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80 Reasons Why John Williams Is The Man
We mark the movie maestro's 80th birthday with a celebration of his classic pieces

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Main Theme
First heard in: Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (1977)

Early on during the Star Wars recording sessions at Anvil Studios in Denham, George Lucas took a break during proceedings to phone a friend. The friend he called was Steven Spielberg, who had recommended the composer to Lucas following Jaws. As the London Symphony Orchestra played the now familiar themes for the first time, an excited Lucas held the phone out towards them for half an hour to share in the excitement.

What Spielberg was listening represented a seismic change in movie music — in soundtrack terms there is Before Star Wars and After Star Wars. Eschewing Lucas' idea to score the movie 2001-style with existing classical music — as temp tracks, Lucas employed Stravinsky, Miklos Rozsa's Ivanhoe (for the main title), Bruckner's Ninth Symphony as Luke's theme and Dvořák's New World symphony for the medal ceremony— Williams created sweeping themes in a then defunct Hollywood tradition, grounding the otherworldly characters and settings in a familiar musical landscape.

The subsequent 90 odd minutes of music not only brought Williams his third Oscar and the biggest selling non pop soundtrack of all time, it ushered in a renaissance in large scale orchestras in general and a Wagnerian leitmotif approach in particular that sees a phrase or melody signify a character, place or idea ("dramaturgical glue" as Williams calls it). As such what we now know as the Star Wars theme initially started life as a motif for Luke Skywalker — we hear a particularly warm rendition the first time we meet him down on the farm, a triumphant version when he pulls the grapple hook from his belt to swing across the Death Star and an urgent anxious version as he zeroes in on the Death Star exhaust port. Six films later, the fanfare is more widely perceived as a statement representing the whole saga, kick-starting each film with an intense burst of orchestral energy. The theme became so popular that Meco's disco version hit number one on the Billboard chart and has been covered in styles as diverse as reggae (Ska Wars), baroque, skiffle (courtesy of Mark Kermode) Japanese Shamizen and by lounge lizard Nick Witter.

Listen to an excerpt:

Marion's Theme
First heard in: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)

"A cross between Dark Victory and the love scene from Casablanca" is Spielberg's description of the music to represent Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). It remains one of the loveliest of Williams' gentler themes — receiving its best rendition during the movie as Marion tries to find a place to kiss a battered and bruised Indy — but gets a sweeping rendition as the action moves to Cairo and a melodramatic airing as Indy watches Marion get blown up (don't worry, she's alright). It is perhaps too delicate than the character herself would like but it is a tender moment of beauty in a score dominated by boys-y bravado.

Listen to an excerpt:

First heard in: Jaws (1975)

It is a major part of any film composer's job description to provide music for a montage sequence. In Jaws' case, this means a sequence juxtaposing a ferry-load of Fourth of July holidaymakers arriving in Amity with Brody and Hooper's frantic attempts to make the beaches safe. In contrast, Williams gives us a refined but light-hearted classical piece of Americana (it sounds more New England than Wild West), starting with a stately string melody before giving away to bright brass and woodwind flourishes. On the original soundtrack, the cue was named Promenade and given an uncharacteristically black humoured subtitle — Tourists On The Menu.

Listen to an excerpt:

Let There Be Light
First heard in: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

It remains one of the most effective openings in movie history. Simple white titles appear over a black background. Slowly, we hear an ethereal, shimmering noise that changes pitch as it increases in volume, reaching a crescendo as seemingly the whole ensemble delivers one great big orchestral hit as the screen goes to black to a few frames of white to the middle of sandstorm. It might feel like an obvious shock tactic but as a way of getting the audience's undivided attention from the get-go, it works a treat.

Listen to an excerpt:


First heard in: The Sugarland Express (1974)

While the likes of Duel had been done by Universal contract composer Billy Goldenberg, Spielberg turned to his vast soundtrack album collection to find a composer for his debut feature film. He felt The Sugarland Express needed big broad symphonic music so was immediately drawn to Williams' work and invited the composer to see the picture.

As was soon to become the norm for their working partnership, Williams persuaded the director that a different musical direction was needed. Rather than something big and bold, Williams felt the small scale story of a young Texan couple (Goldie Hawn, William Atherton) going on the run from a cavalcade of cops to pick up their young son from adoptive parents needed something more intimate and human. To help locate the film in its Southern state, Williams used the harmonica as the primary voice in the composition and enlisted the celebrated Belgian harmonica maestro 'Toots' Thielemans' to be his musical conduit. The theme in the movie is simple, folksy and direct, less ornate than the concert arrangement below, and might not stand at the forefront of the Williams-Spielberg collaborations. But Sugarland remains important in the composer's pantheon for the start of a beautiful, enduring and still creatively exciting partnership.

