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The X-Files composer Mark Snow talks creating one of the most recognizable sci-fi theme songs of all time

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May 19, 2018, 10:13 PM EDT (Updated)

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.

One of the most iconic theme songs in science fiction television is The X-Files. The theme is lilting and soothing with just a hint of creepiness and otherworldliness — so it goes without question that X-Files composer Mark Snow was a necessary addition to SYFY WIRE's Conversations With Composers series.

SYFY WIRE spoke with Snow, who scored The X-Files theme song and wrote the music for all 218 episodes in the series (including the two recent revival seasons), as well as both X-Files movies (Fight the Future and I Want to Believe). There is something special about having the composer of one of your favorite TV shows sing the notes of the theme song to you. Unfortunately, that is not something that can come across in an article, so you will have to be satisfied with his words.

Did you expect The X-Files to go as far as it did?

No, not at all! I remember when I did the pilot in 1992 or 1993, Mulder and Scully were basically teenagers! I just didn't think the show was all that great. I don't remember what the reason was, but I remember calling my agent and saying, "Can you get me out of this thing?" [Laughs.] They said, "Come on, just hang with it, it might be okay." Well, it was okay!

What went into creating The X-Files theme song?

Chris Carter, the creator, sent me a bunch of CDs of music he liked. He would say, "I like the drums in this," "I like the singing here," "I like the sax in this," "I like the guitars in this one... so have at it." And I did. He came over [to listen to what I had come up with] and said, "That's really good, [but] I think you could give it another shot!" So I did. Three times. Each time it was the same reaction. Finally I said, politely, "Just leave me alone. Let me just try stuff and erase everything that has happened already." He said, "I want this simple, I don't want it overproduced, I don't want a schmaltzy orchestrated big sci-fi generic thing, just something simple and direct."

When he left, I haphazardly put my forearm down on the keyboard, which had this echo delay sound. I thought, "Ooh, that's kind of interesting." Then I played this arpeggio — which is an A, A, C, E, F — with the echo. I thought, "Wow, that is a really interesting accompanying figure. Really simple."

Then it needed some support underneath it, like a droney pad. Keep it simple. Okay, found that. Then there were a couple little percussion things, at the beginning and end, and these wooden stick sounds. Then I came up with the melody. I couldn't decide what was going to play it: piano, sax, violin, guitar... no. I just went through every [instrument].

I had this sampler that had a sound called "Whistlin' Joe." I pulled that out and played the melody, and thought, "Wow, that's pretty." I didn't jump up and down, but I thought, "That's understated, that's simple."

Chris came back, and I was ready for anything. I was ready for him to say, "That sucks, let's move on" or "That's good." He said, "Oh I like that. That's good. Very understated." Then he said we had to play it for the executives at Fox. "I'll meet you at 3 p.m. tomorrow at the studio and we will go in together."

So I show up with a boom box and cassette — that was what was going on then — and he said, "Oh, I gotta go to casting now. You'll be fine, just go in, it's a done deal." So I go in there, play the theme. Three guys in suits and ties, very polite. The first guy says, "Gee, that sounds... it just... it has something!" Then he passed it over to the next guy, who said the same thing. The same thing with the next guy. They were all totally puzzled, because it was not in their comfort zone, for sure. They expected some "bang-bang, crash-crash" thing.

Four months later, the show starts to get traction. One of these [suits] called up and said, "Didn't we tell you how great that theme is?" Yes, you did. Yes, you did.

The X-Files episode 1109 Nothing Lasts Forever. Mulder and Scully standing close

Shane Harvey/FOX

It had been nearly a decade since you last worked on an X-Files project before returning to the revival series. What changed for you?

I think the most dramatic part of that was my equipment upgrade: new library, new sounds, [and] mixing the music differently. It was more up to date, more current. I felt the need to incorporate some sounds from the past that are iconic little sound signatures. That was my idea, to blend the new and the old. At times, I tried a more modern-minimal approach. The picture editors have temp music in there from all kinds of things, but I liked it! So I kind of went with some of that stuff. They were happy with it, so that's the bottom line.

Do you have a favorite episode that you scored? Any that really stick out?

A whole bunch of them! One will come to mind, then I will think, "Oh, how about that one? Or that one? What about this one?" I do know that I can speak very directly about [Season 11]. Episode 3, "Plus One," was brilliant. Then there was Episode 4, "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat," by Darin Morgan, that total goofball! That was fantastic. Then Jim Wong, Episode 5, "Ghouli," and his number 8, "Nothing Lasts Forever," [which was aired as Episode 9] was another spectacular show. Those are fresh in my mind.

Certainly there's "Home," and "Post-Modern Prometheus" was great. And the circus freak show "Humbug" was great. I'm going to have to leave it there, because this interview could go on for hours!

How long does it take you to score a typical episode of The X-Files?

The X-Files is a little more challenging, because they love having tons of music in it. Without commercials, those episodes are about 43 minutes, and sometimes there is 40 minutes of music. Between 30 and 40 minutes of music. If you are chugging along at five minutes a day — you do the math! Six or seven days.

Any plans to release a soundtrack for the revival series?

There is one for Season 10. I think they are doing one for Season 11.

Do you have anything to do with that?

Yeah. They pick out the stuff they like and arrange it in a certain order. I listen to it, and say, "That's great" or "Start again."