A round of applause during the opening night of the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet was just as sonorous as the innovative sounds of the sci-fi film’s score. An eerie and spatial intro starts like howling sirens, as a UFO floats into the cosmic horizon. In a time still pre-synthesizer and yet to be exposed to musique concrète, these sounds had never been heard by audiences before. Until then, symphonies were attempting to emulate the adverse effects of otherworldly robots, monsters, and dystopias for film scores.
The remainder of the Forbidden Planet film score resembles something between the cetacean underworld and the motor speedway of Post-War era nightmares. It was considered the first sci-fi movie score that was fully electronic; the only instrument was a tape reel owned by married couple and composers Louis and Bebe Barron.
PIONEERS OF SCI-FI FILM SCORES
Louis and Bebe Barron were newlyweds living in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City in 1946. As a wedding gift, they were given a tape recorder. Bebe studied music composition with Wallingford Riegger, a classical composer using the twelve-tone technique. Louis had studied music at the University of Chicago, and became experimental with his use of a soldering gun and electric guitars. But it was the novel Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine by mathematician Norbert Wiener, that helped the couple innovate their tape-loop sound, created by Louis with circuits and a ring modulator. The Forbidden Planet film score liner notes explain further:
“We design and construct electronic circuits [that] function electronically in a manner remarkably similar to the way that lower life-forms function psychologically. [. . .]. In scoring Forbidden Planet – as in all of our work – we created individual cybernetics circuits for particular themes and leitmotifs, rather than using standard sound generators. Actually, each circuit has a characteristic activity pattern as well as a "voice". [. . .]. We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like.”
The couple would continue to compose for Hollywood while opening a recording studio and working with John Cage, and authors Henry Miller and Aldous Huxley, all within New York’s avant-garde scene. Forbidden Planet is seen as an innovative addition to the sci-fi genre and its soundtrack does just the same.
Another prominent film score from the ‘50s were the original Godzilla and 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still. Although released earlier than Forbidden Planet, the film score, composed by Bernard Hermann, is more orchestrated and less experimental. But it gets the point across – its daunting classical and organ pianos cross ways with a theremin, percussions, and a harrowing horn section. First, creeping upon you like the film’s characters, alien humanoid Klaatu and robot Gort, and then booming dramatically. It was a film score that was scary for filmgoers at the time, setting its otherworldly scenery of curiosity and nightmarish imagery about a forewarned invasion.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SCI-FI FILM SCORES
Three decades prior to Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still was 1921’s Metropolis, a grandiose film about class divide in a supposed utopia with the setting of a silver city overshadowing an underground filled with mistreated workers. Before music supervisors or sound in films, music was originally put in silent movies to hide the mechanical noises of a projector. It was the job of a composer to understand the actions and cinematography within a film and coordinate the essence with an orchestra. With each new decade, composers experimented with that sound, and eventually commercial music was implemented in the film, more commonly occurring in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
Into the late 1960s, sci-fi film scores combined similar compositionals with the psychedelic and swinging lounge of ‘60s pop music. 1968’s Barbarella film score was performed by the Bob Crewe Generation Orchestra. Bob Crewe was a songwriter for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, and co-writer Charles Fox soon also became a veteran songwriter composing hits like “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” and themes for TV shows “The Love Boat” and “Happy Days.” The movie score and soundtrack of Barbarella resemble a musical, but at the time it was seen as a risqué film that also introduced sexual liberation and gender-roles in the space age, being the first film with women in the lead roles of a science fiction movie.
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack is not known for its groundbreaking or experimental film score, but for its use of original classical compositions. Rarely having any dialogue and deliberately removing music during scenes with narrative, Kubrick’s intention was to bring the viewer into the depth of its cinematography, as if within the silence of space that has a presence much like in the opening scene’s use of Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra.”
Czechoslovakian film Ikarie xb-1 has a movie score that’s a mixture of that same lounge pop and electronic noises that were created by looping the film’s audio and manipulating it. It is the most space-age sounding, as if the motherboard of the universe malfunctioned to produce a sporadic collection of rapidly found sounds and instruments. Composer Zdenek Liska’s compositions branched out to other genres, but nothing like what was produced for a film that supposedly inspired Stanley Kubrick’s space epic.
