Monday, April 7, 2014

The Film Music of John Williams

Most people’s minds automatically go to John Williams when asked to name a film-music composer. Williams’ output of cinematic scores is outstanding with major blockbuster hits including Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan. Today, let’s briefly take a glimpse at several of Williams’ scores as well as talk about how he got started working in cinema.

Williams grew up surrounded by music, being born to a father who was a percussionist for the CBS Radio and the Raymond Scott Quintet. He attended UCLA, the LA City College, and Julliard studying orchestration, composition, and piano. He got his start playing piano in the orchestras for Columbia and 20th Century Fox and working as an orchestrator with the giants in the film industry including Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman, and Dimitri Tiomkin.

Early on, he did composing jobs for television including Checkmate (1960), Gilligan’s Island (1964), and Lost in Space (1965). Following this, he wrote Emmy-winning scores for Heidi (1968) and Jane Eyre (1970) as well as his first Oscar for adapting Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Due to this success, he caught Steven Spielberg’s attention and worked with him on Jaws (1975) giving him his first Academy Award for an original score.

Looking at his scores, he typically uses music to sustain unity throughout the film. He also is known to create a correspondence between the music and narrative. Let’s look at a few musical excerpts from several of his films to see how he fits his themes into the narrative structure:

Williams will often use music to create a mood, emotion, or portray a character. One example can be found in Schindler’s List (1993).

He also is known to use expressive melodies or recognizable and recurring themes throughout a film to represent something. Examples of this can be found with “Hedwig’s Theme” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’sStone (2001)  and the “Shark Theme” in Jaws (1975).
Williams also uses careful placement of his music in relation to dialogue as can be observed in this scene from E.T. (1982).


What is your favorite film that uses a John Williams score? Does it have any of the above features such as a recurring theme or a certain melody that is used to evoke a certain emotion in the viewer?


  1. I met John Williams a few years ago when he conducted the Cincinnati Pops at Riverbend. He's a kind soul.

    You've called out some classics - great films that wouldn't be so great without Williams' music. For me, one of his most underrated scores is Empire of the Sun.

    1. Thanks for your comment and for reading Clef Notes, Chris! I remember when John Williams conducted the concert at Riverbend. What an outstanding performance! My favorite part was the number of encores at the end. He has such an extensive output, he could have gone on for hours!