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Mircea Badut

Affinities Between Science Fiction And Music

by Mircea Băduț


Auditory concepts such as the “music of the spheres”, which we may nowadays associate with the speculative mode, have deep historical roots reaching back to the works of Pythagoras (6th century BC) and later explored by Plato (4th century BC). Johannes Kepler’s ‘Harmonices Mundi’ (1619) further emphasized this idea, while it was tangentially touched upon in literary works such as Hermann Hesse’s ‘Klein and Wagner’ (1919). The symphonic suite ‘The Planets’, composed by Gustav Holst in 1914-1917, should also be mentioned here.

Yet I would argue that it was the electronic music boom of the 1970s and 1980s which had brought the intersection between music and speculative fiction to the fore, with artists such as Vangelis leading the way. This was made possible by the capabilities of electronic synthesizers to sonically create an atmosphere that human culture (and perhaps human instinct too) assumed to be associated with cosmic space, and this phenomenon occurred during a time when society was experiencing excitement and curiosity about our expanding presence in the cosmos, both physically and intellectually.

I believe electronic music captured the listeners of that era for two main reasons. Firstly, because the exoticism of the sounds emitted by electronic instruments, often characterized by long notes and in vague harmonies, had a profound effect on inducing a unique mental state. Secondly, owing to the radicality of the distinction from pop music (which would not have been evident in a comparison with symphonic/classical music, where the modernist branch had already reached somewhat similar sonorities). In other words, this new music conquered the listeners of those decades (in which I also grew up) through its progressive, renewing character.

 Judged from a musicological perspective, the electronic music of the early decades could often be considered as minimalist, occasionally obsessive (in its repetition or thematic dosage), and at times deliberately psychedelic. (The latter effect is often achieved by relying on an obstinato of melodic theme that foreshadows either an accumulation of dramatic potential, akin to the musical tension build-up used in the symphonic genre, or by a transcendence into oneirism.) And, of course, if it had been compared to the peaks of creation in classical music or in the jazz and rock of that era, it would have proved itself somewhat immature. However, much like the merger of science fiction into mainstream literature, electronic music targeted a different segment of society, and thus, they did not necessarily compete with each other.)

However, this essay does not end at electronic music, and will try also to cover, as significant landmarks, other kinds of musical creation close to the idea of science fiction. So, to set the scene, here is my initial proposal for a list of milestones of the ‘SF – music’ nexus:

» 1964 – Probably the first sci-fi song;

» 1969 – David Bowie releases the single ‘Space Oddity’;

» 1972 – David Bowie releases the album ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’;

» 1978 – ‘The War of the Worlds’, as musical version created by Jeff Wayne;

» 1976 – The electronic music album ‘Albedo 0.39’ composed and performed by Vangelis;

» 1977 – The electronic music album ‘Spiral’ composed and performed by Vangelis;

» 1978 – The electronic music album ‘Die Mensch-Maschine’ (‘The Man-Machine’), by Kraftwerk;

» 1982 – The soundtrack of the film ‘Blade Runner’ (Ridley Scott), composed and performed by Vangelis.

1. Probably the first sci-fi song

The reader may be surprised or thrilled to come across a reference from the vibrant era of the hippy movement and its music. It pertains to a pop-rock song titled “In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus).” Composed by Rick Evans in 1964, this song achieved the remarkable feat of reaching number 1 on the US ‘Billboard Hot 100’ chart in 1969, followed by securing the top spot on the ‘UK Singles Chart’ later that year. However, the musical duo known as ‘Zager and Evans’, who created this remarkable hit, faded from the music scene like a passing comet, earning the status of a “one-hit wonder” before disbanding in 1971.

“In the Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)” / Rick Evans / 1964 / ‘Zager and Evans’

“In the year 2525, if man is still alive

If woman can survive, they may find

In the year 3535

Ain’t gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie

Everything you think, do and say

Is in the pill you took today (…)[1]

Even though the song was definitely noted in its time, we probably cannot nominate it as a kind of avant-la-lettre “sci-fi music”. But I consider that it deserves to be recognized as a significant reference both for the concrete science fiction text (including the coordinate of anticipation, of utopia), and for the fact that the band ‘Zager and Evans’ achieves this clear message using ordinary instrumentation (i.e. without resorting to any kind of sound fireworks).

