UFOs, Theremins and Black Holes: A Listen into Sci-Fi Film Music
Great scores make for great science fiction (sci-fi) films – there is no doubt about it.
As it is, many of the most influential cues in film scoring history developed out of early sci-fi flicks.
Contemporary developments in music production technology paired with the insane evolutions in motion pictures have likewise created some of the most powerful and interesting musical spaces. Let’s journey through some well-known and less-often-heard sci-fi scores of our time.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL – BERNARD HERRMANN
Bernard Herrmann is one of the pioneering figures in the world of cinematic music. In particular, he probably did more than any early film composers to define the cues and styles of classic sci-fi film music.
Herrmann’s score for Robert Wise’s 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still is one of the most influential sci-fi film scores.
The score featured an unusual ensemble of instruments, including the theremin, along with electric violin, cello, and bass, two Hammond organs, a large studio electric organ, three vibraphones, and two glockenspiels among others.
The haunting, ethereal melody in the opening cue Prelude And Outer Space is performed on the theremin and features a unique harmonic motif that would come to define the sound of sci-fi scoring.
THE TERMINATOR – BRAD FIEDEL
The soundtrack for the 1984 sci-fi classic The Terminator was composed and recorded by Brad Fiedel.
Fiedel was a relatively unknown composer, primarily working in television. Director James Cameron heard Fiedel’s music through an agent acquaintance and invited him to a screening of the piece.
Fiedel offered a demo of an “experimental” piece he was working on, and the gig was secured.
Fiedel’s score for The Terminator is one of the more under-appreciated parts of the film.
It sits quietly in the background, humming along as Fiedel describes it as “a mechanical man and his heartbeat”.
Fiedel composed the score primarily with his Prophet-10 synthesiser, incorporating strange experiments with the synthesisers built in sequencer along the way.
The main theme for The Terminator came about as one of these experiments. Fiedel made a small mistake, jumping the loop point on his sequencer, and thus creating an asymmetrical rhythmic pattern of 13/16, which gives the cue its propulsive machinations.
THE BLACK HOLE – JOHN BARRY
John Barry’s score for the 1979 Disney film The Black Hole is one of the composer’s best, albeit perhaps unknown, works.
Famous for his compositions for the James Bond franchise and Born Free among others, Barry’s turn on the Disney stage was groundbreaking in many respects.
The score for The Black Hole was the first film score in history to be digitally recorded.
The score opens with a grand overture, in the style of Herrmann or John Williams (known for his Star Wars tracks) – an old feature that is seldom included in contemporary films. Barry also took some harmonic influence from Herrmann’s work in the sci-fi genre, but blends it with his own skilful compositional style.
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE – JERRY GOLDSMITH
Along with Williams’ score for Star Wars, Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the Star Trek: The Motion Picture features one of the defining musical motifs of sci-fi film scoring.
The score made use of several cutting-edge synthesisers including the Yamaha CS-80, ARP 2600, and Oberheim OBX.
Goldsmith would continue on to score several Star Trek features including The Final Frontier, Nemesis, First Contact and The Next Generation. His themes have woven a musical story that stands with many of the other sci-fi franchises.
ARRIVAL – JÓHANN JÓHANNSSON
Johann Jóhannsson’s score for Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival is deep, tense and full of otherworldly textures and sounds.
Jóhannsson became involved quite early in the production process and took inspiration from the script and concept art when beginning his compositional process.
Interestingly, the film was shot without “temp music”, meaning there were no predefined settings or spaces for music that
Jóhannsson had to contend with. Likewise, the film was first cut together without any music.
Jóhannsson particularly wanted to mimic the human voice in alien and ethereal ways.
He collaborated with the Theatre of Voices vocal ensemble and made extensive use of piano drones and tape loops with bizarre, processed vocal overdubs. The end result is something completely extraterrestrial.
YOU HAVE TO HEAR TO BELIEVE IN SCI-FI FILMS
Whether you believe aliens exist or not, sci-fi films, and particularly sci-fi film scores, are capable of transporting us to extraterrestrial worlds.
From the ethereal, groundbreaking work of Herrmann, to the dashing themes of Jerry Goldsmith, to the aleatoric, atonal vocal machinations of Jóhannsson, the genre of sci-fi has always been a place devoted to imagining and constructing spellbinding alternate realities – and has simultaneously produced some of the best music of any genre in the last century.
For more articles on lfilm scores, read:
- Stranger Things Film Scores
- Movie Soundtracks Worth Checking Out
- Film Scores and Soundtracks to Listen For in 2022
- A History of Sci-Fi Film Scores
Cover Credit: Cash Macanaya/Unsplash
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.