Part II: Science Fiction

Table of Contents


1. Research Perspectives

Beginning with the construction of this experiment, it was imperative to gain all the possible knowledge and experience in terms of music scores in the science fiction genre. Therefore, it was straightforward that an in-depth research had to be actualized in order to begin decrypting the physiognomies, perspectives and semiotic functions that can be found in science fiction films’ scores.

The initial criterion considering the choice of investigated films was based on chronology. The rationale was to select a variety of science fiction films that would chronologically cover all the cinematic history considering the genre. In this way, and by examining the evolution of film music though time, there will be a better appreciation of music styles, scoring tactics and artistic implementations that film composers have been using to their scores.

Furthermore, it will try to demonstrate the uniqueness of composition in terms of experimentation. This is also a factor that will be closely examined in connection with the time periods that can be observed. It is an aspect that will play a significant role in building the original score that is going to be presented later on in this research.   

What is also crucial is to obtain the experience in view of any exoticism used, as this is the most important angle of this research. Consequently, all the congregated information will give birth to a number of questions that will arise and this, in turn, is what will eventually form the suggested musical approach that is going to be followed.  

The initial overall perspective of this chapter can be demonstrated in the flowchart below:


2. Preliminary Composition Survey: Part I


Out of the large selection of movies that had been carefully watched over the period of this research’s chapter, there was a final number of nineteen chosen in order to be initially presented and analyzed. The films’ titles, in chronological order, followed by some basic information and trailers can be found below:

Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Loon) - 1902

Score by Air (2012) & Jeff Mills (2017)

Film Trailer

The Lost World - 1925

Score by Robert Israel (2000) & The Alloy Orchestra (2001)

Film Trailer

Metropolis - 1927

Score by Gottfried Huppertz

Film Trailer

The Day the Earth Stood Still - 1951

Score by Bernand Hermann

Film Trailer

Forbidden Plannet - 1956

Score by Louis and Bebe Barron

Film Trailer

Planet of the Apes - 1968

Score by Jerry Goldsmith

Film Trailer

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun - 1969

Score by Barry Gray

Film Trailer

Fantastic Planet (La Planete Savvage) - 1973

Score by Alain Goraguer

Film Trailer

Alien - 1979

Score by Jerry Goldsmith

Film Trailer

Blade Runner - 1982

Score by Vangelis Papathanasiou

Film Trailer

Dune - 1984

Score by Toto (Prophecy Theme by Brian Eno)

Film Trailer

The Fifth Element - 1997

Score by Eric Sierra

Film Trailer

Alien vs Predator - 2004

Score by Harald Kloser

Film Trailer

Avatar - 2009

Score by James Horner

Film Trailer

Moon - 2009

Score by Clint Mansell

Film Trailer

John Carter - 2012

Score by Michael Giacchino

Film Trailer

Gravity - 2013

Score by Steven Price

Film Trailer

Interstellar - 2014

Score by Hans Zimmer

Film Trailer

Alien Covenant - 2017

Score by Jed Kurzel

Film Trailer

After observing these films and paying specific attention in view of the scoring structure and semiotic functions, certain key elements were detected and noted so they could form a primitive overall picture of the scores. As a result, tables of main characteristics were created and demonstrated below:   

An interesting observation coming from these films’ primitive analysis was the immense spectrum of variety and combination in view of the score. Starting from the silent era which had, as expected, a distinctive color of earlier classical music composers’ approach, film scoring has developed a greater sense of experimentation and alchemies starting from the early days of sound implementation in films. One can also observe a strong association between instrumentation and technological progress which played a crucial role in the formation of film music as we know it today.

This of course contributed a great deal in the way a composer thinks about composing a film, in a greater sense, and gave new perspectives in music evolution in general. It is an aspect which will be closely taken into consideration and analyzed further on in this chapter by taking a closer look at specific films and examples.

Another important overall assumption has to do with the use of ethnic coloration inside the music. An overall sense of absence exists, although there seems to be some experimentation taken place at several examples of films that needed to be further investigated. This lack of ethnic coloration and symbolism is missing even in films that have been found to give effort in containing sonic elements that are closely connected with the exotic picture. The overall taste that remained after this initial analytical process was missing some salt and pepper, lacking in terms of authenticity and in some parts immersion. The scores that found to tackle this issue, either in terms of added instruments or music composition flavors, could be characterized as polite, habitually heavily dressed under the cloak of a grand, polyphonic classical orchestra.

At this point it is worth mentioning that the last statement is not taking into consideration the end result in terms of musical appeal and objective successfulness that a score may have. This is quite a diverse subject which belongs perhaps in the wider context of human psychology and its affections in sounds. Nonetheless, emotion in film music is an aspect of great importance and will be discussed within the margins of composition techniques and exoticism.  