2. The classic ‘music – SF literature’ connection reference

“Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds” was originally a studio musical album (in the rock/pop/progressive genre) conceived, created, produced and recorded by musician Jeff Wayne (CBS Records, 1978), which would be followed by many reissues, performances, tours and reinterpretations. As we expect, the album is inspired from the novel ‘The War of the Worlds’ written by H.G. Wells, and is presented as a rock opera, arranged instrumentally with a rock band (guitars, bass, drums/percussion, organ/synthesizer) but also with a considerable addition of a classical/symphonic orchestra (including strings), as well as with narrative inserts (explanatory introduction and interludes, performed by the voice of the actor Richard Burton). The narrative thread of the rock opera is inspired by that of the classic sci-fi story, but it must be emphasized that some of the musical sequences (derived from acts of the story) led to the creation of songs of extraordinary musicality, thanks to both the melodic composition and very successful interpretations. In the years that followed (and to this day) this album was very successful, both in the charts (singles “Forever Autumn” and “The Eve of the War”) and in terms of sales.

By analyzing this musical production from a listener’s perspective, several noteworthy aspects can be observed. Firstly, the orchestration is “architectonic” in nature, featuring monumental sonorities that are impressively paired with melodic dramatization. Secondly, unconventional soundscapes and psychological stimulation are achieved, notably through the use of synthesizers, albeit without excessive exploitation. Additionally, the “voicebox guitar effect” is worth mentioning, although it had already become a recognized technique in rock concerts. A subtler element, yet a personal favorite, is the metal-body electric guitar played by Chris Spedding. This particular guitar, crafted by James Trussart and modeled after the famous Gibson Les Paul but with a hollow body made of steel sheet, creates a unique and intriguing sound.

The original album, subsequent reissues, concerts, tours, reinterpretations, and various editions on formats such as DVD, CD, and even SACD have all achieved tremendous success worldwide. While visionary projects are known to have the potential for great success in theory, the process of starting them is rarely easy. The realization of the 1978 album was indeed a challenging endeavor. Jeff Wayne conceived the idea, developed the concept and acquired the rights to incorporate narrative ideas from H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel. However, he faced significant difficulties in finding financiers for the album’s production expenses and persuading musicians to participate. He had even posed the question to musicians regarding their preferred method of payment: a fixed and immediate amount or a share in the future proceeds from the property rights? Unfortunately, to their detriment, the musicians chose the skeptical option in terms of their financial well-being.

It is worth noting that this remarkable science fiction musical creation was brought to life without overly relying on electronic artifice. That, however, was set to change in subsequent decades…

3. Tangible and consistent landmarks of the ‘music – SF’ connection

The first key date relates to a breakthrough in the material prerequisites for electronic music: in 1964 Robert Arthur Moog (1934–2005) invented the Moog musical synthesizer, and in 1970 he also released a portable model, the Minimoog, which would radically influence the music of the 20th century. (Alongside, of course, other notable manufacturers of synthesizers and electronic organs, such as Yamaha, Roland, Korg, Oberheim, EMS, ARP, Elka and Fairlight.)

Below I present the subsequent milestones in another succinct list (without going into detail where the names have become classics), no longer focusing on the names of musical productions, but rather the individuals (or groups) who made them:

» Vangelis, through the albums from 1975 to 1984;

» Tangerine Dream, through the albums from 1974 to 1987;

» Isao Tomita, esp. the album ‘Electric Samurai’ (Switched on Rock) from 1972;

» Klaus Schulze, through the albums Cyborg (1973), Timewind (1975), Moondawn (1976);

» Kraftwerk, through the albums released between 1977-1981 (The Man-Machine, Computer World);

» Jean Michel Jarre, through the albums Oxygène (1976) and Équinoxe (1978);

» Robert Fripp – renowned both for his compositional style (sometimes exploiting asymmetric rhythms and using classical or folkloric melodic motifs) and for his early innovations in the generation of unconventional sounds (such as the sound-delay system using magnetic tape).[2]

For a wider geographical context, electronic music also appeared in the Soviet Union, such as these examples:

• the band Zodiak, (USSR/Latvia), with the albums ‘Disco Alliance’ (1980) and ‘Music in the Universe’ (1982);

• the album ‘Metamorphoses – Electronic Interpretations Of Classical And Modern Music’ (Melodiya record label, USSR, 1980).

