Scoring a Quest: The Music of The X-Files

The Post-Modern Prometheus

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

We’ve talked at length about the characters, the spooky themes and the lighting that made The X-Files a memorable TV series. But there was another important element — the music. The X-Files probably wouldn’t be the show it was without Mark Snow’s score. While the theme song — which grew popular enough to get remixed multiple times and featured on the likes of the Pure Moods compilations — has gone on to become one of the most famous in TV history, the rest of composer Mark Snow’s work also helped put the show on the map. Even though the majority of the music on The X-Files wasn’t exactly typical melodic fare for everyday consumption, it played a huge role in establishing the series’ tone.

IN THE BEGINNING

There was a heavy emphasis on spookiness from day one: The music was often in a minor key when it was melodic enough to have a key, while atonal and percussive at other times, building up feelings of suspense and paranoia. Synthesizers, which remained an important component of Mark Snow’s work, sounded even more obviously synth-like in the early seasons: This is evident in much of the Pilot, as well as other first season episodes like “Conduit.” The score was often chilling, occasionally representative of the monsters on screen — as heard in tracks like one from “Squeeze,” titled “Slimed” on The X-Files Vol. 1 compilation released in 2011.

But there were also times where the music, while still haunting, could feel almost warm and organic: Even in that first season, which can sound so dated now, we started to hear snippets of recognizable melodies. For example, a track originally titled “Lamenta” (on The Truth and the Light compilation) from the episode “Roland” is a simple one, mainly made up of a piano melody before an extra layer of string-like synths kicks in.

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

As time went on, Snow seemed to balance melodies with experimental sounds. And every now and then, he would step outside Western songwriting sensibilities altogether, integrating elements like tribal rhythms into his score — sometimes a little too literally (i.e.: in episodes featuring foreigners), while at other times, folding these sounds into episodes tackling all sorts of themes. Viewers grew increasingly familiar with Snow’s style and the moods he was trying to establish as the series continued: For instance, if oboes were heard in an episode (as they often were in season six, especially in the “Dreamland” episodes), it meant something silly was afoot. More ominous-sounding instruments were saved for the Monster of the Week villains or better yet, the Cigarette Smoking Man.

THE X-FILES AND POPULAR SONG

Because the show largely relied on Snow’s score alone, outside tracks tended to stand out when they were used. But this wasn’t a bad thing as it often occurred in episodes where the music was meant to be a plot point or recurring motif. The use of “Wonderful! Wonderful!” — rerecorded because Johnny Mathis did not want his version used — in “Home” is subversive and alarming within the context of a story about an incestuous, terrifyingly deformed and murderous family. The fact that we actually get to hear Cher’s music in “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” where a character is slightly obsessed with the singer/actress, is fantastic — what could have been amazingly cheesy ends up being one of the best parts of a striking episode that also contained some interesting work from Mark Snow.

all things

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

By the time season seven rolled around, The X-Files joined the bandwagon of every other TV series, movie or commercial using songs from Moby’s album Play. In fact, the series used two songs — the first, “My Weakness,” was integrated almost seamlessly into the series, atmospheric enough to be something Mark Snow could have written, but striking enough to stand out as Mulder encountered his sister’s spirit in the episode “Closure.” The next track, “The Sky is Broken,” was really not typical for The X-Files, but it was used for a not-so-typical episode, “all things,” which was written and directed by Gillian Anderson. It could be argued that the weirdness of the track — the cool beats and spoken word New Age feeling — was perfect for a polarizing installment of the show.

MARK SNOW ON THE BIG SCREEN

Unsurprisingly, The X-Files evolved over the course of nine seasons and two movies — which meant that the music evolved too. And Mark Snow, taking the journey with the rest of the show runners, found ways to keep his music interesting while staying true to his overall sound and the show’s themes. When the series hit the big screen for the first time with 1998’s The X-Files: Fight the Future, Snow’s compositions took a more cinematic turn.

The X-Files: Fight the Future

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

In a previous post about the movie, I pointed out how epic the score sounded — that at times, in addition to hearing familiar X-Files motifs, I almost felt as though I were watching an Indiana Jones film. This is not shocking as in this case, Snow relied more on an orchestra, while maintaining elements of his electronic leanings in the score. Having already had some practice with some of the show’s mythology episodes, mini movies in their own right, Snow managed to make a seamless jump to the big screen — and some of his cinematic sound seemed to find its way into the later seasons of the show.

THE LATER YEARS

Snow didn’t necessarily maintain the same bombastic quality found in the Fight the Future score when he went on to create music for seasons six through nine. But he certainly got more creative — especially as the comedic episodes of season six called for something new. He also switched instrumentation altogether when the episode called for it — “How the Ghosts Stole Christmas” featured a harpsichord and “The Unnatural,” which delved into race relations in the 1940s, featured actual slide guitar and harmonica players. Every now and then, the sparse atmospherics from the early days of the show made an appearance in the later seasons, but the score was generally much richer and varied than it had been in the past. And as the show went into its generally Mulder-less period in season eight, a new theme for Scully was born — with a woman’s voice at the center of it all. The show had never really experimented with character musical themes very much before, but this particular theme did a good job of highlighting Scully’s isolation and emotional state with her partner gone.

The X-Files Season 9 Opening Credits

20th Century Fox via Chrisnu

While the overall score kept evolving over time, it was probably a subtle change in the theme song that stood out the most for fans. While the visual images were the most obvious change — with David Duchovny removed, and Annabeth Gish and Mitch Pileggi added to the opening credits — the song was sped up ever so slightly. Being that fans actually noticed this, it wound up being a testament to exactly how memorable the theme song actually was.

The theme song would see one more change by the time the second film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe, hit theaters, with a little help from electronic/rock outfit UNKLE. While the famous rippling echo effect and main melody remain, the instrumentation changed (the melody in strings) with plenty of whooshing effects and a pulsating beat. The actual score of the film, while not as epic as that of Fight the Future, seems to marry all the elements of Mark Snow’s work over the course of The X-Files — there are warm melodic themes, as well as atonal, jarring sounds used to induce terror, all produced on a more orchestral level than the sounds of the earlier seasons.

Snow’s music grew increasingly polished and at times, more complex, as the show went on — mirroring the increasingly sleeker costumes and set design — but it also managed to remain true to what The X-Files was all about. It reflected the dark, complex nature of things that go bump in the night, and while the music grew more emotional as the characters grew more established, it never ceased to incite at least a little bit of terror in the viewer. And while Snow’s music and style certainly stood out to the point where at least I almost immediately recognized his handiwork back when I watched the earlier seasons of Smallville, it was never really distracting, even when it was being used to alarm the viewer. It’s no wonder many fans remember Mark Snow the same way they remember Chris Carter, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

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