The Diverse Soundscapes of Sci-Fi Cinema

March 1, 2024
4 mins read
Frozen Planet in Space

Film scores enhance the art of storytelling, conveying what remains unseen and crafting a sonic landscape of the surroundings. Numerous space and sci-fi films have unique music scores that reflect the composer’s style. These composers might choose from a range of styles, including fully orchestral, entirely electronic, or a blend of both. Combining sound design and musical language can create immersive scores that emulate the cosmos’s feeling and environment.

Let’s explore some of the best sci-fi soundtracks and how they emulate the sounds of sci-fi and space.

Interstellar – Hans Zimmer

Directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar explores space beyond our solar system in search of a new home as Earth becomes uninhabitable due to blight.

By 2014, Hans Zimmer was already a household name—a composer that many casual cinema-goers could name. But his work on Interstellar had an immeasurable impact on viewers. His signature sound remains ever-present, creating a compelling soundscape that represents Cooper and his crew’s adventures. Even today, you will find tracks from his Academy Award-nominated soundtrack gracing TikToks when users are trying to display something majestic.

Using a combination of both orchestral and electronic elements, Zimmer has found an excellent balance and tone for exploring the vastness of space travel and the emotional journeys explored in Interstellar. Zimmer’s use of the organ is notable in this score for its resonant and glistening nature, which conveys the beauty and vastness of interstellar space. Alongside orchestral instruments like strings, percussion, and piano, Zimmer creates a monumental soundscape suited to the captivating story.

Additionally, Zimmer’s musical language is exceptional. He consistently uses leitmotifs and intertwines such melodies throughout the entire score, a task done with great care and detail. Below is a fantastic in-depth video on YouTube by Listening In, which provides a detailed breakdown of the theory behind the Interstellar score.

A particular piece that dramatically depicts the loneliness and how far they are from Earth is the cue music Message from Home. Outside of the bold nature from the likes of the iconic scenes of No Time for Caution and Mountains, this particular track accompanies a vulnerable and reflective moment only built from a limited set of tools.

A simple yet poignant-sounding track that consists of only the piano, the solemness radiates from every phrase. The music is also spaced out through reverb and pauses between each phrase. This is highly reflective of the accompanying scene of the minuscule Endurance orbiting the gigantic celestial body of Saturn. Fragility and isolation can be displayed using a single instrument with basic effects.

Gravity – Steven Price

Gravity is praised for its visuals, cinematography, and direction, gaining critical acclaim upon its release—and it also set up Emmanuel Lubezki for his unprecedented triple win at the Oscars. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity presents a gripping and heart-pounding story of survival in the vastness of space near Earth. Beyond the film’s stunning visuals, the score significantly contributed to its success.

Steven Price composed an experimental space soundscape with interesting sound effects, pads, and orchestral instrumentation. Unlike the typical Hollywood approach to scores, which often features standout percussive impacts and grandness through unison brass and strings, Price opted for an alternative method, omitting percussion altogether. He also electronically processed many acoustic instruments, layering them individually to build a compelling and unique soundscape.

A prime example of this atmospheric approach to space ambiance is found in the track “ISS.” It creates a glistening sensation with intriguing electronic sound effects that float through the texture. Electronically processing and layering sounds offer many efficient uses, leading to uniquely interesting and complex textures. With its slow structural development, the track perfectly captures both stillness and uncertainty, showcasing Price’s innovative techniques in sound design.

Blade Runner 2049 – Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch

Space ambiance can have a dark sound to encapsulate the fear of the unknown. In line with the cyberpunk genre, which shares many parallels with the sound of space, cyberpunk’s dark and gritty nature perfectly matches the emulation of futuristic and dystopian environments.

Although this isn’t a conventional space film, the score for Blade Runner 2049 shares similarities and transferable characteristics typically associated with dark space ambiance. Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the iconic Blade Runner, follows Officer K as he ventures to uncover truths about individual identities and artificial intelligence in a visually mesmerizing dystopia.

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch collaborated on a dense, dramatic, and eerie score that explores the future of cyberpunk in our world. The original soundtrack features various moods, from atmospheric ambient textures to percussive and pulsating elements.

A prime example of a darker approach to space or futuristic themes is the track ‘Wallace,’ a mysterious composition that plays during a cyberpunk visual cutscene, enhancing the environmental feeling of this world.

A predominant feature in ‘Wallace’ is choral bass vocals that lull within the texture. Using the human voice as a tool is powerful for any composer. In this context, the primal and haunting nature of the extensive bass range in vocals works rather well.

Sound effects, such as hiss-like sounds and metallic drones, are also layered within the texture, culminating in creating an unearthly environment. While this film inherently aligns more with the cyberpunk genre, many parallels between it and space can be seen as interchangeable.

With drone-like music, harmony is limited, mainly employing open 5ths—a common technique that provides a solid foundation for the drone. The track ‘Rain’ is also based primarily on open intervals and basic diatonic harmony. The timbre predominantly features higher pitch ranges, another technique commonly used in space ambient tracks to evoke a sense of flight. While these elements may not be found in an ideal ‘space’ environment, the characteristics of the ambient pads, strings, and resonant bells still perfectly match the visual scenes of outer space.

Where To Find Music Like This

If you want to infuse a slight hint of the soundtracks mentioned above into your own projects, then you’ve come to the right article.

In partnership with IndieTips, I have produced 15 royalty-free tracks available for licensing from the IndieTips store. From upbeat synth melodies for action-packed scenes to mellow, droning tunes that capture the vastness of space, this album has everything you need to give your projects an extraterrestrial vibe.

For more on audio, check out the following 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.