Quick: think of the famous opening notes from "Also sprach Zarathustra," the Richard Strauss piece which opens 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now think of the theme from Star Wars. And now -- if you're a real geek -- conjure up the theme song from Star Trek: The Next Generation. What do they all have in common? At the sci-fi website io9.com, Charlie Jane Anders talks with the sci-fi composer Bear McCreary, who explains that, since 2001, science-fiction theme songs have tended to rely on the perfect fifth, which creates an impression of "open opportunities or a big space," of "the cosmos, or transcendence or generally mind-blowing scenarios in film."
The perfect fifth, McCreary says, is based on natural properties inherent in the way sound frequencies work:
When you hit a string or a piece of metal or anything that vibrates, you hear the fundamental pitch that the thing is vibrating at, but you hear a series of overtones - of harmonic frequencies - that you're not exactly aware that you're hearing. And those are a series of notes that are increasingly higher than the fundamental.... So if you have a guitar string that is tuned to a C and you pluck it, you actually hear not only that C, [but also] you hear clearly the C above that, and less clearly the G above that.
What makes the perfect fifth ideal for heroic theme songs in general, and science-fiction theme songs in particular? The perfect fifth
feel[s] very strong... because you play a note and then you play the octave above it, you're reinforcing overtones.... it's reinforcing itself in a very powerful way. So if you want to indicate something that has strength or grandeur, this is a really simple and powerful way of doing that. You're building these notes that have versions of themselves built into themselves.
Interesting note: Before 2001, science fiction music was going down a different route -- theme songs weren't quite as tied to the perfect fifth (like the theme from Doctor Who, below). Much more -- including lots of great sci-fi theme song YouTube clips -- at io9.
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