Monthly Archives: January 2016

The Music of Star Wars: Traditional Classic Hollywood Sounds

During the 1950s and 1960s much of the Science Fiction films and
TV Shows used the means of modern musical techniques and musical instruments. The Theremin became a popular instrument that evoked futuristic sounds, so therefore it was used extensively in the underscore of many films. Modern musical composition such as atonality and electronic sounds were also used to express this futuristic sounds. However, Star Wars is not about the future. As explained by Lucas both at the beginning of each film with the phrase “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” and in interviews, he was creating an adventure story and a mythology. Star Wars is more about the past. He was creating a story that had taken place perhaps centuries ago, maybe longer. The space ships, the blasters, the droids, and anything that seems futuristic to our minds is a mere part of the society that this story was taking place. When watching any of the Star Wars films, one needs to take out the expectations of a Science Fiction film and look at it at a different point of view. One needs to look at it as if they are watching an old Hollywood Classic Film. This is where Lucas was inspired for Star Wars. He wanted to evoke the elements of the old adventure films such as Robin Hood and Sea Hawk.

Not so long before Lucas was working on Star Wars was Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Schaffner’s The Planet of the Apes. Both these films went away from the modern electronic sounds and went back to traditional orchestral sounds. However, Kubrick rejected Alex North’s original score in replacing with pre-existing music. This to me is very weak because there is no leitmotif, but rather music that was created for the concert stage. The Planet of the Apes did use an original score composed by Jerry Goldsmith, however he was using modern atonal and extended techniques for the score. Even though these were using the traditional orchestra, Lucas wanted a more “classic” sound in his work. He was then lead to meeting John Williams by Steven Spielberg. John Williams was the best choice in composing the music for Star Wars as he has the influence of the classic Hollywood sound that Lucas was seeking.

Rather than the use of mood to the underscore of Star Wars, John Williams created leitmotifs to describe each character and event. This was a technique in film created by Max Steiner, known as the father of film music, with the 1933 original King Kong. This concept then went on to be used by other composers of the era, including Enrich Korngold. Each of the classic Hollywood films has this technique of a leitmotif embedded into the music. If Star Was was going to be a film that goes back to the old adventure films of Hollywood then this is what John Williams was going to do in creating the music. This makes logical sense because the music needs to cater to the film. Williams also references to older composers in his work, this is intentional. As many composers before him, including J.S. Bach, Williams has used the music of other composers and influences to evoke the mood and spirit of the music. Some of the leitmotifs in Star Wars are recognizable and others are not. When listening to the music there is a lot going on. In many ways this is similar to Max Steiner’s score to Gone with the Wind. In that score, Steiner used strings of leitmotifs one after the other, evoking an Epic mood.
At the surface, Star Wars seems to be a Science Fiction film, but going to the deep core it is far from Science Fiction. It is an adventure film series with stories, mythologies, and a soap opera among a family known as the Skywalkers. John Williams follows in the same thinking pattern as George Lucas and catered the films exactly how it should be. If there is anything outside of this feel and mood it would the the source music from Return of the Jedi with the song Lepti Nek, which is more of a disco feel of the late 1970s, however this is another story.