This article was previously published on The Info Zombie blog back in 2014. I’ve decided to share it again because we must never forget who Wendy Carlos is and how she changed music forever.

“Almost Magical”: The Love Theme from TRON

After several hours of trying to come up with an “anthem” for the film Tron (1982), Wendy Carlos gave up and decided to just go to bed; but no sooner had she done so, Wendy had a musical epiphany that kept her from falling asleep. “Many of my best ideas…seem to pop into my head when it’s most inconvenient,” she recalls. “In such cases, you actually “hear” the final music in your head, pretty nearly in a finished form, with the full orchestra or other instruments playing. A private, steerable jukebox!” [1] Fortunately, Wendy kept a pad of “amusing” keyboard paper by her bedside on which she could transcribe these impromptu musical ideas. So within a matter of minutes, the “Tron Anthem” was born.


[Figure 1. Wendy Carlos’ initial sketch for the Tron anthem.]

By this time in her life, Wendy had already made a name for herself as a composer and pioneering electronic musician with her debut album Switched-On Bach (1968), which won three Grammy awards and surprised everyone in the music business with its immense success. In addition to producing similar albums, Wendy also went on to compose electronic film scores, including A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980). Because of this, Wendy was the obvious choice when Walt Disney Pictures went searching for a composer to score the science-fiction computer film Tron.

What makes Wendy’ score for Tron so unique is the fact that it utilizes both acoustic instruments (orchestra, choir, and organ) and electronic instruments (Moog synthesizer and Crumar’s GDS digital synthesizer), which is extremely appropriate for a film about a man getting sucked into a computer. All the acoustic and electronic instruments are used in Tron’s “Love Theme,” which is the main selection I will be analyzing.


[Figure 2. Wendy Carlos studying the Tron score at her modular Moog system.]

“Love Theme” starts with at least fifty seconds worth of tone clusters (Section 1), played by what we can only assume are the strings and one of the synthesizers. By 0:10, the clusters become less dissonant, and we can begin to make out some consonant intervals, although several different rhythms are simultaneously occurring. By 0:20, choir voices enter singing eerie perfect intervals over the string clusters, and at 0:40 the synthesizer joins in. If you listen to the piece in stereo, you can hear a very quick call and response between the synthesizer notes on the left and right sides.

Everything changes in Section 2 at 1:00, where a solo cello plays the “Tron Anthem,” soon followed by the violins and violas at 1:10. Between 1:00 and 1:25, the synthesizer once again ornaments the melody; but it also accompanies it with what sounds like an Alberti bass pattern. Due to the prominence of the strings, this section is particularly full and lush with a consonant harmonic sound. And although it is difficult to decipher what time signature it is in, this section still has a definite pulse that gives it a very organic feel and cantabile style. Because of these qualities, the second section is an extremely stark contrast from the first section, which had an ambiguous harmonic sound and no sense of pulse. Interestingly, both sections utilized the electronics to the same purpose of ornamenting the acoustic instruments and blurring the lines between “real” and “unreal” voices.

A transitional section starts at 1:25 where the strings begin to play cluster chords again and the synthesizer begins arpeggiating chords that clash against them. The chaos crescendos as trumpets play a triumphant call above it at 1:35. And as if things couldn’t get any crazier, the lower-pitched instruments of the orchestra (and the lower notes of the synthesizer as well) slowly enter, creating a sense of heaviness as the music continues to crescendo in both volume and instrumentation, a term I’ve always referred to as “frooping.”

At 1:40, when the ensemble can froop no more, we enter the third section, where the anthem reprises gloriously in not only a different key but also a slightly bastardized minor mode. Almost every instrument, including the choir, is playing the melody. After a bar or two in this minor mode, the ensemble switches back to the initial major mode, providing a perfect instance of harmonic tension and release. And to the listener’s surprise, the whole piece decrescendos on an E major chord (III) as opposed to the tonic C major chord (I).

