Music in Science Fiction & Fantasy
By Dennis W. Green
(This is an expanded version of an article that was originally published in PerihelionSF under the title “More Than Zarathustra.)
What jazz standard shares a melody with the Star Trek theme? And what rock & roll tune tells its story against the background of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity?
Artists have always been inspired by the art of others. Musicians and writers have traded inspiration for centuries. Science Fiction is no different. But SF is unique in how it has touched, and been touched by music that spans not only genres, but generations. Even more so, if you include the rich (and mostly drug-induced) legacy of connections between Rock ’n Roll and Fantasy. Since Perihelion is not Fantasy publication, we’ll keep the discussion to mainstream Sci-Fi as much as possible, only touching on Fantasy in a couple of spots for completeness.
Sci-Fi At The Movies – A Classical Gas
When I started researching for this article, I thought I would spend most of my time discussing the various classical pieces that have found their way into science fiction and fantasy movies, beginning with “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Turns out, it’s pretty much Zarathustra and… well, not a lot else. Most of the music we know and love from our favorite movies are original compositions, which we’ll cover in the next section.
Now, cartoons are another matter. If not for Bugs Bunny, I would know nothing about classical music, and I can’t ever hear “The Barber of Seville” without seeing that rascally rabbit wielding a shaving brush and razor. But that’s another article.
If there is another classical piece that has been so totally intertwined with any movie, let alone a sci-Fi movie, as much as Strauss’s meditation on Friedrich Nietzsche, I don’t know what it would be. No other “pre-composed” movie theme even comes close.
But Stanley Kubrick is not the only director to mine the archives of classical music for inspiration.
A good example from a fairly recent film is Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13, used to excellent effect in The Avengers.
Prometheus mined Chopin, and Elysium did the same with Bach in recent films as well.
The composition I was most expecting to see represented is largely absent from sci-fi on film.
“O Fortuna” is from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The piece has been called “the most overused piece of music in film history,” and shows up in dozens of movies, movie trailers, commercials, and TV.
For me, the most memorable usage is when King Arthur and his knights charge into battle with the choral epic in the background in Excalibur. It also pops up in 2007’s Beowulf: Prince of the Geats, not to mention The Doors, Speed, Last of the Mohicans and even Jackass.
Putting The Original into Original Soundtrack
Where original movies scores are concerned, let’s start at the top of the mountain, John Williams and Star Wars.
The Star Wars Soundtrack was the first non-rock and roll record I ever bought, and I listened to it over and over again after seeing the movie. Remember, this was in the days when if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to a theater. So in between viewings, listening to the soundtrack was a great way to re-live the movie. If you’ve never sat down and listened to the full 5:51 of the Main Title, do it now.
Leitmotif is a musical term that means a phrase or melody that is associated with a particular character, place, or emotion. Common in symphonic music and opera, It was not used much in film until Williams revived it for Star Wars.
It’s really a very simple device, but it is now impossible to imagine the Star Wars movies without the unique musical signatures associated with particular characters and scenes.
The re-stated melody of the Main Title which plays under Luke’s first appearance, answering Uncle Owen’s bellow, will come to represent him throughout the films. The same for Princess Leia, the Jawas, even The Force, whose theme first appears in the Binary Sunset scene, and returns in each of the films.
In his recent Star Wars re-watch reviews on IO9, Germain Lussier goes even further:
The other MVP of the movie—especially once you get to the Death Star action scenes but during the whole thing, really—is John Williams. The importance of his music in setting the tone for Star Wars cannot be overstated. Including just how perfectly integrated into each and every scene it is. Years have passed since this movie was released, and I dare you not to get goosebumps when Luke and Leia swing across the retracted bridge on the Death Star.
The Star Wars soundtrack remains the highest grossing non-pop recording of all time. But it was just the beginning for John Williams. He, of course, composed the five-note figure the aliens implant in Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not to mention the music to Superman, the Indiana Jones films, and the entire Star Wars saga, including (thankfully) The Force Awakens.
As far as other original music composed for sci-fi movies goes, the music from Lord of the Rings comes very close to achieving Lussier’s “MVP” status. Howard Shore used over ninety leitmotifs, the most identifiable of which would probably be “History of The Ring,” which plays during the title sequence of all three films, and the song Pippin sings to Denethor that accompanies Faramir’s suicidal charge into battle in “Return of the King.”
The lyrics to “Pippin’s Song” are not from Tolkien at all, but were composed by Billy Boyd, the actor who played Pippin, written on just twenty-four hours notice, the day before the scene was filmed.
