The “Force theme”, also known as “Ben Kenobi’s theme”, “Obi-Wan’s theme”, or “May the Force Be With You”, is one of the most beloved of John Williams’ music for the Star Wars saga. It appears in all six films, but perhaps most memorably in the very first, Episode IV: A New Hope, in the cue “Binary Sunset”, where Luke Skywalker contemplates his future while watching a pair of suns set on the horizon:
Hear it in this clip from 2:21:
Emotionally, the theme ranges from the gentle poignancy of cues like this that can bring a tear to one’s eye to a brash militarism that can rouse the spirits and make us root for the good guys. So what is it that gives this theme its emotional qualities and makes it such a perfect fit for what we see onscreen? My film music analysis below gives some ideas.
Let’s start with the theme’s melody, which divides into four two-bar ideas. In the example below, notice that the goal notes of each idea together form a shape that rises through the first three ideas, reaches a climax, then falls with the last:
Thus, the theme gradually builds to a climax over a long stretch, then more quickly relaxes and comes to an end. Because this is the general pattern of tension found in most action narratives and the struggles they involve, you might call this the “struggle” contour.
But the Force theme goes even further than this in its sense of struggle. In the example below, I show the prominent scale steps the melody moves through, as shown by the numbers with caret marks over them.
After a brief pickup note, the first idea starts with a slow rise from the first note of the scale (tonic), up to the second, then quickly through the third and fourth before sinking back down to the third again. In this quick rise to the fourth note, it’s as though the theme wants to continue its upward motion but is thwarted from doing so.
In the second idea, we get the same rise up the first, second, and third scale notes, and quickly touch on the fifth before falling back to the fourth. Again, the theme seems to want to rise higher to the fifth and beyond, but somehow it just cannot—it’s struggling hard to make its way up the scale.
Finally, in the third idea, we rise from the first, through second, third, and fifth up to an octave (eight) above the first note. Reaching this high note through this kind of slow rise gives it the feeling of a climax, a success of sorts. And in the “Binary Sunset” cue above, Williams emphasizes this climax with a fuller scoring for the orchestra and with the melody in the strings, both of which add to the poignancy of the effect.
Just as we reach this climax, the melody quickly begins to fall again, eventually ending on the tonic we started on. Thus in its first three ideas, the melody suggests a “striving” quality, a long, arduous road towards a success that is tarnished with setbacks both large and small. Surely this is one of the reasons why the theme feels “right” as a musical symbol of not just Obi-Wan’s struggle, but the Rebels’ struggle more generally.
The rhythm of the Force theme is one of its most distinctive features. But notice some of the specifics of its rhythm: it’s set in a four-beat meter, beats 1 and 3 of each bar are almost always emphasized with a note that is a beat or two long, and there are conspicuous dotted (long-short) rhythms and triplet rhythms:
These are all characteristics of a march, so even in its gentle versions, the theme has an underlying military quality. No doubt, this is why it is well suited to represent the Jedis and Rebellion, and also why it is entirely fitting when the theme assumes a more obvious march-like character with a faster tempo and brassier orchestration.
The Force theme is set in a minor key, and minor keys usually signal some kind of negative emotion. But it’s not all doom and gloom in this theme. The chord ending the second idea is a more positive major IV chord:
Normally, IV is a minor chord in a minor key, so this change to major gives us a sense of hope within a prevailing negative context, which is precisely the situation of the Rebels in relation to the powerful Empire.
At the end of the theme’s third idea, the climax emerges over another major chord, VI (see above example). Because this chord is found naturally within the minor scale, we have not lost the sense of the negative context. But the sound of the major chord on VI strikes an overwhelmingly positive tone, especially when combined with a loud melodic climax, as in “Binary Sunset”, so tends to sound like a heroic triumph of sorts. This is likely why the chord is frequently heard in the themes of superheroes, Elfman’s and Zimmer’s themes for Batman being other examples.
The final chord (or “cadence”) of most of Williams’ themes gives a sense of punctuation, a sign that we have finished with the theme altogether, or at least with that section of it. The Force theme is no exception, since in its fullest form, as heard in “The Throne Room” march, its ends with a final-sounding tonic chord. In “Binary Sunset”, the theme leads us to expect this same closure on a tonic chord, but trails off before reaching it. Listen again to “Binary Sunset”, starting from 2:36:
Besides the “Throne Room”, the only time the theme does reach a final chord in A New Hope, it is tainted by dissonance, as in the second statement in the cue above—hear its last idea from 3:51 to the end. In every other instance of the Force theme in this film, we only hear its first half. And as we have seen, when the second half is sounded, it either does not resolve or moves to a dissonant chord that sounds equally unresolved. The theme is only completed in the Throne Room march, after the Rebels’ mission to destroy the Death Star has been completed. Thus, the success of the mission is mirrored in the resolution of the music. Hear this final version of the theme below from 0:17:
The two main versions of the Force theme heard in A New Hope are differentiated largely by their orchestration. The gentle statements set the theme’s melody softly in lyrical instruments like the horn, strings, or winds. And they are often accompanied by fast, repeated notes (or a “tremolo”) high up in the strings, which has a shimmering effect that gives the theme a contemplative or vulnerable sound.
In its more aggressive, militaristic settings, the melody assumes a loud and strident tone in the trumpets and/or trombones, and there is usually a heavy accompaniment in the rest of the orchestra that suggests the emotional weight of the situation at hand. The intensity of these statements of the theme are usually bolstered by the use of dissonant harmony, as below in the cue “The Battle of Yavin”, starting at 3:40:
The appearance of these two main types of orchestration correspond with the general shape of the film’s narrative: in the earlier part of the film, it is not certain whether Luke will become the hero the Rebellion so desperately needs—hence the more contemplative forms of the Force theme. But as Luke learns the ways of the Force with Obi-Wan and begins to act more and more like a hero, we hear more of the brassy military form of the theme, especially in the final battle with the Death Star.
The Force theme packs a lot of meaning into a very small space. Its melody has the contour of a “struggle” and strives to reach a hard-won climax. Its underlying march rhythm gives it an appropriately military air, even when it is scored in its gentler versions. Its major chords on IV and VI lend it a feeling of hope and heroism within the larger negative climate of the minor scale. Its lack of resolution to a clean final chord in all but the last statement in “The Throne Room” gives it the sense of struggling towards a goal that is only achieved at the very end of the film. And its differences in orchestration correspond with Obi-Wan’s shaping of Luke into the hero of the story. For all these reasons, the Force theme is a natural fit with Luke, the Force, and more generally, the Rebellion.
No wonder the theme is considered one of the best of the Star Wars films.
Coming soon – Part 2: Star Wars, main title