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One Piece’s complex musical world-building sets a tone for season 2 and beyond

Composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli break down the earworms that bring the Straw Hats to life

Giona Ostinelli holding a guitar and Sonya Belousova holding an erhu sit in front of a drum kit, accordion, and hurdy-gurdy in a music studio for the One Piece soundtrack Photo: White Bear PR
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

When composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli boarded the ship of Netflix’s One Piece, producers immediately issued them a playlist curated by the legendary mangaka Eiichiro Oda. Having written Monkey D. Luffy and his Straw Hat crew for over a quarter-century, Oda had come to understand his characters on a musical level — just not one that involved pirate shanties.

“If I remember correctly,” Belousova recounted, “that playlist was a bit all over the place genre-wise. One of the songs was Eminem from 8 Mile — ‘Lose Yourself.’ He loves that one.” Oda’s artist inspiration for Usopp? Lenny Kravitz, obviously.

A more buttoned-up composer may have balked at the genre-hopping tastes of an ink-and-paper artist who never deals with sound. But besides coming to the project as major fans of One Piece in all its forms, Belousova and Ostinelli, as I discovered over a Zoom call in August, are almost exactly like Luffy themselves: bright, brilliant, and completely gung-ho for a dangerous adventure.

Throughout the conversation, the two finished each other’s sentences with hyperactive glee as they explained their efforts to funnel Oda’s energy into the soundtrack to One Piece, which swings from symphonic blockbuster cues to hip-hop licks to virtuosic flamenco guitar, jazz funk, big-band brass, and head-spinning circus music. The freewheeling score seems like a far cry from their brooding work on The Witcher… until you realize this is the same devilish duo that added a wink of humor to Geralt’s saga with “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.” The tone for One Piece gave Belousova and Ostinelli the freedom to go even harder and even more gonzo. They knew how frenetic it needed to be even before receiving Oda’s playlist.

“As soon as we learned about the [One Piece] project, we decided to get creative and we shot a three-minute video where we outlined that whole concept. We created the music theme, which is now the main theme of the show. We created the Going Merry theme, too. And we played that theme on all these different instruments to showcase the concept of ‘music world-building’ that we would create for the One Piece universe. Two years later, we ended up with the same concepts that we described in that three-minute video.”

Music can be a form of world-building with the right approach. What helped Belousova and Ostinelli was not just scoring individual episodes of a walled-off first season, but instead simultaneously composing against all eight episodes at once, allowing them to give each character an instrumental identity that could grow through season 1 and be primed to continue evolving. What viewers hear in this first batch of episodes is all intended to pay off in season 2 and beyond as Luffy sails toward his dream of becoming king of the pirates. Between Belousova’s perfect pitch and Ostinelli’s readiness to jam on any instrument in the studio, the two whipped up a soundscape that fully encompasses the North, South, East, and West Blues in just a few weeks. (How hard can they go to create exactly what they need? Belousova says she wrote the show’s rousing Aurora single “My Sails Are Set” in around five minutes.)

The music in One Piece clicks so seamlessly into the ripped-from-Oda’s-pages world of the Netflix series that it’s easy to miss just how much is going on. Here, Belousova and Ostinelli break down a bit of what’s going on under the surface of their handwoven score to the manga adaptation.


Belousova: We had to have [Luffy’s theme] start with a hurdy-gurdy because One Piece is a pirate show! What kind of pirate show is One Piece without a hurdy-gurdy?

Ostinelli: But it’s also such a mystery. It’s a fun instrument because it always goes out of tune. It never sounds that pleasant! But it’s also very versatile because it’s something between a violin and an electric guitar and you can amplify it or you can play it acoustically with no amplification. We also used the hurdy-gurdy for one of the main villains, Kuro, and his Black Cat Pirates. He claws, and we use the hurdy-gurdy to create a kind of meow sound.

Belousova: We created the weird shrieks with both hurdy-gurdies and dulcimers so it sounds like a cat’s meow.

Ostinelli: The first time we played it for the showrunners, they were like, Is that a cat?

Belousova: But with Luffy’s theme, the very first time you hear it is actually as the show opens. And here’s the cool thing: Luffy’s theme is the main theme of our show and is performed by hurdy-gurdy. Gol D. Roger [the pirate executed in the opening scene] shares many character traits with Luffy and they really kind of match up and in a weird way. So what we did is we took our main Luffy theme, and we reversed the theme, so it became Roger’s theme. Roger’s theme was all about the descending motion because he’s about to be executed, so it’s really the end of his journey. Luffy’s theme is all about the ascending motion because he’s at the very, very beginning of his exciting journey toward becoming the king of the pirates.