Jerry Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme introduced us to the “new” ST theme. Although it was certainly helped by a decade of ST:TNG to burn it into our minds.
Honorable mention to Queen, because there are very few themes that captured the essence of their films (that is to say, ridiculous camp) better than Flash.
( More about Queen later)
The Jazz of Star Trek
At first listen, the original Star Trek Theme seems to be a pretty conventional orchestral piece, using classical forms, as most TV and movies themes of the era are. But Alexander Courage’s composition has its roots in jazz.
In a 2000 interview, Courage explained that his inspiration for the main part of the theme is from “Beyond The Blue Horizon,” a pop tune from the 1930s. Courage said it gave him the idea for a song which was a “long thing that…keeps going out into space…over a fast moving accompaniment.”
This swing version of the song, by Jack Hylton and his Orchestra, illustrates that.
But the most interesting musical parallel is apparently coincidental. The Star Trek theme shares a harmonic progression with the jazz standard, “Out of Nowhere.” That is to say, the two songs share the same several notes, played in the same order, to form each tune’s main melody (“the hook” in music parlance).
“Out of Nowhere” was introduced by Bing Crosby in his 1930 film Dude Ranch, and was Bing’s first Number One hit. You can definitely hear the melodic similarity in Bing’s version, but when Charlie Parker and Miles Davis slowed it down and made a ballad out of the tune in 1947, the resemblance is downright eerie:
It’s difficult to believe that Courage wasn’t familiar with “Out of Nowhere,” but he never mentioned it as an influence, and absent an “unconscious plagiarism” ruling of the sort that led George Harrison to pay a bunch of money to the composer of “He’s So Fine,” we are left with the resemblance as a coincidence. But a coincidence that the show has had some fun with.
In the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Gene Roddenberry suggested doing a detective story based on the holodeck, and writer Tracy Tormé got the job of writing “The Big Goodbye.” In the process, Tormé created the character of 1940s literary detective Dixon Hill, one of the most memorable additions to the Star Trek canon.
As Captain Picard enters Dixon Hill’s office for the first time near the beginning of the episode, a radio is playing “Out of Nowhere.”
It was producer Robert Justman who suggested the Easter Egg. A jazzer would say he was “hip” to the connection.
(It’s interesting to note that Tracy Tormé is the son of legendary jazz singer Mel Tormé. The younger Tormé would go on to co-create “Sliders,” and cast his famous father in the show.)
A musician friend of mine also insists there is a scene in Voyager that takes place on Earth at a Star Fleet reception where a combo is playing “Out of Nowhere,” but I haven’t been able to locate it.
Jonathon Frakes happened to play the trombone, which led the ST:TNG writers to send Commander Ryker to a holodeck jazz club to unwind. Ryker’s musical bane was “Nightbird,” which he could never master.
In fact, once jazz broke into the Star Trek franchise, it would play a small but significant role in every series.
- The Deep Space Nine crew also liked to hang out in holodeck bars. Their favorite hologram was lounge singer Vic Fontaine, played by former teen heartthrob James Darren. Eventually, he would come to serve as a father confessor of sorts to various members of the crew.
- Lieutenant (and clarinetist) Harry Kim led a jazz quartet on Voyager called the Kimtones. Unlike Frakes, Garrett Wang did not play the instrument, but memorized the correct fingerings, no small task.
- And on Star Trek: Enterprise, we learn that free jazz has an interesting effect on the Vulcan psyche, when T’Pol hits a San Francisco club in the episode “Fusion.” “It was unusual, chaotic, but I was drawn to it,” she says. “I felt…invigorated.” This idea popped up in Voyager as well. In the episode “Riddles,” Tuvok loses his intellect for a time and quits repressing his emotions. During this time, he develops a fondness for jazz.
A word of advice: Don’t hint to a jazz musician that it’s best to be stupid and emotional to enjoy the form.
SF & Drugs & Rock ‘n Roll Is All My Brain & Body Need
Up to now, we’ve mainly discussed music as it relates to Science Fiction in the movies and TV. In general, a songwriter can reference a literary character in any way he or she likes. But the reverse isn’t true. A writer must pay for rights to quote song lyrics in a book or story, so it’s not always easy to discern what music may have influenced a writer.
But since Bill Haley and the Comets ushered in the Rock ’n Roll era, we can be sure that hundreds of writers have written to the beat of Rock tunes. Urban Fantasy writers in particular like to draw connections to Rock in their writing. An informal survey (Okay… me looking at my own bookshelves), reveals many Urban Fantasy books and stories with titles that directly or indirectly reference Rock ’n Roll.
