The main title music to the Star Wars films is probably the most recognizable cue in film music history. Ever since its 1977 debut in Episode IV: A New Hope, it has remained enduringly popular among filmgoers of all ages and no doubt played a substantial role in catapulting sales of the film’s soundtrack to over four million copies after its initial release.
With its opening orchestral blast, John Williams’ famous cue tells us that we are in for is a tale that is larger than life, something extraordinary, something from the realm of myths. The cue, which functions both as main title music and as a theme for Luke Skywalker, retains this mythic feel throughout its entirety and yet is surprisingly diverse in its musical material. It begins with an introductory fanfare of fast and overlapping lines, then moves into a “big” tune that is slower-paced and more majestic, then sounds a gentler melody for a middle section before returning to the big tune. Yet somehow it all hangs together incredibly well, drawing us through from start to finish in an engaging and remarkably cohesive way. So besides the superficial consistencies in its loud brassy scoring, major key, and largely consonant chords, how is it that such different sections can sound so unified and keep up the mythic feel of the music? Some answers are suggested by the cue’s melody, harmony, and rhythm, as shown in my film music analysis below.
Naturally, the overlapping fanfare at the start of the cue builds up our the excitement before the big tune comes in, but more than that, it provides much of the material for the music to come. In terms of musical intervals, there is a predominance of fourths in its melody:
Especially when used in the brass, fourths tend to suggest strength and heroism. So a liberal use of them here already lets us know that this mythic tale involves some kind of hero. But a closer look reveals that the fanfare combines two fourths (and a resulting seventh) into a three-note motive that is repeated several times:
This motive then becomes a part of the big tune:
Of course the tune’s opening leap of a fifth in the trumpets is itself a marker of heroism, but notice that the tune also makes the leap of a seventh that we saw in the fanfare. In these slower note values, this larger leap has a deeper impact on us, especially being at the top of the trumpet’s range on a climactic Bb. If the opening fifth signals a hero, this second larger leap signals a superhero.
The middle section of the main title begins with a melody that may seem quite different from all that has come before. But even here, we are treated to a reordering of the three-note motive:
This time, however, the heavy brass instruments are absent and the melody is made more lyrical by being scored for strings and continuing mainly in stepwise motion. And yet, the three-note motive underpins all of this, suggesting that what we are hearing is the gentler, more compassionate side of our superhero.
This more compassionate setting carries over into the return of the heroic big tune, which is now likewise scored for strings but also combined with French horns, a softer version of the more aggressive trumpets we heard before. It would seem that even during his most heroic exploits, our superhero manages to have a heart.
The fanfare of the main title begins with the mythic orchestral blast on the tonic chord of the cue’s key, B-flat major. The harmony of the rapid brass lines that follow is not sounded as a block chord but rather by sounding the notes of a chord one at a time. Grouping all the notes of these lines together, what results is a chord built in fourths, or what is known as a “quartal” chord (in the diagram below, I shift the trombones’ line down an octave to make it more readable):
The fanfare then sounds its last three notes on the chord of the dominant (fifth note of the scale) in B-flat major. Remarkably, the big tune that follows has this very same harmonic outline (as does the tune’s return after the middle section). It begins with a blast of B-flat tonic harmony, which then alternates with the same quartal chord on F before coming to a close on the dominant chord. This dominant chord gives the music a sense of forward drive since what we really want to hear after it is a tonic to close out the phrase. When a phrase is deprived of this tonic closure, we feel that the music must press on in order to attain it. And in fact every phrase in this main title ends on a dominant—we never get to a tonic conclusion. In mythic terms, this could be viewed as a fitting musical reflection of the superhero whose job is never entirely finished.
In addition to the blasting tonic chord, the quartal chord, and the final dominant chord, both sections also have a prominent A-flat just before the dominant, further strengthening the similarity. Compare the harmonic outline of the two below:
Even the middle section, which follows a different outline, contains broken quartal chords in a line given to the winds and piano:
This harmonic connection is another way that we can hear this lyrical section as the softer side of our mythic superhero’s character.
The main title’s opening fanfare sets out the rhythmic basis of the rest of the cue. It consists almost entirely of moderately fast triplets. Although the subsequent big tune slows the rhythm down with longer notes at its opening, the triplets do not disappear. Instead, they are incorporated into the tune, and although Williams writes them in longer note values than in the fanfare, they are actually played at the same speed as the fanfare’s triplets because of a change in the notation. So what we hear turns out to be the same rhythm as in the fanfare. Even the lyrical middle section retains the triplets in the wind and piano accompaniment I mentioned above. Compare all these below (triplet eighth notes in the fanfare are equal in speed to triplet quarter notes in the big tune and middle section):
In the context of a four- or two-beat time like these, triplet rhythms give the music a march-like character. In fact, these triplets are so pervasive that the entire cue might aptly be called the “Star Wars March” since it is essentially a march in all but name. In any case, the implication is of a powerful military aspect to our mythic superhero.
The main title music of the Star Wars films has had a lasting impression on audiences ever since it burst onto the silver screen in 1977. It is perhaps the perfect sonic introduction to the mythical world we are transported to from “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. Certainly part of its overwhelming success has been due to its larger-than-life quality through its heavy brass scoring and its memorable, soaring tune. But more than that, the music just seems to “work” incredibly well, firmly holding our attention from start to finish. As I have argued, one reason we feel so glued to this music in the film is that the entire cue is highly unified in both its musical structure and its expressive qualities. In other words, we hear the same melodic motives, the same harmonies, and the same rhythms played again and again but in slightly different guises. But at the same time, these musical aspects are such strong indicators of the mythic superhero that a consistent emotional quality is in fact built into the musical structure. (The cue is given below in case you’d like to hear the cue with fresh ears, so to speak.) Given this powerful connection between the music’s structure and the film’s myth-based world, it would be difficult to imagine any other music working quite as well as this.