Albums · Feature

The Sounds of ‘Stranger Things’: A Brief History of Synth-Music in Film and TV


(Written by Max Havey)

From the moment the opening synths of Stranger Things graced my eardrums my curiosity was piqued. For a series so rife with 80’s nostalgia, I almost couldn’t believe that their theme song sounded like it came from an unproduced, long forgotten John Carpenter film.  Although it seems like that, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, members of the band SURVIVE, are just the latest to hop onto this revival of equally menacing and poppy synth scores for television and film.

Dixon and Stein’s score, which finally saw its much-awaited release in the past few weeks, oscillates between serene, dreamy tracks that sound like they came straight out of a point-and-click adventure game and abrasive buzzy pieces layered with synth loops. These abrasive tracks became known as the “Carpenter Synths” to the group I watched the series with. They captured the moodiness of the series, as it went from being The Goonies, to Firestarter to The Thing. It’s a feat that Dixon and Stein deftly pull off, while also producing quality ambient music.

Synth heavy scores, such as that of Stranger Things, have really found a home in the indie horror world.  SURVIVE actually scored Adam Wingard’s Stepfather-esque thriller The Guest as well. A contemporary of SURVIVE, the electronic band Disasterpeace, who are more known for scoring video games such as Hyper Light Drifter, brought their talents to David Robert Mitchell’s 2015 indie horror flick It Follows. In my original review of It Follows, I believe I described the score as sounding like a level of Super Mario World played on extremely potent hallucinogens. They capture the 8-bit quality of the era while modernizing it with cacophonous loops that make dread feel imminent. The same could even be said for the scores Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have produced for the past few David Fincher films. Scores for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl offer industrial loops crossed with serene synths to create a sense of foreboding, and even made a legitimately good dance track on The Social Network’s soundtrack with “In Motion.”

Though, it is hard to talk about these modern scores without talking about where they came from. John Carpenter made a name for himself not only by directing some of the best thrillers and adventure films of the 80’s, but also composing the majority of the scores for his films. It’s hard to listen to the opening of Stranger Things without hearing the themes from both Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape From New York. Carpenter himself has even released two albums of previously unreleased ambient work, ironically titled Lost Themes, and is even touring them around at major music festivals.

At the same time, bands such as Vangelis and Tangerine Dream deserve credit for their work on films such as Blade Runner and Risky Business, respectively. Even the off kilter moodiness of Twin Peaks’ score by Angelo Badalamenti can be heard as an influence, especially as the series mounts its 2017 comeback. Its wild to hear the internet losing its collective hivemind over both volumes of the Stranger Things soundtrack, and I hope that lead them to dig deeper into natural influences like John Carpenter. The cycle never ends; what’s old is new again.


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