Star Trek's four composers on scoring 26 seasons of Trek television

Contributed by
May 22, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

This month, SYFY WIRE is interviewing some of the best composers in TV and film to get insight on the theme songs and scores that stick in our heads long after the credits roll.

As a franchise, Star Trek is more than 50 years old. Gene Roddenberry may have launched the idea (and the USS Enterprise) in 1966, but over the following decades, thousands of people have had a hand in creating the look and feel of the shows and films — actors, writers, directors, set designers, costume designers, graphic designers and more. The look and feel of Star Trek has evolved over the years based on the contributions and genius of untold thousands.

But when it comes to the sound of Star Trek, the franchise has been in the hands of remarkably few people. Especially so when you only look at its life on the small screen. With the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 through the current run of Star Trek: Discovery, a vast majority of the music for five series and 26 seasons of television was the combined creative output of only four composers.

All told, Ron Jones, Dennis McCarthy, and Jay Chattaway scored 172 episodes of The Next Generation, 136 episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 119 episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, and 58 episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise. The three of them created the sound of a franchise almost 20 years.

And when you add Jeff Russo's score for Discovery on top of that, these four composers are responsible for nearly all of the music from televised Trek.

SYFY WIRE sat down with all four Trek composers to talk about their history with the franchise, the creative shackles and freedom they experienced, and how Star Trek changed their lives.

What kind of directive were you given on The Next Generation? How much of a tightrope walk was it to recall the scores of the original series but still forge your own path and create something new for 1987?

Ron Jones: What I was told by Robert Justman is that Paramount was worried that everyone who was used to the original Star Trek was used to Shatner and Spock and the look and the feel of that show. And now here's this new one with a British captain with a bald head, and there's a Klingon there — it was a weird cast! It was like a nightclub in Denmark — it was a weird group of people. And Paramount was worried about that. That's why they used Jerry Goldsmith's familiar theme at the beginning.

Were there ever any discussions about a new theme, or were they just set on that one from the beginning?

Dennis McCarthy: I never questioned it. They wanted Jerry, so if that's what they want, that's what they'll get. I did write a theme — I called it the "Picard Theme" — because I thought they might want one. I had done Dynasty and other shows that were heavily motif-driven, so I thought it might be nice to have a motif for Patrick Stewart. So I wrote this theme that's floating around on a CD somewhere, and I used it and they liked it. And then about three shows later, I used it again. But they stopped and said, "Wait a minute. We've already heard that. Don't do that again."

Jones: The first year was kind of on training wheels. Everyone was trying to operate inside a mold so it didn't scare people. Then, after people got used to it, they wisely made the decision to do what the tagline says: to go boldly where none have gone before. So they released the shackles, and by Season 3 it was kicking into high gear. And the funny thing is they sort of left me alone. They didn't tell Jay and Dennis at all what they told me.

So what were the different directions that they were getting?

Jones: [To] suppress the melodies. And I didn't suppress the melodies. When you take the melodies out, there's nothing to hang the emotions on. It's just pads and grooves. So when you go back and listen to the shows that I was involved in, especially Seasons 2 and 3, you can see that my music was on cocaine compared to other music that was on Ritalin. I got to be the wild man, and nobody ever gave me any lectures. Eventually, they forgot that they didn't give me any direction.

McCarthy: I did "Encounter at Farpoint" and eventually did 350, 360 [episodes] over an 18-year period. I evolved as the show went along, and the producers evolved. Originally, they did not want percussion. As a matter of fact, one of the producers told me, "I don't want to hear any music that manipulates my emotions." But as the years progressed, we got more percussion in there and more atonal music. We had a great time pushing the envelope all the time.

Jay Chattaway: Because of the history of Star Trek, I don't want to say there were limitations, but there were guidelines. For my first Trek score, I met with David Grossman, who was the head of music at Paramount, and he said, "Don't listen to what the other guys have done. Just treat this as your version of something epic in space, and we'll give you whatever you want." I had a 60-some piece orchestra for my first show. It was huge. That was for a Star Trek: The Next Generation show called "Tin Man." And by today's standards, it was very over the top. There were themes for everything. I had a Klingon theme, a Vulcan theme — I thought themes were the way to go.

