Sci-fi’s impact on our world can be felt throughout time and space. Not only has the wonderful world of science fiction shaped our television shows and movies, but many modern technologies, such as video chatting, once started out as far-fetched science fiction fantasy. What is widely considered to be the first sci-fi film, Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), also might have been one of the first films to feature an original score. Even though most films of that era were silent, director Méliès intended for his films to be accompanied by sound effects and live music. A piece for solo piano titled A Trip to the Moon: Comic Descriptive Fantasia, composed by Ezra Read, matches up perfectly and may have been used as a score for the film.
For over 100 years sci-fi stories and the music that accompanies them have transported audiences across the universe and back, invoking feelings of adventure, love, and inspiration. Journey with the DSO November 18–20 as we celebrate incredible musical moments in science fiction, and pay homage to film composer greats like John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Danny Elfman, and more!
Keep reading to hear our top 5 musical moments in sci-fi. You’ll never guess what our #1 pick is!
5. “The Enterprise” (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) by Jerry Goldsmith
When the first Star Trek movie came out in 1979, it had been ten years since the original television series had been on the air, and the cult sci-fi show had only grown in audience and stature as it re-ran in syndication around the country almost immediately after being cancelled by NBC. Producer Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise put this 6.5 scene (wordless for nearly 5 minutes!) in as a thank you to the Trekkies for their continuing and enthusiastic support, which—along with the success of Star Wars—had convinced Hollywood to put money behind a movie version.
Though this Star Trek film has a reputation for taking its time to get where it’s going, the leisurely pace works well here. Long, grand beauty shots of a refitted Enterprise as Kirk and Scott (and we) gaze with wonder are accompanied by Goldsmith’s sweeping and regal score, slowly building upon the new theme through a series of variations. That Goldsmith’s theme eventually equaled the prominence of the original TV series theme—itself an instantly memorable earworm—is due to the composer’s creativity and gorgeous orchestration. It was repurposed for many of the subsequent Star Trek feature films, as well as becoming the theme for the popular 1987 television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
4. “Wild Signals” (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) by John Williams
Intergalactic diplomacy in five notes. John Williams reportedly presented Steven Spielberg with over 300 versions of the five-tone motif (of the approximately 134,000 possible combinations) before the director selected the one that would be used as the foundation for alien-human communication in his 1977 first-contact slow-burner. (And, with an on-screen shout-out to Zoltan Kodaly’s solfège method, we know that those five tones are Re Mi Do Do So, with the second “do” being an octave lower than the first.)
Music as cultural diplomacy was nothing new in 1977 of course. Still, Spielberg carries the theme throughout the movie to this climactic duet between the two species at Devils Tower in Wyoming. “It seems they’re trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary,” says one of the scientists. The fictional conversation gets increasingly complex when computers take over the human half of the duet, but in the real score, it’s all written by Williams. If math is the only universal language, the communication of math through music by scientists performing as musicians is a wholly original concept that Spielberg and Williams deliver with Close Encounters. A stunning work.
3. The Throne Room and End Title (Star Wars: A New Hope), by John Williams
The music heard during Close Encounters is pretty much the opposite of John Williams’ bold and bracing theme for George Lucas’s first Star Wars film in 1977, which hits you in the face right out the gate during the opening credits crawl. Known by heart by every child who ever play-acted scenes from the movie, the score rightly earned Williams his third Oscar, following Jaws and his adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof.
While the opening music is certainly iconic, for our list of memorable moments we have selected Williams’s music from the end of the film, set over the final scene in the throne room and the closing credits. Children of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s reenacted many scenes from A New Hope, but three in particular: the Han Solo and Greedo firefight in the Mos Eisley Cantina (Han shot first!), the climactic Rebel assault on the Death Star (“Stay on target”), and the Throne Room. It’s Williams’s majestic music that gives the Throne Room scene—a relatively banal finale to be honest—its spark.
2. Overture (Back to the Future), by Alan Silvestri
Back to the Future can easily be described as one of the most perfect movies ever made. A Robert Zemeckis classic, this film still stands as one of cinema’s most entertaining films for audiences of all generations. Bursting with rich characters, superb storytelling, and a blockbuster soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, Back to the Future definitely made its mark in cinema history. This cinematic masterpiece inspired 2 movie sequels, a ride at Universal Studios, and a Broadway musical!
Composer Alan Silvestri’s out-of-this-world score matches the energy of the story by perfectly complementing both small-town moments and larger action-packed events. Zemeckis’ only instruction to the composer, “it’s got to be big”. Silvestri delivered and his instantly recognizable heroic main theme might just have the power to transport you back in time.
1. “Kyrie” from Requiem by György Ligeti Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss The Blue Danube by Johann Strauss II (2001: A Space Odyssey)
A little-known fact about 2001 is that director Stanley Kubrick had originally commissioned Alex North to write an original score for the entire film, then he scrapped it entirely in post-production. Instead he chose to keep various classical works he had inserted as temporary music. (Alex North didn’t even find out that his score had been trashed until the film’s premiere.)
The rest is film history, and it’s nearly unimaginable that Kubrick’s magnum opus could ever have had a different soundtrack. But in some alternate reality, 2001: A Space Odyssey had just one composer underpinning the whole thing. So, when we say that these three works form our favorite moment, we are really talking about two scenes joined by one incredible cut from Kubrick.
The first scene of course is The Dawn of Man, the famous ten-minute opening when two tribes of primitive hominids battle over a watering hole. The introduction of the Monolith to one of the tribes is set to the “Kyrie” from György Ligeti’s Requiem, which becomes a recurring music cue throughout the film. The dissonant chords of Ligeti’s micropolyphony give the Monolith its power, imbuing it with godly or otherworldly origins.
Shortly after, one of the prehistoric men discovers the use of bones as tools to commit violence, all set to the powerful chords of Richard Strauss’s 1896 tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. That Strauss’s work was inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name suggests all sorts of comparable 2001 themes—from the Overman to the will to power—too numerous to dive into here. But Kubrick knew them well, and there’s a reason he chose this work, not just for this scene but also to play over the title card at the very beginning.
The Dawn of Man transitions millions of years into the future in one of the most famous shots in film history, as a bone is thrown into the air on prehistoric earth and transforms into a falling satellite in orbit in the year 2001. This leads to the second scene: the satellite ballet Kubrick has choreographed to “The Blue Danube,” the English name for “An der schönen blauen Donau,” a waltz by Johann Strauss II. The film moves forward in time by going back in time with its music—from 20th century Ligeti to Romantic-era Richard Strauss to the earlier (and unrelated) Johann Strauss II.
We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into our favorite musical moments throughout sci-fi history. Immerse yourself in music by some of the film industry’s greatest composers performed live by the DSO, November 18–20. Highlights from the program include music from Back to the Future, E.T., Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, and beyond!
November 18 – 20
SCI-FI SPECTACULAR: STAR WARS, STAR TREK, & BEYOND!
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