As a result of the above, there was a greater need created in view of digging deeper into the films’ music processes and outcomes. Out of the previous nineteen demonstrated films a total amount of sixteen were finally chosen to be analyzed and discussed in a greater extent.


3. Preliminary Composition Survey: Part II

This chapter will demonstrate the analytical research that took place in sixteen science fiction films. These films are:

  1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

  2. Forbidden Planet (1956)

  3. Planet of the Apes (1968)

  4. Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

  5. Fantastic Planet (1973)

  6. Alien (1979)

  7. Blade Runner (1982)

  8. Dune (1984)

  9. The Fifth Element (1997)

  10. Alien vs Predator (2004)

  11. Avatar (2009)

  12. Moon (2009)

  13. John Carter (2012)

  14. Gravity (2013)

  15. Interstellar (2014)

  16. Alien Covenant (2017)


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 – Score by Bernard Herrmann)

The film’s score has a quite distinctive color that fits the overall cinematic experience of the 1950’s era. This early Hollywood style includes features such as excessively usage of vibrato strings, more than often in divisi mode, the melodic character of most thematic unities and leitmotifs, the dissonance and unexpected formation in order to add mystery to the context as well as the use of low brass usually for emphasizing the dramatic and/or adventurous scenes. The former one in this situation has been a keen scoring characteristic that can be demonstrated below:

What is also important to mention is the use of two Theremin. Theremin is a rather renowned electric instrument of its time and also an instrument that has been used countless times musically addressing the unknown and/or the otherness. Two examples that contain this characteristic can be found in the following clips:  

The Theremin can indeed create a mysterious atmospheric background due to its sounding nature. This creative technological achievement can indeed provide the listener with a rather unique musical experience due to Its warm and limited frequency response especially considering the high frequencies as well as its distinguishing vibrato sound and the sustain and legato performance. In her talk considering Herrmann’s usage of the Theremin in ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, Leydon (2009) states that ‘Herrmann’s music had made the instrument’s own limitations work in its favour, exacerbating its more freakish qualities through ensemble combinations with other electronic and acoustic resources to best serve the particular narrative goals of the film’ (p.39).

It is worth noted that the Theremin has been used in a humorous, black comedic style, with a protagonist role in several newer films such as Tim Burton’s Mars Attack (1996). Below one can listen to the characteristic, memorable opening titles theme:

Furthermore, it is worth noted that Herrmann is mainly treating mysterious as well as emotional scenes with the use of either the Theremin, as mentioned before, or wind instruments with middle-high brass usually composed without much of a melodic context.  This approach, especially the use of wind instruments, has be found to be similar in many ways considering science fiction films of different eras. A distinctive example observed in this film can be found in the following example, together with a similar tactic which can be found in the almost thirty years later John William’s ‘Star Wars IV: A New Hope’: 

Lastly, there are two interesting observations that were found to be quite stimulating in view of the score’s character.  The first one is that the overall score actually written for the film seems to be quite limited in terms of length. Comparing and contrasting with other films of the era, either moving back or forward in time, one can observe a certain breath that the film has without being overly composed in each and every moment. This can be also parallelized by the amount of total music written in other films of the era. These films usually fall into a different category, such as mystery or adventure, but share common aspects with the science fiction genre in terms of music.

The second observation concerns the actual connection between the moving picture and the score. The music quite often works literally in parallel with the film translating in a relatively apparent way the context of the given scene. This can be observed in the following example:

Forbidden planet (1956 – Score by Louis and Bebe Barron)

Forbidden planet is a 1950’s film that has made its way to the hall of fame considering the science fiction genre and especially in terms of film scoring. Louis and Bebe Barron have created an inspiring, experimental electronic score which differentiates itself from any other film score, at least up until its time. It is considered to be the first film score that has been created entirely by using electronic sounds.

In his exploration considering the revolutionary films of the science fiction genre, Lambie (2009) characteristically states that ‘there was much that was groundbreaking about Forbidden Planet, but nothing quite as daring as the extraordinary score: created by Bebe and Louis Barron, a married couple who pushed the boundaries of experimental music, it was the cinema’s first entirely electronic soundtrack’ (p.56).

Below there are two video clips demonstrating this approach:

As one can observe the score uses sound design as the only palette of colors but without any obvious attempt for harmonic structure development. Exemptions that proves the rule can be observed in certain scenes where there is some use of pitch in the created sounds. One example can be found in the following scene:

The film has certain moments in which the score becomes distinctively repetitive. This occurs mainly during the more mysterious scenes and more specifically just before action takes place. This can be demonstrated in the following examples: 

In conclusion and due to the absence of pitch patterns and physical instruments, there is no sign of intention in using exotic elements in the score. 

