It’s no surprise that Star Wars music is one of the most recognised film music scores of all time, currently ranked third on The Guardian’s list of ‘The 50 greatest film soundtracks’.
From the heavy Imperial March Theme, instantaneously recognised with the best know villain of all time, Darth Vader, to the legato and light themes of ‘Across the Stars’ from the Prequel Era, Star Wars music was, and still is today, some of the best-written film music.
Regardless of your opinions on controversial films like The Phantom Menace, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, all fans of Star Wars can unanimously agree that John Williams has created the best possible music to accompany one of the best movie franchises in the world.
In this article, I begin to analyse what makes the music of Star Wars, so magnificent and why it is regarded as some of the best film music to date.
The Prequel Era
The Prequel Era (Episodes I-III), contains some of my favourite film music pieces in the entire Star Wars franchise. The exciting, adventurous and chaotic emotion evoked in each piece is reflected in the intense battles and scenes displayed by George Lucas, director of all three films in the Prequel Era.
Let’s start off with arguably one of the most popular pieces of all Star Wars music.
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace
Duel of the Fates
Inspired from Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’, the ever loved ‘Duel of the Fates’ is an extraordinarily exciting composition by Williams, performed, like the Original Trilogy and the rest of the Prequel Era, by the London Symphony Orchestra.
As of 2020, Duel of the Fates is the most streamed song by the LSO with over 48 million listens on Spotify alone.
The symphonic composition features a full orchestra and choir (the London Voices). Duel of the Fates emphasises the lower register of the strings with a repeated moving line, bright bursts of brass and the choir provides this piece with its glory and magnificence.
However, the piece also holds a deeper meaning related to the story of Star Wars.
Dave Filoni (director of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels) recently commented on Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian sharing his thoughts on the scene and music of Episode I.
“He’s fighting for Anakin, and that’s why it’s the Duel of the Fates. It’s the fate of this child. And depending on how this fight goes, his life is going to be dramatically different.” — Dave Filoni.
This amazing, deep insight truly encapsulates the bigger picture of Duel of the Fates, highlighting the immense thought that Williams and Lucas put into the Star Wars franchise.
Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones
Across the Stars (Love Theme from “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones”)
Williams’ ‘Across the Stars’ theme is a wonderful, beautiful composition with royal and intense strings and brass.
Again, Williams’ conducts the London Symphony Orchestra. Although the London Voices were used in the Episode II soundtrack, ‘Across the Stars’ primarily utilises the orchestra.
In addition to composing a piece of excellent theme music, Williams’ uses the royal and flowing music to facilitate a deeper understanding of the developing romance on screen.
“Their love is complicated — pure yet forbidden, personal but with profound ramifications for an entire galaxy. Somehow, John has managed to convey all of that complexity in a simple, hauntingly beautiful theme.”―George Lucas.
Accompanied by triplet arpeggios, this love theme illustrates the bond between the queen-turned-senator Padmé Amidala and the slave-turned-Jedi-Knight Anakin Skywalker slowly strengthening and blossoming into love. The forbidden love is sealed in matrimony and continues until it slowly crumbles when Anakin turns to the dark side.
‘Across the Stars’, similar to ‘Duel of the Fates’ returns a multitude of times in the Prequel Era, as a musical symbol of the developing relationship between Anakin and Padmé.
Another notable favourite of mine is the chase scene music in the first half of the film.
The action and speed of the scene accompanied by this exciting composition pairs perfectly and is another example of the masterful work by John Williams.
The recorded music is actually much longer than the scene in the film and features a variety of percussive elements as well as an unorthodox and strange recurring guitar riff accentuating the exuberant and at times quirky character defined by these films.
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith
Battle of the Heros + Anakin vs. Obi-Wan
For the final instalment in the Prequel Era, I chose to look into two pieces, sharing similar themes but each capture an individual part of what makes Star Wars so beloved.
‘Battle of the Heroes’ is an amazing composition featuring the LSO and London Voices once again, reminiscent of ‘Duel of the Fates’. The composition is both exciting and thrilling and as serves as the thematic music for the final film in the Prequel Era.
The heavy brass in a low to middle register, adds a dark and rumbling timbre to the piece, accentuating the dramatic character of the piece.
The ‘Anakin vs. Obi-Wan’ music accompanies the chaotic final duel between Master and Apprentice in the Star Wars prequels and incorporates common themes from Star Wars music.
The composition is primarily centred around the ‘Battle of the Heroes’ theme and the ‘Imperial March’ theme from the Original Trilogy. Both these thematic ideas juxtaposed together and various percussive elements that define the Prequel Era contribute to a spectacular final end to the film trilogy.
The Original Trilogy
The Original Trilogy (OT for short) consists of the classic films of Episode IV-VI and were a strong factor for John Williams’ rise to fame as a film music conductor.
