A Guest Post by Jarrell Waggoner
It has always been the aliens.
Musically speaking, anyway. Fantasy has always had music, and music fantasy. And occasionally aliens.
Whether our lovable characters are humming ditties across the foliage of Middle-earth or our intrepid explorers attempt to decipher the cacophonous intonations of extraterrestrial visitors, music has been accompanying the adventure since before adventures were being put to words.
Maybe we weren’t singing along, but we were being sung to. Maybe we weren’t tapping to the beat, but the beat was there to be tapped.
So where did it go?
It seems that every major fantasy franchise eventually earns a signature tune once it works its way up the ranks and onto the silver screen. From the mysterious celesta stylings of John William’s ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ from Harry Potter to Patrick Doyle’s bombastic ‘Eragon,’ the bigger the budget, the brassier the bravura. Apparently, without the written word, we still need someone to tell us when we should be fearful of the sprawling armies before us or marvelling at our wizard’s mysterious magics.
It might as well be the aliens.
Because who else is going to transport a 70-piece orchestra to the far-off lands of Narnia purely for our listening pleasure? Before, our characters were responsible for the words, our faithful authors responsible for giving them the right meter and rhyme. Our imaginations brought the orchestra. Or the fiddle. When our characters chanted their lines, we didn’t get dramatic montages to keep our attention.
Ah, progress. There are many upsides to having ubiquitous fantasy soundtracks. Fantasy is bigger than life, and some of us like our music imaginative. However, it can also be detached. Trying to sing when the visuals don’t. Or make us laugh when the characters aren’t funny.
But at its best, it’s the Greek chorus of the modern age, without bludgeoning us with every internal dalliance of every character, while preventing us from overlooking subtle emotions or expansive vistas. Like a Greek chorus, our soundtracks even get to poke their head in and be heard by our characters from time to time. But mostly, the aliens play well out of earshot of the action. We wouldn’t want those war drums distracting the archers, after all.
Music just fits better with fantasy. Really, when you’re watching maniacal creatures attack our heroes on the battlefield, who’s going to question whether that string run was played by a wandering minstrel on the battlefield or by aliens watching from the heavens? We’ve suspended quite a bit of disbelief by that point. Which is equally valid for science fiction, where there truly is the distinct possibility that the melody was inspired by extraterrestrial entities.
Say what you will about the quality of fantasy translated to film (and there is much to be said, sadly), but arguing with the bold brass and sweeping melodies of John Williams, James Newton Howard, Harry Gregson-Williams, Howard Shore, and James Horner isn’t nearly as easy a task. It’s music at its most grandiose; it is fantasy. Sure, fantasy may not be its own musical genre, but one need only feel the swelling strings wash over the softly-repeating piano ostinato of Lady in the Water to know that it is unique, it is immaculate, and it is ours.
And whether it be the latest space opera or (yet another) Final Fantasy, there’s likely much more music to come.
Unless, of course, the aliens decide to take some time off.
Jarrell Waggoner is a Ph.D. candidate in Computer Science at the University of South Carolina, and and only occasionally lends the aliens any assistance.