John Williams: Scoring the Force

The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music(Image credit: Flickr user Alec McNayr)

After Uncle John saw Star Wars (12 times), he though he knew all the characters. But BRI stalwart Jay Newman pointed out that there was one important character that wasn't listed in the cast: the music.


He's won 5 Oscars and 18 Grammys, and he may be the most widely heard composer of all time. Who is he? John Williams, composer of the film soundtracks for blockbusters like Star Wars, Jaws, Jurassic Park, and the Harry Potter movies -and the television themes for The Today Show, NBC Nightly News, and many of the "fanfares" heard during the broadcasts of the Olympics since 1984.

By the time Williams achieved music superstardom in the mid-1970s, he was already a 20-year veteran of the TV and film scoring business. In fact, Williams had been immersed in music almost from the day he was born, on February 8, 1932, in New York City. His father, an accomplished jazz drummer and percussionist for the CBS Radio Orchestra, got his son started on piano lessons at six years old. The youngster soon added trombone, trumpet, and clarinet to his repertoire. Then, when he was 16, his father landed a job with the CBS Television Orchestra, and the Williams family moved to Hollywood.


Music was the only career that Williams ever pursued. He studied at UCLA in 1950, and progressed so quickly that when he was drafted into the military in 1952, the 21-year-old found himself conducting the Air Force Band. In another two years, he landed at the Julliard School, where he studied under the world's greatest composers by day while playing in New York jazz clubs at night.

After Julliard, Williams's show-biz roots brought him back to Hollywood, where he first worked as an orchestra pianist, but it was his skill as an orchestrator that garnered the attention of such film music legends as Bernard Hermann (who composed the scores for Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and many Hitchcock movies), Alfred Newman (All About Eve, How Green Was My Valley), and Franz Waxman (Sunset Boulevard, The Philadelphia Story). They utilized the young composer's skills to orchestrate musical cues for their film scores. After that, Johnny Williams (as he was credited) didn't have to look for work -it came looking for him.

Williams played on dozens of TV scores per year in the 1950s and started writing them in the 1960s, including Checkmate (1960), Gilligan's Island (1964), Lost in Space (1965), and Land of the Giants (1968). Writing music for the movies came next. Starting in 1959, Williams turned out at least one score per year, at first for forgettable, lighthearted comedies such as Gidget Goes to Rome (1963) and Not With My Wife, You Don't! (1966).

In 1967 Williams earned his first Academy Award nomination for the score of The Valley of the Dolls …and never slowed down. So far, Williams had composed the music to more than 75 films. He's amassed 45 Oscar nominations (second behind Walt Disney for the most ever) and has won five of them. Director Alan Parker (Angela's Ashes) said in 2000 that, for a filmmaker, getting John Williams to score your movie is akin to "winning the lottery."


So what is it about Williams's scores that has connected with so many filmmakers and moviegoers over the years? Of course, being in the right place at the right time has a lot to do with it -he scored the music to seven of the ten top-grossing films from 1976 to 1983. But it's fair to say that these films became so successful at least in part because of Williams's themes. Steven Spielberg calls him "the greatest musical storyteller of our time."

The Williams/Spielberg collaboration started in 1973 when the composer was 40 and the director only 23. Williams was at the height of his disaster-score days (The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, and The Towering Inferno) and Spielberg wanted that bombastic appeal for his first feature film, The Sugarland Express. The movie wasn't very successful, but the two men got along so well that Spielberg tapped Williams to come up with a really scary theme for his upcoming shark thriller, Jaws.


Jaws (1975) is a prime example of just how effective Williams can be at translating human emotions into musical notes: Instead of a sweeping melody (which Spielberg expected), Williams played two low half-notes on the piano, back and forth, "Da…Duh," show at first but then a little faster, "Da…Duh," the tension keeps building, "Da…Duh," and then when the tension is highest the crescendo hits, "DaDuhDaDuhDaDuh," and the viewer knows something really bad is about to happen to that poor woman swimming in the water.