But perhaps the most interesting exemplifying corpus for the ‘music – SF’ nexus derives (although not explicitly) from so-called rock “super-groups” of the years 1965-1980 – Pink Floyd; Genesis; Manfred Mann’s Earth Band; Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Yes; The Alan Parsons Project; Supertramp; Marillion; Electric Light Orchestra; Brian Eno/Roxy Music; Mike Oldfield; etc –, which impress both by their sophistication (hence the alternative denomination of ‘art-rock’) and by their progressive function of cultural/spiritual re-toning (hence the denomination of ‘prog-rock’). Furthermore, numerous artists, even those not typically associated with art-rock or progressive-rock genres, have occasionally crafted songs that feature progressive sounds and nuances.

4. A rapprochement between (sub)genres (cultural and musical)

We observe that while the previous discussion began with electronic music, due to its inherent connection to science fiction, this intersection naturally expands to encompass other related musical genres. This tends to be driven by songs and productions that stand out for their unconventional and progressive sounds and messages. Therefore, it is fitting to include or at least explore genres such as art-rock, progressive rock, jazz fusion, and even classical/symphonic music, as they share connections and influences with speculative fiction.

Progressive music offers alternative perspectives and enhances traditional forms, leading to a continuous elevation of artistic standards over the years. It has even influenced pop music, which often fails to appreciate the achievements in quality and compositional complexity of previous generations. Each new generation tends to “reinvent the wheel” with a certain casualness. In contrast, composers in “heavy” music are more inclined to study the classics and acknowledge their influence even if they create in new musical currents or subgenres. Moreover, in addition to the fact that progressive can be understood as a reform or as a detachment from an ordinary/vulgar flow, the dichotomy between progressive rock and pop-rock (intentional in essence, assumed either voluntarily or instinctively) can also be seen in another perspective: with the progressive, music becomes conceptual, i.e. intended rather for actual audition (an audition for audition itself) than for easy entertainment and somatic well-being (we might say, “moving thought/spirit rather than muscle/skeleton” ). In order to build its conceptual (or experimental) character, such music frequently resorts to ‘fusion’, both from the perspective of orchestration/sounds and from a rhythmic/melodic perspective, with inspiration and mixture from jazz, symphonic/classical music, or even from world-music (folk).

Experts in music may argue that these “progressive mechanisms” are naturally experienced in modern jazz. This is not necessarily a negative development, as it allows for the incorporation of multiple genres within the concept of spiritual-cultural regeneration and evolution. And now we promptly return to our cultural parallel, because speculative fiction often embodies similar ideas and proposals, justifying the close affinity with progressive music. Nonetheless, it is important to note that, in the context of the present discussion, musical progressiveness primarily concerns music itself, while science fiction tends to be more focused on stimulating thought rather than solely on the literary craft.

Music connoisseurs could also draw our attention to the fact that during the boom periods of the species concerned here (sci-fi, electronic music, progressive rock) in symphonic music there were already currents and subgenres that used “progressive mechanisms”: neoclassicism, modernism, chromatisme, serialism (dodecaphonic music), post-modernism, (so-called) contemporary music, experimental music, post-tonal music; respectively with the names of composers such as Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Ottorino Respighi, Anton Webern, Pierre Louis Joseph Boulez et al. In fact, many progressive rock music productions have been inspired (using themes or approaches) by classical/symphonic music (Jethro Tull; Rush; Procol Harum; Beatles; Moody Blues; The Who; King Crimson; Jeff Beck; Rick Wakeman; John Lord; Deep Purple; Queen; Led Zeppelin; Sting; Peter Gabriel; etc). And if we call to mind the soundtrack of the film ‘2001 Space Odyssey’ (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) – a cinematic touchstone in SF culture – then we will once more recognize the proximity to classical music, but we may also admit that a special sound atmosphere can be created with classical formulas and acoustic musical instruments. (And while on this subject, if we listen to “Also sprach Zarathustra,” the symphonic poem composed by Richard Strauss in 1896 in its entirety, we will notice that it was very modern for its time.)

And we end this section with a reference to ‘Firebird’, a symphonic music concert composed by Igor Stravinsky on a fantastic theme, and which mnemonically leads us to the Japanese animated film ‘Firebird 2772: Love’s Cosmozone’ (director/screenplay: Osamu Tezuka and Taku Sugiyama; music: Yasuo Higuchi; 1980).