Regarding musical form, Wendy always consider it to be the biggest bugaboo about any composition longer than a minute or two. “The minute you try and get into a longer, abstract piece of music, even if it’s program or film music, you’re facing formal questions,” she says. “How do the structures relate to one another? Does this lead to the other logically?” [2] Considering that, we can see that “Love Theme” has the following form:

[Section 1] – [Section 2] – [Transition] – [Section 3]

With this, we can now answer Wendy’s own questions. How do the structures relate to one another? Well, Section 1 and the Transition feature the cluster chord areas, or the more chaotic parts of the piece, whereas Sections 2 and 3 are merely the “Tron Anthem” presented in two different ways. So in terms of musical structure, the form would look like this:

Chaos ~ Anthem A ~ Chaos ~ Anthem B

So, do the ideas lead to each other logically? I’d say yes, because in a way, the “Love Theme” form resembles classical sonata form (Exposition ~ Development ~ Recapitulation). If we consider Section 1 chaos to be just introductory material (because its only purpose is to slowly push us into the Anthem theme), Anthem A to be the exposition (because it is the first statement of the theme in the first key area), the transitional chaos to be the development (because it serves to disorient us and take us to a different key area before the second statement of the theme), and Anthem B to be the recapitulation (because it is the second statement of the theme in a new key), it results in this:

Introduction ~ Exposition ~ Development ~ Recapitulation

Well played, Wendy. Well played.

In terms of texture and tone color, Wendy has always strived to incorporate as many different timbres in her music as she can, and “Love Theme” is no exception. The reason I selected “Love Theme” instead of a more electronic-heavy selection like “Tron Scherzo” is because this piece has so many more timbres and compositional techniques to observe and appreciate. Wendy does such a lovely job of contrasting the higher, clustered textures in Section 1 and the Transition with the deeper, more luscious textures in Sections 2 and 3; and that is exactly what she wanted to accomplish. “I heard the score as a blending throughout of electronic and acoustic colors,” she said, “with no harsh, artificial separation of timbres.” [3]

Throughout all the sections, Wendy accomplishes her mission of blending the orchestra, choir, and synthesizer tracks to make one pure, new sound. She achieved this by recording her orchestra and choir cues separately from her synthesizer tracks, and then mixing the two together to create a homogenized recording.

Unfortunately, this was not an easy feat. The orchestra recordings came back from the Royal Albert Hall sounding distorted and messy because of poor sightreading and bad microphone placement, so Wendy had to edit everything in her own home studio. “First, I added tracks where synthesizer colors were needed. Second, I doubled lines that I thought were played poorly. Third, I put in lines that had been missed altogether by the orchestra, totally off-mike or improperly recorded.” [3] Between splicing and re-recording tracks at different speeds, Wendy made her own modifications to the new Crumar GDS digital synthesizer in order to save her score. “It was physically exhausting, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

[Figure 3. Wendy Carlos with the Crumar GDS synthesizer.]

Luckily, Wendy’s efforts paid off. The Tron soundtrack blended marvelously with the film, and it would grow to be a cult favorite among many science-fiction fans and electronic musicians who eagerly awaited its release on vinyl and CD. [4] While it was one of Wendy’s most difficult projects, she still talks positively about it. “You’re aware of the time you’ve spent, you’re aware of every little bit in the music at the end, that it all went through you…but the process itself is somehow still almost magical. That’s just the act of being creative.” [5]

[1] Carlos, Wendy. “TRON Original Sketch: How two main themes were first created.” Wendy Carlos.com. May 2003. http://www.wendycarlos.com/+tron.html#tronsketch
[2] Aikin, Jim. “Visionary Composer and Computers.” Music and Computers Magazine.
Nov/Dec 1997. http://www.wendycarlos.com/other/PDF-Files/M%26CInterview-97*.pdf
[3] Moog, Robert. “The Soundtrack of TRON.” Keyboard Magazine. November 1982. http://www.wendycarlos.com/other/PDF-Files/KbdOnTRON*.pdf
[4] Krakower, Beth. “Walt Disney Records Introduces Highly Anticipated Expanded Reissue of Tron.”SciFlicks.com. February 12, 2002. http://forums.sciflicks.com/showthread.php?t=2686
[5] Oteri, Frank. “Wendy’s World: A new text/video interview with Frank Oteri.” New Music Box. April 2007. http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/wendys-world/