Planet of the Apes (1968 – Score by Jerry Goldsmith)

Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most recognizable composers in the history of Hollywood’s science fiction films, in this example scores the film ‘Planet of the Apes’ in a rather unique way. The music has a distinctive dissonant and experimental character which is also reinforced by sound design in certain scenes. As McGuinney states ‘the music from Planet of the Apes may seem noteworthy today only for its uniqueness and the breadth of imagination that it shows’ (p.227).

The alchemies of blending classical orchestra together with synthetic sounds make themselves apparent from the very beginning of the film:

The strong sense of disagreeing harmonies are often used within fast moving scenes where the score’s tempo is deliberately increased. An example can be observed in the following scene:

Another score’s feature is the frequent use of strings in divisi mode, an aspect that has been noticed in the earlier days of the science fiction cinema. This in conjunction with short length percussion hits and the pronounced use of low octave piano themes establish the composer’s unique approach in building various thematic unities throughout the film.

A characteristic example of this approach can be demonstrated in the scene below:

A rather analogous stylistic approach can be found in a number of other film composers’ repertoire. An example could be found in Alan Silvestri's score for the original ‘Predator’ film.

Though this is not a film that has been viewed and analyzed in this research it is worth using at this point as a reference in view of Goldsmith’s scoring angle. The orchestration similarities can be spotted in the following example of the ‘Predator’ opening theme:

In conclusion it should be pointed out that there is no apparent use of exoticism in this score.

Fantastic Planet – La Planete Savvage (Animated Film (1973) – Score by Alain Goraguer)

Inspired from a novel by Stefan Wul, Fantastic Planet was found to have a quite controversial approach to film’s scoring based on the previous experience of film analysis. Though not in the Hollywood era the film in general was found to be quite thought-provoking, artistically inspiring and undoubtedly worth exploring due to its unique nature. In his review of the film’s creative angle Barsanti (2009) comments that ‘the film has a haunting, alien quality that makes it stand out even today; there’s little dialogue, and the backgrounds and character designs are delicate with a dreamlike strangeness’ (p.132).

Though the film’s score was not found to contain a great amount of experimentation, if none at all for that matter, its rather exclusively popular character was a rather unique feature in relation to the film’s subject and utterly the science fiction category which falls into.  

As with the film Fifth Element which will be presented and discussed later on, Fantastic Planet has a distinctive popular character which is closely following the compositional pattern of the 1970’s era. Thus, the score contains a number of different song-like themes together with band background music performances that consists of popular 1970’s instrumentation (and an overall dry mixing perspective) including the acoustic drums, harpsichord, electric pianos, electric guitars saxophone, mellotron et al.

Likewise, a shared similarity between ‘Fantastic Planet’ and ‘The Fifth Element’, as will again be demonstrated further on, is that a number of different musical genres co-exist occurring in different scenes throughout the film. A few examples of the scoring approach can be found in the following examples:

Alien (1979 – Score by Jerry Goldsmith)

Goldsmith, once again, manages to create a rather unique score in the film ‘Alien’ by using hybrid instrumentation of sound design and the symphonic orchestra. It is a harmonically complicated score containing a number of different textures and techniques that contribute a great deal in making the score memorable in his own sense. In his discussion considering the composer, Jerry Goldsmith, Dearborn (2013) point out that ‘The music is again sparse, and the interplay between score and sound effects is carefully and effectively considered’ (p.25).

Starting with memorability, the sense of repetition exists inside the score by using a distinctive motif in several scenes. It is worth noted that this motif is being performed by several different instruments of the classical orchestra such as clarinets, oboes and strings. Below there are a few moments presented where this can be observed: 

In the last clip (Clip 4) one can additionally notice the composer’s tendency to dress and alter the main theme with a quite busy and dissonant orchestration. In this case the motif has been performed by the French horns while the rest of the instruments (strings, woodwinds, percussion) are performing wild, even though not random, textures in order to musically express the alien’s attack scene.

The use of wild harmonies mostly consisted of woodwinds and pizzicato strings can also observed in the following example:

What is worth noted at this point is the connection that was detected between this music approach and the one that was found in a previous example of the film ‘Planet of the apes’, scored by the same composer. 




It appears to be one of the many characteristics of how Goldsmith is thinking and realizing an action and/or mysterious scene. 


Goldsmith achieves writing a large amount of score in terms of the combination between classical orchestra and sound design. There is a clear direction towards this approach and a sense of experimentation of the sounds created for that exact purpose. This is also a shared similarity of the composer which was previously noted in the film ‘Planet of the Apes’.

Nevertheless, the music manages to have a darker character rather an emphatic one, something that should be taken into account in terms of originality. There are times in which the score tries to paint a more abstract picture with bold, anarchy strikes resulting into a dark canvas of mixed colors. This also becomes apparent from the very beginning intro of the film. A few examples of this observation can be seen in the following clips:               

There is also a quite interesting point taking place in the last clip (Clip 7). Beside the wild textures that the composer is using, blurring the line between sound effects and music, it is also quite distinguished the way Goldsmith uses algorithmic effect units, such as reverbs and delays, in order to transform the sounds. This technique in conjunction with the absence of an overly busy composed and mixed soundscape creates a certain mysterious and almost horrifying mood which is used to indicate the otherness. It also serves a double purpose by technologically describing the time and place in the future were the film is set to.

