io9 (June 11, 2009)

The 10 Best Science Fiction Composers


The Composers That Make Space Adventures Epic

Space is silent and vast, but we can’t feel the awe and terror of epic space battles without great music. Here’s our list of the ten composers without whom science fiction would feel as empty as the void.


Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann is one of the most celebrated composers in Hollywood history, having scored classics from Citizen Kane to Psycho to Taxi Driver. He makes our list for his groundbreaking score for 1951’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (pictured above), with its prominent use of the theremin. After this movie, use of the eerie, otherworldly, electromagnetic instrument became the signature sound of sci-fi scores.

Louis and Bebe Barron

The Barrons took Herrmann’s innovation a quantum leap further with their score for 1956’s Forbidden Planet, which featured not a single traditional acoustic instrument. The husband-and-wife team’s collection of all-analog burbles and bleeps sounds delightfully retro today, but the movie’s all-electronic score was, at the time, controversial. Still, the sounds ideally complemented the tale of an isolated planet beset by an invisible monster.

Jerry Goldsmith

Goldsmith’s 1968 score for Planet of the Apes swung the pendulum back toward traditional orchestration for sci-fi movies. Well, sort of; his tense, percussive score (echoing Charlton Heston’s attempt to hold onto his sanity) included a Brazilian instrument called a culka that sounds like hooting monkeys. Goldsmith would go on to write many other memorable sci-fi scores, notably, Alien (1979) and the majestic theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which would be reworked for TV as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

John Williams

With the original Star Wars (1977), John Williams became the gold standard of sci-fi composers. His Wagnerian use of leitmotifs created instantly memorable themes for the major characters, and his grand opening fanfare is so thoroughly evocative of the movie that it instantly transports viewers back to the sense of awe and wonder they felt when they first saw that imperial cruiser fill the screen. Williams has scored just about every film Steven Spielberg has made; his five-note theme for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) became a character in itself.


The Greek new age composer is best remembered for his electronic score for Chariots of Fire, but his work on Blade Runner (1982) was similarly stellar, a mix of electronica, noirish brass, and traditional orchestral sounds that matched the movie’s polyglot futurism.

James Horner

Yes, now he’s known for syrupy goo like Titanic, but he got his start as a scrappy Roger Corman factory worker (Battle Beyond the Stars, 1980). He soon graduated to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), where he expanded on Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the first movie to include nautical themes (fit for all those Moby-Dick references in the script). His elegaic music surrounding Spock’s death and funeral was an early sign of Horner’s ability to create music tearjerking enough to make a Vulcan cry. (Genre fans will also recall Horner’s memorable scores for 1983’s Krull and Brainstorm.)

Alan Silvestri

Silvestri, who’s scored nearly every Robert Zemeckis film, is a disciple of John Williams who has a knack for creating a grandiose sound that makes his patron’s movies seem bigger and zippier than they are. Case in point: his first big job, the Back to the Future trilogy (1985/89/90). Heard now, it instantly evokes Marty McFly zipping along on his skateboard, or Doc Brown firing up the time-traveling DeLorean. Silvestri’s other genre works include Predator, The Abyss, and both Lara Croft movies.

Danny Elfman

Elfman, whose work is so closely associated with Tim Burton that he seems to be the musical portion of the director’s brain, combines a reverence for traditional movie orchestration with an irreverence toward classical melody, bred perhaps of his days as the frontman for Oingo Boingo. The result is a frenetic, jumpy, off-kilter sound that’s nonetheless grand and majestic, a sound that makes Elfman’s music instantly recognizable, not to mention well-suited to such Burton genre pastiches as Ed Wood (1994) and Mars Attacks (1996).

Basil Poledouris

Poledouris created stately, mournful scores for movies with rugged, damaged heroes (the Conan the Barbarian films) and lent a gravity to Paul Verhoeven’s science fiction films (notably, 1987’s RoboCop and 1997’s Starship Troopers) that helped ground their deadpan satire in real human emotions.

Bear McCreary

The ubiquitous 30-year-old composer (who’ll be performing the score from Battlestar Galactica this Saturday at a free concert at Los Angeles’ California Plaza, as well as next month at Comic-Con) is the sci-fi scorer of the moment, thanks to his television work on BSG and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. His tension-filled scores, mixing traditional orchestration with less orthodox instruments (accordion, bagpipe, duduk, erhu), is completely integral to his shows; particularly BSG, where his Middle Eastern/metal rearrangement of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (familar and strange at once) was key to understanding the plot and characters.