a return.

Say, for example, that we’ll be getting a little bit of Whisperers backstory. Then we’ll need to present the theme in a new light. In this case, a dissonant theme may be re-introduced as something more vulnerable and delicate. My favorite example of this is John Williams incorporating pieces of the ominous “Imperial March” into the incredibly innocent “Anakin’s Theme” for the prequels.

Photo: The Walking Dead composer Sam Ewing. Image Courtesy Adam Southard
Photo: The Walking Dead composer Sam Ewing. Image Courtesy Adam Southard /

1428 Elm: What kind of instruments do you guys use most for The Walking Dead?

SE: In Seasons 9 and 10, Bear, Angela, and I have been adamant about keeping the general palette organic. There was a period where the score sounded electronic and industrial – like the show; it has taken on iterations and adapted to the story. We’re at the point now where we feel things have devolved into their organic and acoustic roots.

For example, in episode 9×01, our characters mined the Smithsonian museum for historic farming tools. Eugene later built a radio device. The analogous musical version was to open the season with a solo fiddle.

Season 10 maintains this aesthetic and develops it a bit, cold opening with a western guitar texture. So there’s fiddle, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, vintage spring reverbs, broken, distorted analog synthesizers and tape machines.

We want things to feel vintage and organic, almost as if the characters in the show could perform the score with instruments around them or at least Eugene could build them!

1428 Elm: Are there any specific compositions for the series that you’re particularly proud of?

SE: I’m particularly proud of scoring the heads on Pike’s scene in 9×15. That was an unusually dramatic moment for the show. Angela and editor Dan Liu felt it called for unusually dramatic music.

So we put together a small string ensemble and delivered something that was Mahler-esque in scale. I’m proud of the composition and the dramatic synchronization with the spikes being revealed. It was very difficult and time-consuming. I’m glad that Angela and fans responded well to it.

1428 Elm: Do you guys score specific themes or instrumentals for characters? If so, is there one that stands out to you as being a personal favorite?

SE: The Whisperers have a simple and effective theme that I’m really partial to. It’s performed on a harp, which has a silky and creepy quality to it when played quietly. If that were the melodic equivalent of the “Imperial March,” the marching, pre-melodic equivalent would be the wailing hurdy-gurdy tone.

We often tease the theme by presenting the hurdy-gurdy. If we feel the audience hasn’t yet earned the full harp melody, we offer a little piece to remind them that we’re in Whisperer territory. We’re on the wrong side of the border.

1428 Elm: You’re going to be working on the tenth season of The Walking Dead. That’s an impressive feat for a series to survive that long. Why do you think audiences love this show so much?

SE: I think the show managed to sink its teeth into pop culture early on, before the era of binge-watching, ultra-short attention spans took over households, but managed to stick around long enough to bleed into said era.

Many households now have great entertainment systems to enjoy a show with high production value, and so people are spending more time in their living rooms, less in the theaters, and at the same time are overcome with old-fashioned tradition. That being cozying up on the couch and watching The Walking Dead, as has been done for the past ten years.

We have grown with the characters. Daryl might as well be a close cousin. We’re so intimate with him. Not to mention, it’s a show that has great writers, directors, and excellent source material to work with, who doesn’t love a zombie apocalypse show?

The Walking Dead
Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier – The Walking Dead _ Season 10 – Photo Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC /

1428 Elm: Do you get inspiration from other shows and films, horror or otherwise?

SE: Absolutely. I am greatly influenced and inspired by what my peers, contemporaries, and successors have all put out. I feel that we, as creators are nothing more than regurgitators of what we’ve consumed in the past. That plus random, unquantifiable bouts of creative energy, the rapid advancements of technology, and you’ve got yourself a brilliant creator.

I love when shows and movies push the boundaries, even if subtly, by making jarring edits and playing with the space between diegetic and non-diegetic sound and music. The Handmaids Tale and Mindhunter are a couple of contemporary shows whose aesthetic I really admire.

1428 Elm: What horror movies or television series genuinely frighten you? How much do you think the sound and musical score plays a role in that?

SE: The Shining is a favorite movie of mine. It’s a story about a guy losing his mind, and I think Nicholson’s incredible performance is what delivers the terror. More than monsters, it’s personal and up-close and psychological horror. I think the music plays such a massive role in setting up the atmosphere – which is of utmost importance in creating tension and fright only next to actor performances, in my opinion.

Kubrick’s brilliant music placement of modern, dissonant classical works like Penderecki and Ligeti is critical for this. You’ll have a long shot of Danny innocently riding his tricycle down the hallways, and music will sting, loudly and almost randomly, to catch the audience off guard. You’re asking yourself, “why is this kid riding his bike so terrifying?” I love that.

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Thank you so much to Sam Ewing for chatting with us! Season 10 of The Walking Dead is now airing Sunday nights on AMC.