Last but not least there are two important findings that must be noted. The first is there was no intended use of exoticism observed either in terms of composition or instrumentation. Secondly it is worth mentioning that the overall scoring length seems to be rather small. Perhaps this is more related to the director and the balance that he might want to achieve in terms of acting, picture and scoring. This is an aspect previously sensed and discussed during the research on the Bernard Herrmann’s score in ‘The day the earth stood still’.

Blade Runner (1982 – Score by Vangelis Papathanasiou)

Blade Runner has been chosen for the reason that it is considered to be one of the most inspired science fiction films in the history of Hollywood cinema. More specifically, this is also true for the music by Vangelis Papathanasiou since it is one of the few scores of this genre which has been composed almost exclusively with synthetic sounds available at its time.

It is imperative to mention that this scoring choice reflects with the technological evolution of the 1980’s. It is a decade that is closely connected with the rise of the production of personal computers and micro-computers which also reflected in the music industry. There is a huge step towards electronic music, since electronic instruments can be accessible to the average user, which began sculpting new ideas and formations in view of all the audio-visual medias of that time.

Also, and in reflect to the ‘Blade Runner’ movie, the new visual technical capabilities (effects, mixing process and post production in general) are following parallel paths with the music produced creating a fresh artistic breath to the genre. In essence the scenes are closely and efficaciously connected with the music which is indeed reflecting the technological fever of the current time period.


In terms of music composition, the score provides the viewer with rich polyphonic chords especially in scenes that are set in the outside world. These chords are most of the times melodic, an aspect which sets the score away from the dissonance observed in several other science fiction films of the previous three decades. Maybe this also has to do with the very nature of synthetic sounds of the current time period.

As a parenthesis in view of the ‘Blade Runner’ film and explaining the previous statement with more detail by comparing it with the classical orchestra, a personal opinion is that due to the fact that a symphonic orchestra can provide a significantly larger multi-timbral frequency response with extraordinary dynamic range, manipulating and combining different elements result into a more denser and fuller sounding result.

On the other hand, chip generated sounds such as FM synthesis which was quite popular during the 1980’s, would sound more aggressive lacking most of the times the dynamic range and polyphonic capabilities of the classic orchestra. This of course does not necessarily mean that it should not be used in that sense, something that has been proven in the previous decades of science fiction cinema. The difference though would be that electronic sounds of the past have been used either in conjunction with the classical orchestra, for example the previously demonstrated famous Theremin, or would be used utterly in a film but with the intention of blurring the lines between music and sound effects, not building a score with rich harmonic content. (ex. Forbidden planet / fantastic planet – link here with previous videos).

Thus, in that respect we can observe that the score is using plain melodic chords, most often major chords moving down in semitones, and simple arrangements building gradually by adding more music elements and instruments. This can be demonstrated in the following scene:

Another reason that it is thought to be relevant to the overall melodic score’s character is the thematic unity of the film’s plot. There is no strong sense of the otherness at least in the view of an alien form which humanity has to confront. Nor there seems to be a far-away atmosphere of the unknown and chaotic space. On the contrary, the film has a futuristic anthropocentric meaning. Therefore, emotional evoke reflects the human perspective and this translates into music written in a more ‘understandable’ way.  

In the matter of exoticism, the score has indeed a number of moments with direct references to ethnic sounds. This is taking place in a number of different scenes inside the film and has been treated musically with extraordinary stylistic variety. Stiller (1997) in this discussion in view of the film’s score states that ‘Vangelis created for Blade Runner a score that closely parallels the visual dramatic elements of the film, and that encompasses a variety of different styles suitable to the varied milieu of the movie’s action’ (p196).

The use of eastern exotic scales is apparent in many cases as well as the use of eastern vocals and percussive instruments. What is also quite interesting is the use of improvisation in these exotic moments. Though common in global ethnic music, the use of improvisation does not seem to appear quite often in the cinematic world, even in cases where exoticism is apparent in both terms of composition and instrumentation.

