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John Williams - Film Composer

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John Williams is probably the best known of all modern celluloid composers, and rightly so. He is one of the most prolific and influential of all film composers, has scored many of the most successful films of the past quarter of a century, has composed many of the world's most distinctive cinematic themes, and is widely credited with returning the big orchestral score to favour in Hollywood during the late 1970s.


Born in Long Island, New York, on 8 February, 1932, Williams later moved with his family to Los Angeles and studied music and composition at UCLA before serving a three-year term in the US Air Force from 1951-54. After leaving the Air Force he returned to music, studying piano at the Julliard School of Music in New York and playing jazz piano in the clubs, then returning to UCLA for further composition studies. In 1956 he was hired as a session pianist for Columbia Studios, later moving to 20th Century Fox as an arranger and conductor.

Much of his early score composition work was in television, working on shows such as Gilligan's Island. He collaborated on several projects with adventure and disaster maestro Irwin Allen, including Lost in Space (the original TV show) The Time Tunnel and The Towering Inferno. Then, in 1975 (a year after Inferno), Williams made his big break. After some 19 years in the industry, he produced what is still one of the most distinctive and recognised theme tunes in the world of cinema, as part of his work on a film by a young director, also just hitting the big time.

The director was Steven Spielberg; the film was Jaws. You are probably humming that theme tune right now.

The Williams Canon

Since Jaws, Williams has gone from strength to strength. As a composer, and as a conductor. He conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra for 12 years, from 1980-93. The Pops are the American equivalent of the UK's Proms, a series of light orchestral performances for the summer, traditionally closing with a rousing performance of 'Stars and Stripes Forever'. The Pops are associated with the Boston Symphony, and the musicians who form the orchestra for the Pops tour and record for the rest of the year. Williams recorded 51 albums with the Pops, and took them on tours of the US and Japan.

He has composed more than 75 feature film soundtracks, orchestrating and conducting the majority of them himself, as well as the music for over 30 TV series and TV movies, two Olympic Games and two musicals, and more than 40 'serious' orchestral concert works, including concertos and two symphonies. He has recorded albums conducting not only the Pops but dozens of other orchestras, often conducting his own scores. He has guest conducted the London Symphony, and many US orchestras and symphonies.

Williams seems to generate great loyalty from the film-makers that he works with. He has collaborated with George Lucas six times, Oliver Stone three times, and Steven Spielberg 18 times, a relationship which has produced some of Williams' best work, and encompassed almost all of Spielberg's major films. In addition, he is the undisputed king of the sequels, having composed more scores for sequels or sequel series than any other person.

He has won five Oscars, four for best original score (Jaws, Star Wars, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, and Schindler's List), and best adaptation for the film version of the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof. Since 1968, there have been only eight years in which he did not receive at least one Academy Award nomination. He has often received more than one nomination in a given year, and the score of Close Encounters of the Third Kind was only beaten out in 1977 by Williams' own victory with the score of Star Wars.

In addition, Williams has won three Golden Globe Awards for Best Score (Jaws, Star Wars, ET), 18 GRAMMYs and two Emmys. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from 14 US universities.

Further details of Williams' canon can be found in his Internet Movie Database entry, on the Unofficial John Williams Home Page, or through The John Williams Web Pages.


Williams is a big composer. His scores are almost invariably magnificent orchestral works, performed with force and gusto. This is not to say that he cannot produce appropriate music for slower, quieter scenes, but overall his work is forceful and triumphal. His music always evokes a powerful sense of mood, placing the force of the entire orchestra behind an emotion and running with it. With his emphasis on orchestral energy and power, it is unsurprising that Williams is best known for his action themes.

One thing which Williams frequently does is adapt classical music for his scores. The Imperial themes in his Oscar-winning score for Star Wars carry strong echoes of Holst's 'Mars: The Bringer of War' from The Planets Suite, while his theme for the Atlanta Olympic Games borrowed even more heavily from Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. On occasions, Williams can be considered derivative, if not actually plagiaristic, but for the most part, Williams' music is recognisably his own.

Williams is also a very iconic composer. His heroes and villains have their musical themes, as indeed do many plot elements and MacGuffins1. In composing a film score he intertwines these themes to create the music for scenes in which characters and macguffins interact, and alters the key and pacing of each theme as appropriate. For example, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the 'Raiders March' plays whenever Indiana Jones is winning, to be replaced by the 'Nazi Theme' when he is losing. Likewise, Marian's theme plays whenever she has a leading role in a scene, and when she appears to have died, a variant plays in a minor key.

