Here’s a question: What music comes to mind when I say “telekinesis”? It’s a bit of an odd question but say, for instance, that a composer had to make music all based off the idea of one vague idea: individuals with psychic powers. What would he or she do? What musical instrument or theme would fit that fantastic element? The concept may seem a little abstract, but sometimes, that’s all a composer initially gets to base a soundtrack on. Composers aren’t usually given a complete version of the material to work with (although composition is traditionally done much later in the creation process so they might have some visuals), so a lot of composition may come down to just a feeling or an idea that they get.
Yoko Kanno, for instance, is famous for taking something so vague as “being human” and making an entire body of work based off of it. On the western side, when Christopher Nolan was creating Interstellar, he initially gave the film’s composer, Hans Zimmer, the concept of “a father and son” (later changed to a daughter), without telling Zimmer anything else about the film. This was specifically to get to the heart of what Nolan felt the film should be about. Vagueness, in this way, allowed for a lot of creative freedom, but at the same time, as many artists can tell you, too much freedom can be oppressive, leaving them to not even know where to begin. However, because the initial idea may be so vague, the same concept done by different composers can lead to amazingly diverse music, which brings me back to the music of psychic powers.
Let’s take a look at an example: A Certain Scientific Railgun and how it equates psychic energy to power. For the music of Railgun, the composer seems to have taken a lot of inspiration for the soundtrack from the shows titular character, Misaka Mikoto, known as “Railgun”. Misaka has the psychic ability to create and manipulate electricity to her will, and is one of the strongest characters in both her and her sister series, A Certain Magical Index, exhibiting powerful strikes and lightning-fast action. Because of this, and due to the setting for the series being in a futuristic city, it’s pretty easy to guess that the basis for this show’s style is electronic music. This captures the tone of this show well, as it’s definitely a series about “power” with psychics abound in a single city ready to explode with potential. A quick look at the song “Railgun Shoots” shows driving beats and loud synthesized brass that are complemented by strings and a simple guitar melody, showcasing a frenetic style that gives an audible look at the main character’s own power in her better moments. In fact, once the guitar breaks away and gives the strings the reins, it’s very much a hero’s theme, with the melody turning into a very stereotypical heroic anthem.
However, not everything about this series is all big heroic actions. There are lighter, slice of life moments that play with synthesized beats and melodies, still keeping the electronic vibe of our main heroine, and once the show gets going, we also start to delve into darker aspects as well. For moments like these which sometimes can feel almost like a horror film, a heavier emphasis on drums is seen, but pedal effects on electric guitars still give the notions of this city filled with technology, powerful psychics out to kill, and our main character’s own electric nature. Railgun is interesting in this way as it doesn’t always keep a consistency in the exact instruments used, but overall, stays themed with the idea of “power” through its use of driving drums beats and loud and proud electronic instruments and samples rather than purely traditional ones.
That’s great and all, but psychics aren’t just “powerful”. They’re human as well. Sometimes, an expression of psychic powers could be considered a physical extension of a character’s creativity and psyche. Looking back in time to the wonderful era of 1996, Matilda released and quickly gained a bit of a cult status. An interesting and quirky story about a very smart little girl from an abusive family coming into her own, Matilda’s eponymous main character discovers that she can manipulate things with her mind.
I think the soundtrack to the film is interesting as it came out around the time everyone was still madly in love with uplifting music, expressive strings, and kinetic brass that dances in time with the on-screen action like it’s somehow a classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and that’s exactly what we see with Matilda’s powers. In this scene in particular, the composer uses the music to match the stress that Matilda is feeling as she tries to push past it to come into the powers she just recently found that she had. The trills in the woodwinds and strings build during the onslaught of Matilda’s stressful memories until finally breaking with the first movement of the Cheerios box, signaling a realization for herself and finally overcoming the negative points in her life. We now have a more melodic build, adding pieces here and there from other instruments chiming in, giving a sense of kinetic energy to it all, until the spoon drops into the bowl and a montage of freedom and fun with Matilda’s new powers begins overtop the music of “Little Bitty Pretty One” by Thurston Harris.
