Crafting the Cosmos: An Introduction to Space Soundtracks

February 12, 2024
6 mins read

There’s something so mesmerizing about outer space, the mystery, the adventure, the vastness. A place beyond our realms, spanning light-years and perhaps infinite in size, holding an unfathomable amount of celestial bodies. It’s exhausting even to imagine, yet it can also stir up curiosity and excitement. These are the types of feelings and interests that many filmmakers and game developers capitalize on to create wondrous stories of interstellar space.

Aside from the visual representations of intergalactic adventure, the music that accompanies such creations also plays a crucial role. It enhances the identity of the cosmos, which we will explore here, focusing on the various elements used to build a space soundtrack to elevate your projects.


Space Ambient and Sci-Fi Soundscapes

Filmmakers often delve into space exploration, as it can result in captivating storytelling and visuals. Many people yearn to see Earth from space, and placing a story in this space, to which we aren’t normally exposed (for obvious reasons), allows the imagination to roam freely.

View from earth from spaceship cockpit. - Space Soundtrack

Image via Shutterstock

Some perceive space as an opportunity for adventure, while others associate this realm with tranquility. When it comes to music, ambient soundscapes serve as a great medium to represent space. The ambient genre is described as meditative, soothing, and peaceful. Adding the essence of space to the mix introduces specific features that can evoke space ambiance, such as the use of synthesizers, repeating ostinatos, and intriguing sound design. Brian Eno, dubbed as the pioneer of the ambient genre with his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, has since seen this genre become renowned for its static and sustained nature with slow developments in texture—making it the perfect ambient soundscape for a realm so vast.

Space-oriented film scores and game soundtracks often include a space ambient track, as it’s a solid soundscape for depicting the nature of space.

Space tracks don’t necessarily have to be atmospheric. Many space-orientated tracks can have more energy for a sense of adventure. The genre of cyberpunk is well-known for its dark, pumping synth aesthetic, generating a purely electronic and industrial soundscape that can also be used for space-related media. The notably acclaimed game Cyberpunk 2077 has some edgy cues in its original score, and while the game isn’t inherently set in space (just a dystopian future), can be a great representation of a futuristic world with space elements.


Instrumentation

The building blocks of a musical composition include its instrumentation. In space tracks, various instrumentations create a sonic representation of outer space. Many composers utilize electronic elements and the futuristic nature of synthetic instruments, such as synthesizers, while others prefer orchestral instruments to capture the vast adventures in space. Furthermore, the way these instruments are used—whether for drones, effects, or melodies—reveals much about the environments within cosmic realms.

Now, let’s explore the different instruments and their roles in creating space music.


Synthesizers

Synthesizers are staples in composition and sound design, capable of producing almost any sound imaginable. Without acoustic instruments, synthesizers can mimic nearly any sound, offering versatility for any musical composition. They are a common choice in space soundtracks for their ability to add a futuristic flair to the soundscape, creating an intergalactic atmosphere.

Versatility and epicness are at the core of synthesizers. From ambient pad textures, glitchy sounds, thick bass, and the ever-so-recognizable arpeggiated ostinato pattern, synthesizers are a powerhouse when it comes to sound design. Those ostinatos are a predominant feature when using synths in soundtracks. The rolling arpeggios not only provide the harmonic foundation but also a sense of movement and exploration, it’s a great technique that many composers and producers occupy when composing space tracks. 


Strings

Orchestral strings are another prime example of common instrumentation amongst space tracks. In any type of commercial music, whether it’s for film, TV, or games, having a string ensemble is a must in your instrumental arsenal. 

Strings are ideal for creating a space ambiance through their sustained nature and ability to create lush chordal textures that ebb and flow. They can be played very softly or, conversely, played with a rich timbre and vibrato for more intensity. String instruments can also be highly experimental, which is ideal for those looking for some terror. Many VST plug-ins have presets for experimental techniques on string instruments if you don’t have a string instrument at home. If you do have an old violin that you don’t play anymore, get creative! 