But the connections are there for straight-ahead Science Fiction as well. In fact, IO9.com found 100 Sci-Fi songs inspired by Rock ’n Roll. You can visit that site to see the entire list, but here are a few, plus some they missed, that I think represent the best of the lot.
The Brains of Rock ’n Roll
The original members of Queen are the most highly-degreed in all of pop music. Singer Freddie Mercury had a Masters in Art (and designed the group’s logo, the Queen Crest). Bassist John Deacon possesses a Masters in Electronic Engineering, and guitarist Brian May has a PhD in Astrophysics. Drummer Roger Taylor is the slacker of the group. He “merely” has a BS in Biology.
In fact, in July of 2015, May was invited to NASA, where he joined the New Horizons team in examining the first photos of the Pluto flyby.
So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that one of May’s songs deals with a love story disrupted by the physics of relativity.
“39,” from the group’s breakout album “A Night at the Opera,” tells the story of a group of space explorers dispatched to find a replacement for a dying earth. After a year, they return to discover a hundred years have passed, and everyone they know and love has died. Hidden in what at first listen appears to be a cheerful folk tune with a skiffle beat are some of the most plaintive and haunting closing lyrics I’ve ever heard:
For my life,
The time dilation effects of Einstein’s special theory of relativity are familiar to those of us who read the literature, but it’s unusual territory for pop music. On an album known for the optimistic “You’re My Best Friend,” and the bombastic anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “39” is just a musical footnote. But with its emotional punch and empirical accuracy, it may be Rock’s only true science fiction story.
Queen would also mine Science Fiction art, choosing a well-known Astounding cover by Frank Kelly Freas as the cover of News of the World. The album would go on to generate two more Rock anthems for the quartet (or one, depending on how you look at it), “We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions.”
Heroes and Villains
“Magneto and Titanium Man”
The ultimate meta-moment of Marvel’s Iron Man is when Tony Stark wages battle to the soundtrack of Black Sabbath’s song of the same name. Taken by itself, the tune is the kind of turgid, guitar heavy arena rock tunes best listened to under the influence of the chemical of your choice. And it doesn’t have anything to do with the Marvel Comics character.
But that scene was awfully cool.
Paul McCartney went Ozzy and his crew one better, invoking not one but three Marvel characters in his “Magneto and Titanium Man.” Featuring not only Iron Man’s Soviet antagonists Titanium Man and Crimson Dynamo, but also the mutant master of metal, the song appeared on the B side of “Venus & Mars Rock Show,” and was a Wings concert staple, accompanied by original Marvel art.
An avowed comics fan, Paul McCartney gave Jack Kirkby and his daughter front-row seats during the “Venus & Mars” tour. Kirby returned the favor with a hand-drawn comic.
The Ones On Every List
You can’t do a list of Sci Fi songs without including these two.
Even though Mark Watley must engineer his own survival to a disco beat in Andy Weir’s The Martian, what the movie is actually about is proving the 1972 John-Taupin Theorem of Mars climate:
Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,
In fact, it’s cold as hell.
“Space Oddity” is another tune which makes just about every “Sci-Fi rock tunes” list. Bowie would come back to the Science Fiction theme again, as Ziggy Stardust, bisexual alien rock star, and play an alien in his movie debut, “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” He would also eventually tell us the fate of Major Tom, labeling him a “junkie” in the 1980 tune “Ashes to Ashes.”
Bowie also wins the award for providing titles to genre TV shows. “Ashes to Ashes” and “Life on Mars” (both the excellent BBC original and the not-quite-so-good American remake) would have been poorer without their titles. And thankfully, fully licensed to use Bowies’ music within the shows.
Speaking of licensing, in a triumph of common sense, Bowie’s music publisher agreed to extend astronaut Chris Hadfield’s license to “Space Oddity,” so the first music video ever produced in space could continue to be seen.
Included here, because that means I can.
Paul is Dead. Or Maybe Just On Another Planet
“Calling Occupants of Interstellar Craft”
This is probably the most obscure tune on my list. The closest it came to being a hit was when the Carpenters recorded a predictably-sappy version of it in 1977, which only cracked the Top Forty for a few weeks. But the original comes with an interesting story.
The song was written and recorded by the Canadian band Klaatu. So right off the top we have a cool The Day The Earth Stood Still reference. But when the album was first released in 1976, it was without pictures of the band or even their names anywhere on it. Everything was “Written by Klaatu,” “Produced by Klaatu,” etc.
