As a sci-fi epic, Star Wars has appropriately adventurous and heroic music - particularly the main theme, which uses several music tricks to help establish that heroic quality.
The use of an ascending perfect fifth and triplets has a strong precedent in Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, particularly in the third opera, Siegfried, which feature's the leitmotif known as "Siegfried's Theme" very prominently.
In 1978, one year after the release of Star Wars: A New Hope, John Williams scored Superman and wrote a theme that bears strong similarities to the Star Wars Main Theme. Both feature very similar openings, with triplet pick ups on scale degree 5 followed by an ascending perfect fifth from 1 to 5; both employ comparable (though hardly identical) triplets.
These similarities are no surprise, as both tunes needed such heroic qualities.
I have discovered much internet forum discussion over whether or not "Across the Stars", the love theme from Attack of the Clones, is an inversion of the Star Wars main theme. Rather similar to my 2014.04.22 blog re: the Star Wars main theme being an inversion of "Born Free", this blog will be a side-by-side study and comparison of the two themes to see if there really is any truth to the notion.
Here's the main theme inits original form. Click here to listen.
Here's the main theme chromatically inverted. Click here to listen.
Here's the main theme diatonically inverted. Click here to listen.
Now compare those with "Across the Stars".
Here's "Across the Stars" in its original form. Click here to listen.
Here's "Across the Stars" chromatically inverted. Click here to listen.
And here's "Across the Stars" in diatonically inverted. Click here to listen.
Comparing all of these side-by-side, I sense no pitch relationship between either the chromatic or diatonic inversions of the Star Wars main theme and "Across the Stars". Nor do I sense any pitch relationship between either the chromatic or diatonic inversions of "Across the Stars" and the main theme.
I do, however, hear rhythmic similarities, particularly in both themes' use of prominent triplets. To visually illustrate, here's an example with solid red lines showing exact rhythmic similarities and dotted red lines showing comparable similarities.
All but two notes of "Across the Stars" correspond to similar or exact rhythmic values in the main theme.
Thus, while "Across the Stars" has significant rhythmic similarities to the Star Wars main theme, it is clearly NOT an inversion of the main theme.
Star Wars vs. "Born Free"
The song "Born Free", lyrics by Don Black and music by John Barry, was written for the film Born Free and released by British singer Matt Monro in 1966. Roger Williams (no relation to John) covered the song the same year it was released, for whom it was a huge hit, reaching number seven on the Billboard Hot 100.
On Roger Williams' 2006 (2000?) album Pop Goes The Ivories, he states that John Williams' main theme from Star Wars is just Born Free inverted (upside down). (You can download the clip on Amazon.com, or listen for free on myspace.) Here's a transcript from the (live) recording:
ROGER: You know that Star Wars is just a hit I had years ago turned up-side down? That's right. Anybody remember "Born Free"? We had a big hit on that. Well, Star Wars is just "Born Free" up-side down. I don't think you believe me. Mike, did you dig up that music? I wanna show you. Now this is the music to Star Wars. I'm gonna play it for you, then I'm gonna turn it up-side down and play it for you, and you'll see it's "Born Free". Okay? Here is Star Wars. [He plays the excerpts transcribed below.]
[The audience, hearing the similarity, laughs and applauds. End transcript.]
There are undeniable similarities, but, is Roger Williams actually correct in his assertion? If we take his rendition of the Star Wars main theme and turn it upside down (i.e. rotate it 180 degrees), here's what you get: click here to listen.
The first two notes are similar (the interval of a descending perfect fourth), but that is the only similarity - the rest sounds nothing like "Born Free" whatsoever.
An intervallic inversion is no more similar. Click here to listen.
This is even further from "Born Free" than the up-side down version, due in large part to the change in tonality (it's now in F minor, where the original was in C major).