The examples below demonstrate the previous statement:

Dune (1984 – Score by Toto / Prophecy theme by Brian Eno)

The score in the film ‘Dune’ has a quite different and interesting approach. Through it is a film which has been discussed and criticized a great deal over the years, it is thought to be worthy of investigating due to its idiosyncratic nature in terms of music. Colorfully, in their discussion in view of Dune’s scoring approach Odell and Le Blanc state (2007) that ‘while the main theme by the variable genius Brian Eno is perfectly acceptable, all credibility vanished whenever Toto’s painfully pompous bombastic prog-rock drivel crashes it. It manages simultaneously to cheapen and date the film, with quite breathtaking ease (p.46)   


The films main theme consists of a distinctive three note motif (put the NOTES here) The film’s score makes a dramatic entrance with the introduction of the main theme:

As it has been observed this main thematic unity has been repetitively used in a number of scenes throughout the film. Most of the times it is used in the opening of new scenes as presented in these examples:

At most times the score has a rich orchestral character emphasizing the picture on dramatic scenes, as it is demonstrated below:

In addition, symphonic choir is used frequently in order to add a layer of drama on top of the already rich instrumentation.

What is also distinctive, and in relation to the above, is the speed in which the score is developing. Despite the fact that Toto use a full orchestra to musically dress the vast majority of the film, there are a number of busy and fast-moving action scenes in which the score does not follow the pace of the picture. On the contrary the score develops in its own measure with considerably slow movements and uncomplicated harmonies. This can be observed in the follow examples: 


Another point worth mentioning is the use of sound design in combination with the classical orchestra. Even this is a common aspect, as demonstrated in previous examples, in this case what is interesting is there are moments during the film which there are only scored by using synths. A characteristic example is shown below:

Last but not least, there is no obvious use of exotic scales or instrumentation even though there are many moments in the film (WATCH DUNE FOR EXAMPLES E.G SAND FOREST ETC prince of Persia maybe, star wars, star trek search for spock, ) in which the score could introduce something different either in terms of originality or exoticism. Nevertheless, one of the things that make the score memorable, beside the repeated main theme that has been mentioned before, is the use of distorted guitars as a signature sound of the Toto rock band:

The Fifth Element (1997 – Score by Eric Sierra)

The Fifth Element score is an important paradigm of innovation and experimentation that differentiates itself from the rest of the films chosen. Although the film has been critiqued a great deal, described with characterizations such as ‘postmodernism failure’ and ‘decedent fashion show without human content’ Schubart, 2005, p. 74) it still offers something new and diverse in terms of artistic audio-visual experience. An aspect which certainly makes it worth exploring especially in view of the music and how it is connected with the criticized peculiar picture.


Sierra is essentially combining a number of different music genres and techniques in order to provide the viewer with a poly-timbral and multi-cultural experience. It is rather unique in terms of emotional direction as it manages to create a cartoonish character which eventually communicates with the overall imaginative and humorous style of the film. Other than the character’s punch lines and scenes that evoke laughter, the music also seems to serve well the vivid colors and diversity of the visual.



The score also excels in providing a wide variety of rhythmic textures. Its techno like style especially by using electronic percussive instruments reflects the artistic, low-fi, futuristic picture:


The composer’s experimentation can also be observed in the quite famous operatic scene. Starting with a classical music orchestration with a female soprano as the only performing artist the music serves a double purpose by transforming into a more popular style by following a second action scene that has been taking place in parallel. During this fighting scene the composer is blending popular elements, such as synthetic drums, resulting into a vivid character dance-like score.

This together with the ecstatic performance of the alien soprano contribute in presenting a futuristic blended genre of popular and classical music. Technology plays an important role at this point since the soprano’s voice has been sampled, computer generated and performed in a mode which is almost impossible to achieve with an actual human vocal due to its fast tempo and wide range of notes.


An additional and quite noticeable aspect that can be observed is the frequent reference to song-like structure particularly when composing ethnic oriented music styles. The sense of exoticism is strong, not only apparent in the harmony that the score uses (e.g. eastern music scales) but also in the use of the actual ethnic instruments that portray each genre. Hence, we do not observe for example a symphonic orchestra performing a score that uses eastern scales to bring out the exotic atmosphere but actually experiencing a more accurate picture of the genre itself in terms of authenticity.


As a first example of the above statement the next video demonstrates the use of ethnic style percussion and rhythmic texture in combination with exotic scales performed by instruments such as the accordion and ethnic strings:


Below there is an additional characteristic example of the composer’s ethnic approach. In this case Sierra presents a Bollywood style song theme with a solo Indian female vocalist in order to dress an action scene:   


Below there is an additional characteristic example of the composer’s ethnic approach. In this case Sierra presents a Bollywood style song theme with a solo Indian female vocalist in order to dress an action scene:   


Alien Vs Predator (2004 – Score by Harald Kloser)

In this film the composer Harald Kloser distinctively uses the classic orchestra together with sound design. His scoring approach is creating a fuller and more impressive sounding spectrum than the original ‘Alien’ film as well as the newer ‘Alien Covenant’ which is going to be discussed further on.

The composer achieves this music style by relying more on the grandeur of a large symphonic orchestra set, frequently using brass and strings riffles and sound effects as tools for immersion. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that there is no apparent use of leitmotifs that could be connected with a specific character nor simple motifs which could be used with the aim of giving the score a more distinctive memorability. 

