How ‘The X Files’ Composer Made TV’s Creepiest Theme Song

Hollywood, 1992. Mark Snow 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 a new TV pilot, The X Files, an unlikely supernatural procedural inspired partly by Kolchak, The Twilight Zone, and Twin Peaks. As he sat in his garage home studio one day, stumped in his search for the right sound for the show’s theme music, Mark accidentally put his elbow on the keyboard. A delay echo blurted out of the monitors. “That’s kinda cool,” he thought.

Neither he nor Carter could imagine that that creepy, repeating sound would form the basis for one of TV’s most unforgettable bits of music, one that would eventually implant itself like an alien virus across the culture and in the brains of a generation of viewers. (I offer no apologies for my first web page, in 1997, an X Files tribute that auto-played a MIDI version of the theme song, on repeat.) A few minutes after 10pm every Friday, those creepy synths and that whistle—a mix of computer and human sound—beckoned us into the shadows of the neon-bright ’90s.

To get there, Snow tells me 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.”