So I did this big long piece with the producers all there. I walked into the booth, and I was expecting wild applause. They were all sitting there with their heads down. And they said, "Well, that's ok. But now go out and do something different."

Next thing you know, it was pared down to this bare-bones piece. But philosophically speaking, I think the producers might have been right on it. The difference, really, with scoring a Star Wars or Avengers is that the music is totally in sync with the characterization. In other words, you know just by what the music sounds like whether those are evil people or heroic people or whatever. In Trek, writers and producers didn't necessarily want to telegraph that. They thought their audience was really smart and should be able to figure out for themselves whether characters were intrinsically honorable or not. It was up to the audience to make those decisions.

McCarthy: Yeah, you couldn't hang your hat on anything. I developed a case of musical Alzheimer's. I'd write a show and then forget it right away. On the next show, I'd have to start over from scratch.

Jeff, what's your experience been like on Discovery? How much freedom do you have to write what you want?

Jeff Russo: So I have none of those restrictions. Our entire season was all themes. And my intention was for them all to be recognizable. There's a Klingon theme, there's Burnham's theme, there's Georgiou's theme, there's Lorca's theme. And all of these themes come back over and over and over again with the hope that people will go, "Oh, there's the Klingon theme."

The directive I got was that we were not going the route of what they did on The Next Generation and others. We wanted the music to be more like the Original Series where the music was very recognizable... The mandate has always been, "Let's be bold."

I think the one unfortunate aspect of '90s Star Trek is that they did shackle composers' hands by saying, "We don't want any snare drums. We don't want any recognizable themes." They snuck them in; I know they did. And that takes a lot of talent and ingenuity.

How tricky was it to write the theme? I'm assuming you wanted to be faithful to the music that people know so well but still create something completely new.

Russo: One of the most difficult things I have to do with Star Trek is walk that line of still being faithful to what the sound of Star Trek is but without trying to copycat that. I also need to forge our own identity without going too far. That's a very small path to walk. As soon as I got the job, I started sketching the theme. I wrote that basically in the first day or so. Then it was just a matter of sending it to them, which I didn't do for a while. I didn't want them to think I was overly anxious.

I had the idea to put the Alexander Courage fanfare at the end of it because I wanted to tip my hat to the master of Star Trek music. He's the architect of the sound of Star Trek. That horn fanfare and how he used horns and brass in that theme is really the basis for all Star Trek music. So incorporating that theme into our theme was the easiest way or merging the old with the new. I really wanted to write a theme that set the tone for our show, which was "There's still hope, but there's a darkness to what's going on."

Does that make Discovery more creatively restricting than other shows you work on? There's still a Trek sound, and you can spin off to your own thing, but you still need to "sound like Star Trek."

Russo: I continue to think about that and what that means. I usually record the score in two pieces. I record the strings and the woodwinds in the morning, and then I record the brass in the afternoon. And when we add the brass, we all sort of look at one another and go, "Oh yeah, there it is. That's Star Trek." There are little touches I add to make it a Star Trek score rather than just another sci-fi score.

You went into this as a Trek fan, right?

Russo: Oh, not just a fan but obsessed. I was obsessed with The Next Generation, and then I went back to the original series and got obsessed with that. I watched a little bit of Deep Space Nine and even less of Voyager and then absolutely none of Enterprise. But I'm still obsessed with The Next Generation to this day.

What about the rest of you? What was your familiarity with Star Trek before you got the gig? Were you a fan, or were you just casually aware of it?

McCarthy: Nope. I was busy doing other stuff. I had maybe seen a couple of episodes. Seriously, maybe only two. I thought it was fine; it just wasn't on my plate.

Jones: I'm not a fan now. I'm not a fan at all.

Is that because of your experience on the show?