Outstanding Works

Theme from Jaws (1975)

The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.
Peter Benchley, Jaws

As mentioned above, John Williams' theme from Jaws is one of the most recognisable of all themes. The deep, two-note bassline has become almost a universal code for impending shark attack, and a similar sound is used in the incidental music of many nature documentaries about sharks. Unlike much of Williams' work, the power of the Jaws theme lies in its simplicity. That bassline, played at first very slowly and at long intervals, sets up an air of tension as the repeats become faster and more urgent. Then the rest of the orchestra comes in, but the bassline still dominates, joined by a deep brass harmony. Next, the bass all but disappears, and the lighter strings play a desperate, almost panicked theme, before finally the bass returns with a vengeance, string and brass in an urgent refrain; then suddenly silence.

'The Imperial March', from The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Apology accepted, Captain Needa
Darth Vader - The Empire Strikes Back

While the Star Wars scores are all musically strong, the Imperial March, capturing the essence of the Empire's overwhelming military power and control, was the pinnacle of the original trilogy. An urgent staccato of strings builds a rapidly mounting sense of foreboding, before the blaring fanfare of brass announces the arrival of evil incarnate. Powerful, martial, aggressive, the Imperial March is the lengthy stride of the black-clad Darth Vader made into music, sweeping past row after row of Imperial troops against the gleaming white background of a starship interior. The march is one of the central musical themes of the film, mirroring the narrative emphasis on the awesome magnitude of the Empire and the desperate plight of the Rebellion.

'The Map Room/Dawn' and 'The Ark Theme', from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The Ark. If it is there, at Tanis, then it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.
Sallah - Raiders of the Lost Ark

While the most famous piece of music from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's cinematic roller coaster - a film which spawned two sequels, both scored by Williams and a TV series prequel - is the triumphant 'Raiders March', the musical highlights are provided by these two atmospheric gems.

'The Map Room/Dawn' plays as the bold adventurer stands before a model of the buried city, waiting for the first light of dawn to mark the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. It begins softly, with just a whisper of woodwind. Then, as the light begins to creep over the horizon, entering through the hole in the ceiling and moving inch by inch across the map, the music builds up with other instruments coming in, before a hard-edged swell of brass - redolent of the trumpets of Revelations - as the light strikes the crystal in Indy's staff, sending forth a dazzling ray to strike the map, and reveal the hiding place.

The 'Ark Theme' plays throughout the film, whenever the vessel of the tablets of the Law is spoken of. It is a sinister piece of music, speaking of the deadly power of the Ark and its potential for evil in the wrong hands. It forms part of the Map Room piece, as the Ark's location is about to be unveiled, and we last hear it just before the final credits, the theme growing in power even as the Ark itself is sealed in a crate and wheeled into the depths of a vast warehouse.

The Emperor's Theme, from The Return of the Jedi (1983)

Strike me down with all of your hatred, and your journey to the dark side will be complete.
Emperor Palpatine - The Empire Strikes Back

In the final part of his original trilogy, George Lucas showed us the true power in the Empire. Although we had glimpsed his face in The Empire Strikes Back, it was only now that we were shown the full reality of the Emperor. Behind the military force of the Imperial Navy, behind the blank and gleaming skull-masks of the stormtroopers, behind even the towering menace of Darth Vader, was a wizened old sorcerer, corrupted by power and consumed with hatred.

Not for Palpatine the martial force of the 'Imperial March'; it's swift pace would have been quite at odds with the Emperor's hobbling gait. Instead of the march's potent use of the full orchestra, the 'Emperor's Theme' was almost without instruments, a simple bassline accompanying a wordless, male-voice chant, conveying the serpentine malevolence of the dark master of the Empire.

'The Grail Theme', from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The quest for the Grail is not archaeology. It's a race against evil.
Professor Henry Jones - Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Unlike the menace of the 'Ark Theme', the Holy Grail is accompanied by a stirring, dignified piece. Opening with a processional swell of brass, the music shifts onto the strings for a lighter, yet still sombre sound. The theme is reverent, encapsulating the respect for the idea of the Grail held even by those who would abuse it to give them power or eternal life.

'Duel of the Fates', from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

I have a bad feeling about this.
Obi-Wan Kenobi - The Phantom Menace

Reminiscent of the 'Dies Irae' from Verdi's Requiem, 'Duel of the Fates' was written to accompany the climactic lightsabre battle in the first of the Star Wars prequels. While much of the film failed to meet the expectations generated by its hype, this scene stood out as a dazzling work of fight choreography, and the score was an important part of that. Grandiose even for Williams, 'Duel of the Fates' was not just an orchestral piece, but a full-blown choral work. The choir and orchestra between them create a powerful, urgent mood, mirroring the desperation and sheer energy of the battle. As well as a stand out piece of underscoring, 'Duel of the Fates' is also a magnificent work in its own right.

Further Reading

1A MacGuffin is a diversionary plot device; something which moves the plot but the precise nature of which is unimportant. The term was coined by Alfred Hitchcock and Angus McPhail.

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