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What Makes Sci-Fi Theme Songs Science-Fictional?

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 28, 2012 11:55 AM

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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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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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