February 1998: The Music of Star Wars

The main musical theme from the Star Wars trilogy is arguably one of the most recognized musical phrases in the western world. People who wouldn't know Mozart if the main theme from the Jupiter symphony walked up and blatted in their ears perk up instantly when they hear Star Wars.

One might argue that the reason for this is that Star Wars is one of the most popular films of all time; the recent Special Editions scooped up anyone who missed the trilogy the first time around, courtesy of friends, parents, and grandchildren.

But that's only half the story; examining the music of John Williams, one of the hottest film composers in Hollywood, goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of Star Wars itself. Williams is no slouch as a composer; if his film music doesn't exactly win points for originality, it does serve its purpose better than anything that James Horner (Braveheart, Apollo 13, and the forthcoming Deep Impact) or Elliot Goldenthal (Interview with the Vampire, Batman & Robin, Sphere) has managed to come up with in their entire professional careers. Williams has taken some of the greatest strengths of western classical music and used them to their best advantage in writing highly memorable film scores--to this day, the soundtracks to Jaws and the Indiana Jones films are almost, if not more, recognizable than the Star Wars theme--that stick in the minds of the audience worse than a Green Day song.

There's more to it than that, of course. A familiar theme, all by itself, might not do anything more active than spreading through the listening population, a meme that does nothing more than replicate. The opening theme from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is highly recognizable, but has not turned legions of modern-day westerners into Beethoven fans. (More's the pity.) What Williams accomplished with the Star Wars theme was not just a piece of exciting music that passed into the popular consciousness. By using certain well-known techniques and characteristics to their best advantage, he also contributed to the content of the Star Wars trilogy, reinforcing what was essentially a weak script, so-so acting, and an exciting but rather unrealistic plot.

The effect of music on mood is well known; it's one reason that musical tastes vary so widely, and one fan's Orphaic ecstasy is another listener's hellish nightmare (ask the parent of any Marilyn Manson fan). The importance of music in film is paramount; however, it's something that few composers besides Williams have exploited to its fullest potential. His Star Wars score not only dictates the emotional ambiance of what we see on the screen, it also helps to tie the story together.

Williams' main technique in this regard is the use of what is known as a leitmotif. This concept was pioneered by Richard Wagner and used extensively in his megalithic Ring cycle (if you thought Titanic was long, try sitting through four full-length operas!). Briefly, a leitmotif is a technique of assigning a musical theme--generally short, uncomplicated, and memorable--to a particular character. Whenever that character appears on stage (or on screen), the musical theme plays, reinforcing that character's identity and role in the story.

As an example, let's look at the main theme itself. It opens each film, accompanying the crawling text that gives us the story so far, just after telling us that all of this happens "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away". Although Our Hero, Luke Skywalker, isn't even mentioned in the opening crawl for the first film, we soon learn that this is his theme--just as the trilogy is Luke's story. The music has all of the benchmarks of a heroic theme, with plenty of brass and percussion, underscored by strings. If the theme isn't exactly hummable--it exceeds the range of most untrained voices--it is certainly memorable, exploiting the best characteristics of the tonal system, which was the only musical system in use by western composers from Bach through the early 20th century.

This kind of grand musical gesture can be traced directly to Wagner, and more generally to European orchestral music of the 19th century, generally referred to as the Romantic period. The music of the time was mostly in response to Beethoven, whose towering symphonies at the opening of 19th century were a benchmark later composers felt compelled to live up to. Composers of the Romantic period, from Berlioz to Brahms to Schubert to Schumann, did not just write musical entertainment. Their music is meant to elicit an emotional response in the listener.

Williams' film music in general, and his Star Wars music in particular, is composed in this vein. Luke's theme sounds heroic--that's Williams playing on the average listener's tendency to associate certain instruments and musical phrases with certain emotional responses. (Whether this is a learned response or something that's wired into our brains is a whole ‘nother debate; the reader is encouraged to read Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy for some intriguing thoughts on the subject.)