‘70S FILM SCORES: EXPERIMENTING WITH PSYCHEDELIA
The 1970s had branched out beyond alien lifeforms and robotic machines, bringing in sci-fi with more fantasy elements. The most obvious one is Star Wars, with a lighthearted classical composition by John Williams. Mad Max also braces the momentum with a classical film score with diegetic sounds, while the movie scores of Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind start off as whimsical but take a screeching turn as other lifeforms enter the plot. 1973’s Fantastic Planet film score implements the French funk and new wave scenes it derives from – composer Alain Goraguer, who worked with Serge Gainsbourg in the ‘60s and ‘70s, took influence from Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother.”
Man Who Fell to Earth was supposed to be written by David Bowie, starring in the film as lead alien Thomas Jerome Newton. But they were deemed “unusable” and rejected for psychedelic percussions by Stomu Yamashta and funk pianos akin to Fantastic Planets groove. Additional stock tracks alongside former Mama’s and the Papa’s vocalist John Phillips’ compositions were used. Bowie’s songs for the film were instead put to use on his 1976 record Station to Station and on 1977’s Low.
Odd transitions, sporadic time signatures, and the introduction of synthesizers are common in science fiction film scores from the ‘70s. Films like Westworld emulate the chaotic; a mix of western, electronic, and medieval classical provide the strenuous elements within the story – as if the listener is gradually spiraling into its sonic madness, an unnerving electronic spaghetti western classic. Logan’s Run sets the scene for the next decade, using modular synthesizers for its score.
‘80S FILM SCORES: SPACE SYNTHESIZERS
Sci-fi in the ‘80s was in full force, its popularity producing themes of dystopia and post-apocalyptic Earth but its film scores weren’t short of more playful elements. Xtro, Killer Klowns, and Outer Space composed by John Masari on synthesizers, along with Dune’s symphonic rock film score had quite a serious tone. Works like Terrorvision’s comical theme song and Ghostbusters’ household sound were easier to digest.
Wendy Carlos would introduce the Moog in 1968 with her album Switched-On Bach. The Moog and GDS synthesizers would also be introduced in 1982 to theaters on the Tron film score, collaborating with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and influencing purely electronic soundtracks such as Daft Punk’s movie score for the 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy. That same year, Blade Runner was released, its film score composer Vangelis improvising while watching scenes from the movie. It is celestial, filled with chimes and layers of Yamaha CS-80 synthesizers echoing in unison alongside vocalist Demis Roussos on track “Rachel’s Song”. The following year, Videodrome’s film score created dark synth sounds including keyboards, vocals, and sound effects composed by Howard Shore.
The ‘80s also saw the rise of different music as well as the licensing of commercial music for film scores. Sci-fi comedy Repo Man features a soundtrack filled with songs written by band The Plugz, Iggy Pop, and various punk bands, and Weird Science’s campy, ‘80s pop movie score includes a theme by group Oingo Boingo.
‘90S FILM SCORES AND BEYOND
CGI was rapidly becoming a more important aspect to sci-fi’s props and visuals, but classical film scores remained – think ‘90s films Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and Deep Impact. Movies like Men In Black branched out to have a hip-hop soundtrack, while other classical film scores would become more nuanced to a director's style. Think musician and composer Danny Elfman, who has worked with Tim Burton films since 1988’s Beetlejuice and in the ‘90s composing the eccentric movie score for Edward Scissorhands.
The shifts between classical sci-fi film scores, fully commercial or stock music, and electronic scores that range between robotic to drum-and-bass noise, all carried into the 2000s and and are ongoing. Common themes that bring together the era are remakes and their comparative originals, and the energy that a string quartet can bring to post-apocalyptic and alien lifeforms. The textures of sci-fi film scores owe the films they are curated for, each moment typically suspenseful enough for sporadic time signatures and experimentation. As the future they would compose for is now, the future of science fiction film scores owes to its past.
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Cover Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo
Writer | Gabby Castellano
Gabby Castellano is a music journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. She mainly focuses on music history subjects, but is always down to write your band’s biography. Gabby also enjoys wandering around New York City, throwing DIY events with friends, creating video and sculpture art, and listening to free jazz with her cat Luna.