• Lukas Kendall

James Horner/Star Trek Music Theory


I’d like to do a little music theory today. Maybe somebody smarter than I am will read this and offer some wisdom?


I love James Horner’s early work. It was part of what got me into film music in the first place. Star Trek II and III, Krull, Brainstorm—his luscious orchestrations and beautiful melodies spoke to my heart when I was a kid...and still do today!


There’s a lot to write about Horner’s influences—his “borrowing”—and I don’t have the time or inclination to do it today.


Suffice it to say that as a young composer, Horner cribbed liberally from the classical literature (with a particular fondness for Prokofiev), from other film composers (Jerry Goldsmith), and from himself (a lifelong predilection).


For now, I just want to ask a question and see if anybody has the answer. There is one device in particular that Horner used for his 1980s sci-fi/fantasy scores and I’m curious if anybody can pin down exactly what inspired it.


It’s the use of major chords a tritone apart: C and F#, B-flat and E, etc.


In Star Trek II, both for Spock’s theme—and those big crashing chords for the space battles—the harmonies alternates between two major chords, a tritone apart.


Just look at the end of the “Epilogue” in the video above—those swelling, growing, wonderful chords that lead into the end credits? D-flat major and G major—same tritone relationship.


Because these chords are as far apart as possible as far as their keys—C major has no accidentals, while F# (or G-flat major) is all accidentals—the music “toggles” between two different keys that have nothing to do with each other.


It works great in space because it gives a sense of floating, or flying, or uplift—or being wrenched free from gravity. So when Horner “loads it up” with his giant orchestra chattering and swirling around these two chords, it sounds amazing.


It also works great for time travel! The “tinkly piano” time-travel motive from Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future—same harmonic relationship.


People well versed in composition can probably explain this with much more precision and depth than I can.


I know it arguably comes from the diminished (symmetrical) scale—a scale where you alternate half-steps and whole-steps (Stravinsky loved it).


So really, this harmonic relationship, or trick, or device—or whatever you call it—is all over concert hall music and film music. I doubt there’s any single place where you could say, “That guy invented it.”


But I’m curious if anybody used it as the foundation for a work (either for film or the concert hall) the way Horner did in Star Trek II.


Also in Star Trek II are a lot of major-third (mediant) harmonic relationships—these are all over Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (it’s the first chord change in “Ilia’s Theme”)—but Horner pushed it even further and harder.


Ultimately, all art involves artists being influenced from earlier works—sometimes generally, sometimes specifically. For all of Horner’s borrowings, it’s about how you put the pieces all together—and Horner had a lifetime of putting the pieces together in a masterful, impactful way.


P.S. If you want to listen to a lot of where Horner got his early-score ideas, check out Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem. At 10:04 is the music for Spock fixing the warp drive, which Horner also used in Cocoon!

Also, the end of the first movement sounds a lot to me like the inspiration for “Lillian’s Death” from Brainstorm.


Curiously, Britten wrote this piece in 1940, when he was 26—even younger than Horner at the time of Star Trek II!

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