Somehow, a rumor got started that Klaatu was actually a reunited Beatles, recording anonymously. The band’s record company denied it from the get-go, as did the founders, John Woloschuk and Dee Long, when they finally revealed themselves. But it took quite a while for the rumors to die down.
News Flash: Sixties music was kind of trippy.
“In The Year 2525”
Zager & Evans
Zager and Evans’, “In The Year 2525,” not only makes most Sci-Fi music lists, it has also topped many One-Hit Wonder countdowns over the years. The group has the dubious distinction of being the only act to top both the U.S. and U.K. charts and then never have another hit.
The 1969 song stops at 1,010-year intervals, making disturbing predictions about human society at each. Writer Rick Evans is the anti-Roddenberry, predicting that we will never learn from our mistakes.
Life is Cheap and Death is Free
Warren Zevon is one of music’s most iconoclastic personalities. He began his career penning hits for artists like Linda Ronstadt. In his final years, he talked candidly with David Letterman about his terminal lung cancer. “Werewolves of London” is his most recognizable song, although his “Keep Me In Your Heart” is one of the most poignant songs ever written. He was well-read, despite dropping out of high school. “Transverse City” was directly influenced by William Gibson.
Zevon was definitely a reader, and a fan of writers. He dedicated an album to detective novelist Ross MacDonald, and served as musical director and occasional guitarist for the Rock Bottom Remainders, the famous “garage band” made up of Stephen King, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, and Amy Tan.
At Least There Were No Anal Probes
Lest you think science fiction and music quit cross-pollinating in 1980 (or that the writer is an old fart, although that is probably true), let’s fast forward to 2009 for “Spaceman” by The Killers.
The narrator is kidnapped by aliens, but returned none the worse for the experience, except for one lingering effect.
I hear these voices at night sometimes.
The song may be 21st Century, but the video, while entertaining, is strictly Eighties MTV cheese.
It’s Just Too Peculiar Here
“Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer”
I work at a jazz radio station, so I am hardly going to leave off the UFO tune by none other than the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald. “Two Little Men in a Flying Saucer” exhibit their discriminating taste by fleeing the earth after getting a taste of our culture, notably our television shows. And this was in 1951, decades before TV political ads.
View It, Code It.
Daft Punk is a “must have” on the list, since they’re robots from the future and all. Plus, their guest shot was the best thing about Tron: Legacy.
“Technologic” is textbook for the helmeted French duo, mixing up funk, techno, rock, and synth pop, with vocals that might actually be what my computer is thinking at any given moment.
I Hear The Weather in Transexual Transylvania is Great This Time of Year.
“Science Fiction Double Feature”
Rocky Horror Picture Show
Referencing classic sci fi cinema from Triffids to George Pal, Rocky Horror Picture Show’s “Science Fiction Double Feature” is a smooth ballad whose pop veneer lulls us into complacency before we are thrust into the gender-bending, rock ’n roll fever dream that Brad and Janet experience.
Citizens of the Universe
“We have returned to claim the pyramids,” proclaims George Clinton as “Mothership Connection” opens. Clinton, a fan of Star Trek, put together the 1975 concept album to “put black people in space.” Of course, today, the album cover featuring a pimp atop his space-faring Cadillac is a little jarring. Generally regarded as one of Parliment’s best albums, Mothership Connection was the first to feature Maceo Parker and Fred Weasley, two veterans of James Brown’s horn section, who would go on to be important jazz and funk musicians in their own right.
The Library of Congress added the album to the National Recording Registry in 2011, noting it’s influence on the jazz, rock, and dance music that followed. So in a way, it predicted the future of music just like Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein predicted the future of science.
And maybe gave Roland Emmerich the idea for Stargate, who knows?
Just a Ramblin’ Hobbit
“Ramble On is one of three Led Zeppelin tunes that reference characters and scenes from Lord of the Rings, along with “Misty Mountain Hop” and “The Battle of Evermore.” Although if your girl left you to be with Gollum, it’s possible you’re better off without her.
Bonus points to Jimmy Page, who designed the mysterious “Four Symbols” logo, which looks to me like Elvish.
And the Beat goes on…
Music plays an important role in Dennis W. Green’s “Traveler” books, which tell the story of a police detective who must slip between parallel realities to track down a murderous version of himself. A popular radio personality in his native Iowa, Dennis’s work has been recognized by Billboard and by JazzWeek, which has named his station, KCCK-FM, Station of the Year four times in the last six years.