John Williams Themes, Part 2 of 6: Star Wars, Main Title — 20 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this extraordinary series of analysis and labor of love. Work like yours makes the world a better place to live in.

  2. Working on score study of Superman March and stumbled, happily, into your site, and your entertaining analysis of Mr. Williams composition. I found the replies interesting also. Thanks so much for your insight of this piece, and for helping to explain why still to this day , I get chills when l hear the first transition with those beautiful chords. As you said, it’s a feeling of anticipation. Well done.

  3. I do video production work now, but in a past life I majored in theory and composition, and I occasionally delve back into that world. Your analysis of film music is a great way to bridge the two main creative worlds that I’ve inhabited in my adolescent and adult life, and you do a great job breaking things down for my now-long-out-of-practice analytical ear. Really excellent work!

    • Thank you, Steve! It’s always rewarding to hear that the work I do connects with others and offers them something they appreciate. Cheers.

  4. Hi 🙂 Awesome, just awesome!! 🙂 I cant describe my coming euphoria while I was reading the text. :)))

    To be honest, so far I have thought John Williams had everything (melody, etc) in his head and he just put it in a paper and well, it is done! 😀 But as I can see, a music composition is just like math :O

    Or am I wrong? How does he compose music? He just closes his eyes, thinks about “scene” and a melody will just appear out of nowhere or he sits in front of his piano and mechanically tries to find the right tones to fullfil his imagination of f.e. “brave theme” or “fight theme”?

    • Hi Maroš. Thanks for your enthusiasm about the analysis! I can’t say I know how Williams comes up with his music, but I will say it has a lot to do with improvising at the piano. Remember that when he first came to Hollywood in the 50s, he was a jazz pianist who played in films and for recordings of film and television music. So I think a lot of what he writes comes from playing it at the piano, but I think for the themes, he probably composes those mostly in his head since he talks about writing all his themes before composing the whole score. And he often takes a very long time to polish them into their final form, so I imagine he ponders them away from the piano for quite some time.

      As for writing themes that sound like “bravery” or “fighting”, well, that’s one of Williams’ gifts as a composer and something I’ve tried to show in my posts here as to why they sound so perfect for the things they represent. But how he comes up with it is probably very second-nature to him, in other words, it’s not mechanical but something that just sort of happens for him. That’s my guess, anyway.

  5. Any new, particularly memorable leitmotif or theme that appears in “The Force Awakens” next year…Please remember to analyze it – I’m sure there would be many who would like you to.

    • Thanks, Tomer. No worries – I’ll be all over that score! I’m very interested to hear what Williams does with it and to see the film he has to work with. Cheers.

  6. First rate analysis–really terrific explanation for a layman or a musician to enjoy. Would you agree with other annotators that there is a strong resemblance in the opening 4 or 5 notes of the main theme to Korngold’s Kings Row main title? Given Williams’ stated admiration for Korngold it would not be surprising to find a conscious or unconscious tribute there. Anyway, it is wonderful to see someone take a serious approach to this particular art form.

    • Thanks, David! I always appreciate knowing how these posts come across to those who enjoy film music but may not have a lot of formal training.

      Absolutely, I would agree that this theme resembles Korngold’s to Kings Row, and I very strongly believe it is entirely conscious and intentional. After all, Lucas has said outright that what he wanted from the get-go was a Max Steiner type of score, so the old Hollywood scores were directly being channeled, and certainly this was Williams’ way of doing that. In short, the music of Star Wars was very strongly shaped by George Lucas. That’s why so many cues have these kinds of resemblances. Many people believe that Williams is a musical thief who plagiarizes well-known classical works as a way of ensuring success, but nothing could be further from the truth, as the story behind Star Wars tells so clearly.

  7. Thank you so much for this wonderful analysis of Williams’ themes. I’m an elementary music teacher who is working on a unit on movie music for my 5th graders. I wanted to illustrate the importance of the leitmotives in the process of storytelling within these movies, and your site is a priceless resource. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Beth, for the kind words. I’m delighted to hear that you’re teaching film music to young minds. With the associations music is given in film, I think it makes abstract classically-based music easier to understand for children and, indeed, for anyone! Kudos.

  8. Thanks for your analysis. As one who doesn’t know how to read music, some of it is over my head. I haven’t read all of your pages, but I’m looking for more info on the SW music ‘cues’ – classical and film selections that Lucas says he wrote sections of the screenplay to. He mentioned Korngold in interviews, so the Kings Row Fanfare was either listened to or Lucas guided Williams to it. But so many other themes are obvious – Darth Vader theme to Funeral March by Chopin (Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 35, in B-flat Minor) and Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges March for Ewoks, etc; Lucas has said he wrote SW listening to music fitting the scene, and seems to have passed these on to JW, who used some if not all of them, as springboards. Do you know where more has been written on this connection to classical/film music motifs that JW started from?

    • Yes, check out J. W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, which discusses some of the classical pieces and film cues that were used in the film’s temp track and ultimately had a large part in carrying over to many of the original film’s cues.

    • Thank you, Manoel. Yes, I am aware of the influence of Holst’s Mars on the Star Wars score, but I don’t believe it has anything to do with the film’s main theme. It’s most evident at the end of the main title cue (not the theme itself) when the ships appear onscreen, and also at the end of the film in the lead-up to the destruction of the Death Star. But I respectfully disagree that Williams would be “nothing” without the Holst influence. Yes, there are several moments in the score that are heavily tied to other pieces but that’s because Lucas wanted it that way. And besides, these references we hear to other pieces are but short moments in a huge score. It would be impossible to claim that the score is “just a lift” from classical models as the vast majority of the score is composed without such references.

  9. Hi, thanks for the great analysis. I would like to know your thoughts on the melody changing to a minor scale at the end, descending from the root. I thought it was quite surprising when I first realized it. Then I found that some TV series openings do the same thing. Is there a name for this technique?

    • Hi Nils. That’s a great observation. I would say that, for themes in major keys, having the key turn minor is common just before an important arrival point, like the return of the main melody. Could you list some of the TV themes you have in mind? And actually, the Star Wars main title does this not only where you mention (I assume you mean in the B section just before the main theme comes back), but also just before the main theme enters for the first time. The scale flourish that leads into the theme is actually minor but when the theme comes in, it’s of course major.

      This kind of minor-key preparation for a major-key theme happens all the time in classical music as well. It’s a bread and butter technique, whether it’s for moving from a slow introduction into the movement proper (very common) or preparing for an important theme in the movement itself, like before the so-called second theme in sonata form, or even more commonly, in the development section just before the return of the main theme at the start of the recapitulation.

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