SFM: Science Fiction Music

If, like me, you’ve been addicted to science fiction for pretty much your whole life, it’s easy to rattle off a list of books, comics, movies and TV shows that have shaped your passion for the genre. They’re visually and intellectually seared into your imagination.

But consider for a moment another element, largely overlooked, that may also be responsible, in some part, for your SF identity.

Consider the sound of sci-fi.

What’s the first music that springs to mind? John Williams’s majestic title theme for Star Wars? Perhaps his thrilling, bombastic Imperial March from Empire Strikes Back? How about the Star Trek TV themes by Alexander Courage (Original Series) and Jerry Goldsmith (Next Generation)? Perhaps the classic intro music to The Twilight Zone or Doctor Who? Maybe you can’t remember that far back. Alan Silvestri’s inspired Back to the Future score might define science fiction for you. Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Inception music might have just redefined it.

I find SF music to be a valuable trigger for my memories and appreciation of the genre. It brings to life the quirky possibilities, awesome cosmology and emotional resonances I’ve always treasured about sci-fi. Even the cheesy favourites (we all have’em) can strike nostalgic chords—perhaps the most important chords of all.

While I’m writing, I’ll often have a selection of SF music tracks programmed on my iPod to help put me/keep me in that headspace. If sci-fi is often (unfairly) perceived as cold and distant, its music has a definite humanizing quality in that it speaks in emotional terms. This is especially true of the contributions to the Star Trek movie legacy by composers Jerry Goldsmith (films 1, 5, 8-10) and James Horner (2-3). Through all the futuristic technology and alien scenarios, both artists manage to translate the journeys into human ones—fear, wonder, mystery, danger and excitement. The unknown is somehow very real and very personal. The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan are two of my favourite movie scores ever because they work just as well without the films. The music is alive on its own.

Jerry Goldsmith is probably the master SF composer. Outside Star Trek, he visited Planet of the Apes, Outland and Innerspace, and created brilliant scores for Total Recall, Hollow Man, Capricorn One and Alien. Oh, and he also worked on Twilight Zone. Never afraid to experiment with weird, synthesized cues or lush, haunting motifs, he often cited sci-fi as his favourite genre to work in, in that it allowed him to indulge his grander, more romantic aspirations (in terms of scope).

His more famous contemporary, John Williams, has only ever written SF film music for either George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. But consider the following: Star Wars, Close Encounters, E.T., Jurassic Park, A.I: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, War of the Worlds. I listen to tracks from all those, some for the sweeping themes, others for the rapid action beats. Like Goldsmith’s, his scores are incredibly varied. Across all genres, no one has ever matched Williams for consistent high quality and versatility. In SF, his music has evolved to some degree from tuneful evocations of adventure and childlike wonder (E.T., Star Wars) to more subtle, mature works, always in keeping with the director’s vision. He also worked on the black-and-white Lost in Space TV series.

After he blazed onto the scene with Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, James Horner composed two iconic scores in the mid-eighties, for radically different sci-fi movies. The first, Cocoon, conjured aching emotions of youth, wonder and the bittersweet passage of time. It was recently used on the trailer for Super 8, due out this summer, and as soon as I recognised it, those feelings instantly flooded back. I’m talking serious goosebumps. Magic and sentiment abound in Ron Howard’s tale of OAPs and aliens, but Horner’s music is transcendental.

His next was for Aliens—dark, threatening, pulse-pounding. It’s hard to believe the same guy wrote it. The climactic track has been used for just about every action movie trailer since. SF can give thrill-rides like nothing else, and Aliens proves that. As, to some extent, does Avatar, another film scored by Horner. He seemed to reach back to his lush SF scores of the eighties, while at the same time ratcheting his action tracks up several notches. I thought the score was unfairly criticized by movie fans for being a hodge-podge of his other works. To me, it’s vintage Horner—romantic, thrilling, otherworldly—and has plenty of unique flourishes.

With credits like Back to the Future, Predator, The Abyss, Judge Dredd and Contact on his CV, you’d think Alan Silvestri would be better known than he is. And those are just his SF scores! Often, a film composer is the invisible genius of the project, the artist whose work you’re reacting to emotionally without realising it. In science fiction, he’s perhaps even more invisible, as the special effects and dazzling visuals/ideas command much of the viewer’s attention. But he’s quietly contributing an extra dimension to your SF experience—often raising the film’s quality all by himself.

I’d love to write an in-depth article on this subject—I could go on and on—but seeing as I’ve already mentioned the heavy-hitters, I’d rather leave you with a few more of my favourite science fiction scores that rarely seem to get a mention:

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Bernard Hermann)

Fortress (1992, Frederic Talgorn)

Independence Day (1996, David Arnold)

Moonraker (1979, John Barry)

Men in Black (1997, Danny Elfman)

Robocop (1986, Basil Poledouris)

The Time Machine (2002, Klaus Badelt)

Waterworld (1995, James Newton-Howard)

What music best speaks science fiction to you?

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8 comments

  1. I second all of what you said, plus I’m a Barry Gray girl. Gray composed music for just about everything in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s supermarionation universe.

    I also love the work of Hiroshi Miyagawa who composed the music for Uchuu Senkan Yamato. Classic stuff.

    1. Good ones, Heather! You always come up with long-lost treats. I do have the themes for Thunderbirds and Stingray somewhere on LP, but I’ve yet to see (or hear) the Japanese one.

  2. While I certainly have strong feelings about many of these tracks… just hearing snippets from Star Wars or Doctor Who makes me happy… as for owning, I ALMOST downloaded the Doctor Who theme, but never did. I don’t have any of the others.

    However, I was just thinking the other day that Evolution by Korn made me want to write dark, harsh, dystopian sci-fi. Then I get over it — my writing doesn’t much suit ‘dark’.

    But I think you’ve already written a great, in-depth article! Made me want to listen to most of the soundtracks you listed! You know, on their own, without the movies :)

    1. Thanks, KC! I’m not much of a ‘dark’ writer either, at least not yet. :draws curtains: But Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack for Alien is incredibly haunting and atmospheric. That would be a good one to use.

  3. One of the scores that makes its way into my writing rotation often isn’t a sci-fi one, but it is a Bernard Hermann. His score for Taxi Driver (his last work, I believe) is always awesome for writing darker stuff.

    And I totally owned the Back to the Future II score. On cassette. ;)

    1. I can see why you like Hermann’s Taxi Driver, Shawn. It’s brilliant. Come to think of it, most of Hermann’s music is great to write with, from his Hitchcock scores (Vertigo, Spellbound etc) to his Harryhausen soundtracks (Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts) to Taxi Driver. Both Goldsmith and John Williams have cited him as one of the all-time greats.

  4. I don’t listen to many movie soundtracks or thematic music. But I love when it works well in a movie without overpowering it. When music is done right, it adds so much depth to a move. The theme to Star Wars is imprinted in me at this point. There’d be a hole there if it were somehow removed.

  5. I enjoy the Serenity and Firefly soundtracks.

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