What Makes The 'Star Wars' Score Timeless

Strap yourself in as we jump to lightspeed with our new column that takes a look at the music of the greatest franchises around!

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Welcome to the first installment of Franchising the Score, a column that will explore countless musical scores from all of your favorite movie franchises. But we’ll start with maybe the most famous of all, so strap yourself in while we make the jump to hyperspace and travel back a long time ago to a galaxy far, far away…


“It’s really a silent movie.” – George Lucas

Much has been said and written about the mood of the 1970s, particularly in America. The divisiveness of the Vietnam War and the national scandal of Watergate saw a country in uncertain times. This created a fertile period in which the introduction of a heavy dose of musical romanticism was met with the force of a thunderbolt thrown from Mount Olympus itself. Only instead of coming from the mighty hands of Zeus, this boom originated from the pencil and baton of American composer John Williams. From 1977 to 1983, he created one of the most beloved cycles of film music with the scores for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.

By the time he began writing the score to Star Wars — later known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope — Williams was already on his way to becoming a household name, having won two Academy Awards. The first was for his adaptation of Jerry Bock’s music for the big-screen version of Fiddler on the Roof, but his second was essentially for a two-note theme that still today acts as primordial shorthand for danger in the ocean: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It was Spielberg who introduced Williams to his friend George Lucas, who purportedly toyed with the idea of using classical music for the film, as Stanley Kubrick had done with 2001: A Space Odyssey. While that idea went out the window once Williams came into the picture, the seeds of European classical music remained.

In the liner notes of the original Star Wars soundtrack album, Lucas says he wrote the film as escapism from modern life. “I’d make a film so rooted in imagination, that the grimness of everyday life would not follow the audience into the theater,” the notes state. “In other words, for two hours, they could forget.” For such a concept, Lucas needed a musical score that would transport audiences to unfamiliar alien worlds while still keeping them grounded with a more traditional musical language, as opposed to the more avant-garde music often used for science fiction. In a 1997 interview with Film Score Monthly, Williams talked of “music that would put us in touch with very familiar and remembered emotions, which for me as a musician translated into the use of a 19th-century operatic idiom…Wagner and this sort of thing. These sorts of influences would put us in touch with remembered theatrical experiences as well — all western experiences to be sure.”

From there, you can begin to see the evolution of music itself. From the classical age of Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn to the romanticism period of Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Wagner, the work of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Copland in the early 20th century, all of which trickled down further as sound cinema began. Both Prokofiev and Copland had entered the scoring world — with the former scoring films by Sergei Eisenstein such as Alexander Nevsky — and from there the works of composers such as Max Steiner (King Kong), Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Sea Hawk), Miklos Rozsa (Ben-Hur), and Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane) typified what became to be known as the classical era, or “golden age” of film music. Coincidentally, some of these scores were later re-used in the very fantasy and science fiction serials that Lucas was trying recapture with his film, with Waxman’s Bride of Frankenstein notably showing up on the soundtrack of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in 1940.

Williams and Lucas knew that Star Wars, with its ensemble of colorful heroes and dastardly villains, needed an extra step to help the audience identify characters and elements during such a fast-paced swashbuckling space adventure, so they looked back not only to the golden age but also the influence of opera before that, and the music of Wagner. He was known for his use of leitmotif, a recurring musical phrase such as a theme or motif to identify a character or element of a narrative. In its crudest and basest form, this means that a certain motif would sound whenever the character tied to that motif would show up or do something. Many golden age composers used this liberally; Steiner’s King Kong is usually cited as the first example of the technique in cinema, and Korngold was famous for it, particularly with adventure films like The Adventures of Robin Hood.

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As an example of this, look to the entrance of Princess Leia at the beginning of Star Wars, when she is trying to escape with the schematics to the Death Star. The theme played as she inserts the plans into R2-D2 is not her leitmotif but the Force theme, which here represents the hope for the Rebellion. However, as she completes her mission and C-3PO notices her, we then hear her theme. Within twenty seconds or so, the audience has been introduced to two important themes attached to elements of the narrative, the threads of which further connect as the tapestry continues to be revealed.

While the film was intended to be scored by Williams, Lucas still needed to establish the mood and tone of the music required, so he and editor Paul Hirsch created a temp-track made up of classical and preexisting film music. “We used some Stravinsky, the flip side of The Rite of Spring,” Hirsch told J.W. Rinzler for the book The Making of Star Wars. “George said nobody ever uses that side of the record, so we used it for Threepio walking around in the desert. The Jawa music was from the same Stravinsky piece. We used music from Ivanhoe by Rózsa for the main title.” Other music used included Dvorak‘s New World Symphony, Bruckner‘s Ninth Symphony, and — rather cheekily given his previous comments — Herrmann’s Psycho. Writing in the Star Wars soundtrack liner notes, Williams comments that Lucas’ track proves that “the disparity of styles was the right thing for this film. This established the stylistic direction l went to in Star Wars, which is first, tonal, and second, orchestral. George and l felt that the music should be full of high adventure and the soaring spirits of the characters in the film.”