What is also interesting is the obvious rhythmic structure which characterizes the film in many cases. This becomes apparent from the very beginning of the film in which Kloser uses a set of orchestral percussion in order to dress an action scene of the Alien predator chasing a human. This together with overall use of percussion and drums can be demonstrated in the following examples:


Since it appears to be a quite common technique for composers to describe alien civilizations and the overall sense of ancient and primitive culture with aspects that might directly or indirectly expose similarities with exoticism, this is not the case with this film’s score.

Even though there are scenes that could directly imply the angle for writing such a score, or adding some musical elements in that respect, there is evidently no actual attempt to follow that route.

These are two distinctive examples to demonstrate this view:


As one can observe, discoveries of hieroglyphs and ancient buildings (pyramids et al.) have been musically dressed with rich cues that contribute in the dramatization of the selected scenes. Simultaneously though it proves the absence of any ethnic element which might add a sense of authenticity, or even experimentation, to the score.   


Avatar (2009 – Score by James Horner)

‘Avatar’ is an example of a film in which the score has multiple functions and covers a wide range of different approaches to different scenes. It is not overly adventurous in terms of originality and experimentation but it nevertheless manages to cover a lot of ground by putting the viewer in a certain musical-atmospherically scope when the script dictates it to. All of the above have been pragmatized by spinning around a certain core which is no other than a large symphonic orchestra. Therefore, the analogy of the film’s score is leaning towards a more conventional instrumentation that falls into the Hollywood blockbuster category.

In certain points there is a tendency of moving in small steps by using big orchestral chords and building the harmonic development mostly around the dynamics. This can be shown in the examples below:


What is also interesting is the scoring in heavy action scenes. Horner characteristically uses low drums and brass instruments to give that extra dramatic emphasis, a technique that has been repeatedly observed by different film composers and has been also discussed previously. In the specific film an example of this can be found in the following video:

Another aspect which characterizes the ‘Avatar’ film score is the repeated four note motif Horner is using throughout the film. This is a quite memorable motif performed exclusively by the trumpet which contributes in magnifying the importance of dramatic scenes. This can be shown in a combination of scenes in the following example:

In terms of exoticism, one could state that the score is well balanced by keeping its initial western composing angle but also by adding certain aspects that contribute in the sense of authenticity or at least the attempt to put the viewer into that mood. It is a fact that James Horner has created this score with the input of ethnomusicologist Wanda Bryant from California Institute of Arts. A quite interesting article considering this co-operation can be found following the link below:

The most distinguishing example of the previous is the connection which Horner is trying to create between the Avatars and the native cultures and tribes that exist today in many areas of the planet. Since some of them are indeed sharing similarities considering the instruments that they use, and the overall aesthetic of their music, it therefore cannot be entirely determined from which exactly the composer might be inspired from.

One might suggest that at some points the score carries elements and can be parallelized with certain tribes in Africa, observing the tendency to use rhythmic structures together with solo female vocal or small vocal choirs. At times Horner, usually noticeable in slow motion directed scenes, make use of the above observation to re-enforce the dramatic atmosphere. A characteristic example can be found in the following video clip:

The previous exotic angle is also reinforced by the visual since there are moments in which the alien tribe is holding hands singing and praying around their spiritual tree. At this point it is worth pointing out that the music does not seem to achieve an ultimate degree of authenticity since this might not be acceptable for the very nature of the film and also the audience that the film targets to address. In this angle of authenticity, critiques and reviewers have been quite unconvinced by often expressing their    skepticism. In his relevant discussion MacDonald (2004) states:

‘Film music, which seeks to represent indigenous people, might need to explore anthropological and ethnomusicological literature for instances of how music is used by indigenous people, not just how it sounds… If Hames Horner had considered Pandora acoustemologically, Avatar’s soundscape might have been as captivating, imaginative, and immersive as its visual images’ (p.273).

Some examples in terms of how the composer is approaching exoticism can be found in the examples below: 

There is also reference to flute music when the scenes are set in the woods, which is the ritual center of the alien Avatars. It is worth noted that the flute, and woodwinds in general, is a relevantly common feature when music is been parallelized with the woods, trees, rivers et cetera. Also, rhythmic structure is quite evident, with usually a number of different smaller wooden percussion, as well as the strong character of thematic unities with song-structure resemblance.

Examples of this kind of scoring approach can be shown below: 

Lastly, an interesting observation which is directly related with the score’s orchestration is the gradually build-up of exoticism. Horner often uses a repeated motif as a center thematic idea in which all the instrumentation is based on and eventually reaching its given climax.

One of the scenes in which this can be observed is the one below:

Moon (2009 – Score by Clint Mansell)

The score of the film ‘Moon’ was found to be quite intriguing. The composer, Clint Mansell, has composed a rather unique soundtrack which differentiates a great deal considering the other science fiction films discussed previously. That is also true considering the film’s plot since this film has only one actor, which in the plot development plays two characters, and the overall aesthetic is quite dark and gloomy.

