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May the Score Be With You: How John Williams Defined the Sound of ‘Star Wars’

The legendary composer was the most consistent part of the franchise. What will happen now that he’s stepped down?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The surest signal that one is watching one of the nine films in the Star Wars Skywalker saga isn’t something on the screen. It’s not the opening crawls or the scene wipes. It’s not the lightsabers, blasters, or starfighters. It’s not even the indefatigable droid duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO. All of those things are present at some point in each movie, but not from moment to moment. The only true constant in the Skywalker saga is the sound of the score. And for five decades, that sound was the work of one man, John Williams, who announced in 2018 that The Rise of Skywalker would be his last Star Wars soundtrack.

Over the 42 years that separated the releases of Episode IV and Episode IX, the directors, writers, special effects artists, and cast members who made Star Wars changed, but the composer was always the same. The Star Wars soundtrack never slumped, even as the quality of the storytelling fluctuated from film to film. No matter how hackneyed the dialogue, wooden the delivery, or gaping the plot hole, Williams was there to touch it up with a symphonic flourish. Although the films of the prequel and sequel trilogies often missed the mark set by the first few films in the series, they always sounded like Star Wars. As much as any of the iconography or the surname “Skywalker,” that aural link is the energy field that binds the Star Wars galaxy together. And while The Rise of Skywalker wasn’t the universally satisfying finale that fans might have hoped for, the 87-year-old Williams’s final Star Wars soundtrack didn’t disappoint, although some of the flaws of the film are inevitably mirrored in its music.

No one has chronicled Williams’s Star Wars work more comprehensively than Frank Lehman, a music theorist and associate professor of music at Tufts University. Lehman, the author of Hollywood Harmony and the editor of the upcoming Music Analysis in Film, is a scholar of film scores in general, but he’s devoted particular attention to Williams, whom he credits for helping him find his vocation. It was Williams’s plaintive, yearning “Binary Sunset” from Episode IV, heard during a childhood viewing of a VHS tape, that inspired Lehman to listen for a living. As Luke Skywalker stared into Tatooine’s twin suns and dreamed of joining the Rebellion, Lehman saw and heard his own future unfold. “I became a film score lover, and eventually film score scholar, as a somewhat direct result of that incredibly iconic piece of music,” Lehman says.

Lehman has contributed chapters to books about Williams and written articles about Williams’s non–Star Wars work, and for the first time, he’s teaching a course for nonmusicians on Williams’s complete output, which he describes as a “staggering amount” of music. (Williams’s first IMDb credit as a composer dates back to 1958, and his musical corpus—which includes soundtracks to more than 110 movies, almost 30 of which were collaborations with Steven Spielberg—has produced five Oscar wins and 51 nominations, trailing only Walt Disney’s 59.) But his most acclaimed contribution to the field of Williams studies is his complete catalog of the musical themes of Star Wars, in which he’s painstakingly classified and transcribed the themes and leitmotifs that pervade the Star Wars soundtracks, including The Rise of Skywalker’s.

The leitmotif is central to Williams’s Star Wars compositions, which drew on a wide range of operatic, Romantic, and early Hollywood influences and were intended to evoke the epic, symphonic, swashbuckling scores of the adventure films George Lucas was weaned on. Most closely associated with, and first applied to, the operas of Richard Wagner, the leitmotif is a recurring musical phrase that serves as the sonic signature of a person, place, or concept. When one of those entities appears or is referenced, its leitmotif often accompanies it, deepening the spectator’s connection to the onscreen events. Through the use of leitmotifs, a composer can help a filmmaker allude to or symbolize something without actually showing it, and subtle variations on the familiar musical hallmark can convey hidden depths or character development, hearken back to earlier events, or foreshadow future ones.

In the original trilogy, Leia has a leitmotif, as does Han and Leia’s love. So does the Force, and so do Yoda, Darth Vader, the droids, and Emperor Palpatine. Even the Jawas and Ewoks have their own leitmotifs. In the prequel era, Williams wrote recurring themes for Anakin, Shmi, the droid army, and Anakin and Padmé’s cringey courtship, as well as Darth Maul, Qui-Gon, Jar Jar, and General Grievous. And in the sequel trilogy, Kylo Ren, Rey, and the Resistance get the Williams leitmotif treatment, as do Poe, Rose, Snoke, and the Knights of Ren.