Percussion

In the film composition world, composers like to make use of impact sounds. These are accented percussive moments that are usually heard at the beginning of phrases and are very useful in film and TV trailers. In the trailer for Life, the impacts are typically heard on the downbeats. In line with the editing, the impacts match perfectly when the shots change. It makes for clean editing for an epic impression.

It’s a useful method of emphasizing drama and emotion and, more importantly, adding some punch. Impacts can be made digitally, recorded, and manipulated through audio editing techniques or found in your DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) stock library. Other percussive sounds, big or small, can provide movement, energy, and interesting textures to your music, making for a solid foundation in musical storytelling.


Sound Effects

While they aren’t inherently musical instruments, sound effects are the crème de la crème of soundtracks. Space soundtracks, in particular, can house a plethora of sound effects that fly around the stereo field, which can make all the difference to the listening experience.

Using Foley in this context is highly effective for soundscape immersion. Foley, the art of creating everyday sound effects, can easily be recorded at home and is highly resourceful for a wide range of applications. An example would be recording some resonant metal materials, which make for great sound effects due to their metallic timbre.

The track “Sublevels” from Bethesda’s “Starfield” has many electronic sound effects that are heard across the stereo field. With them placed quite wide in the stereo space, it creates an immersive experience. Sound effects can be a useful technique to add a touch of energy to an ambient track, in addition to creating some tension.

Additionally, sound effects can be an indicator of a specific feeling. Horror space soundtracks will be packed full of strange and spooky sounds, most of which would be classed as sound effects rather than musical material. The scratching of metal and huge metallic impacts all contribute to creating a jarring and sinister soundscape. Furthermore, sound effects are great fillers for spaces in musical moments.

Sound effects, such as lasers, glitch sounds, or white noise sweeps, can be generated digitally through the use of synthesizers found in your DAWs. Furthermore, most DAWs will have these as presets, which you can use and adjust to your liking. Including these sound effects may be subtle but can drastically lift the scene’s realism.


Harmonic Language

Instrumentation takes up a huge portion of space soundscapes; however, the harmonic language also has a large influence on the nature of the sonic environment.

Space ambiance, in particular, has a very minimal harmonic language. For all you music theory fanatics out there, approaching the harmony can be very open, thus using intervals such as 4ths and 5ths are popular in this case. Chords that lack the 3rd (which determines the tonality, being either major or minor) can be ambiguous yet calming, but more importantly, open.

Composers will still use the likes of major and minor chords; however, they won’t change chords very often. Chords in ambient space music are reluctant to much variation. This compositional technique can generate a much wider sense of space.


Tempo

Due to the slower harmonic development, this allows for versatile tempos (also known as speed). Ambient music tends to have a much slower tempo, as its purpose is not to bring excitement but to provide a space for reflection, thought, and a sense of peace—an emotion that is somewhat associated with the vast realms of space.

However, the tempo can also be quite steady, established by repetitive ostinato patterns played by synthesizers or strings. Alternatively, the tempo can be slightly faster for more energetic space tracks, which may be used to enhance feelings of adventure and thrill.


Texture

Lastly, we have texture, which, in my opinion, can say a lot about the nature of a track. Smooth and rich textures are typically found in space ambiance. Conversely, textures with more contours, such as those from frequent appearances of percussive or glitchy sound effects and synth plucks, can inject some energy into the mix.

On the contrary, the texture can also be much harsher, employing gritty synths or piercing strings to create a more sinister atmosphere. Playing around with texture can be an exciting way to convey a lot about the environment you wish to create through sound.


For more deep dives into musical genre conventions, check out these articles:

Zoe Sones

Zoe Sones, a UK-based composer, specializes in acoustic contemporary classical and ambient electronic music. She explores various textures and timbres from instruments and nature, creating haunting electronic drones and harmonically rich chords.