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When you think about science fiction theme tunes, chances are there are a few that are especially stirring and heroic. Star Wars. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Superman: The Movie. And all of these theme tunes have something in common: they rely on the same basic intervals.

We talked to music experts — including legendary composer Bear McCreary — to find out why so many famous theme tunes use the “perfect fifth” for their hook.

Most people will instantly recognize the first few notes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was originally known as “Also sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss. It starts with a low C, and then goes up five notes to a G — that’s a perfect fifth right there. And then the next note is another C, up an octave from the first C.

But the Star Wars theme, by John Williams, relies on a similar progression. The first few sustained notes in Star Wars are a G, going up a perfect fifth to a D, and then a higher G. Williams also plays with a descending perfect fifth in the Superman: the Movie score. And his E.T.: The Extraterrestrial theme also starts with an ascending perfect fifth. (…)

“It has its basis in physics,” says McCreary. “It’s a physical reality.” There’s an actual physical phenomenon behind the perfect fifth, and the octave above that, called the “overtone series.” Here’s how it works, according to McCreary:

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