5. Music, beauty and the digital future

In order to complement some ideas in this essay, it is worth noting that in its emerging era, electronic music was created with instruments that did not work digitally (with numerical signal encoding) but analogically. These were sound synthesizers (with electronic tubes, then with transistors and later with integrated circuits), audio sequencers (such as ‘CV/gate’) or other more or less artisanal devices (Frippertronics; theremin/termenvox; Fender Rhodes piano; Ondes Martenot; tape loops, tape delay, musique concrète). It was not until the 1980s that the way of digitally recording, processing and generating music would be opened.

But what is the essential difference between analogue and digital sound? (We tacitly accept that music, of whatever genre it may be, means sound. In fact, a multitude of sounds, emitted and succeeded according to harmonic/aesthetic laws.) These two terms, somehow antagonistic, were defined in relation to each other. Initially – in the days of vacuum tubes and transistors – electronics did not have a second name, but only after the advent of signal coding technologies, would the field bifurcate into (1) analog electronics (working with continuous signal) and (2) digital electronics (working with discontinuous/discrete signals). (The digital electronics are also called ‘logic electronics’, because the topology and operation of their circuits correspond to a desired logic.)

The transformation of the natural/analog signal into a digital signal involves two processes: (1) sampling and (2) quantization. Sound sampling means that we read (i.e. take a sample from) the original signal at every fraction of a second (a fraction having, let us say, 2×10-5 seconds, as in the case of CD-Audio), and quantization implies that we will measure the amplitude of each sample and transform it into a number (respectively into a digital code, i.e. a group of bits). This transformation is called analog-to-digital conversion (ADC). Of course, when it is necessary to listen those digitally recorded signals, they must go through a digital-to-analog conversion (DAC), which is somewhat the reverse of the one briefly described above.

Of the two processes applied to the digitization of music, sampling is guilty of the greatest loss when recording the original sound, and this is because in those unread time intervals (intervals of 2×10-5 seconds) the audio signal nonetheless continues, especially if it is a polyphonic signal, as happens in music where several instruments play quasi-simultaneously, and each instrument actually emits many simultaneous sounds. (Even when a single musical note is emitted, the sound having the frequency corresponding to that note is accompanied by a myriad of other sounds – secondary/additional harmonics – that make up the ‘timbre of the instrument’.) In fact, from a Hi-Fi (High-Fidelity) perspective, the beginnings of music digitization were unfortunate because it was not understood then that Nyquist’s Theorem (which defined a minimum for the sampling rate of signals) was not suitable for music sounds.

A similar insufficiency at the small time scale is the reason why digital synthesis sounds (even when embodying traditional musical instruments) are poorer than sounds produced by acoustic instruments (instruments that produce sound by physical vibration: either a parts of their composition, or the air passing through them), an aspect that we can all analyze if we do small experiments by listening carefully to musical instruments or comparing quality music recordings.

Humans, with our analogue ears, have a natural affinity for music. The appreciation and recognition of beauty, including the auditory one, involve two fundamental factors in human beings. The first factor is our biological and innate perception, which is passed down through genetics. The second factor is our cultural perception, shaped by environmental influences, such as imitation, assimilation, and education (i.e. developed through the traditions and customs of the people among, and places where, we have grown up or currently reside). Thus, we have two filters through which our perception of music is shaped: a biological and a psycho-social one.

The influence of the biological filter can be documented by the fact that certain sounds (specific combinations/aggregations of frequencies) can evoke distinct physiological states, either beneficial or adverse, with or without involvement of the psyche. On the other hand, the psycho-social conditioning can be illustrated by the awareness that there were (and still are) peoples in the world who divide the musical octave into intervals other than the twelve we commonly use, and who build the rhythms in other measures than we do. Therefore, if we were to listen to music indigenous to such cultures, we might feel a sense of confusion. Thus, the concepts for musical aesthetics developed by an extraterrestrial civilization, if we were to ever encounter one, might very well leave us utterly baffled.


[2] The author recommends the ‘Discipline’ album for edification.



Mircea Băduț is a Romanian writer and engineer. He wrote eleven books on informatics and six books of fictional prose and essays. He also wrote over 500 articles and essays for various magazines and publications in Romania and around the world.