The Day the Earth Stood Still

Sci-fi soundtracking to the beat of Leon Theremin, Bernard Herrmann, Bob Moog, Wendy Carlos, and John Williams

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Illustration by Nathan Jensen

Science-fiction soundtracks are a special breed, disproportionately represented in lists of the most memorable and inventive film scores of all time. I've been listening to them since I was 6 years old, when my uncle took my brother, my cousin, and me to see Star Wars. As I've grown older, some reasons for their appeal have become apparent to me, while some are still a mystery. For the composer and director, a science-fiction score presents specific challenges, and throughout the decades, many solutions have been tried, some to great success, others to abject failure.

Music of the Future

Evolving at a dizzying pace, technology dominated the last century. Musical instruments have kept pace, first in the electronic realm, then in the digital. More than any other film genre, science fiction embraces new instruments, solving a primary problem: how to make music for an unknown time and place.

In 1951, Bernard Herrmann, film's greatest composer, scored The Day the Earth Stood Still. The music featured two theremins (see "'Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey,'" below), the first widespread electronic instrument, and to this day, its sound conjures images of robots, spaceships, and aliens. For Forbidden Planet, the husband-and-wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron created the first all-electronic score for a mainstream film. In 1956, the synthesizer as we know it today hadn't yet been invented, and most electronic music was in the hands of a few obscure composers. The Barrons' bleeps, bloops, and whirs were assembled into a fantastic score with recognizable, if unconventional, themes in a sound world like no other before it.

The trend continued; think of Wendy Carlos' Moog synthesizer in A Clockwork Orange (see "Moog: A Revolution in Sound") or Vangelis' embrace of the digital synthesizer in Blade Runner. However, for all the great scores this approach produced, it also created a key problem. Like most technology, these scores dated themselves in the blink of a droog's eyeball, going from strange and mysterious music of the future to outdated music of the past.

Music of the Past

To avoid the carbon-dating pitfall, some of the most famous sci-fi soundtracks approached the challenge from the flip side. In making music of the future, they turned to a timeless style using instruments that have been around for hundreds of years: classical music and the symphony orchestra. In Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey, this alternative approach yielded two of the most successful sci-fi soundtracks ever, both artistically and financially.

People know they're supposed to like classical music, but, well, mostly they don't. It's long; it's boring; it's old. For new orchestral music, the verdict's even more grim. It took Stanley Kubrick, then, to prove that given the right context, classical music and orchestral avant-garde could enter the mainstream. The director rejected the original score composed and recorded for 2001 and in its place used a combination of Johann and Richard Strauss (no relation) and 20th century Romanian radical György Ligeti. The power of Also Sprach Zarathustra, the nostalgia of The Blue Danube, and the otherworldly but organic Ligeti music was incredibly effective in making the slow-paced abstract film engaging and emotional. The soundtrack album broke sales records and remains in print to this day.

For Star Wars, John Williams also turned to the orchestra for its timeless quality, but instead of the direct familiarity of Kubrick's classics, he constructed an exceptional new score using references, ideas, and sometimes brazenly stolen sections of classical music, from Stravinsky to Ravel to Holst. Only in the cantina scene did the composer use modern electronic instruments. The score became so popular that ever since, struggling symphony orchestras have used concerts of Williams' Star Wars music to reach out to new audiences. It's dramatic and exciting, lushly beautiful, the pieces roughly equivalent in length to the popular music of today.

Heightened Music and Heightened Hearing

People hear science-fiction soundtracks. In other genres, the viewer is often unaware of the presence of music and its relation to his or her understanding of the film. Walking down a city street or any other familiar place, most people filter out any sound information not pertinent to their mission. When traveling to a strange place, however, ears become wide open. In these less familiar places, people absorb and observe their new environment. Well, nothing is newer than an alien planet or a spaceship or a creature unlike anything on Earth.

As a result, sci-fi movies have that same ears-wide-open effect, times 10. The result is that, with the smallest amount of sound, we recognize a melody on a theremin or the communicator from Star Trek or the notes of a Moog synthesizer or the electro bleets of R2D2. For most composers and musicians, there's no more coveted goal than being listened to, and science fiction leads to that more than any other type of music used in film.

The heightened nature of the elements, from characters and setting to the battles and aliens, also allows the music to be heightened. In so many film scores, there's an ideal that the best score is unheard and works its magic subtly, almost secretly guiding the audience's emotions and understanding of a scene. Science-fiction music may be well-crafted, intricate, and sophisticated, but more often than not, it doesn't have to worry about invisibly nestling into the background. It can come out loud and proud and do its work creating new and exciting musical worlds that live on in our collective consciousness.

Ten Seminal Sci-Fi Soundtracks

1) The Day the Earth Stood Still, Bernard Herrmann (1951)

2) Forbidden Planet, Louis and Bebe Barron (1956)

3) 2001: A Space Odyssey, chosen by Stanley Kubrick (1968)

4) Planet of the Apes, Jerry Goldsmith (1968)

5) A Clockwork Orange, Wendy Carlos (1971)

6) Star Wars, John Williams (1977)

7) Blade Runner, Vangelis (1982)

8) Edward Scissorhands, Danny Elfman (1990)

9) Alien 3, Elliot Goldenthal (1992)

10) The Fountain, Clint Mansell (2006)

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Bernard Herrmann, Wendy Carlos, John Williams, Leon Theremin, Bob Moog, A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, A Scanner Darkly

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