Posted by: Hyeonjin | October 28, 2014

Sherlock Holmes in the Form of Music

We’re all very aware of the personality of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective: sharp, witty, eccentric, sociopathic tendencies… the list goes on. We see these portrayals quite clearly in media, particularly in recent adaptations such as Guy Ritchie’s films starring Robert Downey Jr or BBC’s series starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

I was listening to the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack by Hans Zimmer yesterday, and it never occurred to me until then that the composers for these adaptions in particular did a very good job at conveying Sherlock’s personality within the music. I would even argue that this helped portray Sherlock Holmes with more success.

For example, the ever popular ‘Discombobulate’ by Hans Zimmer from the first Sherlock Holmes film from 2009.

It starts off slow. One could even argue that it sounds lazy. It’s as though Zimmer wants to display a mind that’s uneasy due to being at rest but then jumps at the moment of intrigue. It’s unpredictable, zany, with the melody shifting from one instrument to another. Eccentric becomes a key component to the soundtrack as Zimmer uses dissonances, sharp dynamics, and instruments in unusual ways (for example, a broken piano…). Yet there is a cleanness to it that makes it easy to follow, making the listener more curious and intrigued.

‘I Never Woke Up in Handcuffs Before’ is another great example (as well as a super entertaining title and scene) of the eccentricity of Sherlock. It’s jarring yet makes the listener quite alert to the distinct rhythms and instruments that are being used (you could say an organized mess).

Jumping to BBC Sherlock, David Arnold and Michael Price seem to incorporate the eccentricity of Sherlock into the music. You hear this particular track quite often when Sherlock is off to do something ridiculous. Take ‘The Game is On’ for example:

Again, sharp dynamics, dissonances, and unusual combinations of instruments lead to a complexity that seems to depict Sherlock unbelievably well. You can literally hear his mind at work as it jumps from place to place yet still maintains an intelligence and sharpness that’s not too abstract.

To match the modernness of BBC Sherlock, I find tracks like ‘Mind Palace and Solution’ rather appropriate, which add quite a bit of synths. However, I also find that this really helps to further add to an unearthly quality to Sherlock’s mind (which one could argue, is a bit unearthly). There’s an intensity to it that appears starting midway towards the end that incorporates what’s happening on-screen, but also goes quite well with the portrayal of Sherlock.

Both Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch did a great job portraying Sherlock Holmes, but I feel that the music truly helped further that eccentricity and sharpness. Without the music, we lose that quality of the media that truly brings us into these characters’ realities and perceptions. And in the case of these soundtracks, we get a taste of Sherlock Holmes in the form of music.

Sources: YouTube


  1. Fabulous work with the soundtracks! You are using your close reading skills to understand the music and link it to the Holmes narrative in a very successful way.

  2. Great analysis of the music by Arnold and Price (I haven’t seen the Robert Downey films)! I’d add that I wish they would let us know what that exotic, stringed instrument is, that sounds like a Turkish qanun but either way, adds so much of an exotic feel to the action as it intrudes on the rather domestic world of Sherlock and John at Baker St.

    You mentioned the unearthly quality of some of the music matching Sherlock’s mind and I agree. In season 3, especially in “His Last Vow”, both composers said they wanted more strings to indicate an ethereal, possibly even spiritual ascension, as well as heightened emotion, as in “Addicted to a Certain Lifestyle”, when Sherlock, John and Mary have their strange, three-way domestic.

    In the house of Charles Augustus Magnussen, with it’s arched, glass ceilings, we get a preview of the even more heart-rending, open sky at the air field, where Sherlock says good-bye to John. Is he leaving forever, going toward certain death, as Mycroft (who is “never wrong”) said earlier? Many people disliked this new show of emotion but I felt it was exactly right, showing the evolution of both characters into people who no longer find showing affection as difficult as John says in “The Empty Hearse”. Both men still say it isn’t “easy”, but they manage it nonetheless, without becoming maudlin. Even the music seems to recede here, becoming higher-pitched, oddly mixing major and minor, sustained chords that could mean anything, but convey a bleak sort of hope. What a perfect score!

  3. Reblogged this on ArtemisWordsworth – Writer & Editor and commented:
    Adding this to my list of great film scores!

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