Curating Mood: Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

So, I watched this video essay on a while back and it got me thinking about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the way Kubrick chose the music in the film.

I really admire his use of modern and romantic pieces as they relate to specific parts of the story. Think about the big, sweeping moments of A Space Odyssey, what underscores it? Strauss. And the unsettling moments? Well, silence, of course, but also Ligeti!

I believe this does a lot of work for the audience when it comes to the message Kubrick and co-writer Arthur C. Clarke are trying to get across. That message being that space-travel, and connection with extraterrestrial beings, are bound to our evolutionary process. The romantic and modern eras are marked by exponential growth in terms of technology, social values, health, and probably whatever else you can think of. So they make perfect sense in getting this message across.

The juxtaposition of these two forms of music (each embodied by two to three artists) triggers within us this historical contextualization of the images onscreen. Moments of progress (the film is structured around three major moments) come about through two musical cues, first an unsettling modern piece that is most often connected to the monolith, then a romantic swell. If you watch the film’s opening, you’ll get an idea of what I’m saying.

Even though nothing is told to you, literally, there’s clear communication going on. You know when something is disturbing, and that certain kind of disturbing that comes from the unfamiliar, because the music is so distinctly unfamiliar and off-putting. And you know when something is grand because a grand romantic track swells below it. Kubrick also uses more calm melodies to make his space-age future seem comfortable to us.

And this says more than just monolith = new, maybe bad, OK wait it’s good. It narrativizes the tension within human progress, things unsettle us, scare us (for a modern example: think of the idea of genders that aren’t he/her—horrifying to some) but as we come to understand them we realize they help us grow.

Modern music specifically is meant to challenge listeners and stretch the limits of what music and instruments can do. Isn’t that exactly what’s happening with the ape and the bone? By then transitioning to a romantic track, much more acceptable in the public’s eyes, Kubrick communicates the way in which these new things become integral to us and our culture.

Now, I understand this may be an “OK, we get it, he’s communicating evolution through music choices, it’s not that big of a deal.”


This is how films should communicate! Showing, not telling, you know? Filmmakers should find a way to show the audience that we are meant to evolve into star people, we don’t pay $15 to have someone tell us the film’s themes directly–that’s boring (looking at you Interstellar with your “we were meant to leave Earth” tagline, that’s not how it works).

Kubrick, with one music choice—and a total dick move in cutting his composer out of the film—makes space look beautiful, inspiring, terrifying, and inevitable.

He makes our future in space a romantic tale, one of two things inevitably finding each other (a move that Lars Von Trier brilliantly flips on its head in Melancholia, but that’s another week). But he was also a total dick in nixing Alex North with no warning, like, for real.

At least George Lucas kept John Williams on to rip off the songs he wanted. Nevertheless, Kubrick did it best, and in doing so forever linked space to romance.

You can check out Curating Mood every Friday on The Indie Sound. Give our previous Curating Mood feature a read highlighting David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story”.

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