Jones: No, not at all. I wasn't a fan before that. I mean, I had watched the original series, and I think I was 11 years old or something when it came on. And we were all blown away by it. It was very hip and different. I've always been fascinated by astronauts and the journey to space, so I enjoyed the whole process that mankind would be out there. It was during the Vietnam War, so we were all hoping that humanity would stop killing each other. Let's just move forward, you know? And [Star Trek] was all about that.

And then I went about my business. Nobody was selling soundtracks and T-shirts. There was no Trekkie thing yet. So I ended up doing all this animation and eventually became the poor man's John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith — whatever they wanted. Then a friend of mine told me they were doing a new Star Trek, and I said, "Oh, good for them."

Chattaway: When I was in college, the Original Series was on TV. I kind of watched it every once in a while, but I was not a Trekkie. I was not into it at all. I was totally into music, and I loved listening to music influenced by science fiction because I thought those were some of the most creative writers. But no, I was not a fan [of Star Trek]. In fact, I didn't watch [The Next Generation] before I did my first scores. I was told not to, so I didn't.

So just from a consistency point of view, if the producers have a show with a consistent voice and characterization, and the writers are generally the same, the directors are the same, the actors are obviously the same, shouldn't the music also be the same? How did they keep that consistency of sound if they're going to bring you in and tell you not to watch anything and do your own thing?

Chattaway: I think maybe they might have been looking for a subtle change in how music was done. I'm guilty of this myself, but if you have to write 15 years of transition music, it's going to start sounding the same. You usually have to foreshadow the emotion of a scene.

Jones: We were allowed freedom to express ourselves. Hire the person, give them the tools they need, and stand back. So any score that's in there, they liked. If they didn't like it, they would've fired me. Because we could've been fired at any time. You had a contract per show, so every show you had to sign a new contract. If they didn’t like you, they didn't want to have to pay you for 10 years.

I've worked for some producers that think it's all got to be the same. But now, you look back, and thank goodness the set designer was creative, thank goodness the special effects people were there, thank goodness these people put their creativity into the show. You don't just want wild and crazy sh*t, but you want everyone to work within the parameters. So that's what I did. I want to be moved. If I don't get moved, then what happened? I'm writing for an audience of one.

Did you have any freedom within the confines that were set, or was there a lot of creative hand-holding?

McCarthy: Yeah. I had learned to write fast, so I would write what I wanted, go to the session, get hit upside the head, and then change it on the spot. You couldn't pin your ego on anything you wrote. You had to park your ego at the door and just have fun. Unlike Dynasty and MacGyver, music on Star Trek was... I don't want to say it was relegated to the back row, but it kind of was. There were so many times I'd write a cue and be really happy with it. Then I'd watch the show and think, "I thought there was music here?"

How challenging was that, creatively?

McCarthy: For me, it was a challenge, which I relished. I loved to see what I could get away with or if I could write things that I'd never thought of before. It was like going to school.

It was fantastic! What an opportunity. Six French horns just sitting in front of you and all those strings, and my woodwind section was all jazz guys. And they brought their jazz sensibilities and improvisational skills. So I'd write something, and they'd riff on what they thought I really wanted. Man, I miss them. I miss the whole thing! Between MacGyver and Star Trek, I was at Paramount for 25 years.

Ron, you've said that scoring for TV is like working for an advertising agency. Things are done by committee and it’s like working for an accountant rather than a creative producer. Would you say your work on The Next Generation was like that?

Jones: No, it wasn't like that on Star Trek. These were incredibly smart, gifted people. They were marginal on the back and forth because everyone was so stressed out. But everyone was sharp, and I rarely worked with anyone who wasn't just a fantastic intellect.

Chattaway: The timeframe was pretty spectacular. We recorded on a Tuesday, the show would be mixed on Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday it's on the air. So you can't look back. You can't go back and fix anything because there's no time. We had six hours with a full orchestra to record, mix, and produce all the music for an episode, which was usually about 20 minutes.

How much time did you have to write, though?