The music comes to agree with the melancholy of the plot. The overall minimal character and emptiness of the sound spectrum emphasizes on the character’s depression as well as the use of dissonant chords describe the relationship between him and his clone. In his discussion of Moon’s score, Johnston (2012) states:

‘In Moon, music and silence counterpoint Sam’s initial loneliness; the lack of silence and change in music once his clone appears matches the more dissonant tone of the character’s relationships’ (p.20).


Following these minimalistic steps, which is to be rather expected, Mansell introduces the piano as his main color in the palette of an otherwise rich polyphonic, hybrid score. This intention becomes apparent from the film’s beginning titles:

Though the use of electronic synthesis is of significant importance in the enrichment of the scenes’ technological aspect, the piano was found to play a key role as a core to the rest of the instrumentation which is evolving around it. In this way the composer magnifies the tension in action scenes and also adds perspective to the characters’ sense of depression and nostalgia in emotional scenes. This can be demonstrated in the following examples:


Adding up to the previous, Mansell quite often make use of the cello as a complementary instrument to the already introduced piano. This instrumentation movement emphasizes the film’s dramatic atmosphere as shown below:


Another aspect which was observed occurring repeatedly throughout the film is the performance of piano right-hand octaves making small semitone movements. This motif repetition is an alternative, more simplistic version, of the main theme which can be found in the film’s introduction as presented previously. This altered motif is demonstrated below:


Rhythmic structure is also present at certain moments in the film. Mansell is using synthetic drums and percussion for that purpose, providing an even more tense atmosphere, usually when the scenes are presenting the character in a mysterious, adventurous situation.

This can be shown below:


Finally, there is an additional technique that the composer uses which was found to be rather intriguing and therefore worthy of discussing. Mansell scores a glockenspiel motif which is accompanied by the piano and a static background pad in scenes that are closely connected with the ready-made clones. It is a musical statement which indicates the raw realization of the truth in the bigger context of new-born life and innocence. This is mixed cleverly with the synthetic pad in order to create a divergent picture between the last and the mysterious, and at some points tragic, progression of the narrative. Ultimately it serves well the overall depressive atmosphere.

Music-wise this was found to be a rather inspiring approach, in view of what it translates and how it connects with the actual picture. It is a technique which can be commonly observed in modern mystery / horror films in diegetic and non-diegetic scenes where the innocence is projected with glockenspiel or music box sounds usually in children’s characters or objects, e.g.  dolls, clowns, music boxes et al. Some examples of this characteristic are demonstrated below:


John Carter (2012 – Score by Michael Giacchino)

John Carter portraits a more conventional use of science fiction’s film scoring. It is following a more common Hollywood recipe in presenting the viewer with a sense of magnificence. The style remains the same throughout the film without major alternations and obvious repetitions of motifs. The first video clip is used as a first example of the overall scoring approach:


In order to contribute in the gloriousness of the picture, what was found to be quite pronounced is the use of brass instruments. A rather common scoring tactic in which low brass benefit by adding the extra weight required for dramatic scenes while high pitched brass, mainly trumpets, with its staccato performances contributes in the increment of climax.

One can observe this in the following example where brass play a major role in describing the combat scene:


What is also worth mentioning is the similar scoring angle which has been taken in describing more sentimental scenes. In this situation the strings play a central role in increasing the emotional strength. Again, we can observe the big orchestration which has been used in the following:


In terms of exoticism, there are only very few moments that include some hints of ethnic scoring. This happens more frequently in rhythmic sessions but usually with minor length resulting into being more or less unnoticed. A characteristic example of this can be found in the following clip:


In view of ethnic instruments, there is no apparent attempt to include anything within the bigger context of the classical orchestra. In addition, there is no scene which contains any ethnic solo instrument that could be used for that reason.

Similarly, in view of exotic scales the score contains just a few moments in the film in which there seems to be an attempt to generate a more connected music to the visual. Yet again this seems to be fairly imperceptible because of the masking occurring by the large symphonic orchestra.   


Gravity (2013 – Score by Steven Price)

Gravity is another characteristic example of the current decade’s Hollywood approach to music for science fiction movies. It consists of hybrid instrumentation with both classic orchestra and sound design to have equally strong characters that co-exist and evolve simultaneously. It is an overall minimalistic approach, in terms of harmonic development and chord progression, as it seems to recycle an idea followed by added layers in order to emphasize it. It feels like an instrumental crescendo beginning with something simplistic enough, for example a two-note motif, which gradually gets magnified by both dynamics and extra instrument and/or sound layers. Representative examples of this observation can be found in the examples below:  

An additional central aspect of the film’s score is the way the composer is actually using the instruments at his disposal. One can observe the close connection that exists between the on-screen movement and the music.