This use of a style that is derivative of the Romantic period is a major reason why the Star Wars music triggers such a strong emotional response. Williams' music really started drawing attention in the 70s, when orchestral film scores were undergoing a general revival. Prior to this, the tendency had been to use contemporary popular music, particularly rock and folk music, as the film industry cashed in on the exploding popularity of record albums. The results were mixed--my favorite example is the 60s environmentalist sci-fi film Silent Running, in which futuristic orbiting gardens, and the man who fights to preserve them, are accompanied by the folk music of Joan Baez. The use of this music in a science fiction film is extremely jarring; it prevents us from getting fully involved with the story by pulling us back to our own depressingly real twentieth century, instead of eliciting another time and place.

Williams, on the other hand, not only used an orchestra to its best advantage, he selected a musical style that was in perfect harmony (so to speak) with the Star Wars trilogy. Despite Star Wars' futuristic setting, it has the earmarks of a fantasy saga (see last month's column for my thoughts on this) in the tradition of--you guessed it--Wagner's Ring. (Which was once considered popular entertainment, believe it or not.) Star Wars is a romantic, sweepingly epic film about starry-eyed dreamers going on fabulous adventures, finding fame, fortune, and heartbreak. This sort of narrative melodrama was a specialty of the Romantic period, which was when what is known as "programmatic" music gained in popularity. This was the practice of distributing a program, or storyline, that the audience was meant to read while the music played. (For a rather over-the-top example, check out Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which reads like an opium dream.)

The combination of the leitmotif and the Romantic style meant that Williams had a huge amount of potential material to work with. Simple themes are the easiest to build on--remember doing theme-and-variations on "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in elementary school? (Actually, given the state of most public-school music programs these days, maybe you don't. But that's a whole ‘nother axe to grind.) One excellent example comes from the Death Star battle sequence at the end of A New Hope, as the first Star Wars film is known these days. In this sequence, Williams makes heavy use of what's known as the Force theme, or Ben's theme (and by the way, the idea of using a leitmotif to symbolize a concept, as opposed to a character, appears to be a Williams innovation). The theme sounds periodically during the battle sequence, usually just as Luke is about to do something daring or has just managed to fly into danger. Then, during the run on the trench, he hears Ben's voice, telling him to turn off his targeting computer. We hear the Force theme again--but this time soft and sweet, all strings, instead of the martial brass and percussion. The contrast grabs our attention; at the same time, since the theme has played before during this sequence, it isn't as jarring as it would be otherwise. It fits.

We hear this same theme earlier in the film, as Luke is looking off into the sunset on his home planet of Tatooine--the Star Wars equivalent of Hicksville, Ohio (it's a real place, I've been there)--in The Empire Strikes Back as he uses the Force to draw his lightsaber from the ice of Hoth, and later as he trains with Yoda, and in Return of the Jedi as Vader rescues his son, and is later burned on the funeral pyre.

And those are only a few places that the Force theme, which is closely related to Luke's theme, but distinct from it, is heard throughout the trilogy. By repeated use of this musical phrase, which is so simple that anyone with a halfway decent ear can figure it out with a piano handy, Williams helps to tie the theme and plot of each film together, and to relate events in the different films to each other. This is especially useful in linking the first film to its two sequels; when A New Hope was filmed and first released (then as simply Star Wars, with no additional title or puzzling "Episode IV"), George Lucas had sequels in mind, but had filmed this movie to stand on its own if necessary. (Star Wars was initially expected to be a commercial flop, something I'll explore in more depth next month.)

The Star Wars music not only lends cohesiveness to the films, but it reinforces the emotional impact of each scene in each film. This is precisely what film music is supposed to do; as one might expect, some film scores are more successful in this regard. Williams is one of the better film composers out there; while his work is extremely derivative, this actually works in his favor. He's using the same tools that his Classical predecessors did, and that passed into popular usage with the advent of Tin Pan Alley, rock and roll, and commercial advertising. As a result, his music elicits a response even among listeners who ordinarily avoid classical music (which is the majority of the American population). Designed to have a certain popular appeal--even the rare atonal passages are brief, understated, and not all that hard on the ear--the music of Star Wars has without a doubt contributed to its overwhelming popularity, by reinforcing its themes of heroism, loss, and redemption--the things for which all but the most nihilistic of us have at least some unconscious yearning.

Next month: Titanic is bidding fair to surpass Star Wars: A New Hope as the most popular film of all time. Why? What do these films have in common that makes them so appealing to so many people? Find out in March!