But, of course, there are similarities. After all, Roger Williams' track wouldn't be funny if a listener could discern no such correlation. Those similarities, though, are not the product of inversion, but rather identical rhythms. However, he had to alter the rhythms of the Star Wars theme in order for that to be the case. Here's the theme as Roger Williams played it, with the original rhythm below:
Notice that the notes are the same, but many of the rhythmic values are elongated. If those rhythms weren't altered as such, a listener would perceive no similarity between Star Wars and "Born Free", and Roger's joke would lose its humor.
Thus, Roger Williams' comment that Star Wars is "Born Free" up-side down is not accurate in the least. He makes this point in jest only.
Star Wars vs. Beatles
It's not very often that two of my analytical interests coincide, however this afternoon I discovered an intriguing (although no doubt coincidental) similarity between John Williams' Star Wars main theme and the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home".
I have a distinct recollection of sitting in a theory class taught by Dr. Stanley Kleppinger as a sophomore at Butler University in which he pointed out the fact that in the Star Wars main theme, the second scale degree resolves not down to the first scale degree, but rather up. This is most unusual because 2 is such a strong tendency tone, having a very potent tonal pull downwards to tonic (scale degree 1). In Star Wars, however, this pull is thwarted by the jump a minor seventh up to tonic rather than the step down to it, as indicated in the example below with a blue line.
This unconventional resolution helps provide the theme with a sense of heroism - a feeling of overcoming obstacles, just as the melody overcomes the descending harmonic tendency.
Since that class, I have been on the lookout for another such example, and some eight years later I have finally found one: Paul McCartney's "She's Leaving Home", off of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. While in different keys (and thus using different tones), I have helped show the similarity by including scale degree numbers above each note.
Two of the more important musical elements of "A New Hope" are the Main theme and the Rebel motif - and they are clearly related. At the end of the first phrase of the Main theme are the chords A-flat, G, and F. These same chords are used near the end of the Rebel motif, indicated in the graphic below with red lines.
Furthermore, the chord progressions used throughout the Rebel motif are identical to the one borrowed from the Main theme. The technical description would be two major chords, the latter a minor third lower pitched than the first. In the Main theme, the G chord functions as a neighbor chord; and in the Rebel motif, the G chord functions as a passing chord, which is to say that in both instances the G chords are of secondary importance. Rather, the chords of primary importance are A-flat and F - and there is the seminal pattern of two major chords where the second is a minor third lower.
The Rebel motif then takes that descending minor third and uses it a total of four times (as indicated below with red boxes) - thrice from F to D, plus the A-flat to F borrowed from the Main theme.
Lastly, also notice that the final two boxes overlap - the F serves as both the bottom of the progression from A-flat to F, and as the top of the progression from F to D.
All of this is to say that the heroic Main theme is strongly related to the Rebel motif. In other words, from the music alone we know that the Rebels are the "good guys".
This concordance of the music heard in the Special Edition DVD release of "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope" dictates precisely what themes and motifs (as defined in my previous blog "A New Hope" Index of Musical Themes and Motifs") are heard in the film and when (give or take a few seconds). Mixed in, of course, is a great deal of incidental scoring that is NOT based on those repeated themes or motifs, and is thus not included in this timeline, which is only concerned with recurring musical material. For reference, approximately simultaneous quotes are listed on the right-hand side.
Episode IV: A New Hope
0:00:00 20th Century Fox Fanfare
0:00:30 Main Theme, parts a & b Main titles
0:02:08 Rebel motif
0:02:28 Rebel motif
0:02:43 Rebel motif "Did you hear that?"
0:03:46 Imperial motif
0:04:17 Rebel motif
0:04:54 Force theme "R2-D2, where are you?"
0:05:07 Leia's theme
0:05:33 Stormtrooper motif
0:06:18 Leia's theme "There's one. Set for stun."
0:06:43 Imperial motif "You'll be deactivated for sure."
0:07:30 Imperial motif "Darth Vader. Only you could be so bold."
0:08:51 Death Star motif "There'll be no one to stop us this time."
[0:09:01-0:10:29 No music]
[0:11:24-0:12:31 No music]
0:12:31 Jawa theme 1 "Utini!"