Lehman has identified 72 leitmotifs in total across the nine films. The most difficult task is trying to distinguish the times when Williams is purposefully echoing an established leitmotif from the times when he may have unintentionally produced a piece of music that sounds like some other snatch of Star Wars score he wrote decades ago. “We’re dealing with nine film scores, and that’s a truly unprecedented feat in Hollywood or elsewhere, really, in musical history,” Lehman says. “So he has 40 years’ worth of music to draw on, and a very established musical voice, and most people can pick out Williams-isms in his music. Some of his themes do share family resemblances with one another.”

Lehman estimates that he’s listened to The Rise of Skywalker’s soundtrack 20 to 30 times so far in his hunt for leitmotifs; as for the original trilogy, he says, “The hundreds, I think, would be a pretty low estimate.” When a new movie comes out, Lehman watches it before listening to the soundtrack alone. He picks up on the major themes and recurring refrains in the theater, then uses the recording to transcribe the notation. He may be the only person who glanced at a stopwatch while viewing The Rise of Skywalker in order to pinpoint the first appearance of each theme or leitmotif.

The sequel trilogy gave Lehman a lot to work with, thanks to its frequent repurposing of previous themes. “The point of reference in the sequel trilogy scores really does seem to be Williams’s prior work on this series, and particularly the original trilogy scores,” Lehman says. Although the prequels feature some moments of musical recall, Lehman notes that “minute to minute, there’s less in the way of callbacks, less in the way of referentiality.”

John Williams and Frank Lehman
Courtesy of Frank Lehman

Lehman doesn’t fault Williams for that sonic recycling. For one thing, the callbacks can be satisfying, not only in a nostalgia-inducing sense but in their capacity to reinforce the narrative and emotional ties between trilogies, theoretically reinforcing the relationships and sentiments that span the series. For another, he notes, “It’s not really on Williams to counter the director or producer’s vision of the film,” Lehman says. “He’s giving them what they want.” At many points in the sequel trilogy, what Disney and Episodes VII and IX director J.J. Abrams seemed to want was a remake of the originals. If the scripts call for more Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, R2-D2, C-3PO, Yoda, and Palpatine, plus another massive superweapon, a helmeted dark sider who villain-worships Darth Vader, and a good vs. evil battle between Jedi and Sith and Rebellion and Empire, then there’s no way for the score to escape some sameness of its own.

The downside of that sameness is that this latest trilogy yielded fewer new themes that could contend for a collection of Williams’s most memorable Star Wars hits. While the prequels were Lucas’s low point, Williams was still composing at his peak. “Duel of the Fates,” “Across the Stars,” “Battle of the Heroes,” and the droid army theme, among other stirring anthems, were as unforgettable as anything from the original trilogy, even though the material they accompanied couldn’t give them the cultural cachet of the original trilogy’s main theme or Imperial March. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones didn’t deserve Williams, but his scores lived up to the original trilogy touchstones. The Disney-era movies are much better, but because they’re more prone to retracing the original trilogy’s steps, they leave less room for Williams to establish grand new themes that rank alongside the old ones.

On top of that, the new compositions tend to pull from the same sonic palette as the classic scores. “The last three Star Wars scores are probably the most conventional, at least in terms of the instrumentation, of anything that we’ve heard so far,” Lehman says. “This may just be Williams saying, ‘All right, if I established the sound, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. I’m just going to give you exactly what one imagines from a Star Wars score.’” In the sequel trilogy, Williams doesn’t experiment with, for example, the electronics, electric guitars, and atypical percussion that punctuated the pursuit of Zam Wesell in Attack of the Clones.

Perhaps that’s a product of the aforementioned unoriginality in some of the sequel trilogy’s scripts, or a consequence of Williams growing a little less adventurous in his 80s. Or maybe Williams was wary of populating the trilogy with new themes that could come off as warmed-over versions of his greatest hits. When you’ve already written “The Imperial March,” how do you make a martial theme for another totalitarian power that doesn’t pale in comparison?

“One of the things that’s striking about the sequel trilogy is although there is a sort of ersatz Empire … he never writes a theme that even attempts to accomplish what ‘The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)’ did for that film,” Lehman says, adding, “He doesn’t even try. There’d be no point. It would just sound like a kind of rip-off of himself.” The First Order is already a rip-off of the Empire, so maybe it’s best that Williams focused on Kylo rather than trying to make an enemy composed of Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers, and English-accented officers sound like something else.