In total, Williams wrote seven significant themes and motifs for Star Wars. The first you hear is Luke Skywalker’s theme, otherwise known as the main Star Wars theme, which is immediately heard over the opening crawl. Luke’s theme really sums up the idea of Star Wars, with the Rebels striving to restore freedom, and at the center of that, you have the typical naive kid who wants adventure and is prepared to go the distance.

For the opening, Williams breaks the theme into three sections; the first representing Luke’s struggle on his quest, the second representing his heart and nobility, and the third his strength and determination, which will eventually lead to his success. The first and third sections are dominated by fierce brass, particularly the trumpets, projecting not only the war-like aspects but also the heralding of a knight, while the middle part is softer and more romantic, conveying Luke’s innocence and heart, a key part of his character’s success.

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Princess Leia’s theme is the true romantic heart of the film. “I thought of it in terms of when Luke sees her for the first time,” Williams writes in the liner notes, “and he says how beautiful she is.” The result is a gorgeous melody that acts as a symbol of hope for the Rebellion. However, the theme also acts as a subterfuge of sorts, overtly creating the image of the beautiful fairy tale princess who must be rescued and hiding the fact that while Leia is a beautiful princess, she is far, far away from a damsel in distress.

Connecting these two themes is what was, in Star Wars, known as Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi’s theme but which has since transcended the character into a larger embodiment of that energy field that binds the galaxy together: the Force theme. In the original film, the theme then had a dual purpose: to represent Obi-Wan Kenobi and his role as mentor to Luke; and also to represent the history of the galaxy. “l think of Ben Kenobi’s theme as reflecting both him and, also, the Jedi Knights and the Old Republic that he remembers,” Williams states in the liner notes.

There is also a motif for the Rebel Alliance itself in the form of the Rebel Fanfare. After the opening crawl and Luke’s theme, this is the first leitmotif to appear in the saga, scoring the desperate flight of the Rebel Blockade Runner as it’s pursued by the overbearingly huge Imperial Star Destroyer. It’s a versatile motif, with stately brass sounding a call to battle across three phrases, and it is used throughout the film, particularly with scenes featuring the Millennium Falcon.

Interestingly, Darth Vader’s theme in the first Star Wars is subtle in comparison to music composed for him in later films. For the villain, Williams composed a fourteen-note theme for low wind and muted brass that at times feels almost subliminal. This is unsurprising given that Vader is depicted as only a lieutenant to Grand Moff Tarkin. And, for sure, the theme is overshadowed by the motif for the Death Star battle station, a brash four-note piece that not only represents the power of the station but also what would appear to be the destiny of the galaxy, if the Empire triumphs.

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Williams also wrote a trio of pieces for the desert planet of Tatooine. The first is a jaunty melody for the Jawa scavengers, who steal droids such as R2-D2 and C-3PO and take them back to their huge Sandcrawler. As mentioned earlier, this was based on Part II of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The other two pieces are source cues heard in the Mos Eisley cantina, that “wretched hive of scum and villainy” where Luke and co go to find a pilot to take them to Alderaan.

The most iconic of the pair is the first melody that plays over the initial montage of bar patrons when Luke and Obi-Wan first enter. For this, Williams put together a group of nine jazz musicians playing such varied instruments as a Fender Rhodes piano, a Caribbean steel drum, and an ARP 2600 synthesizer, which were then filtered to sound somewhat otherworldly. In the Star Wars liner notes, Williams explains Lucas’ concept for the music, talking of “several creatures in a future century finding some 1930‘s Benny Goodman swing band music in a time capsule or under a rock someplace” and the resulting interpretation.

Star Wars has been described many times, especially by its creator, as a “silent movie.” This isn’t to say it needs intertitles, but more that you would be able to watch the film without dialogue and effects and still be able to follow the story and themes, using only the visual language and the music. This is where leitmotif comes in handy, but even without that, Williams’ score is remarkably powerful when it comes to illustrating the film’s narrative, establishing a musical vocabulary with not just themes but orchestral colors, such as the thundering percussion that accompanies the Stormtroopers and TIE fighters of the Empire, the elegant strings that come with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke, and the huge brass fury that erupts when the film wants to cause a surge in the audience’s adrenaline.

