There's nothing quite like some good cyberpunk music. Each movie and video game soundtrack has its own unique take on the modern era. It's a genre that's never limited to a single aesthetic. Instead, cyberpunk music acts as a kind of doorway into another world.
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Top 10 Cyberpunk Soundtracks
What is Cyberpunk Music?
The meaning of cyberpunk music is still up for debate. As you explore the genre, you'll find everything from the darksynth aesthetic of Cyberpunk 2077 to the cheeky use of jazz noir and big band in Cowboy Bebop. That's why we've put together this list of our top 10 favorite movies and video games. By the time you've finished this article, you'll better understand the range of sounds that have been used in cyberpunk soundtracks.
Synthwave is the most common subgenre of music used in cyberpunk movies and videogames. You can trace this sound back to the 1980s, when it first emerged as alongside science-fiction and horror films. Producers have continued to draw on the appeal of this retro sound in shows like Stranger Things, but the use of synthwave doesn't necessarily mean that the movie or game is cyberpunk. So for this reason, synthwave and cyberpunk are not synonymous.
Cinematic effects are another common feature of cyberpunk music. Most of the sounds we associate with the genre come from big budget movies like Tron: Legacy, where the common tropes of synthwave merge with a more enveloping cinematic ambience. Listeners have come to expect those huge kettle drums and wailing soprano synths for the genre. You won't find those in synthwave on its own.
The third most common style of music used in cyberpunk, despite being commonly overlooked, is jazz. You'll find songs from classic artists like Frank Sintara in Bladerunner 2049 or Django Reinhardt in the AI hotel of Altered Carbon.
As you listen through the top 10 cyberpunk music OSTs, see if you can find the common threads that tie everything together. You might find that these disparate musical styles serve a similar emotion purpose for the listener.
Blade Runner (Vangelis - 1982)
You can't talk about cyberpunk music without addressing the Blade Runner soundtrack. Starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott, the original film tells the story of a bounty hunter at odds with the evil Tyrell Corporation. Artificially intelligent robots (replicants) have been released into the world and are indistinguishable from humans. The only apparent difference is that they don't experience emotions, which makes it easy for them to commit criminal acts.
Harrison's character, Rick Deckard, begins the journey as a self-interested arm of the police force. He doesn't care about replicants and simple does what's required of him at his job. But as the movie develops, he finds himself developing sympathy for the robots. The humanization of robots and technology is mirrored in the soundtrack, which was one of the first to achieve this warm, synthetic sound.
Greek composer Vangelis is singlehandedly responsible for bringing the movie to life with his Yamaha CS-80. While this synth may be exceedingly rare today, producers can program the Prophet 5 to achieve a similar effect.
Check out the tracks Mesa and Memory from the film's remake, Blade Runner 2049. Composed by the legendary Hans Zimmer, the soundtrack incorporates all of the most cutting edge cinematic sound effects while retaining the films original charm. You'll also notice that the 2049 soundtrack incorporates more jazz than its predecessor. This is a pattern we'll continue to see as we explore the best OSTs.
Ghost in the Shell (Kawai - 1995)
It's hard to think of a cyberpunk soundtrack that was more groundbreaking than Ghost in the Shell. Any time new genres emerge in cinema, composers are tasked with exploring sounds that capture that feeling. This is especially true in the case of futuristic landscapes, where traditional instruments would be mismatched with the themes of the movie. Perhaps that's why some of the most innovative ideas surfaced in the 80's and 90's, when the dystopian futurist aesthetic was still just getting started.
Composer Kenji Kawai tried something that has not really been done again since. On the one hand, he summoned intense ritualistic sounds from traditional Japanese instruments like the taiko drum, metal hand pans, and bowed gong. These were used to create a haunting atmosphere akin to the dark theatrical art of Japanese butoh.
The movie's opening theme, Making of a Cyborg, famously combined lyrics from a Japanese wedding song, intended to dispel evil, with the vocal techniques of Bulgarian Choir music. This singing style makes use a very fast, technical vibrato that makes you feel like you're about to lose your footing. The combination of Japanese prayer with a bizarre European-style vocalization had never been done before.
Other sonic techniques were used to mess with the audience, like a spatializer that altered character voices during electronic brain conversations. Even when traditional instruments like the acoustic guitar are used, for example at the end of Virtual Crime, the chord choices are unusual and disorienting in their beauty.
Despite all the musical innovation of Ghost in a Shell, you can still find evidence that it belongs to the genre of cyberpunk music. Ghost City has the warm enveloping synths we associate with Blade Runner as well as the tinkling wind chimes that elevate you above and beyond the hell-realm.
Thirty years later, with director Beat Takeshi's 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell, we're presented with a far less innovative soundtrack. It perfectly captures the conventional cinematic cyberpunk feel, without any of the show's original flavor. Perhaps this is why the Ghost in the Shell 2017 soundtrack was never released as a standalone OST.