In this small clip, we see a lot of the classic Western style of late 80s and early 90s kids movie soundtracks. There’s a lot of happy strings and woodwinds, giving off a sense of optimism we’d expect from children, that’s doubled with muted brass expressing the more comical side of these movies, as comedy was typically thought to be the big thing to keep children entertained and in their seats. All of the instruments have a very kinetic energy to them and tend to be timed around specific cues from powers being shown to us, (the Cheerios box moving, the spoon falling, etc.), so the music can be non-melodic at times, changing from almost noise to a pretty theme and back again. This style was originally used in the 1920s for talkies and old-school cartoons that only had a musical backing to video since the technology for playback of full recorded audio with movies wasn’t there yet. Because it brings a sense of fun to the video being presented, this type of music fits comedic films like Matilda very well. Though, Matilda does have darker moments which shift the music to dramatic builds to match Matilda lashing out with her powers against the abuse of her family and school principal.
While Matilda shows a lighter side of psychic powers, probably my favorite examples of composers thinking outside the box on this subject are a bit more dramatic and more existential. I’ve always found it interesting when composers don’t try to directly match the idea of “power” with something kinetic, but instead think of power on a higher level and consider the implications of what that could mean for the world. The anime Shinsekai Yori (From the New World) and the film Akira, both of which I love dearly, decided to explain through their music the idea of psychic powers as something ancient and religious, even godly and omnipotent.
From the New World, is a complicated and very intelligent story that would take much longer than this discussion to explain, but suffice to say that psychic powers in this show are shown through a very grim and twisted lens. The soundtrack is powerful and expresses beautifully the aspects of the characters and their world. Most notably in the most recurring song in the anime, the young children’s choir sets the tone as a story about naive and developing minds. However, the melody is somber and this, along with the unison singing, portrays an almost darkly religious theme, which fits the psychic elements and horror vibes very well for the series. It’s like a children’s version of a sinister Gregorian choir, which I’m sure was in the composer’s thoughts when creating this. This theme gives a feeling as if the story is about something greater and much larger than us humans. This matches the themes of the warping of reality and darker implications of psychics and their effect on humanity very well and multiple other songs from this soundtrack further express this theme expertly. I mean, the show even uses its namesake as a twisted musical cue. From the New World uses the “From the New World” symphony by Dvorak in various ways in the anime, corrupting the calm and serene song’s intended feeling into something warped and anxiety-inducing by matching its famous melodies to scenes of horror and mind-wiping torture from totalitarian psychics. It knows exactly what it’s doing to really fuck with you.
Similarly, as a great example of this same tone and feel, the Akira soundtrack has a comparable style. Akira is an intricate story, but mainly focuses on the birth of a new evolution in humanity and its effect on a crumbling dystopia in the distant future. It’s beautiful musical themes and distinct soundscape have been talked about into oblivion, even being compared to the works of one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Philip Glass.
Both Shinsekai Yori and Akira use chanting and choirs to deepen that “greater than humanity” feel and both have an emphasis on simple, but driving, traditional echoing drum beats (which make both soundtracks sound so badass). However, here’s what’s primarily different between these two. Besides that Shinsekai Yori keeps a consistent tempo (Akira’s soundtrack does not a lot of the time), Akira primarily uses traditional instruments to make things sound grand, a stark contrast to the futuristic Neo-Tokyo the film is set in. This likely was intentional to set the mood for something that’s bigger and different than this modern world, foreboding a change and grand godly power to come.
Shinsekai Yori, in a reverse of Akira, takes these traditional drums and choir and then layers the impact moments with electric guitar and deep synth bass, making it sound super badass for one, and two, making these big impactful moments hit hard with distorted riffs, contrasting with the “traditional Japanese” setting. This was used to draw our attention to the “Oh shit, it’s going down and it’s gonna be bloody” moments. Besides these more actiony moments, the slower segments where it’s straight horror or psychological thriller have slower electric guitar as well, keeping the contrast going and drawing our attention to these very dark scenes. Basically, the modern instruments express the dissonance that these horror-filled or psychological scenes have against the beautiful landscapes and seemingly peaceful village, showing the warped nature of the world that the kids find themselves both victims and instigators to.
This is what I find interesting about music composition. There are so many different ways to express the same abstract thought and each can be so tonally and stylistically different from each other, representing various aspects of their subject matter. In this case, psychics, but for other soundtracks, it can be even more diverse and all can fit so well the tone and themes of the wonderful worlds they bring music to.