There are a number of scenes throughout the film that stand out in terms of perfect musical narrative, and to discuss all of them would mean an article far longer than my fingers and your eyes would be able to stand. Therefore, an examination of three scenes is appropriate: the opening sequence, the “Binary Sunset,” and the final battle.

What’s incredible about the music for the opening sequence of the film, from the first shot of Tatooine to the departure of Darth Vader and his Star Destroyer, is how it moves with such speed but still retains maximum clarity in the way it tells its story. The way the Rebel Fanfare is overpowered by the huge broad strokes of the orchestra as the Star Destroyer lumbers overhead, a true behemoth in image and sound, and the usage of low brass as intimidation for the Rebel troopers ready to face whatever is going to come through that door.

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Williams carefully contrasts the dark and the light with the sudden silence punctuated by dark and threatening brass as Vader enters the ship. However, this is immediately followed by the music of the Jedi Knights as we see Princess Leia inserting the stolen Death Star plans into R2-D2, as well as Leia’s theme herself, which is reprised minutes later as she is stunned by a Stormtrooper’s blaster. Williams here displays a mastery of tonal shifts, as the action moves between Vader, Leia, and the droids, all of whom have a different emotional palette behind them.

Perhaps the most indelible image in the film is that of a frustrated Luke Skywalker as he walks out onto the desolate Tatooine landscape and stares at the planet’s twin sunset, which might as well be closing the curtains on his dreams of becoming a pilot and going onto adventure. Initially, Williams scored this with a much darker and less-thematic approach before Lucas asked him to re-score it, this time using Obi-Wan Kenobi’s theme.

The resulting cue gives the scene a clearer and more emotionally resonant feel, with the theme encompassing the music of Obi-Wan and the Jedi Knights and subsequently providing a clear endgame for Luke and his dreams: to join the ranks of the Jedi and become the catalyst for the resurgence of the warriors of the Old Republic. Not only does the scene become more thematically meaningful, aesthetically the music is beautiful, adding a further poignancy to the scene and Luke’s destiny.

When the Rebel forces attack the Death Star in the final act of the film, Williams is given multiple tasks: to score the furious excitement of the dogfighting spaceships; to provide tension for the big-picture situation of the Death Star approaching a position of firing range upon the Rebel base; and to emotionally resolve Luke’s journey, as the youngster is given one of the Rebellion’s X-wing fighters to fly into battle. Militaristic percussion and trumpets are employed for the coloring of the battle, while Williams uses both quiet and foreboding strings and dramatic timpani for the Death Star nearing the Rebel base.

However, the action involving Luke Skywalker is the dominant line here and certainly the emotional core. Remarkably, Williams initially uses Obi-Wan’s theme as a heroic motif for the Rebel fighters en masse as they launch their first attack, before attaching it to Luke as he zooms around the Death Star surface. Even more surprisingly, Luke’s theme is not heard until he is in the trench on his own, with Darth Vader on his tail.

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At that moment, the theme is downbeat and in tune with the audience’s mood and the low chance of Luke’s survival, segueing to a strong staccato rhythm for brass and percussion as he looks to technology to save the day in the form of his targeting computer. Suddenly, a soaring reprise of Obi-Wan’s theme comes in with the ghostly disembodied voice of the Jedi advising Luke to “use the Force.” As soon as Luke agrees and turns off his computer, Williams uses a much more exciting and spirited rendition of his theme, before combining a more dissonant reading with timpani to stretch the tension to unbearable levels until Han Solo arrives with the Millennium Falcon to shoot down the TIE fighters, including Darth Vader. Brass blasts sound as Luke fires his torpedoes into the station and escapes, ceasing the instant the Death Star is destroyed. We’re left with a warm explosion of strings and the Rebel Fanfare as Darth Vader escapes the fiery maelstrom.

Star Wars was a wild success, and so was the music. Williams received an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy for the score, in most cases going up against his own score for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The soundtrack sold more than four million copies, and eventually was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2004, alongside such albums as Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet and Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Beyond the countless box office takings and merchandising, Star Wars‘ true success can be measured by how well it still works as a movie, and undoubtedly its continuing endurance is a result of ]Williams’ score. One that was a revolution unto itself and which helped eventually diversify film music into the wide galaxy of imagination it is today, not to mention having Bill Murray sing its theme, with made-up lyrics, on Saturday Night Live. For some, that’s as good as an Oscar, if not better.

Freelance writer and podcast from the home of Tom Jones. Loves film music, cuddling, and the cinema of Lucio Fulci.