When I was a kid in the 1970s–1980s, it was a golden age for movie soundtracks, particularly in science fiction / science fantasy. Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams were giants in the genre, having composed two of the most memorable sci-fi themes of all time. Goldsmith is best known for the theme for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which later became the theme for the television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Williams is known for many popular movie themes, including Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, but is arguably best known for Star Wars. The names of these composers are practically synonymous with science fiction, but these composers could hardly differ more in style.
Goldsmith’s style is grand, remote, cerebral. In my opinion, he’s most responsible for the ‘spacey’ ambiance of hard sci-fi. In this piece from Alien (1979), called “Hypersleep,” there is a vague nautical element—you get the sense of a lonely ship navigating an endless cosmos. Like much of his space-music, it is stark and beautiful. This universe is cold in its beauty—it offers wonder, but no quarter.
In “The Cloud,” a piece from ST:TMP (1979), we get a sense of the enormity of the unknown entity heading for Earth and of the secret it contains. Again, there is a nautical element, highlighted by electronic whooshes that evoke memories of earthly oceans. The music is a little brighter here—the universe of Star Trek is less harsh and hostile than that of Alien, but no less grand and mysterious.
In contrast, Williams’ style is robust, familiar, romantic. It is evocative of adventure, human relationships, and spirituality. Consider this piece from Return of the Jedi (1983), which frames the moment when Luke reveals to Leia that they are brother and sister. This piece, like most of Williams’ compositions, is suffused with warmth and emotion.
“Tales of a Jedi Knight / Learn About the Force” (Star Wars, 1977) is no less filled with awe and mystery than Goldsmith’s “The Cloud,” but it is more optimistic and tinged with a sense of adventure. Here we have the budding relationship between a master and his young apprentice. With Williams, you don’t get the sense of a harsh and hostile universe, but one in which purpose and hope are woven into the fabric of its cosmos, even while it is momentarily under the sway of a dark and oppressive force.
Though Goldsmith and Williams differ in style, they have one element in common—the sense of awe and grandeur they convey through their compositions. It’s impossible to imagine the universes of Alien, Star Trek, and Star Wars without the character and dimension of their music.