Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve been geeking out over Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s score for the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” An homage to the works of classic 80’s artists and composers like Giorgio Moroder, Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, and John Carpenter, the score is full of the warm, nostalgic sound of analog synthesizers, and is an impressive piece of dramatic storytelling.
Starting with the theme, it’s clear that the composers are masters of manipulating tone, timbre, and texture to hit precise emotions and build suspense, even over simple, diatonic harmonies – though the even the harmonies are not quite as simple as they seem. Using a Cmaj7 arpeggio over E minor denies the us the feeling of complete resolution, and maintains us in a state of ambiguity, which foreshadows how the story arc of Season 1 ends as well. Also, check out the way the rhythmic thuds imitate a heartbeat – a tried-and-true technique to subtly signal suspense to the listener.
In another excellent example of storytelling through music, listen to how Eleven’s theme imitates a broken music box, with glassy, bell-like synth tones resembling a celesta (that classic film-score stand in for innocence and childhood). The gaps and silences and hesitations reflect the tears and holes in Eleven’s memory and her residual trauma. Or check out how in “The Upside Down”, the composers create a feeling of “wrongness” by using an ostinato with a non-western scale and detuned synths, and then escalate the tension by using a chorus effect to melt the ostinato into the background and bring the shrieking and thudding sounds in the extreme high and low registers into the foreground.
The score as a whole is a reminder that the simplest musical ideas can be incredibly effective, and that elements of music such as texture and timbre are just as important as melody, harmony, and rhythm, and perhaps even more immediate and visceral in their effects on our emotions. Looking forward to the second season!