I want to discuss how SF does music, and music does SF.
Music can be a critical component of the story. In Vance’s classic “The Moon Moth,” aliens confer social status according to an individual’s virtuosity on multiple musical instruments, without which they won’t give you the time of day. (For a more recent example communication via music, see “Cricket Songs,” Amazing Stories, 2019.)
Conversely, real music references works from the SF corpus, be it as theme, band name, or brand name: lyrics in Laurie Anderson’s “Oh Superman;” the Alan Parsons Project album I, Robot; the group Duran Duran, named after a character in the Barbarella film; the Krell audio amplifiers, after the aliens in the film Forbidden Planet.
Music also has indelible links to SF films. Try listening to the first three notes of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra without thinking of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Such was Kubrick’s genius that The Blue Danube waltz evokes the ballet of orbiting spacecraft more readily than it does boats on a river.)
Many SF movie soundtracks rely on electronic instruments. After all, there is logic in recent technology producing other-worldly music. The theremin in Bernard Hermann’s otherwise symphonic score for The Day the Earth Stood Still proved so effective as to become a signature sound for SF. Jerry Goldsmith used the deep register of the blaster beam—a 15-foot long metal rod—to echo the immense size and power of the artefact threatening Earth in the first Star Trek film.
Fully electronic scores such as Bebe and Louis Barron’s Forbidden Planet are so out there as to verge on sound effects, while Gil Mellé’s The Andromeda Strain uses nerve-wracking staccatos to mimic heartbeats, and others still wax so lyrical that to use commonplace instruments would be a detriment, as for Vangelis’ Blade Runner, initially available only as a symphonic re-recording.
Technology isn’t required to produce music that sounds like it emanates from beyond our planet. The Ligeti micropolyphonic pieces heard in 2001, composed for conventional instruments, mesh well with the images: frightening around the monolith (“Requiem,”) mysterious in the moon surface transit (“Lux Aeterna,”) or mesmerizing when the pod travels through the star gate (“Atmospheres.”)
The composition style used for films derives mostly from the romantic and modern eras of classical music. One may thus argue that romantic scores in SF films isn’t true SF music, the same way a story that can be told just as well by removing its SF elements isn’t really science fiction. For example, John William’s Star Wars and James Horner’s Avatar, two wonderful scores, would befit many an adventure film.
Unusual may be a key requirement. “The awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to The Outer Limits,” said the series’ narrator, except awe-inspiring changes over time. The premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a key work of the classical repertoire, triggered a literal riot in the concert hall—hecklers vs. admirers. It inspired Gerald Fried’s score for Star Trek’s “Amok Time” episode (which itself begat a Futurama send-up reprising one of Fried’s most recognizable musical phrases.)
Film music functions as emotional track of the story, at times far in the background, at other times replacing dialogue altogether. For instance, the rising tension in Fred Steiner’s “Cube Radiation” in the original Star Trek, or Christopher Franke’s “Vorlon Ship Arrival” in Babylon 5, or the main character’s elation in the second half of “Jake Enters His Avatar World” in James Horner’s Avatar.
Regardless of instrumentation, style, or role in the film, some music transfers easily to stories it was never intended for. Once I’d accidentally discovered that the Star Trek film cues “The Cloud” and “Vejur Flyover” fitted the scenes respectively in Niven’s “Ringworld” and “The Ringworld Engineers” when (spoiler alert) the underside of the eponymous structure is shown, I sought to match music from composers Eric Serra, David Newman, Basil Poledouris, Randy Edelman, and others to SF stories and scenes from John Varley’s “Eight Worlds” stories, Julian May’s Pliocene Exile series, C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur sequence, and so on.
The game is on. What are your favorite SF stories and film music? Any cues that match favorite scenes?
I’m certainly no Star Trek fan, but the music over the opening credits of DS9 does evoke for me a sense of power and isolation, a distinctive effect. (One of my gripes with the original ST was that its theme seemed to belong in a Western.)
And while I’m being nostalgic: a notable apparition in my adolesence was the 1950s BBC TV serial Quatermass and the Pit (available on YouTube). Its theme music–strident brass plus electronics–still seems pretty effective.
Oh, and the use of the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh near the end of Zardoz–but I’m a sucker for almost anything by Beethoven.