The pieces from the original trilogy were the birthplace of the great Star Wars music we know and love, setting the course for film music as a whole.
Here are some of the beloved pieces from the OT.
Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope
Possibly the most recognised and most influential film music theme, the Main Title introduction was the first musical piece heard by audiences in 1977 when Star Wars (as it was named then) was released into theatres.
A very obvious influence for the Star Wars main title appears to be 20th-century composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s ‘King’s Row’. Korngold’s own movie-esque compositions seem to have had a similar effect on Williams just like Williams’ compositions have had an effect on the film music industry since Star Wars.
The brass-centric theme provides a bright tone colour to the piece contributing to its dramatic and brilliant expression.
The main title, which appears in all the mainline Star Wars films in the Skywalker Saga, although repeated, still feels fresh and exhilarating even in the latest Sequel Era of films.
Here are my notable mentions of Star Wars Main Titles:
Of course, Revenge of the Sith makes a return. The bright brass-heavy opening of the Main Title followed by a surprising burst of even more heavy brass captures the beautiful chaos of this era of Star Wars.
Unlike most of the films in the Skywalker Saga, Return of the Sith opens right in the middle of an exciting battle with lasers and explosions riddling the screen. Williams’ jumpy and military-style theme music following the main titles is perfect for the on-screen action.
The Force Awakens, the fan-favourite of the Sequel trilogy opens with a spectacular and ominous Main Title.
Right from the first music in the film, Kylo Ren’s amazing villainous theme is set-up and Williams’ score does a great job to express the horror and fear expressed by J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens.
Star Wars: Episode V — Empire Strikes Back
The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme)
Possibly the most recognised Star Wars music of all, ‘The Imperial March’ captures the might of the Empire, further perpetuating the fear defined by the likes of Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers in Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.
The heavy, rumbling brass at a loud dynamic adds a dark timbre to the piece, expounding the sinister feel of the score. The sudden jump from loud, booming brass to extremely soft woodwinds and plucked strings is an amazing touch from Williams, explicating the mysterious character of the music.
Williams’ score truly cements his amazing ability to write complex and serious film music and ‘The Imperial March’ is an amazing tribute to his talent for composition.
Overall, the piece exudes what people love about the Star Wars story, full of excitement accompanied by thrilling music.
Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi
The Forest Battle
‘The Forest Battle’ music is simultaneously thrilling and quirky, giving us a great indication of Williams’ trajectory for future compositions. The same witty yet, amazingly complex and action-packed composition style is developing in this track and can be seen in his later work, notably in the Harry Potter series, and future Star Wars music.
The staccato woodwind and random pitch jumps add to the piece’s fun and playful feel, encapsulates the on-screen adventure and fun with the small furry Ewoks, wreaking havoc.
The Sequel Trilogy
The Sequel Trilogy has garnered mixed attention from fans of Star Wars, however, the music remains at its top quality. Williams’ music for the Sequel Trilogy is definitely less spectacular (at times) than the always moving, perpetual nature of The Prequel Era pieces but still vibrant enough to be exciting and energetic.
Williams’ music focuses on the wounded but recovering state of the galaxy after the fall of the Empire, while still emphasising the threat of the rising First Order.
Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens
The Force Awakens is one of my favourite Star Wars films of all the nine main story films. The film follows a similar nostalgic plot to A New Hope, the first Star Wars film to be released.
What is completely new, is ‘Rey’s Theme’. Williams’ partly abandons his heavy, powerful, brass-centric standard for Star Wars music, prioritising strings and woodwind in his new score for a new age.
The introductory jumpy, yet mostly legato woodwind sets the playful tone of the piece, while still maintaining a lingering feel of mystery and suspense. The arrival of both high and low register flowing strings adds an extremely beautiful touch to the piece through their warm timbre.
Williams doesn’t completely abandon his brass, however. The trumpets and lower brass parts have a much smoother, warmer feel compared to their usually bright, piercing or rumbling and dark tone colour in previous pieces.
The dramatic key change and subsequent dynamic change to forte, heightens the beauty of the piece, adding a regal and exuberant feel to this timeless masterpiece.
Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi
The Battle of Crait + The Last Jedi
The Last Jedi, while highly criticised by fans, has some astounding music. To save this analysis from being too long (which it probably already is!) I’ve handpicked these two tracks that really stand out to me.
‘The Battle of Crait’ opens with the tame yet still inspirational ‘Force Theme’ famously heard in A New Hope, and future Star Wars iterations. The score then quickly shifts its character to a dramatic tone as the imminent threat of the First Order arrives.
The classic ‘marching’ trope, with its heavy brass returns in this composition. The bright Resistance theme adds a further inspirational feel to the piece through its legato articulation.
