Chopped & Screwed: How Moonlight Composer Morphed Acoustic Music into Rumbling Soundscapes

Composer Nicholas Britell played classical piano as a kid, attended Juilliard School's Pre-College program and studied music at Harvard University. But Britell brought an entirely different skill set to bear when director Barry Jenkins asked him to score coming-of-age Oscar contender Moonlight with "chopped and screwed" southern hip hop in mind.

What, exactly, is 'chopping and screwed'? "Basically, it’s when you slow down tracks so the pitch goes really low and you get these deep-end, evocative musical textures," Britell explains. "When Barry first told me he how much he loved that process, we immediately asked ourselves, how can we apply that to the score?"

Britell was more than happy to distort his own acoustically-rooted compositions beyond recognition. Additional to his formal training, he’d played in a hip hop band at Harvard called Witness Protection Program. After graduation, he experimented with audio manipulation on Ableton Live software when he wasn't scoring The Big Short or writing hymnals for 12 Years a Slave. Britell says. "I'd been experimenting with audio production techniques for all these years before I met Barry, so it made sense to me that chopping the music might work, even though I'd never tried doing it so overtly for a movie score. In that sense, it was completely new territory.”

Armed with a rough cut of Moonlight, Jenkins huddled with Britell in the composer's New York apartment/home studio for days at a time, ordering in food and obsessing over music cues. The first piece to get chopped and screwed: "Little’s Theme." A delicate composition, the duet opens Moonlight in a sequence tracking eleven-year old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) through his gritty Miami neighborhood. Britell says, "I called this piece of music a piano and violin poem and I wrote it early on because the movie to me felt like a piece of poetry. I wanted to capture young Chiron internally by going inside his point of view. But then the big question for us became, 'How do we evolve that theme?"

The answer becomes apparent when the story flashes forward five years and sexually confused teenaged Chiron (Ashton Sanders) lashes out at a schoolyard bully. "We did some really extreme chopping and screwing on the 'Little Theme' leading into the fight scene," Britell says. "The music needed to transform so I took that recording of the piano and violin, started bending it, slowing it down, experimenting to see what happens. I chopped and screwed the music so heavily, it drops three octaves down and you hear this rumbling in the sub-woofers. What sounds like bass is actually the violin. The idea was to create this correspondence between this music being completely morphed at the very moment when Chiron’s life is being completely morphed."

Scene by scene, Britell played ideas for Jenkins on his piano, made adjustments as needed and eventually created a cohesive sonic landscape interspersed with classical music interludes and toxic-sounding rumbles. The interplay between analog performance and digital de-construction yielded an unsettling sonic landscape that gave voice to the Chiron's unspoken yearnings. Britell says. "We didn’t want an electronic score, we didn't use synthesizers. For Moonlight, we felt it as very important to get this feeling of people playing instruments. You hear someone taking a breath, you hear the violinist, you hear the bow against the string, so all the sounds originally come from real instruments. The 


Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.