Hollywood, California, 1992. Mark Snow was in his garage studio tinkering with some ideas. He was already a pro at TV scores—dramas, procedurals, comedies—when a producer recommended him to Chris Carter, a veteran of Disney TV movies who needed music for his new TV pilot, an unlikely paranormal procedural called The X Files. As he sat at his keyboard one day, stumped in his search for the right theme music, Snow put his elbow on the keys. He had accidentally engaged a delay effect. A spooky electronic echo darted out of the monitors. That's a start, he thought.
Neither he nor Carter could imagine that that creepy, repeating synth would form the basis for one of TV’s most unforgettable bits of music. The song would eventually implant itself like an alien virus across the culture and in the brains of a generation of viewers. (Admittedly, my first web page, in 1997, an X Files tribute, auto-played a MIDI version of the theme song, on a loop.) A few minutes after 9 pm every Friday, that creepy synth and whistle beckoned us into the shadows of the neon-bright '90s. And they were terrifying. "When I was a kid I was so freaked out by it," says Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, a writer for Motherboard, that when he watched the show, he would switch off the TV "so I wouldn't have to listen to the theme."
To get that iconic sound, Snow tells me by telephone in a new episode of Radio Motherboard, he started by heeding Carter’s advice: keep it simple. “Just make it that cool little thing that the boy scouts in the middle of the night on a camping trip whistle to each other… and then a monster comes and gobbles them up.”
Snow also sought inspiration in a pile of CDs that Carter, who lived nearby, brought to his house: Portishead, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, The Smiths, a variety of world music. Snow did about five different passes on the theme song, with an emphasis on minimal, repeating Glass-like phrases. Each time, though, Carter would reply, “That’s really great, but it’s not quite right.”
Mark Snow, circa 2016. Photo courtesy Mark Snow
Snow decided to start from scratch. While tooling around in his garage one day, his elbow hit the keyboard while a delay echo was on. That gave way to a now unmistakable four-note arpeggio. From there, he added a sustain combination, some pad sounds, and then began searching for his melody. Flipping through the voices on his Emu Proteus/2 orchestral synthesizer, he tried various instruments—violins, flutes, woodwinds, brass, voices, some more exotic things. Everything sounded either too ordinary or too excessive.
Then he stumbled on one of the higher-numbered voices, a patch called “Whistling Joe.” It seemed silly at first, but the more he played a simple six-note melody with it, the more he liked it.
"I said, ‘Why don’t you whistle along? It’ll give it a little extra zest.’”
His wife Glynn was walking past the garage, and stuck her head in. “Ah, that’s interesting.”
“She’s a very good whistler, so I said, ‘Why don’t you whistle along? It’ll give it a little extra zest.’”
He recorded her, mixed it with the synths, and called Carter to let him know he was ready to play him a few versions of a new 40-second piece.
The original version of the opening sequence with Snow's theme music, used in the 2015 production
Carter listens and "he says, ‘Well, that’s good. Alright. Let’s go with that.’ No big deal, no fanfare. Nobody knew what was coming next.”
What came next, among other things, was a new era for television music. Snow’s spooky and avant-garde synth work covered most of The X Files' 50-minute episodes, with a rich cinematic flair that would influence the TV that followed. "Oftentimes," Carter told NPR, "what scares you most on The X-Files is not what you see—it's what you hear."
The iconic theme meanwhile would take on a life of its own. Among the hundreds of versions found on YouTube today, there are orchestral and hip hop renditions, a capella and dubstep and trance renditions; there are versions with lyrics. An extended version of the song written by Snow in 1996 was remixed by the likes of The Dust Brothers and Mike Oldfield (he mashed it up with his own "Tubular Bells"), and it would reach the top of the UK and French charts. The song hit new heights (or lows) with DJ Dado's obligatory trance version, which was carried far and wide by the ur-chillwave sensation Pure Moods Vol. 1. It's historic TV ad, by the way, was an X File onto itself.
Snow has since scored dozens of other TV shows and films, including Carter’s cult follow-ups, Millennium and The Lone Gunmen. A few years ago, the legendary art house French director Alain Resnais was so taken with Snow’s work on The X Files he tapped him to score his final three films.
Last year, when it came time to score the latest season of The X Files—what's likely to be the start of a new chapter for Mulder and Scully—Snow began working on a new version of the theme. He dipped into the wide arsenal of synthesizers, instruments and effects he’s collected over decades of scoring work. He also tried to re-record the theme using all of the same components. But nothing sounded quite right.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “That original master recording was a definitive sound. It was impossible to replicate.”
“When you’re doing electronic music, there’s something about how instruments are panned left or right, the EQ, how much high and low it has, the reverb, delay, echo stuff. It’s not like going to Carnegie Hall and hearing some orchestra play Beethoven’s Fifth and then the next week have another orchestra play the same piece. You’re not going to hear a great difference.”
But listening to a new version of the theme, he says, “you would know: ‘This isn’t the original.’
In the end, Snow, Carter, and the show’s producers decided that after two decades, the new version of The X Files would stay true to its seminal mood. The opening sequence in the new episodes is the same one used in that very first season, with the very same music.
2:15: How Mark achieved early success while at The Julliard School, as a founder of the classical-rock fusion band The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble. In the early '70s, they played with the likes of The Who and Led Zeppelin, and their hit Bach-influenced song "Brandenberg" appeared on the Tonight Show and The Steve Allen Show.
3:30: In 1973 Mark and his wife and their two kids move to Los Angeles, where he establishes himself as a TV composer.
6:40: Chris Carter asks Mark to write a theme song for his new show.
8:30: The story of The Twilight Zone theme, which was actually edited together from two short snippets of music Marius Constant wrote years earlier for the CBS music library.
9:40: The creation of the X Files theme: “Just make it that cool little thing that the boy scouts around the campfire whistle to each other… and then a monster comes and gobbles them up.”
14:15: Mark takes the song to the execs at Fox.
17:00: There are lots and lots of versions of the song.
20:45: How Mark created the mood of the show’s score, and delved into avant garde classical music, one of his early musical loves.
23:40 Mark’s favorite episodes of The X Files.
27:25: “Nobody [at Fox] thought this show had a chance.”
Credits: Special thanks to Mark Snow, to our engineer Mark Leombruni, and to Paolo di Nicolantonio of Synthmania.com for the samples of the Emu Proteus/2 synthesizer.