The exuberant nature of the brass and staccato, continual strings further adds to the piece’s exciting nature, reminiscent of The Prequel Era.
Similarly to the previous track, ‘The Last Jedi’ opens on the ‘Force Theme’ once again.
The score encapsulates the thrilling scene depicted on screen.
The dramatic moment of the scene is kicked up by the amazing score, with Williams’ returning some amazing choral voices to add depth and brilliance to the scene.
Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker
Fleeing from Kijimi + We Go Together
The Rise of Skywalker has some amazing pieces from the soundtrack, and if I could, I would analyse all of the pieces! These are two of my personal favourites.
Other notable tracks from The Rise of Skywalker soundtrack are, ‘Speeder Chase’, ‘Join Me’, ‘The Force Is with You’ and ‘The Battle of the Resistance’.
This exciting track is one of my favourite pieces from The Rise of Skywalker, accompanying an exciting escape scene from the film.
The introductory staccato and accented trumpets combined with the loud ‘Kylo Ren Theme’ with more brass adds the sense of looming danger, emphasising the piece’s dramatic, suspenseful and exhilarating character.
The blend of harp and upper strings, with an underlying lower strings part, creates an incredible ethereal feel, perfect for the characteristics of the scene’s physical setting.
Overall, this piece with its flowing strings and shortly articulated brass provides an emotional as well as exhilarating feel to the music.
Another dramatically fuelled track is Williams’ ‘We Go Together’ providing the film with some thrilling music.
The mysterious, yet friendly opening is reminiscent of Williams’ score for the more sombre moments in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
The overall warm, but edging towards dark, timbre of the piece adds a beautifully crafted inspirational emotion to the piece.
The latter half of the piece, becoming exponentially dramatic is extraordinary and excellently composed.
The loud brass and utilisation of lower strings emphasise the suspenseful and sinister feel of the ending of the piece through their dark and occasionally rumbling tone colour.
Notable Mentions from Other ‘Star Wars’ Media
While Williams’ scored the main series films, there have been a variety of side stories in the Star Wars universe.
Heralding new composers with varying styles, there are some uniquely original and spectacular compositions for the wider Star Wars galaxy.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Kevin Kiner, The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Kiner’s fun and exhilarating composition borrows the main thematic elements from Star Wars, altering the rhythmic pattern to create a uniquely enticing introductory music to every episode of Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
The blast of strings, woodwind, brass and heavy percussion after the main theme, fits perfectly for the military-esque action unfolding in each episode.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Giacchino has been a favourite of mine ever since his work on The Incredibles and Star Trek (2009). Like Williams, Giacchino also learnt from the Julliard School of Music, sharing a similar taste in full orchestra suites.
Giacchino embraces the basic elements of Star Wars compositions while introducing his own themes and styles over the foundation set by Williams.
A great example is the ‘Hope’ track. The brassy and string characteristics of classic Star Wars music return, however with a new, menacing feel.
In addition to the feel of the piece, the vocal choir sings a slowed-down version of Williams’ ‘The Imperial March’, further adding gravitas to Giacchino’s excellent imprint in the music of Star Wars.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
John Powell, John Williams (on the ‘Han Solo’ Theme)
Powell’s work on Solo: A Star Wars Story, is deeply intense and dramatic and incorporates a new thematic idea composed by Williams.
Powell utilises an orchestral composition to explore his exuberant and at times soothing and smooth music.
The ‘Testing Allegiance’ track exceptionally showcases Powell’s talent for creating sombre yet, thrilling music while simultaneously advocating his great work in adapting Williams’ theme composed for the film.
Goransson’s unique entry to the Star Wars universe with his work on The Mandalorian is a completely original composition.
Previously Gorannson has scored many films such as Marvel’s Black Panther, Creed and Creed II. Recently, Goransson has composed thrilling music for the second season of The Mandalorian and TENET, a Christopher Nolan film.
His work on the show is a first for Star Wars, utilising computer-created music using synthesisers and guitars, a far stray away from the classic orchestral music from previous Star Wars shows and films.
Goransson’s music is both intense and exuberant and the loud trumpets, exude a sense of inspiration and excitement, a perfect fit for The Mandalorian story.
William’s music for the Star Wars series has had a great outreach on film music, inspiring great music for films of the future. From the outset, Williams’ composition for A New Hope, ingrained itself in history as a turning point for what film music can be.
William’s broad utilisation of heavy and at times rumbling brass and lyrical, legato strings in moments of serenity serve as the gold standard for Star Wars music, influencing the film music of the Star Wars spin-offs and side stories. The multitude of examples where Williams’ juxtaposes warm and soothing tone colours with darker are classic characteristics of Star Wars music and its why the music is so adored to this day. While Williams’ has officially stepped down from the Star Wars films primary composer, his musical legacy will continue to live on in future Star Wars films.