Belousova: Zoro’s fighting style is a three-sword fighting style. And one of the ideas that we had was: How cool would it be to use a different instrument for each one of his swords? So his first instrument is a frame drum, because it’s the biggest.

Ostinelli: We used the 42-inch one. It’s always problematic to play because it’s so big I can’t see anywhere!

Belousova: But it gives you such a powerful and big sound. For the second sword we used the bansuri

Ostinelli: It’s a long Indian flute. It looks like a sword and it’s perfect. You know, when Sonya says, ‘Oh, you’re playing the wrong note,’ I always use it as a sword and say, ‘En garde!’ But it’s also so fun to play because we also use it very much as a percussive instrument.

Belousova: You can do kind of, like, beatboxing grooves on that flute. And since the body of the flute is really, really big, it produces a sharp, accentuated percussive sound that accompanies Zoro’s blade technique.

The third instrument that we used for Zoro was the duduk. He has this sword called Wado Ichimonji which is a very important sword specifically for Zoro and has a very long and important history. He only uses that sword on very rare occasions. So we use duduk, which is originally an Armenian instrument because it has a mystical, sacred tone.


Belousova: The whole deal with Usopp Is he really wants to become the bravest pirate out there, just like his father. But as of right now, in this season, he’s still cowardly, and has to find inner confidence. So we used a ukulele for Usopp, specifically a bluesy ukulele, because it was kind of quirky, sometimes funky. But as his inner self-confidence grows throughout this season and expands into further seasons, we’re gonna grow with the size of that guitar. So from the small ukulele, we’re gonna go bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger, and eventually we’re probably going to get to a 12-string guitar.

Ostinelli: We’re gonna reach a point where no existing guitar can represent how he’s growing. So, you know, we’re gonna have to build new guitars.

Belousova: It’s a journey, and we’ll eventually get to that Lenny Kravitz guitar solo.


Ostinelli: Sanji has a very sleek, elegant look…

Belousova: So there’s a lot of classiness about his look. He wears the black suit and [has a] hair piece [that] falls on one of his eyes. So there is that sleek, jazzy feel about him.

Ostinelli: On top of that, his fighting style is all kicks.

Belousova: It’s a kick-based martial art. So we were like, Why don’t we use big-band jazz funk fusion ensemble for Sanji?

Ostinelli: It’s all driven by a groovy drum — groovy drum groove. [imitating the beat] bum dum bum dah...

Belousova: Giona did his thing on the drums and it was perfect.


Belousova: Nami really represents the emotional arc of the season, because on one hand, she’s a brilliant navigator and such a sharp member of our Straw Hat crew and such a rebellious spirit. But at the same time, has a very dark past and she’s been impacted by childhood trauma.

So Nami’s theme is performed by a flute. And here’s the cool thing about her scene: Whereas with “Toss a Coin to Your Witcher,” when we wrote that song, we introduced the theme of the song in the beginning of that episode, then kind of developed it throughout the episode and then featured the song at the very end. In One Piece we decided to dig deeper. So we introduced Nami’s theme as soon as we meet Nami — and this is where her theme plays in a very kind of fun, determined, quirky manner. And then we give the audience the opportunity to explore and dive into the themes throughout the whole season, in all its different shades, depending on what’s happening in the season. Then [the climax is set to] the theme’s lyrical song rendition, “My Sails Are Set,” performed by the brilliant Aurora at the end of episode 8, and that serves as an emotional arc of the season.

Bonus: Buggy!

Belousova: I love Buggy. He’s such a powerful villain, but… he’s also such an unhinged clown. He’s just great. So obviously, there is predominantly circus music in his scenes, but there is a very specific riff that we feature for Buggy every single time we see him. Buggy has powers, Chop-Chop power, which chops his body into multiple parts. So when he does all his fighting moves, he screams “Chop-Chop Cannon!” So what we did was actually recorded the lyrics “chop-chop!” so that whenever you see Buggy there is a really fast riff going “chop-chop chop-chop” in the actual music. If you pay close attention, you will literally hear “chop-chop”!