Cloudpunk (2022 - Harry Critchley)
Cloudpunk is is considered one of the best cyberpunk games released in the past couple years, other than Cyberpunk 2049 of course. You play as a newly hired delivery driver named Rania, operating a flying vehicle reminiscent of the Blade Runner sky taxis. Your occupation has a high mortality rate, lending an ominous feeling to the RPG.
The soundtrack to this game oozes with the hypnotic analog synth sounds that define the cyberpunk music genre. Themes of artificial intelligence play a key role in the plot and pose moral problems that you have to make in order to progress the storyline. Your fate is dictated by a strange recurring word, CORA, which you gradually learn is the name of a Master AI that controls everything.
Tron: Legacy (Daft Punk - 2010)
For those familiar with Daft Punk's more popular tracks, it may come as a surprise that they were behind the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. Known for their influence on dance music in the late 90's, DP famously used robotic vocoder effects to manipulate their voice on tracks like Better, Faster, Harder, Stronger. They have also been known to dress up in futuristic outfits, which may be one of the reasons they were selected for the soundtrack.
Daft Punk's typical style of electronic house music was barely incorporated into the film. Instead, Tron: Legacy combined their arpeggiated synths with orchestral arrangements straight out of a Batman movie. The tense, heroic feeling of symphonic tracks like Recognizer set the foundation, even when Armory takes on a slightly sneakier feel.
The darksynth aesthetic makes a full debut about halfway through the film, in tracks like Derezzed and Fall. The instrumentation becomes increasingly distorted and aggressive as the table stakes grow higher for the main characters. Solar Sailer might be the only moment of respite in the movie, so if you're looking for a more soothing take on synthwave, check that one out.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (McCann - 2011)
It was tough to pick a single soundtrack from The Deus Ex franchise, but we did end up going with Human Revolution. The game is incredibly sonically diverse without ever losing its cyberpunk music sensibilities. It features all of the dark ambient synths that you come to expect, but with some unique vocal elements.
Michael McCann draws on what could maybe best be described as middle eastern vocal style, reminiscent of scenes in a movie where the character is lost in a desert. Most of the singing is performed with open vowel sounds, so that the only thing left is the raw emotion. It almost sounds like prayer, in a minor key. Where Vangelis relied on synths for this effect, Human Revolution comes full circle and mimics the effect with a return human voices.
You can feel the maturity of McCann's compositional style in tracks like LIMB Clinic, where the flawless orchestral arrangement merges with subtle digital glitch textures. The game also makes use of some unusual percussive sounds, edging toward rock drumming rather than synthwave on tracks like Return to Hengsha.
Altered Carbon (Russo / Gagne - 2018)
Can we really talk about a "soundtrack" in the context of a multi-series netflix show like Altered Carbon? With so many episodes and licensed songs, it may feel like the scope is too broad to pin it to one genre. Lucky for us, Jeff Russo did produce a core soundtrack that's available for our enjoyment on Spotify. Not only that, but he's managed to continue innovating in a cinematic genre that's quickly becoming cornered by synthwave and industrial music.
The Altered Carbon OST draws from ambient vocal work, similar in some ways to the effects mentioned above in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. But the singers and melodic lines no longer sound middle eastern. The female vocals on Last Stand Kovacs V1 and The Patchwork Man are more like a frail ghost drifting through the Irish countryside. The use of non-chord tones and reverb give the vocals an eerie feel, despite their otherwise pleasant timbre.
By and large, this soundtrack marks a return to cinematic orchestral music. Synths still play an important role in the ambient textures, but they don't dominate. Pianos, live strings, and horns feature regularly with a ghostly sonic aura around them like the glow of a soulless neon light.
To really get a feel for the show's musical pallet, check out this playlist that was compiled independently. Tracks like Soft Scene by Autolux gives us a taste of just how wonderfully strange the genre of cyberpunk music could still get. The show also features an assortment of jazz and impressionist piano music, a trend we witnessed in Blade Runner 2049, Cowboy Bebop, and plenty of others.
Observer (Reikowski - 2017)
Next up is the cyberpunk horror title Observer. Where other soundtracks we've listed may have attempted to bring some heart to the cybernetic landscape, Observer digs deeper into sonic dystopia. This is the first example on the list that masterfully dials in its use of glitch effects. If you find the Blade Runner and Final Fantasy series to be a bit dull, you won't have that problem here.
As a rule, music in the cinematic horror genre has to lean heavily on sound effects. Fortunately for fans of this game, you don't find yourself in a completely atonal landscape. The long, haunting synths that Vangelis introduced are still present, albeit used sparingly and saved mostly for the final track, End Titles.
This game may be the first and only place where we hear the Bulgarian choir techniques of Ghost in the Shell brought back into the fold, through tracks like Lockdown, The Church, and Wolfman. These pieces feature Polish experimental vocal group Księżyc.
Arkadiusz Reikowski, the game's composer, did not make tonal music a priority in this game. By the time you reach the track Mirror Me, the hypnotic pounding of a muted drum is the only thing left resembling cyberpunk music. You find yourself in an ocean of malfunctioning hardware noises reminiscent of AOL's dialup tone. As the track develops, it devolves into pure glitch music. Yet somehow, this album endures and comes out the other end with a unique style and sound.
