Film and video game music has a clear goal, to provoke emotional responses coherent with the message of the corresponding scene. Because there are so many films, most receiving their own scores, there is an 'inventory' of tricks, elements that film composers have at their disposal, established so in the cultural consciousness. Some are even on TvTropes (a site not normally about music), like Dramatic Timpani and Deathly Dies Irae. These shortcuts can establish a mood or a setting in just a few seconds.

Having been introduced to microtonal music recently, and the truly alien chord progressions you can produce by going outside the typical 12-tone temperament, I wondered: why isn't this used for every alien theme, all the time? The listeners are not used to it, but the same goes for compound meter, and 5/4 is used liberally for villain themes.

Microtonality has the issue that you cannot use standard brass, woodwinds, and regular tuned percussion; but strings, the human voice and electronic instruments are still fair game. Particularly the latter is going to be very appropriate for any aliens.

Yet, in this extensive list of pieces in 24-tone temperament (which is a microtonal scale quite easier to grasp than any of the other multipliers), there's only two movie scores; one from the 1960's, and one by Danny Elfman. Compared to the list of pieces in quintuple meter specifically, and the popular music section does not even try to be comprehensive.

So why is microtonality so rare in popular music, particularly soundtracks for films and video games, that deal with aliens or generally other-worldly beings, that would be so well served by exotic scales?

  • Maybe they prefer aleatory? Beatles to Batman ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Sep 24, 2020 at 10:02
  • 2
    I suspect there's no real answer to this question, being as it is a matter of musical taste. My personal opinion is that microtonality is just too weird for most people. But be that as it may- it's not quite correct to say that woodwinds cannot play microtonally. Here's Phillip Gerschlauer playing a 128 tone per octave scale on sax: youtube.com/watch?v=lGa66qHzKME Sep 24, 2020 at 10:32
  • You can absolutely play most brass and woodwind instruments microtonally. It’s just super hard. It’s keyboard instruments and pitched percussion that really slow you down. Sep 24, 2020 at 21:11
  • 2
    Aliens like equal temperament youtube.com/watch?v=AphKxQ2NsQo Oct 8, 2020 at 18:21

3 Answers 3


First, I want to shout out to Stanley Kubrick who did choose music that transcended traditional tonality for both his science fiction and horror movies.

Also we might be hearing some amount of microtonality in the soundtracks by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as working with analog synthesizers makes it easier to actually work with microtonal scales without hiring musicians who are very experienced with microtonality.

Which leads to what I believe is almost certainly the ultimate reason why soundtracks generally sound the way they do: money.

An original score for anything is a significant investment (usually) that most investors are going to want to expect some return on. By that I mean, the desire in hiring composers and musicians to create a soundtrack is that the additional revenue that a property will earn because it has a quality soundtrack will be greater than the cost of producing the soundtrack.

Currently, it is more difficult and therefore more expensive to hire musicians who can quickly (and therefore cheaply) render a microtonal composition. And that’s assuming you’ve found a composer who is able to create effective microtonal music. And that’s assuming you have a director who feels that microtonality will add to the story they are telling. And that’s assuming you have producers who trust the director and the composer to create a finished product that will sell well enough to recoup the investment. And that’s assuming you have a segment of the public as your market that will appreciate, consciously or subconsciously, the distinction between the more expensive microtonal soundtrack versus the more affordable and predictable investment in a 12ET soundtrack.

In other words, I think there is another, often more primary goal of video game, film, TV, and all commercial music: to make money.


Film and video game music has a clear goal, to provoke emotional responses coherent with the message of the corresponding scene.

While this is true, there's often also the requirement for music to take a background role - to enhance the emotional effect of of the images and story without grabbing too much attention itself. When the alien is coming, we want the listener to feel (for the sake of argument) scared, rather than snap out of the suspension of disbelief and think 'wait a minute - this music is out of tune'. I guess this is a rephrasing of Scott Wallace's comment that microtonality may be too weird - it's often going to be weird enough to be a distraction rather than an enhancement.

That doesn't mean that playing with tuning and intonation isn't used... have a listen to Cliff Martinez' First sleep, from the Solaris OST:

This is an example of where subtle shifts in tuning, along with the inharmonicity of some of the instrument sounds chosen, create an otherworldly effect without the jarring effect that in-your-face microtonality might have on some listeners.


Microtonal music cannot be writen on music sheet. This is a problem to consider.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.