The relative lack of instantly striking tracks in the sequel trilogy may not be solely attributable to the rehashed structure of the films. “Part of it has to do with a change in [Williams’s] own compositional aesthetic,” Lehman says. “He tends to score less in set pieces than he did back in the ’70s and ’80s. Now, his approach is much more fine-grained. I think he scores for moments rather than scenes or large-scale sections … which means sometimes we get a little bit less in the way of those rousing, very memorable, very foursquare, easily hummable themes.”

When Williams does break new ground, though, it’s often as fertile as before. One of the highlights of the sequel trilogy, along with “Rey’s Theme,” is the new theme from the final film, also titled “The Rise of Skywalker.” It’s a delicate composition that seems to synthesize several earlier leitmotifs but still stands on its own. “It’s this sort of optimistic, hopeful theme, which serves some functions similar to what Yoda and Rose’s themes do, and maybe Anakin’s theme from the prequel trilogy, but there’s also a sense of maturity and maybe some sort of hard-won victory … which suits the movie quite well on an emotional level,” Lehman says.

In The Rise of Skywalker, Williams also exhumes some underused Star Wars chestnuts from the first film to bring the series full circle. “There’s usages of the main theme in quite overt and interesting ways that we haven’t heard since A New Hope,” Lehman says. “There’s references to the B section of the main theme, which has never been really a main part of the Star Wars underscore canon, and yet here we’re hearing it for the first time in very rousing renditions. And that’s certainly Williams, in part, just thinking, ‘Well, what can I do to give this a sense of being the end of the road, being my final statement on the scores? I’ll give you a return to the original Star Wars musical language.’”

The most compelling non-nostalgia-dependent part of the sequel trilogy is Kylo’s continual wavering on the light side/dark side spectrum, and Williams’s modulation of Kylo’s theme in The Rise of Skywalker suits the conversion the character makes at the climax of the movie. “His leitmotif really does undergo a quite profound transformation, particularly in the last act of the movie when his fate is turned away from the dark side … and there’s a sort of reorientation of his themes, so it’s not quite so chromatic, not so dissonant anymore,” Lehman says. “Not necessarily like a hero theme, or even something that’s stable in any way, but it feels kind of in the process of being transformed. … We’re never presented with a truly definitive, actualized version of any of his themes, which may go along with his characterization.” Although Kylo turns toward the light and redeems some of his heinous behavior, he doesn’t live long enough for his new and old self to solidify.

That said, some of the same critiques that apply to the sequel trilogy’s story—even aside from the recycling—also apply to its soundtracks. After The Force Awakens, the trilogy couldn’t seem to decide what to do with Finn, which may explain why, in contrast with Rey and Poe, Finn doesn’t have a leitmotif. “There’s no consistent melodic identification with him as a character,” Lehman says, adding, “There were a few little bits of material in The Force Awakens that some people speculated could be like an incipient Finn motif, but that didn’t persist into The Last Jedi.”

Similarly, some elements of The Last Jedi didn’t persist into The Rise of Skywalker. Because Rose is sidelined for most of the latter movie, the theme Williams wrote for her in The Last Jedi is absent from the sequel’s score. The Last Jedi’s score was heavy on the Force theme, reflecting Rian Johnson’s emphasis on democratizing the Force, but The Rise of Skywalker’s score seems to be in dialogue with the original trilogy more than the movie that immediately preceded it. “The fact that it doesn’t really follow up on the musical implications of the previous movie is disappointing, but that’s what it is,” Lehman says. “This is Williams writing according to the directorial needs.”

Another musical moment in The Rise of Skywalker that Lehman attributes to a disappointing directorial decision is the callback to the music that plays during Anakin Skywalker’s death scene in Return of the Jedi, which reoccurs when Rey enters the throne room on the downed Death Star. “It’s not even a new recording,” Lehman says. “It’s actually the original recording. You can tell that the sound quality is quite different from everything else in the score, and it’s presented as kind of out of order and jumbled in ways. I think it’s probably, to the average filmgoer, a perfectly effective haunted, strange iteration of the Darth Vader theme, but to me it just sounds so lazy and so secondhand nostalgia.”

