Star Wars is considered by many to be the greatest film series of all time, having a lasting impact on cinema and culture. Since Episode IV: A New Hope was released in 1977, the series began on its way to becoming a mainstay in modern culture. One would be hard pressed to find someone who has not heard of “the dark side,” “the Force,” Darth Vader, or Luke Skywalker. John Williams’ score plays an essential role in the success of the series. The film score, combined with the genres of fantasy and adventure, masks the violence and death in the film, allowing for the film to be more accessible to a wider range of audiences. This effect shapes it to feel more cathartic, rather than dark.
Before approaching the analysis of music in Star Wars, the various genres at play in the film must be understood. Star Wars is a small part science fiction film, a large part fantasy film, and at its heart, an adventure film. It is the combination of these genres that allow for the music to mask the magnitude of the violence portrayed.
Science fiction can be considered similar to fantasy film, but there are definitive ways in which it is distinct. The worlds in science fiction are characterized by their stemming from actual science. There will often be provided explanations, or at least plausible reasons, why certain technologies within the world exist. The films may be set in the future, take place on Earth, or even take place in newly imagined worlds or alternate-timeline universes. Star Wars can be viewed as a science fiction film, having future-like technologies such as vessels for outer space travel and laser weaponry, as well as having a re-imagined society, but the categorization stops there.
Star Wars is more aptly classified as futuristic fantasy than as science fiction, having large-scale space battles, planets characterized by newly imagined landscapes, and futuristic wizards known as “Jedi Knights” using magic called the Force. The fantasy genre takes the viewer to a mythical or magical place, where events are unlikely to occur in real life, and do not abide by the laws of physics. Fantasy stories are not predicated on scientific truth. Often, fantasy films will have elements of mythology, magic, spectacle, and the impossible or extraordinary – these films are meant to set the imagination wild.
The story of Star Wars is one of adventure. The adventure genre features new or exciting locales and their discovery, an emphasis on fighting and violence, and the struggle between heroes and villains. The tale of Luke Skywalker, a nephew to two farmers, begins in a planet with rural-like towns. The pace picks up as he travels dangerous grounds into space, eventually coming into contact with evil forces. The lightsaber battles and blaster skirmishes are reminiscent of swashbuckling pirates, dueling knights, and other war-like scenarios.
While the content of the story establishes Star Wars as a futuristic fantasy-adventure film, it is the score which firmly places Star Wars in these genres and directly influences the portrayal and perception of violence in the film.
Before Star Wars, many science fiction films featured music with an emphasis on the electronic synthesizer. For example, the 1956 film Forbidden Planet featured electronic tonalities in its opening sequence as a spacecraft moves against the backdrop of star-laden space. No such electronic music exists in Star Wars.
Instead, John Williams utilizes a classical orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra primarily, which roots the film in the fantasy and adventure genres. This is a technique that recurs in future blockbuster fantasy films such as The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Similar to Alexander Courage’s space-travel theme music for the Star Trek television series, Williams’ score for Star Wars communicates the idea of boldly traveling into outer space. Especially in the opening theme, with blaring brass and a militaristic drum roll, the score communicates the idea of adventure . With regards to fantasy, the score acts as a callback to grand myths and legends similar to 19th century German composer Richard Wagner’s operatic scores, as well as the composer’s use of musical themes or “lietmotifs.” Additionally, influences from early 20th century classical and film composers Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Gustav Holst, and Erich Korngold are heard throughout the music of the film, evoking a sense of nostalgia due to similarities in past musical scores and works of fantasy.
The genres of fantasy and adventure often feature violence, and not in any sort of realistic sense. Violence serves as a tool to propel the plot forward, or to be enjoyed as exciting entertainment itself. Highlighting violence as a depraved act, among other moral judgments, is not the primary focus of these genres. There is no moral meditation on death itself.
The facts presented from the story of the film indicate an estimation of two billion onscreen deaths, yet the gravity of these deaths is never felt by the audience. By shaping not only the genre, but also the pacing of the film, Williams’ score plays a huge part in masking this massive death count. As select scenes and the analysis of them will show, the instances of violence and death in Star Wars rarely feel significant or sad.
The first scene involving violence and death is towards the beginning of the film, following the title scene and subsequent chase of the Tantive IV Starship by an Imperial Star Destroyer. The tune that the orchestra is playing when the Imperial Stormtroopers destroy the doors leading to the Rebel ship is a variation of a portion of the main theme, played more softly and quietly. The music underscores the subsequent action; blaster fire is exchanged as dissonant and subtle strings engage in a fugue that conveys a sense of urgency. An interesting sound dynamic comes to play here as well. The Imperial blaster fire is louder than the music of the orchestra, serving as a parallel to the Rebel troops being overpowered at the Empire’s hand.
As Darth Vader steps into the captured starship, horns play in a minor scale, indicating his dark, negative presence while shifting the focus away from the violence. This manifests visually, as Vader walks by the fallen soldiers of either side. He looks down onto the bodies of the Rebel soldiers, but because of his masked face, evil aura, and the horns playing as he enters, this is more indicative of an attitude of approval.
The attention soon moves from the Stormtroopers following Vader down the corridor onto R2-D2 being fed a disk by Princess Leia. This shift becomes evident not only by the visual change, but also by a musical change. At this point, Williams introduces another theme into the score that will recur later on in the film: “Princess Leia’s Theme,” a mournful and nostalgic melody. Both visually and aurally, the gravity of the death and violence of this scene is minimized by purposefully shifting the attention of the audience to the plot and the characters.
The scene in which the most violence occurs is not one in which the viewer sees dead bodies or conventional violence, but an entire planet falling by the hands of the Empire and the Death Star. Williams’ score during the scene in which the planet Alderaan is threatened with destruction focuses on the power of the Death Star and on the emotions of Princess Leia with alternating soft woodwind tones. Deep-pitched, brass minor tones are heard as Leia struggles between the decision to give away the location of the Rebel base or face the destruction of her homeworld.
A pattern of militaristic brass plays as the engineers prepare the Death Star’s laser for firing. A progression of high-pitched strings follows as the laser fires, killing the two billion inhabitants of Alderaan. The scene changes before the viewers can reflect on the destruction because the primary focus is on the emotions and motivation of the characters.
The final scene of the film, during which the protagonist Luke and his comrades are awarded medals for their valiant act of destroying the Death Star, is entirely predicated on Williams’ score playing. The bright, military march-like variation of the Force Theme playing here evokes a sense of victory and catharsis. Neither the scene nor the music reflect on the nearly two million lives aboard the Death Star who were obliterated.
The violence and death isn’t the focus of the film. The focus of the film is on the development of Luke Skywalker’s journey to heroism and on the action of the violence – both staples of the fantasy and adventure genres. Because Williams’ score helps to maintain this focus throughout the film by diverting the attention from the violence and death to the hero’s journey, audiences of all ages enjoy Star Wars to this day as it maintains its popularity as one of the greatest films of all time.
By Jeremy Brown
Jeremy Brown is a junior, majoring in Cognitive Science & Computers as well as Story & Game Design through CUNY Baccalaureate. He has been enamored with Star Wars since he was five years old. He wrote this piece for the Music in Films course at Baruch College.