Music of the Spheres: Sci-Fi Soundtracks and the Classical Tradition

There has always been a connection between space and music despite their differences. Long before the space opera genre rose to prominence, space and music were both viewed as conveyors of awe and mystery, respective wonders of the natural and human worlds. Early medieval musical and academic theory considered music to be a science more than an art—not surprising, given the complex physics behind it. A concept passed down from Pythagoras and other classical philosophers known as “musica universalis” or the “music of the spheres” suggested that each of the planets produces its own sound based on its size and rotation. Similarly, in the physics of music, the length and vibration of a string or pipe determine the sound it produces. While the “music of the spheres” was said to be inaudible to the human ear, it was nonetheless an important philosophical and mathematical concept that brought music to the center of the universe, so to speak.

Besides physics, the mythology of the planets also works its way into music. Western classical music is full of references to classical mythology, which itself brings in much from the sky. Baroque composers in particular were fond of mythology in their music. Many of the gods of the Roman pantheon share names with the planets, leaving deities like Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus scattered throughout music spanning centuries. In 2014, Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra organized a special event called The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which combined texts from astronomers, baroque music, and images of space in a celebration of the first telescope. We use mythology and music to explore things that are meaningful and fascinating to us, and the universe beyond our planet is near the top of the list.

There are some orchestral motifs that we can’t help but associate with space, and while John Williams’ Star Wars score is partially to blame, there is more history at play. We hear these sounds in incidental and classical music alike: triumphant brass lines mimic the grandeur and glory of space; rapid, fluttering passages of strings and upper woodwinds suggest the anticipation and excitement of going beyond the final frontier; soft, haunting music with unexpected intervals or time signatures, played on rare or even electronic instruments, paints the picture of unexplored new worlds. George Lucas reportedly used orchestral music as inspiration and as a stand-in for the Star Wars soundtrack before Williams’ score was done; Lucas wanted the music to be familiar, as the world of the story was not. So Williams drew from tried-and-true classical motifs and created the most iconic soundtrack ever. (Compare Gustav Holst’s Mercury with “Landspeeder Search/Attack of the Sand” from Star Wars Episode IV).

Arguably the common ancestor to all of these space opera soundtracks is Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite, The Planets. Written in the early twentieth century, Holst portrayed the planets (excluding Earth, as it has little astrological significance, and Pluto, yet to be discovered) according to the emotions and influences associated with them by astrology and hints of mythology. Mars, the Bringer of War is a dark, rhythmic piece, constantly moving. It could play aboard the Death Star and make perfect sense. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is the most-well known movement of the suite, and features a beautiful moving passage in the middle that was later adapted as a hymn tune. Jupiter is quintessential, containing the “space sounds” of exploration and vastness as well as the most tender, emotional moments of space opera.

Of course, there are instances of classical music directly used in science fiction as well. The opening section of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Thus Spoke Zarathustra is well-known now for its role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Inspired by the book of the same title by Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra was a ‘soundtrack’ of sorts from the beginning; it was ‘program music’. Both Nietzsche and Kubrick examine similar themes in their respective pieces. The triumphant fanfare mimics the glory of space and the dawn of humanity; it is a celebration of the ingenuity, creation, and wonder to follow.

Program music is orchestral music that tells a narrative. Whereas opera, or anything with text, is direct in its musical storytelling, program music is subtle and open to slightly more interpretation. As large-scale orchestral works became prominent, so too did this kind of musical narrative, like The Planets. Program music also includes symphonic poems, like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and film music, such as Williams’ soundtracks. Symphonic poems convey a certain story, poem, or work of art, or more abstract narratives like landscapes—operas without words. And once film became a common medium in the twentieth century, program music led to incidental music and soundtracks, highlighting the action on screen.

One does not have to be a musician, or indeed know anything about music, to hear Holst as a precursor to some of John Williams’ soundtracks or the various reincarnations of the Star Wars theme. In our current culture, it could very well be that we associate the orchestral motifs mentioned earlier with space because of the undying popularity of space operas. This is not a bad thing. There is no reason why we shouldn’t access elements of classical music, human emotion, and science this way; the most wonderful thing about culture is that it is constantly reworking and reusing past stories in new contexts. The mystery and beauty music inspires within us is only matched by the mystery and beauty of the unknown—of distant worlds and the infinite reach of the universe.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege


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