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[REVISED] How John Williams Uses Harmony in the Original Star Wars | Composer Toolbox: Episode 3

[REVISED] How John Williams Uses Harmony in the Original Star Wars | Composer Toolbox: Episode 3


Hello! And welcome to Composer Toolbox:
the show that takes an in-depth look at the common techniques utilized by the
master film composers and how you can practically apply them in your own
writing. Today, we’re going to be looking at a few specific ways that John Williams
tells a story with different harmonic concepts in the original Star Wars. So,
without further ado, let’s dive in! The first harmonic concept is how Williams
uses tonality or atonality. Technically speaking, Google says that tonality is “a
principle by which pitches and chords are arranged around a central note or
tonic.” Atonality is exactly the opposite: it’s music that isn’t arranged around a
tonal center. Williams uses the difference between these two concepts to
help us, the audience, relate to and sympathize with characters and ideas
that he designates. And here’s what I mean by that. In the opening text crawl,
Williams immediately sets the film on a rather solid harmonic ground by using a
plain and simple B-flat major scale. A lot of the things in this film between
crazy-looking spaceships and outer space jargon are very foreign and unfamiliar,
especially to an audience back in 1977. A score that also started out with very
alien-sounding textures probably would have lost the audience from the get-go.
So, to avoid this, Williams lets us get comfortable and engaged in the film with
familiar harmonic choices before going into the foreign sounding music. When the
camera does pan down and tension builds, Williams slowly leads us to a more
unfamiliar territory with a mixolydian scale, some big polychords, and a a
harmonic major scale. As the scene progresses, we are sucked into the action with
even more rather unfamiliar scales and harmonies. To our passive ear, this all sounds more or
less atonal, even if it technically isn’t. And this concept really continues
throughout much of the opening scene as well as into the droids and Jawa scene
(especially during the Jawa Sandcrawler scenes). You can see my analysis on it, but
there are a lot of off-the-wall harmonic choices that Williams makes. Of course, this is intentional. We, the
audience, are seeing these unfamiliar, diminutive creatures for the first time.
Williams plays on this sense of unfamiliarity with his harmonica choices.
But what happens next is interesting. When we see Luke, or better yet when we
see humans for the first time since the opening scene, Williams immediately
switches to familiar harmonic concepts with his use of a G minor scale…and the
friendly key of D-flat major. This return to familiarity is definitely
not a coincidence. I think it immediately helps us relate to Luke and sympathize
with him since he’s one of us. And it’s this concept that Williams uses
throughout the film that I think glues the score as a whole together and helps
make it memorable. I’m not gonna list out every time
Williams switches back and forth between the tonal sounding music and the atonal
sounding music. If that’s something you want to explore on your own I think it’s
a pretty easy concept to grasp and apply: tonal music for the familiar and
relatable things in the film, and atonal music for the more alien and foreign
things in the film. Now, the other major harmonic concept that Williams uses is
his use of parallel harmony, the parallel movement of two or more lines.
Specifically, after looking at this score as a whole it becomes very apparent to
me that Williams uses planing major triads and planing minor triads for two
distinct entities. Think about the Rebel Fanfare as discussed in the previous
episode. What is the main characterizing factor of that theme?
Planing major triads. Now look at the Imperial theme. What is its defining
factor? Well, you guessed it: planing minor triads. And this relationship isn’t
just restricted to these two themes, either. Throughout the whole movie, these
two devices seem to represent each side respectively: when Darth Vader first
walks in on screen we get several minor triads. We get several planing major triads as
R-2’s purchase is secured. We get plenty of minor triads in the horns as
the Falcon attempts to escape the clutches of the Star Destroyers; the list
goes on. But again, I’m not going to insult your intelligence and tell you
every time Williams uses major versus minor planing triads. I think this is
also a pretty easy concept to grasp and apply: major triads for the rebels and
minor triads for the Imperials. So, the main point of application from these two
concepts is, I think, that you can use harmonic ideas that you learn in music
theory for more than just “major=happy” and “minor=sad.”
Much like themes, you can use different harmonic concepts to tell a story with
your music. Different chords and scales can be used to represent different ideas,
people, and objects. They don’t have to act purely as mood-setting devices. These
harmonic choices almost become themes of their own in a sense. Be purposeful and
intentional with harmonic choices. And remember, stick to the story.
But, I’m going to wrap this video up here. If you like what I do and want some
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as I finish them, then please consider supporting me on Patreon.
Every little bit goes a long way. But anyways, thank you for watching and I’ll
see you later! Goodbye!

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