Breaking down the elements that give John Williams' 'Star Wars' soundtrack the power to move us still

By Rob Weinert-Kendt
December 15, 2015 at 12:00 PM EST

When Star Wars opened in May 1977, enthralled fans left theaters wanting, somehow, to carry its magic home with them. Yet in an epic exit-through-the-gift-shop failure, officially licensed toys and other tie-ins wouldn’t hit stores for months, missing Halloween and even Christmas.

But John Williams’ old-school orchestral soundtrack LP hit stores and the Billboard Top 10 by the summer (along with Meco’s kitschy disco version of the film’s theme), making it one of the first Star Wars souvenirs fans could cling to. Even before they had the record, though, anyone who’d seen the film was likely to have memorable bits of Williams’ hummable score lodged in their heads. And who needs a plastic-and-rubber-band Luke Skywalker mask when, with a flashlight and some construction paper, you could wage a mock battle while voicing the triumphant theme: dun-DUN-da-da-da-DUN-da…


What gives this secondary melody its absurdly heart-tugging potency? Like the main Star Wars theme, it’s got some fanfare mojo, opening with a stalwart fourth that could be a quote from “Taps,” except that it’s in a sobering minor key. But here that minor key has a bracing rather than a downbeat effect, suggesting not mourning or danger but seriousness of purpose; that it is met at every turn by hopeful major chords, like shafts of light in a dark corridor, makes it feel like a struggle worth seeing through.


These two leitmotifs, and a half dozen others, are entwined like DNA strands throughout the six Star Wars films to date. Williams composed a new score for The Force Awakens, and the full trailer leans noticeably on his Force theme, as well as Han and Leia’s love theme, without a trace of the main melody.

RELATED: Star Wars: The Force Awakens: An Exclusive EW Gallery of New Photos

By now Williams’s work on these films is a kind of living legacy: He has served his share of franchises, from Indiana Jones to Jurassic Park to Harry Potter (the first three films). But his unique contribution to Lucas’ vision makes it possible to think of his Star Wars music as one large body of work, like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations or Wagner’s Ring cycle. Arguably, his scores have been more artistically consistent than the films themselves. And while it’s always fun to play “name that influence,” (go ahead, Google Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War,” Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Kings Row film theme, and the “Sacrifice” introduction of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), the operatic music of Star Wars soars above such petty second-guessing, a Force unto itself.


In celebration of the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, EW is giving fans an inside look at the franchise in The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars. A celebration of the entire beloved franchise, this compendium features rarely seen production and cast photos from all the movies in the series; essays on Ralph McQuarrie, the founding of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, director Irvin Kershner, and more; as well as exclusive art and surprising reveals from The Force Awakens. The piece above is an excerpt from the heavily illustrated collector’s edition. EW’s The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars is in stores and newsstands Friday, Dec. 18, or an ebook edition is available for order online on iTunes and Amazon

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