Chattaway: It would depend. With just the one series, I would have maybe 10 days to write the score. I always read the scripts because I got inspiration from reading more so than watching. I could hum the score after reading the script, even though I hadn't seen anything yet. [After spotting the episode,] I'd go home and write, which in those days I did by hand. And then I'd go back in and record the whole score.

So every seven to 10 days, I could sleep at night. But then they told me, "Hey we're going to start a new series, and you're going to be the composer. Except we're still doing the other series." So now, with every 10 days, there was an overlap and added workload. So I was sleep deprived for about 10 years.

When you’re writing music for TV, how often are you writing with the intention that the audience should notice it versus it just being background music to set a theme, even if only subconsciously?

Chattaway: Well, because we're all ego-driven composers, we gotta figure out how to get our licks in there and be aggressive because you don't want to just do wallpaper. You want to do something that jumps out. And that was the challenge. How do you write something really unique that sounds like my music and yet still fits the mold of the Trek vocabulary and traditions? And you find yourself second guessing quite a bit. I talked with Dennis quite a bit, and he would say, "Jay, never look back. Don't rewrite anything; you'll never get done." And he was absolutely right.

Deep Space Nine was a huge departure for the Trek franchise. One of the biggest complaints at the time was that the show wouldn’t be moving from place to place. Did the new direction of that show change how you approached the music, particularly from what you did on The Next Generation?

Chattaway: It was challenging because it was claustrophobic, but in some ways that made it more interesting. And I think viewers now are coming back to that show and saying, "Wait a minute. This is pretty amazing." I found it more interesting because it wasn’t about going out to blow up some planet. We had to develop some personal connections and write more personal music. Like the quirky Quark music. It was fun. It wasn't your typical genre of what space was all about.

McCarthy: Rick Berman and I talked about Deep Space Nine at length. When he first showed me the mockups and sketches, he said, "This is an extremely lonely place out here, and it'll have more psychological darkness than we've had in the other shows."

You had the opportunity to bookend three of the series. You wrote the music for the first and last episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. What goes through your mind — creatively, thematically, logistically — when it comes time to bring a show full circle?

McCarthy: It's very satisfying. There's sadness, of course, because you hate to see the series end. And with Enterprise, it was really sad because we were hoping to go longer. That was also the last I'd see of that giant orchestra. I'd have 50 to 60 people per episode. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.

Writing a Star Trek theme puts you in a very exclusive club. Did you feel any added pressure because of that?

Russo: Here's the thing. When I sat down to write the theme, I didn't think that. I think that was because I was so overwhelmed that they even hired me that I didn't stop to absorb the enormity of what that meant. And it wasn't until I was on the podium conducting the orchestra that I looked around and thought, "Oh wait." And that's when it hit me and the imposter syndrome kicked in. I'm no Jerry Goldsmith. I'm no Dennis McCarthy or Alexander Courage. These people were masters. I'm just a dude from a rock band writing some melodies. So how do I fit into that club? I don't fit into that club.

But you do!

Russo: The fact of the matter is that I'm now a part of that club, and that is a thing. It's sometimes hard for me to believe and sit down and accept. When are they going to figure out that I shouldn't be here? I just have to continue to not look sideways at that and just write music that people either like or don't.

The Next Generation is what reintroduced Star Trek to television, so it makes sense that the music “played it safe.” Deep Space Nine was a gamble and took some big risks, so it also makes sense that the music could do more experimental and unexpected things. What was it like, then, to work on Voyager? What kind of environment was that?

McCarthy: For me, it felt like backing into The Next Generation again. It was closer in attitude to The Next Generation and the original series than Deep Space Nine. By that time, we were given permission to be a little bolder. It was a good experience.

Chattaway: Voyager, right from the top, was going to have much more action. So that meant more music. And more fast music. So you have to write more notes. If you have to write 20 minutes of music, and it's balanced, it's a lot fewer notes and measures, and it takes a lot less time to write. But if you do 20 minutes of action every week, you're going to burn out. I did the pilot, and I bet there was an hour and a half of music in the two-hour pilot. It was massive. And that was a directive from the studio; they wanted action. So it was a little scary because it was ten times more music than Deep Space Nine. And I was still doing Deep Space Nine when Voyager started.