(YouTube link)

Spielberg was amazed, and to this day credits Williams's primal score as a big reason Jaws turned out to be such a phenomenal hit, and the first of the summer blockbusters that have come to define Hollywood (at the time, it was the highest-grossing movie ever). The two men have worked on more than 20 films together. Yet no score that Williams has done -before or since- has had as much impact on people all over the world as the music he composed for George Lucas's "space movie."


It was Spielberg who told Lucas to seek out Williams for the Star Wars score. Lucas wanted the movie to buck the trend of 1970s science fiction films, which had been using "modern" sounds such as synthesizers and early drum machines, and return to Hollywood's golden age sound of a full orchestra. Lucas asked Williams to make the music the "emotional grounding point" of the film to offset the otherworldly characters and settings.

Williams understood Lucas's vision -and everything just seemed to click while he was writing the music. The composer recently tried to explain the experience of composing Star Wars:

There's something sort of eerie about the way our hands are occasionally guided in some of the things that we do. It can happen in any aspect, any phase of human endeavor where we come to the right solutions almost in spite of ourselves. And you look back and you say that almost seems to have a kind of -you want to use the word divine guidance- behind it. The Force was definitely with me.


The movie, of course, was a runaway success, and so, too, was the soundtrack. It was (and still is) the top-selling score-only movie soundtrack ever released. Even a disco version of the main theme (by Meco) made it to #1 on the pop chart. To understand just how integral Williams's music is to the movie, check out the original theatrical trailer -the one released in December 1976 before the score was completed. The visual images are there, with without Williams's melodies, the magic is definitely missing.

(YouTube link)


While Williams may have benefitted from a "guiding hand" in composing the music, he also utilized a time-tested technique: the leitmotif. Popularized in Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle" in the 19th century, a leitmotif is a recurring theme assigned to a specific character, used intermittently throughout the work. Interestingly, very few Hollywood films used the leitmotif to its full potential up to that point (with a few notable exceptions, such as Max Steiner's Gone With The Wind). In Star Wars, however, Williams took the leitmotif to the next level, assigning themes not only to individual characters, such as Luke Skywalker (that one is also the main theme), but for abstract concepts such as the Force.

At its core, the "Force Theme" is a basic melody in a minor key, utilizing very few notes. The theme is heard not only whenever the Force is mentioned, but during the most intense emotional scenes: As Luke stares at the "Binary Sunset" early in the movie, the theme is introduced with a single French horn, invoking longing, and them crescendos with a full string treatment, invoking hope. The theme returns when the Rebel ships attack the Death Star and Luke uses the Force, and finally, when the heroes receive their medals, the same set of notes is heard in the "Throne Room" march that concludes the movie.

(YouTube link)

The "Force Theme" would go on to become an important part of the two following sequels and then the three prequels, helping to tie the saga together. Just think of Luke at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back, hanging by his feet in the ice cave and trying to reach his lightsaber. He shuts his eyes, extends his hand -and there's that theme, so familiar that the audience may wonder if Luke could use the Force without it. That's the power of Williams's "musical storytelling."

(YouTube link)


Even if he had retired after Star Wars, John Williams would still be considered one of Hollywood's all-time greatest composers. But he kept going, scoring phenomenal success with silks such as Superman (1978), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982, for which Williams won an Oscar), Home Alone (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Schindler's List (1993 -another Oscar), and the first three Harry Potter movies. All those films  carry on the leitmotif tradition that Williams perfected in Star Wars. (Just think of the Raiders theme when Indiana Jones is riding his horse and chasing the nazis, or the famous music that accompanies Eliot and E.T.  when they fly in front of the full moon.)

Williams also remains active composing for television (the Olympic fanfare and "The Mission," the NBS News theme) and heading up the Boston pops from 1980 to 1993. Along the way, he's picked up 18 Grammys, 17 honorary degrees, 4 Golden Globes, and 5 Oscars.


There are a few knocks against Williams, at least among film music aficionados, the biggest being that he taps into that "universal melody" a bout too often. This is evidenced by very similar melodies and phrasings that show up in completely different movies that Williams has scored, especially when they're released within a year of each other. (Detractors point to similar moments in the scores to 1978's Superman and 1980's The Empire Strikes Back, as well as 2004's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and 2005's Star Wars Episode II: Revenge of the Sith.)

(YouTube link)


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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