“Cosmos,” the modern-day reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic science TV program, hits me right in the feel-thinks. For me, it’s equal parts science and spiritual contemplation, and I’m so thankful that the producers took the risk to create it.
As a film composer, I’m also enjoying the musical score by Alan Silvestri. In this post, I’m going to analyze the main theme, because:
- We get to hear the whole, decadent 90 seconds of the theme in each episode.
- Those 90 seconds pack a lot of thematic material, and Silvestri draws heavily on it for the body of the score.
- There’s one passage in the middle that is just pure genius! It’s the piece that motivated me to investigate this theme.
YouTube link to the Cosmos Main Title music for the un-Spotified
SPACE: THE FINAL FRONTIER
The opening solo horn sets the tone: a degree of solemn respect for what is being undertaken. We are telling the story of the universe here.
The strings enter, as if dawn breaking, and the unpretentious flute line with harp provide a warm affection for our little “cosmic address,” as Neil DeGrasse Tyson likes to say.
The next section doesn’t communicate clear symbolism to me, but I like it! In particular, I noted:
- The harp arpeggio including both B and C, darkening the texture
- The cello counter-line, with its suspended resolutions against the melody
The 2-measure Eb-maj section comes out of nowhere, and for me, feels a bit jerky. Eb-maj on the way from E-min to G-maj? It’s a nice-enough themelet, but very much an unrelated fragment. Its most important function here is to provide contrast and set apart the “worried mezzo-forte” from the “magical teeny-tiny” part that comes next.
“DNA” (MY FAVORITE PART)
The subject matter of Cosmos goes back and forth between the “very big” and the “very small” – from galaxies to molecules. For me, this section of the music is about tiny, fragile, surprising LIFE. The moment I heard it, I thought: “DNA” – recombining, reaching, evolving.
It’s a little germ of a musical idea, a perfect 5th in the piano. And just like DNA, it slowly mutates. First, it transposes from G-maj to Eb-maj (while maintaining the mid-range G pedal). Next, the background context shifts ever so slightly, as the strings imply the Ab-maj-7 sound (Perhaps our mutated amoeba has found itself swimming in a different puddle?). Then, another evolution, as the texture gets transposed up to E-maj, brightening the P5 piano motive. The bass line ascends in half steps, to A, and then…
The next section evokes the terrifying grandeur of cosmic-scale birth and death, as the Bb-maj chord crescendoes into the dissonant bII chord — B-maj / Bb, with (#4) in the melody. The second swell goes to the more ominous bVI, Gb-maj / Bb, which serves as a surprisingly gentle (in retrospect) pivot chord to the concluding B-maj.
Take note that, in the “terrifying” section:
- The melody is still playing with the same P5 motive
- The harmonic move from Bb-maj to Gb-maj/Bb is essentially the same as the “DNA” section move from G-maj to Eb-maj/G. The main title visuals are full of parallels between human scale and cosmic scale (the most iconic example is the nebula turning into the iris); Silvestri finds clever ways to communicate the same parallelism in his music.
And at last, a nice, shimmering string chord, as if to say: The history of the universe has been frightening, destructive, merciless… and yet it bore us, comically delicate, yet alive and wonderful!
And, that’s a wrap! Let me know if you found this helpful. If anyone can supplement or correct the transcription, I’d love to see it. I’ve got some question marks in there.
Your transcription is good! My wife and I love the show, but thought the soundtrack is more than a bit derived from re-arranged motifs in this one:
Hey Mikey, thanks for reading. You’re right – that opening piano theme from Cider House is strikingly similar to the opening flute melody in Cosmos. I would argue that the rest of the Cosmos theme diverges from that point though. Probably derived from (or inspired by, let’s say) something else :).
Great transcription. I just love this piece. I’ve been looking everywhere for a transcription. Thanks for posting.
I’ve come to your page trying to find out who the hornplayer would have been for the opening credits. Any idea?
Thanks Erica! The horn player is most likely an LA session dude/gal… I doubt he is credited anywhere. 😦
I suspected as much. The LA session horns have become very fine indeed. I hope whoever recorded for Cosmos went home that day thinking “I did good work today”.
Awesome transcription and super helpful! Loved your insight
Thanks! Looking back to it now, I don’t think I was very precise, but I got the main ideas right! Cheers, maybe one day I’ll write another blog entry. 🙂