Why John Williams is a musical genius


Last week I watched the Star Wars movies for the first time. Yes, I am late to the party. But nonetheless, like most people I enjoyed them. What got my attention was John Williams’ beautiful music for the films. And so I immediately got myself a copy of the official soundtrack. It is at that point that I started to notice things which really got me excited about John Williams. I was already a big fan of his work for NBC News and I felt it was his best work. But now I am open to consider that his work for Star Wars may be his best work yet. When I noticed what I am about to show you, I was just plain…excited.

With his soundtrack for Star Wars, Williams brought back an old tradition that had fallen out of favor with movie directors and composers in the late seventies: the leitmotif. A leitmotif is a recurring musical phrase that is associated with a particular character. So whenever that character is doing something important plotwise, the theme in one rendition or another is played. The leitmotif is common practice today in both movies and TV dramas.

The leitmotif in Star Wars that got me so excited is one you’ll recognize: Darth Vader’s theme. It’s officially called Imperial March and is a constant throughout the various movies, usually predicating evil and gloom. It has become an iconic theme. A few chords of this theme are regularly played in episodes of The Simpsons when the evil billionaire Mr. Burns enters a scene. Here’s what it sounds like:

You know it, right?

Here’s what’s amazing. A leitmotif needs to be flexible enough to allow for character development, without which there is no story. And that’s what John Williams excels at. Imperial March sounds militaristic and evil, right? But what if I told you notes of that theme were used in a theme for a 9-year old child? That’s what Williams had to work with. Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker who is the protagonist in the first three episodes and the antagonist in the last three. When Anakin is introduced to us as a young boy in Episode I, we can hear some subtle notes from Imperial March in his background music that foreshadow his future fate as the dark lord of the Sith.

I thought this was just incredibly neat. It’s something that I didn’t notice at first. When I watched the movies, I felt Anakin’s future was being foreshadowed, but wasn’t sure what gave me that feeling. When I listened to Williams’ soundtrack, I realized the music had a lot to do with it. It’s so subtle because those notes from Imperial March have a different arrangement and instrumentation when they are used for the young Anakin. Yet it does what is intended: it gives you an ominous feeling. By using just a few notes of Imperial March, Williams evokes exactly the right emotional response in you, the viewer. A-MAZ-ING. That’s how music helps tell a story.

   4 Comments


4 Comments

  1. If you like the Star Wars score check out Holst “The Planets”

    Reply

  2. I agree with dwag. John Williams is definitely a musical genius, but you can tell he was a fan of Gustav Holst.

    Reply

  3. Another fun note: if you listen to the theme he wrote for NBC’s Sunday Night Football, it has the same militaristic feel, which is very apropos for football and almost feels reminiscent of the old NFL films scores. But pay close attention to the chords that end the piece, and you’ll surely notice that what appears to make the Imperial March so evil-sounding instead just sounds highly dramatic and impactful.

    Reply

  4. listen to them both at the same time. It sounds so cool and mystical.

    Reply

Leave a Reply