The Sound Of Star Wars

Analysing how John Williams scores the following scene from ‘Return of the Jedi’ (1983):

Naturally, John Williams is aware of the role a film score plays in emphasising the action on the screen (arguably most audience members are governed more by the mood of the score than the visual communication of the shots themselves). Hence, given that this short action-packed scene is so narratively dense and readily changes mood, rather than composing a single piece to play over the scene Williams pieces together various leitmotifs, similarly to how an editor would stitch individual shots together. The transitions between the leitmotifs are relatively smooth, but the juxtapositions between them are definitely intended to highlight the aggressive conflicts between the trio of characters and orchestrate the flow of the fight scene. 


However, on a first watch when you are not specifically paying attention to the score, it is hard to recognise Palpatine’s unique leitmotif, and hence the majority of the scene is primarily driven by the immediate emotion of the chords, as opposed to any distinct audience recollection. The notable exception to this is Luke Skywalker’s leitmotif, which is clearly recognisable from previous moments in the franchise and features twice in this scene. For instance, when Darth Vader mentions Obi Wan, Williams uses a light flutter of Luke’s leitmotif to add some subtext to the scene by reminding us of the long emotional journey we have been on up to this point; this fight is governed by far larger forces than just the two individuals at lightsaber length away from each other. 


During the silent era, films were accompanied by a live organist who would play over the film, often accompanying the on screen action in what would now be considered an almost comical manner (e.g. the classic pitter patter glissando as a character ascends a staircase). This trend is somewhat maintained in modern score production, given that almost all music is recorded after the film has been cut. Nowadays, given the fact that ADR technology has become so prominent, the raw on-set footage is practically rendered silent. There are some exceptions to this, for instance in his films ‘Interstellar’ (2014) and ‘Tenet’ (2020) Christopher Nolan worked with composers Hans Zimmer and Ludwig Goranson prior to the production of the films, in fact, Nolan went so far as to write sections of the ‘Interstellar’ script to the very melody which would later feature in the final score. This helps to blur the dichotomy between visual and audible storytelling, and gives the score more respect, compared to when it is just slapped on after the film has already been completed. Whilst John Williams’ scoring in this scene predominantly matches the action, there is a distinct moment where the music is given the right to have definite control over the narrative. This moment comes at the end of the scene when the rising high pitch crescendo is used to clearly foreshadow Palpatine’s attack on Luke. In contemporary sound design, audible illusions such as the shepherd tone can be used to draw out these rising crescendos for potentially infinite time periods, and totally exploit our sensitivity to the tension created by them. Although this one used by Williams works very effectively precisely because of its brevity, which allows the score to catch us like a deer in headlights as we suddenly realise what is approaching.

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