“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.
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 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.