0:13:10 Jawa theme 2
0:13:38 Jawa theme 3
0:15:10 Imperial motif
0:16:08 Jawa theme 1 "We're doomed."
0:16:32 Jawa theme 2 "Will this never end?"
0:16:54 Jawa theme 1
0:17:15 Main theme, part a "Luke? Tell uncle if he gets a translator..."
[0:17:48-0:19:17 No music]
[0:19:41-0:21:08 No music]
0:21:40 Leia's theme "I think she was a passenger on our last voyage..."
[0:23:02-0:25:12 No music]
0:25:12 Main theme, part a "Owen, he can't stay here forever..."
0:25:39 Force theme Binary sunset
0:26:11 Rebel motif "What are you doing hiding back there?"
0:26:31 Main theme, part a "That R2 unit has always been a problem."
0:26:46 Force theme "How could I be so stupid?"
[0:27:22-0:27:47 No music]
0:27:57 Tusken Raiders theme "Hit the accelerator."
0:30:16 Force theme "Come here my little friend."
[0:30:46-0:31:04 No music]
0:31:04 Force theme "Now that's a name I've not heard in a long time."
0:31:51 Tusken Raiders theme "I think we'd better get in doors."
[0:32:43-0:34:09 No music]
0:34:09 Imperial motif "How did my father die?"
0:34:39 Force theme "The Force is what gives a jedi his power."
0:35:12 Leia's theme "Years ago you served my father int he Clone Wars"
[0:35:52-0:36:12 No music]
0:36:35 Force theme "Learn about the Force, Luke."
0:36:54 Imperial motif "You must do what you feel is right, of course."
[0:37:08-0:39:05 No music]
0:40:04 Force theme "Wait, Luke, it's too dangerous."
0:40:36 Force theme
0:40:48 Dies irae
0:40:55 Death Star motif
0:41:02 Imperial motif
0:41:04 Leia's theme
0:42:13 Force theme "I want to learn the ways of the Force."
0:43:27 Imperial motif "How long have you had these droids?"
0:43:59 Force theme "Move along."
[0:44:08-0:44:51 No music]
0:44:51 Cantina Band 1
[0:47:00-0:47:15 No music]
0:47:15 Cantina Band 1
[0:47:33-0:47:40 No music]
0:47:40 Cantina Band 2
[0:49:53-0:49:56 No music]
0:49:57 Cantina Band 2
[0:51:13-0:51:42 No music]
0:52:13 Main theme, part a "Alright, give it to me. I'll take it."
0:52:42 Jabba's theme "Solo!"
0:54:12 Main theme, part a "If the ship's as fast as his boasting..."
[0:54:40-0:55:03 No music]
0:55:03 Imperial motif "Hello, sir."
0:55:23 Force theme "Stop that ship! Blast 'em!"
0:55:46 Force theme "Our passengers must be hotter than I thought."
0:56:59 Death Star motif
[0:57:18-0:58:09 No music]
[0:59:30-1:04:27 No music]
1:05:24 Rebel theme "There are alternatives to fighting."
1:05:49 Stormtrooper motif "To your stations. Come with me."
[1:06:10-1:07:14 No music]
1:07:23 Force theme "Boy, it's lucky you had these compartments."
1:07:44 Imperial motif "If the scanners pick up anything, report it immediately."
[1:08:21-1:08:53 No music]
1:08:32 Imperial motif fragment "Take over, we've got a bad transmitter."
1:08:51 Main theme, part a "Between him howling and you blasting..."
[1:09:05-1:12:30 No music]
1:13:54 Main theme, part a "This is not going to work."
1:14:43 Main theme, part a
1:15:55 Rebel motif "Luke, we're gonna have company."
1:15:58 Leia's theme "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper."
1:16:11 Main theme, part a "I'm Luke Skywalker, I'm here to rescue you."
[1:16:25-1:17:07 No music]
1:17:22 Imperial motif
1:17:39 Rebel motif "Looks like you managed to cut off our only escape route."