In her discussion considering ‘Gravity’ score and the thematic connections between this and the female astronaut character Walker (2015) states comments:

 ‘Along with being anchored in Stone’s voice, the sound track of Gravity is structured so that everything she feels is aurally reinforced. We feel the terror of her endangered life through the many closely miked sounds of her physical aloneness, especially her solitary breathing and her isolated voice’. (p.411)


As a consequence of the above, instruments are quite often used in a more unconventional manner introducing performing techniques that are used more as a sound effect. Ultimately this pallet of creative textures seems to work by increasing the viewer’s emotional state as it also shares sonic similarities with the sound designed sounds which are used in combination with.  

Another common characteristic that exist in the twenty first century science fiction’s scores, as well as in other genres such as adventure and action films, is the repetition of strings performing simple movement ostinatos. This is by far one of the most used techniques to accompany film music especially during action scenes. The strings performance will typically embrace a two or three note leitmotif which is going to be repeated several times as the overall dynamics rise.

This can be observed in the following examples:

Interstellar (2014 – Score by Hans Zimmer)

‘Interstellar’ is yet another film in which one can observe the close scoring connection between the classical orchestra, wild texture instrumentation and sound design. The composer, Hans Zimmer, who is widely recognized for its frequent use of computer-generated sounds, produces in this case a score which has an overall minimalistic perspective.

In the discussion considering the score’s conception Lawson and MacDonald (2018) state:

‘As well as Zimmer’s trademark ostinato and almost hypnotic, minimalist sounds, he also decided to include some more avant-garde moments. He asked the woodwinds players to make unusual noises on their instruments’ (p.130).

 A first noted facet is that Zimmer is using very long notes in lengthy cues which contributes in the minimal tonal character. What is also recognizable is the simplistic notes progression that the score repeatedly uses. This occurs more frequently when the composer needs to introduce a new scene where he uses this movement as a core material for music added layers to evolve around it.

This aspect can be demonstrated in the examples below:

Zimmer is also using the same repetitive technique, most frequently with the use of a piano, in order to describe the sense of space emptiness and mood of loneliness in a character:

In addition, action scenes have been also found to be represented by music using the same repetitive pattern. Repetition is mostly observed by using minimal chord progressions in relatively large amount of time.

Also, with the use of a pipe organ, perhaps synthetic, Zimmer is emphasizing the scenes by offering a sense of grandeur and drama due to the instrument’s rich harmonic nature. Interestingly, this instrument, or a similar type of organ sound at least, was also found to be used as a thematic foundation in the Ennio Morricone’s score in Mission to Mars (2000).

Examples of the above can be found in the following clips:

As there seems to be no apparent motifs with a more straightforward memorable harmony, nor following classical orchestration or thematic enrichment in that respect, another aspect which seems to be apparent in the composer’s scoring palette is the use of big chord’s crescendos.

This becomes apparent in several scenes in the film including the one demonstrated here:

Last but not least it is worth mentioning that there is no obvious effort of describing the otherness or the unknown with the use of any exotic instrumentation.

Alien Covenant (2017 – Score by Jed Kurzel) 


In the film ‘Alien Covenant’ the composer Jed Kurzel is approaching the score in a characteristic minimal viewpoint. The score has a slow pace especially when the scene is set in space. In addition, the frequent use of dissonant chords and chord progression contributes in the overall sense of the unknown and the grandeur of outer space.

This is also a connection that was observed in relation with the first Alien film (1979) that was discussed previously. What is also contributing in this sense is the buildup moments of rich classical orchestration, frequently moving in major chords with augmented fifths that are more clearly distinguished on the strings. This type of approach can be illustrated in the clip below:

In terms of minimalism, the composer is using the piano for creating leitmotifs which are closely connected with specific characters. At these situations, the piano has the main role playing small fundamental phrases with melodic context in order to transfuse emphasis to the scene’s expressive state, and ultimately the viewer’s appeal to emotion.


Example of this observation can be demonstrated in the video scenes below:

Another scoring characteristic is the strong relationship between synthetic instruments and sounds together with the classical orchestra. This is recurrently noticed in scenes considering the alien species where there is an array of synthetic sounds including rhythmic loops and big stereo background pads covering the soundstage. Additionally, this contributes in giving a more advanced technological sense to the overall atmosphere of the scenes reinforced by an assortment of sound effects.


Considering exoticism there is no apparent use of ethnic instruments or exotic music scales. Nevertheless, there is a specific moment in the film where a solo, handmade, flute is being used with the intention of describing a primitive communication attempt between the two androids. The specific choice of instrument performing a motif on a Dorian mode indicates the composer’s attempt to relate primitive life with ethnic music. An important point which has been noticed in other films as well.

This is demonstrated in the video below:


© 2016 by Evangelos Chouvardas

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