Lehman draws a contrast between that and a playful reprise in The Last Jedi, when Johnson makes a clothes iron look like a descending space ship in a scene transition that pays homage to Hardware Wars. Williams cheekily heightens the visual gag by dredging up the Death Star leitmotif. “That strikes me as being more Rian Johnson’s sort of subversive approach, which I actually appreciate a great deal,” Lehman says. “It kind of takes things down a peg in a nice way, whereas the two J.J. Abrams movies are much more deferential, much more quotational in a straight-faced way.”

Subversive or straight-faced, those references are largely limited to the original trilogy. Lehman laments that with some minor exceptions in The Last Jedi, the sequel scores (and movies) don’t draw on the music of the prequels, which limits their ability to make The Rise of Skywalker seem like the culmination of a seamless story. “The filmmakers talked about how this was supposed to be not just the end of one trilogy, but a trilogy of trilogies,” he says. “Musically speaking, it doesn’t really accomplish that. ... [That] does detract a little bit from the unity of the entire saga.”

If any meaningful prequel connections were lurking in The Rise of Skywalker, Lehman would certainly sniff them out. But Williams wasn’t always the subject of such scholarly regard. Like the late André Previn, Williams is an accomplished pianist, jazz musician, arranger, and conductor in addition to his film work, and Lehman says his melodic sensibility and harmonic vocabulary were rich even in his earliest work. Yet he was, for a while, maligned as an imitator or dismissed by those who thought his popular appeal precluded artistic merit. “You can still see some of the disdain in some of the older guard,” Lehman says. “But his music does have staying power, and once you get over the somewhat obvious indebtedness to prior classical and film music, which Williams would be the first person to acknowledge … the music is so complex, and so brilliantly constructed and rewarding to play and rewarding to study, that I think his place in the canon is pretty secure.”

His place in the Star Wars firmament is second to only Lucas’s, and unlike Lucas, he never brought dishonor to the series he’s been burnishing from the start. “Lucas has been on record saying that he attributes at least half of the success of these movies to Williams’s contribution,” Lehman says. “I think that’s completely correct. Without his music, or maybe someone who could write very similar music to him, there would not be this sort of mythological impact or appeal across cultures, or this feeling of romantic nostalgia that is so essential to the way that these movies work and became popular.”

With the Skywalker saga concluded, the franchise finds itself at a creative crossroads. As Lucasfilm deliberates on what the next chapters of big-screen Star Wars will look like, it’s equally crucial for the studio to decide what those installments will sound like. If Disney designates a successor, it may anoint someone like Gordy Haab, who’s written remarkably Williams-like scores for several Star Wars video games. But Lehman leans toward a break from the past. “In order for the series to grow and hopefully move beyond this over-reliance on nostalgia, it would be nice to see some legitimately new musical voices heard,” he says, citing Ludwig Göransson’s work in The Mandalorian and John Powell’s in Solo as examples of scores that strike the right balance between old and new. “That, I hope, will be the future, that there’ll be a kind of deference to the Williams model, but not a slavishness toward it.”

My favorite piece of Star Wars music comes about five minutes into a track called “The Battle of Endor II.” It swells in the score of Return of the Jedi as an almost unhinged Luke duels his dad on the Death Star II. Those 30 or so transcendent seconds of strings and choral incantations give me chills even after countless listens.

That selection isn’t one of Williams’s leitmotifs. It’s unique, never referenced or repeated. “On the one hand, it would have been pleasing to hear that retuned some way in the sequels, because it is such an amazing musical moment,” Lehman says. “At the same time, I’m kind of like, ‘Well, let’s keep that one fresh.’ … It’s not recycled in any way. There isn’t even music that quite resembles it. It really is a sort of one-scene wonder, and maybe all the more powerful for that reason.”

Williams has been making musical magic like that for six decades—in Jaws, Close Encounters, Superman, E.T., Indiana Jones, Home Alone, Jurassic Park, Hook, Harry Potter, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and so many more movies, but never more memorably than in Star Wars. He’s anything but a one-scene wonder. But like that snippet from Return of the Jedi, his career is singular. It’s unlikely that anyone will match his indelible body of work, which elevated movies both bad and good. “Having studied these scores for so long, I’ve had to deal with a lot of bad movies, or movies that are deeply flawed,” Lehman says. “But the music, with very few exceptions, is uniformly impressive.” The Skywalker saga sometimes let us down. But Williams always ensured that Star Wars sounded as special as it seemed in our dreams.