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How 'X-Files' composer Mark Snow accidentally created the show's iconic theme song

The Television Academy Orchestra lead by Mark Snow performs at
The Television Academy Orchestra lead by Mark Snow performs at "SCORE! A Concert Celebrating Music Composed for Television" presented by the Television Academy at UCLA's Royce Hall on Wednesday, May 21, 2014, in Los Angeles.
Todd Williamson/Todd Williamson/Invision/AP
The Television Academy Orchestra lead by Mark Snow performs at
Composer Mark Snow arrives at the 21st Annual ASCAP Film and Television Awards gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on April 11, 2006 in Beverly Hills.
David Livingston/Getty Images

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It’s been more than 20 years since “The X-Files” debuted on Fox. The hit show followed FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they investigated cases involving the paranormal. Now, Fox is hoping to relive the success of the show with a new six-episode miniseries debuting Jan. 24.

One thing that remains exactly the same in this new series: the iconic theme music composed by Mark Snow.

Snow says he got hired for the job as "The X-Files" composer in part because he lived close to director Chris Carter. Carter lived in the Palisades while Snow lived in Santa Monica; the other composers were either in the Valley or downtown. As every Angeleno knows, when it comes to getting anything done, drive time matters.

Snow is also bashful about the origins of the theme, saying it was no bright idea that struck him in the middle of the night. Rather, the first material came about accidentally when he "haphazardly" lowered his elbow onto his keyboard. 

"Lo and behold there was this echoplex digital delay that became the accompaniment figure in the theme. It had that repeated sound."

Time — and the "X-Files" audience — have treated the music a little better. The show became a major hit during its nine-season run of stories about ghosts, aliens and the rest of the unexplained. With its lightly-scored sense of mystery — the theme sounds like a puff of smoke vanishing into thin air — Snow's music fit the mood of the show perfectly.

Now that "The X-Files" is returning fans are remembering everything they loved about the show — including the theme.

Michelle Lanz of The Frame met with Mike Snow to talk about the origins of the theme music and how he benefited from the creative freedom that Carter granted him.


How did the theme music come about?

Chris Carter came over and said, 'I like the drum sound here, I like the synthesizer here, I like the strings here and the flute here.' So I wrote a theme, the first one I wrote. But it was more what you’d think a sci-fi theme should sound like. He came over and listened to it and said, 'Boy that’s good. But you know, I think we could move on from here and do something different and better.' I said, great.

After the third time, I said, 'Maybe we should start from scratch. A total blank canvas. And I’ll see what I can come up with without you nagging me and butting in, ha-ha.'

I put my elbow accidentally down on the keyboard. Lo and behold there was this echoplex digital delay that became the accompaniment figure in the theme. It had that repeated sound. Then it was time to write the melody. Wrote the melody, and here comes the whistle sound. It was called 'Whistling Joe' on a certain sample. 

What did Chris Carter think of the music when he first heard it? How about the Fox executives?

Chris Carter comes over, hears it. He wasn’t like, jumping up and down. He keeps it pretty close to the vest. And he said, now we have to play it to the Fox executives. Bring a cassette tape and a boombox and we’ll go in.

I go in, I see these gentlemen in suits. They’re very nice. I said, here’s the theme. And I play it. And no one said, 'OK, we love it. It’s great. We’re going to go with it.' But they left it up to Chris Carter. And that was it, it was in. 

What happened after the show started getting popular?

Four months later, the show came out. It was moving along and gaining popularity and that theme was getting noticed. When I finished it up, before anyone heard it, I thought it was kind of cute, fine, a little novel idea. But I didn’t really get the fact that it was going to turn into such a big deal that people were going to be talking about. That it would be covered by punk bands and country music — any kind of thing. So there were many versions out there which was wonderful, very flattering. It’s a very simple piece. And the wonderful part is nobody reined me in from doing any of that stuff. I just went for it, so to speak. It didn’t seem like such a big deal to me at the time. Well, it worked out really well.

Season 10 of "The X-Files" will premiere on Fox on Sunday, Jan. 24.

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