1:18:36 Imperial motif "Get in there you big furry oaf."
[1:19:08-1:22:15 No music]
1:22:27 Imperial motif "Look! There!"
[1:24:35-1:24:58 No music]
[1:25:42-1:25:55 No music]
1:27:00 Main theme, part a "There she is."
1:27:35 Stormtrooper & Imperial motifs
1:28:24 Main theme, part a
1:28:42 Main theme, part b
1:28:58 Main theme, part a "Here they come."
1:29:08 Leia's theme
1:29:18 Stormtrooper motif "We think they may be splitting up."
1:29:32 Main theme, part a "Where could they be?"
1:29:45 Stormtrooper & Imperial motifs "Close the blast doors"
[1:30:10-1:32:17 No music]
1:32:20 Force theme
1:32:30 Leia's theme
1:32:59 Rebel motif "I hope that old man got that tractor beam..."
1:33:27 Force theme "Coming up on their sentry ship."
1:34:33 TIE Fighter attack & Rebel motif "Here they come."
1:35:57 Death star motif
[1:36:07-1:44:59 No music]
1:45:59 Death Star motif
1:46:33 Force theme "This is Red 5. I'm going in."
1:46:56 Imperial theme "We count 30 rebel ships, Lord Vader."
1:48:44 Force theme "Whatch your back, Luke."
1:49:07 Force theme "I can't shake him."
[1:49:38-1:53:26 No music]
1:53:59 Imperial motif "What about that tower?"
1:55:19 Main theme, part a "Hang on R2."
1:55:38 Force theme "Use the Force, Luke."
1:55:56 Main theme, part a "Luke, you switched off your targeting computer."
1:57:33 Rebel motif "Remember, the Force will be with you. Always."
[1:57:40-1:58:24 No music]
1:58:24 Throne Room, part a (Force theme) Medal ceremony
1:59:20 Throne Room, part b (independent)
1:59:37 Main theme, part b
1:59:53 Throne Room, part c
2:00:09 Main theme, part a End credits
2:00:20 Rebel motif
2:00:47 Main theme, part a
2:01:05 Main theme, part b
2:01:28 Main theme, part a
2:01:45 Main thee, part b
2:02:03 Main theme, part a
2:02:25 Leia's theme (+ Rebel motif)
2:03:11 Main theme, part a
2:03:27 Main theme, part b
2:03:43 Rebel motif
Star Wars Main Theme vs. King's Row
It's no secret that film composers often borrow a great deal of musical material from other sources. In fact, directors usually provide their composers with "temp tracks", place-holder music that they want the film score to sound like. The composer then takes those suggestions and writes in the style of those temp tracks, but in a way custom-built to fit the film. Given the similarities between the John Williams' main theme to Star Wars (1977) and Erich Korngold's main theme to King's Row (1942), it seems to be a safe bet that George Lucas had King's Row on his temp track for Star Wars.
While it is easiest to hear the similarities, here is a transcription, as well, for visual comparison.
Both tunes are in B-flat major and share a heroic, brassy quality. Seven of the first eight tones are completely identical (indicated by the solid red lines), with the second note of each being comparable but not identical (indicated by the dotted red line). Further notice that the two circled triplets are retrogrades of each other (Star Wars goes Eb-D-C; King's Row goes C-D-Eb), and the two passages with the rectangles are similar in that they both descend from Eb to C and use a triplet.
In this case, John Williams has borrowed the first several notes from a pre-existing theme, then spun the rest of that theme from there. This is a pattern that will appear quite frequently throughout the Star Wars films.
Here is a list of all the musical themes and motifs (i.e. recurring musical patterns - I am not including the extra incidental music that is heard once and then never reprised) used in "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope", with a brief musical score excerpt included for reference, roughly in order of significance.
Tusken Raiders Theme (no score, but audio example):
NOTE: Throne Room, part a is not included here because it is identical to the Force theme illustrated above.
The Music of Star Wars
These posts will help focus and develop my analyses of John Williams' film scores.