Cyberpunk 2077 (Przybyłowicz - 2020)
You didn't think we'd leave out the Cyberpunk 2077 soundtrack did you? Sometimes you need to eat your dinner before you have your desert. For many people, this game was their first serious introduction to cyberpunk music.
Composed collaboratively by Polish musicians and sound designers P. T. Adamczyk, Marcin Przybyłowicz and Paul Leonard-Morgan, the game's soundtrack covers a huge range of sounds. Released just two years prior to the publication of this article, it features what could be considered the most cutting edge production and sound design of our era.
The game's OST clocks in at seven and a half hours of cyberpunk music. You may get a couple moments of dissociative bliss in tracks like Outsider No More and Bells of Laguna Bend. But let's be real, most of the album is designed to put you in a frantic state. And that's awesome.
Sinister tracks like Wushu Dolls lean heavily on huge distorted industrial guitar tones, ala Trent Reznor. Adrenaline junkies will appreciate the unrelenting, high-BPM feel of Juiced Up and Trouble Finds Trouble.
Want to stay up all night and rage but fresh out of amphetamines? Not a problem, just throw on Cyberpunk 2077 and crack open an energy drink. The music won't let you down.
Ghostrunner (Deluxe - 2020)
For fans of the music in Cyberpunk 2077, be sure to check out the GhostRunner soundtrack. Released the same year as CBP2077 and scored by Russian electronic producer Daniel Deluxe, the soundtrack to Ghostrunner spends less time on atmosphere. You won't find yourself wading through a bunch of cold, mechanical rumbling sfx to get to the melodic parts. It's pure darksynth cyberpunk music, through and through.
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (Power Glove - 2014)
By the time we reach 2014, there has been plenty of time for composers to reflect on the meaning and aesthetics that would define cyberpunk music in the coming years. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is the first example in our list that really digs its heels into retro synthwave. Cinematic elements are still present, but the organic orchestral instruments and choirs have been replaced with synthetic ones.
Beloved by the fans, many point to Power Glove's game score as the one that got them hooked on darksynth. Characterized by repetitive, pulsing bass tones and straight ahead 80's drums in 8/8 meter, there's not a ton of innovation here. That's probably why it's such a classic. It hits the genre right on the nose. If you prefer brooding synth arpeggios to traditional songwriting, you'll love this.
The OST isn't totally monotonous. You'll find the occasional ambient cybernetic horror tracks, like Nest, which consists of little more than rumbling and swelling. Cyber Commando sounds like it was taken straight out of the Blade Runner playbook, with its ostinato bass and Vangelis synthesizers. Love Theme even includes some cheesy lead guitar and synth saxaphone. But these are exceptions to the rule. Blood Dragon is a meat-and-potatoes OST for synthwave fans.
How To Make Cyberpunk Music
For electronic artists who want to make their own cyberpunk music, AudioCipher is an excellent place to start. It's the first-ever cyberpunk VST to hit the MIDI plugin market, designed for creating music in any genre. The app works by turning words into MIDI notes, so you can transform the names of your favorite cyberpunk characters into music.
If you want to get straight to the punch, AudioCipher also offers a Cyberpunk Audio sample pack on ADSR. This collection of over 200 original sounds comes with a variety of glitched out, cybernetic effects you can use to give your track the futuristic feel your going for.
Another great resource for new artists is Splice, a music sampling database that lets you pick up loops, one-shots, and presets. If you navigate to their browsing tool and search for cyberpunk keywords like synthwave, you'll find thousands of audio files. Filter your results down by instrument, tempo, key signature and more.
For those of you looking to dive deeper into audio synthesis with Native Instruments and other advanced tools, check out this article from Mode Audio. You can also find a lot of excellent cyberpunk music tutorials on youtube, so don't be shy with your search queries.
Musical Symbolism in Cyberpunk
Why has cinematic synthwave become so common in cyberpunk music? The easy answer is that electronic sounds are being used to evoke a cybernetic landscape. Cinematic sfx were incorporated into the score to elevate it beyond ordinary music.
Blade Runner set the tone early on with sustained synth notes that slowly glide down like a whale song. Even in the 80's we started to hear the now-familiar ambience of twinkling digital windchimes, futuristic glitch effects and massive impact sounds. Why are these the musical concepts that stuck around?
Here's one possibility; your typical superhero movie focuses on a single villain responsible for all problems. If the hero defeats them. they defeat the root of all evil in the story. But cyberpunk villains tend to be puppets of a larger sinister corporation. There's a sense of existential dread, where the common people have been absorbed into an enormous system of technological oppression.
Each instrumental technique represents something concretely human. You'll hear glitch effects that symbolize technological failure, both mechanically but also morally in terms of how humans have failed to use technology to their advantage. The hero is enacting humanity's final, desperate attempts to win an uphill battle against artificial intelligence.
The use of long, deep synth notes help to steady the listener's heart, while the drooping synths invoke a feeling of loss or letting go. Major chords are used sparingly to remind the viewer that all is not lost, yet.