Christine's Blog

Musings and Thoughts about All Things Musical ...

Star Wars

Oct 20, 2020

  I was only 5 years old when George Lucas’s Star Wars hit the theatre.  Now in my 40’s, it amazes me that it is still as popular today as it ever was.  I went to a friend’s house the other day and he still had a poster of Star Wars on his wall, framed in all its might.  Dog eared, wrinkled and creased from years of being enjoyed, it had made it back up on the wall.  When I asked him about this he said he was going through old boxes and came across this poster and thought it deserved to go back up.  This is the impact that Star Wars had and still has on many people.  I got to wondering why this movie and music has had such an enormous impact on people so I started looking up a few articles. One thing of particular interest to me was that George Lucas described the Star Wars trilogy as a “Space Opera”.  Hmmm … film, opera … what’s the connection?

It was here I started to look up John Williams, who composed the music for Star Wars.  A very familiar name to me.  I have played and performed music by him countless times, music well received and loved by all.  I am under constant request to teach music composed by him and happily do so.  John Williams is an American composer, conductor and pianist.  He has composed music for some of the most popular and recognizable films in cinematic history, during a career spanning 60 years!  He has been nominated 50 times for Academy Awards, with five wins to date.  Something to be proud of for sure.  What is the reason for this success?  Are there any ‘special’ techniques he uses?  John is formally trained in orchestration, has years of playing music scores and, being a session pianist, has played in jazz clubs and conducted the Boston Pops…I’m sure it’s the contribution of all these things and his keen musical intellect that make his compositions so special.

However, it was quite interesting to me that one of the concepts that John Williams employs regularly in his scores is the use of leitmotif.

What is a Leitmotif?

Essentially a leitmotif is a recurring musical phrase that can be associated with a particular person, place or idea (according to Wikipedia).  In John Williams’ case he used them to associate with different characters.  This type of musical idea or motif should be ‘clearly identified’ so that when it ‘appears’ it retains its identity.   I would think it is safe to say that John Williams was very successful on this front.  Take a listen to the examples below to see if you agree! 

Once these ideas or motifs are identified and familiar to our ears, motifs can and will be modified so they don’t always appear in the same form.  They can be modified in terms of rhythm, harmony, or orchestration.  Think about how just changing the key from major to minor alone can have a significant impact on our mood and response, though we still recognize what that piece is.  For example if we took a popular song such as Jingle Bells and changed any of the rhythm, harmony, or key we would likely still recognize it.  That being said I think that this is a powerful tool to implement in film, where we are influenced not only by the attributes of the characters themselves, but also by the music that represents them.

There are several leitmotif’s in Star Wars. For example the opening theme is Luke’s.

(insert embed link to you tube for the opening theme)

The Imperial March belongs to … Darth Vader.

(insert embedded link here, for Imperial March)

In my mind, I now jump to the concept of Star Wars being a “Space Opera”.  Let’s chat a little about the concept of opera.  Much of the time, when we attend the opera, the vocalist are singing in different languages. I don’t know about you, but I am not multi-lingual, yet I am still able to understand what is happening.  Why is this?  Well, in opera the burden of the storytelling generally relies on the musical score.  Once again, this demonstrates how powerful music is.  It can be the only reason that we understand what’s happening, and remarkably clearly at that:  dark music for the villains, lighter happier music for protagonist.  I’m in love with watching movies with my little nieces, and invariably, when the music starts to get scary they snuggle in a bit closer and try to get me to fast forward through the scary bits…even though ‘nothing bad’ has happened yet.  I think it is so neat how quickly the body and the mind respond to the influence of the musical score.

So what about film? In general, film relies on the spoken word and dramatic representation to tell the story.  I think there is also a lot to be said for the cinematography and its influence.  How cool is it that we live in a world where all of these things all work together?  This is where I really like the idea of leitmotif’s being involved in the scoring process. Rather than the music just setting the tone, it’s also representative of the characters themselves.  In John Williams’ writings, these ideas are blended into one concept, where we as listeners hear the story dramatized by both storytelling and the musical score, a very striking and effective combination.  As in the Star Wars “Space Opera”, and many other film scores, its effect combined with cinema, seems to be the perfect pairing. Just brilliant!!

Did John Williams come up with the concept of leitmotifs?  Some ideas really do stand the test of time … Leitmotif pre-dated John Williams, mainly accredited to Wagner. It can be dated back to the 1600’s.

Considering the time frame in which Star Wars was released, I’m still surprised when students as young as five are inspired and want to play the music of Star Wars.  Truly astounding.  This is the reason why I was inspired to write a bit about and do a few tutorials on John Williams’ music … starting with the iconic Star Wars.  To find a tutorial on Star Wars Theme (Luke’s Leitmotif), look for it under my tutorials section.  I will be uploading some more in the future so be sure to check back for it. Enjoy!

Much cello love,

Christine

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