What makes the Star Wars soundtrack so good? An analysis of John Williams’ music.
24 August 2021, 08:56
We take a galactic deep-drive into the supersonic music that soundtracks the Star Wars film franchise, unearthing the out-of-this world magic of John Williams’ score.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…
The franchise’s original director, George Lucas, wanted a ‘classical’ (small ‘c’) score for the movies, and the depth, variety, tension, and orchestration of Williams’ Star Wars music makes it downright masterful, unforgettable and instantly iconic.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Star Wars universe coming to life quite as powerfully without Williams’ soundtrack. His use of Wagner-inspired orchestration, leitmotifs, and simply incredible melodies has made Star Wars as recognisable by ear as it is by name or visually.
But what makes the music so great? Let the force be with us, as we delve into the various elements that go into creating one of the most iconic film soundtracks ever made.
John Williams & Vienna Philharmonic – Williams: Imperial March (from “Star Wars”)
The rhythm and pacing
Star Wars is often described as being a ‘space opera’, and Williams’ music has just the right amount of drama required to bring it to life on the big screen, unquestionably operatic in scale, style and longevity as it is.
Key to the drama is the tension and release produced by the music’s rhythm, pacing and placement alongside the onscreen action.
Lots of the famous orchestral moments – think of the main theme or the ‘Imperial March’, above – feature impactful triplet rhythms contrasted with bold held notes, as well as detailed string and woodwind flourishes. There’s also syncopation (long-short, long-short patterns) in the melodies, which makes make them rhythmic and memorable.
Williams doesn’t waste a single moment of music, and no detail is too small for the soundtrack.
So detail-oriented was Williams that he wrote the Star Wars main theme, used in the opening credits, in the same key and style as production company 20th Century Fox’s ident that kicks off the film – a theme that Williams later described as ‘probably a little overwritten’ in a New Yorker interview. Nah, we think it’s just right.
These two musicians played 'Star Wars' outside John Williams' house
As well as rhythms being matched pitch-perfectly to the action on screen, characters and environments are given their own unique melody in Star Wars. This is a device German opera composer Richard Wagner used in his works – called a leitmotif.
Tunes like ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’ and ‘Yoda’s Theme’ are stunning, and they recur throughout Star Wars as the characters appear and reappear.
And the melodies perfectly communicate the action of scenes, and overall message of Star Wars. The main theme, for example, features a melody that keeps ascending in an uplifting and hopeful way – communicating the ultimate message of hope that weaves through the franchise.
While we’re on melody, it’s worth drawing attention to the sheer variety there is in the memorable musical themes for the characters.
While Darth Vader’s ‘leitmotif’ is the brooding and, let’s face it, pretty terrifying ‘Imperial March’, which is rhythmically and stylistically reminiscent of the main theme, ‘Princess Leia’s Theme’ is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful melody played in the brasswinds, characterised by a hope and clarity, and a very gentle accompaniment from the strings.
‘Yoda’s Theme’ is contrasted again. Noble, reflective and stately, it’s gorgeous stuff.
Star Wars Ultimate Medley – on a Star Wars piano!
When director George Lucas originally called for a ‘classical’ approach to the music for his epic space saga, John Williams took him at his word and produced a soundtrack that makes any symphony orchestra do what symphony orchestras do best: rich sounds, bold colours, contrasted textures and no end of drama.
Williams uses the forces of the orchestra to full effect. Since he was first asked to compose for Star Wars in the 1970s, he’s called on the same techniques and devices as established film composers like Erich Korngold, Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann who also used full symphony orchestra.
They in turn were influenced by Romantic opera and orchestral composers, especially the aforementioned Richard Wagner who, with his epic works, revolutionised opera.
Williams’ Star Wars score was also influenced by English composer Gustav Holst – especially his work The Planets, fittingly (compare ‘Mars’ with the Star Wars main theme) – and other Romantic and early 20th century composers, like Stravinsky.
Star Wars scored with Holst's The Planets [Opening Scene]
Williams also uses choral forces.
‘Duel of the Fates’, heard in Phantom Menace, for example has a fully choral opening before the clarinets introduce an uneasy melody It’s reminiscent of Carl Orff’s dramatic 1937 choral cantata, Carmina Burana.
After producing eight film scores in the Star Wars franchise, Williams’ use of full symphony orchestra never lost its potency. And the force has remained strong with the composers who’ve since composed for Star Wars, continuing Williams’ legacy of truly great orchestral film score writing.
Recent Star Wars movie director J.J. Abrams once said, Williams “writes feelings… and knows how to make your heart soar like no one else.”
We couldn’t agree more.