This story and video include spoilers for seasons one and two of Mr. Robot.
It happened in Breaking Bad, before the drug kingpin Gustavo Fring met his gruesome end; in Stranger Things, as the Demogorgan broke through the walls of Hawkins Middle School; and in Twin Peaks, when the news of Laura Palmer’s death spread through town.
It’s that moment when the music swells, and suddenly the emotions on screen spill over into your world. Your blood pumps in tune with the action. You’re inspired. You’re on edge. Maybe you’re a little teary-eyed. And you’re definitely not turning away from the screen.
“Music: There’s something about it. It makes people feel,” Mac Quayle, who composes all the original music on the USA Network show Mr. Robot, tells Quartz. “It has that power. It can really evoke emotions in human listeners. So it’s a powerful tool for filmmakers.”
Quayle won an Emmy for his work on the first season of the hacker drama, which airs its season three finale on Dec. 13, and he also scores Feud, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and Scream Queens. He came up in the industry working on EDM tracks in New York, and later worked with the renowned composer Cliff Martinez on movies such as Drive and Contagion. That helped him find his footing in Hollywood.
Music can transform a scene, Quayle says, doing serious work to amp up its emotions. ”Sometimes it’s used because the particular performances maybe didn’t have the emotion that they were hoping and so they’re really depending on the music to kick it up,” said Quayle. “Other times, the performances are great and they just want to accent it even more and they’ll use music.”
Research shows that our brainwaves sync up with the pulse of music, and that anticipation of the next beat or unexpected changes in timing can be sources of pleasure in the brain.
In the latest season of Mr. Robot, Quayle’s uplifting synthesized piano score heightens the drama when Bobby Cannavale’s character Irving gives Mr. Robot’s partner Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) a pep talk to convince him to perform a hack on his own. “You were destined for this Tyrell,” Irving says as the music swells. “This is the moment you were born for. You cannot turn away now.”
In another gut-wrenching act from the first season, Quayle’s low, thumping electronic sound gradually builds to amplify the confusion, anger, guilt, and despair of the main character Elliot, as he tries to rescue his girlfriend from a dangerous drug-dealer, only to find she is already dead. Actor Remi Malek hardly says a word in the superbly acted two-minute scene that was made all the more powerful by Quayle’s composition.
It’s all rooted in electronic music—a fitting sonic identity for a hacker drama. Elliot’s character has a musical motif that is used throughout the series. It was stated clearly in the opening scene of the pilot episode with a synthesized piano and a lead synthesizer sound. Quayle has built on that in the latest seasons by adding natural piano and strings. In the first episode of season three, Elliot’s motif also incorporates a “big organ sound,” Quayle said.
“It’s always electronic,” he said. “That is the core sound of the show. But we started expanding the power a little bit with some more organic sounds.”
Quayle never reads a script in advance. He starts imagining the music as he watches each episode for the first time, so he can feel what the audience should feel and see where the emotion can be ramped up.
“That fresh, first watch of an episode is pretty nice,” he says. “People do it all kinds of ways. I know a lot of people that will read a script and then based on that start writing some themes. That hasn’t been my approach, yet.”
That means Quayle didn’t know about the big reveal from season one of the show, that Christian Slater’s character, Mr. Robot, was a figment of Elliot’s imagination. He found out partway through the season when it came time to score the episode. The music from earlier didn’t give anything away.
In the current, third season, the audience learns more about how Elliot’s sister Darlene and childhood friend Angela differentiate between Elliot’s two troubled personas. Quayle amplified that in one episode when Elliot transitions to Mr. Robot on screen. There’s a clear shift in the music as the cascading, chaotic track gives way to a moment of total silence, which signals that Mr. Robot has arrived.
On Mr. Robot, Quayle says one of the pleasures is watching the show for the first time with creator Sam Esmail, who writes and directs most of the episodes.
“I’m basically sitting on the couch next to Sam,” says Quayle. ”What a dream! You get to watch a show that you’re a fan of and then talk to the creator about it and get inside information about what’s happening. I feel pretty blessed.”
Quayle’s work on Mr. Robot has transcended the series. He reworked some of the pieces for soundtracks and now performs them live. His latest performance at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles on Dec. 5 was sold out.
Its a trend that’s becoming more popular in this screen-obsessed age: The film composer Hans Zimmer sells out giant venues when he goes on tour, and performs alongside Beyoncé and Radiohead at Coachella. And the soundtracks from Stranger Things and Game of Thrones are hits in their own rights, as deeply entrenched fanbases look for new ways to experience their favorite shows.