There weren't a lot of opportunities to develop unique sounds, except for the use of electronics. On Voyager, we had a lot more use of electronics to add another timbre to the quality of the sound. So that was a big change for me. We'd record the electronics first and then bring that into the studio and have the orchestra play with it, which was pretty complicated to pull off. And it was also hard to make changes because the electronic score was already finished.

Did you have an opportunity to write a theme for Voyager, or was it always the plan to have Jerry Goldsmith do it?

McCarthy: It was Jerry from the outset. And why not? He's the greatest.

Chattaway: I wanted to. Actually, I did write one, but I never showed it to anyone. As I recall, Jerry was supposed to write the theme for Deep Space Nine, but because of scheduling, it didn't work out, so Dennis got to do that. So I just assumed I'd get to do Voyager. And I had a pretty cool theme.

Do you still have it?

Chattaway: I do. I can't hum it now, and I never recorded it. And then I thought, 'Well, maybe I can use it for Enterprise." [laughs] But they went with that song.

Do you know what led to that decision?

Chattaway: I went to a couple meetings. And they said they wanted to go in a different direction with Enterprise, so I figured that meant Dennis and I weren't going to be involved. That wasn't it, though. They're very loyal; otherwise, they wouldn't have kept everyone around for all those years. But they wanted to use that song and a lot more scoring along with a contemporary feel. That meant more electronics.

But they were nice enough to figure out the shows that needed to have an orchestral score. And when it made sense to do it with electronics, then we'd do it that way. I love electronic music, and I have a big studio, but it never feels the same.

McCarthy: Yeah, for Enterprise, that was interesting. The show was about to start — we were probably about a month out — and I got a phone call from Peter Lauritson, one of the producers. They wanted the music updated: more percussion, more synthesizers. So I ended up working with Kevin Kiner a lot because he's a great synthesizer guy.

I understand the end credit music for Enterprise is actually the theme you wrote for the show.

McCarthy: Yeah! My idea of "great stuff" is not a song. I didn't like the song they used. It didn't make any sense.

You're not alone.

McCarthy: [Laughs] Oh, God in heaven. So I thought, what the hell, and I wrote a theme. It turns out the network or whoever it was would not allow a vocal over the end credits. So they called me up and said, "Do you mind if we use yours?"

So that theme was your stab at the main credits, hoping someone up there would come to their senses and get rid of the song. Then you could come in and be the savior.

McCarthy: Well, it didn't quite work out that way, but what can you do? Can't win 'em all.

Star Trek USS Enterprise NCC-1701a

What is Star Trek music, at its core?

Chattaway: Wow. Well, it's large and vast. Harmonically complicated. And the notes C, F, G, and B-flat. That’s the chord that defines it for me.

Russo: It's an adventure. Star Trek music is an adventure, and you never know where it's going to take you. The thing that I've enjoyed injecting into Star Trek music is trying to also find an emotionality to it. Telling the story from a character perspective and be able to connect those things thematically.

Jones: With Star Trek, it was always mankind against the universe. And they all had to work together, so it didn't matter if they were short with three ears, tall with one leg, or a fish. If we're going to survive, if we're going to move forward, we need to be smart and work together. We still haven't learned that. The music, at its core, is scoring man at its best. It starts with the writer, but it's up to the composer to take on the heavy responsibility to be true to that.

McCarthy: To me, it's another actor on the stage. When it's done properly and it's played up loud enough so you can hear, it becomes another character. The score kind of wrapped itself around the action and responded to it. Sometimes I listen to scores now, and I miss the coherence of what Ron and Jay and I used to do.

Jones: I'm a fan of humanity. Let's not destroy the future. Let's make it better for those who come after us. Let's leave this a better universe and go forward in a positive way. We've been given a Ferrari, which is our imagination. Let's go there. Stop wasting time with all this confusion. We have a world to save. That, to me, is what's at the core of the music.

Star Trek Cosplay

Credit: Some guy