Listen to an excerpt:

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Have Your Say
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Your Comments

21 RE: At no point...
Best on line feature you have ever done Empire, please ensure this is always available to listen too, A true master at work. More

Posted by JIm R on Friday February 10, 2012, 21:06

22 At no point... my life have i come so close to orgasm just from an Empire feature. More

Posted by Swedle on Friday February 10, 2012, 18:27

23 Final Duel mistake.......
When Luke comes out of hiding, after accidentally revealing Leia's paternity to Vader, he doesn't say "Nooooooo!", he defiantly yells "NEVER!!!" before ending the climactic duel... Interestingly enough, that bit of music was also used in the final duel in the Lucasarts game Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast. More

Posted by jws1272 on Thursday February 9, 2012, 17:56

24 Missed one!
You should've added 'A Window to the Past' from 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' More

Posted by dimitrifiani on Thursday February 9, 2012, 12:40

25 The Greatest
Undoubtedly the greatest movie composer of all time. My only gripe with this list is the exclusion of The Lost World's main theme. I believe this is actually Spielberg's favourite piece from all the Jurassic Park music. feature=related More

Posted by Ballschin on Thursday February 9, 2012, 12:17

He simply has no equal; nobody else has ever treated every-single film as though it was a first assignment that needed special attention, (unless you knew, how would you know that the guy who did Heartbeeps also did Jane Eyre and, his masterpiece, Superman?) and when he is inspired by what he sees, (most recently by War Horse) we are elated. More

Posted by Frank Comiskey on Thursday February 9, 2012, 10:52

27 The force is with him...
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term 'genius' as "exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability". Although used far too often these days, John Williams REALLY is a genius and I thank him for the many years of great music he has given me (man and boy). Happy Birthday John ...and many more of them. More

Posted by melverley on Thursday February 9, 2012, 09:15

28 Favorite tunes that dont appear here
Visitor in San Diego (from Jurassic Park The Lost World): Pure adrenaline!!!! Dartmoor 1912 (From War Horse) The Battle of Hoth (do I need to tell you???) Dinner With Amelia (The Terminal) Sabrina's Theme (just BEAUTIFUL) Anakin's Dark Deeds (Episode III) EPIC of epic epicness!!!!!! Where Dreams Are Born (A.I) maybe the most BEAUTIFUL track he's ever written!!! i cant helpto cry EVERYTIME) Confluence (MEmoirs of a Geisha) perfect... just perfect in allthe extent of the word THE ENTIRE MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, for me his best album EVER!!! Exsultate Justi (Empire Of The Sun) aleluyah!!!! Homesickness (The Terminal) Am I Beautiful? (Far& Away) Aunt Marge's Waltz (Azkaban) A Window To The Past (Azkaban) Dennis Steals The Embryo (Jurassic Park) The Trek (JP: The Lost World) Rescuing Sarah (JP: The Lost World) Ludlow's Demise (JP: The Lost World) Jango's Escape (Episode II) Princess Leia's Theme Luke And Leia Battle Of The Heroes (Episode III) The Battle Of Endor SaiMore

Posted by John Mulder Simpson on Thursday February 9, 2012, 08:36

29 RE: The Best Feature of 2012 so far!
It's been a long time since I posted here. but this feature is so good!!! I can't start to describe how much I love and admire John Williams, how grateful I am to live in his era (although he is 50 years older than me!!) For me it all began when i was 11 and watched Jurassic Park, now i have more than 40 albums and he never fails to surprise and move me. I owe him SO much! and this year he gave us War Horse, a magnificent and perfect album that is 100% Williams, god how I love that soundtrack!!!! I just can't pick a favorite of his, everything he's done is so close to perfection. man, to think of everything he's done and everything i haven't heard.... I posted a link to this feature on facebook, and i recommended it to everyone, let's all do the same so the whole world knows how lucky we are to have him!!!!!!! finally: OU VERY MUCH, MAESTRO, FOR YOUR ENDLESS AND RESTLESS TALENT, I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART!!!!!!!!!!!! More

Posted by John Mulder Simpson on Thursday February 9, 2012, 08:02

30 The Best Feature of 2012 so far!
Kudos Empire - this truly is a fitting feature for one of Cinema's most important figures. A film is nothing without it's music and it's Williams who fills that void so beautifully, so emotionally and so wonderfully. Rarely do pictures move me to tears, but a Williams score can have me sobbing like a 15 year-old girl watching The Notebook. More

Posted by haydonsmovies on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 12:10

31 Floods of Tears
Having sat and listened to all the excerpts and read this whole blog I am a total mess tears of joy and emotion on my face. The word genius is vastly overused about people with little more than mediocre talent at best, but in John William's case I think it doesn't even come close to describing him. He simply is the one of the greatest musicians and composers alive. More

Posted by mcmikeyboy on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 12:00

32 Great selection
The Witches of Eastwick, The Fury, Amazing Stories AND The Mission ? Dear Empire ... I'm impressed ! More

Posted by Dropje on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:58

33 Hook
One of my favorites must be "The Face of Pan", from the Hook soundtrack. Not very famous but still, simply beautiful. More

Posted by buffy_1008 on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:28

34 Great Feature
This has to be one of the best features you have ever done Empire, congratulations! Although justifiably, it could just be Williams' music that makes it so great! Happy birthday to one of the greatest composers we'll ever know. More

Posted by magikdethmonkey on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 11:24

35 A true poet and a genius
John WIlliams means more to me than any figure in either movies or music. Good feature Empire! More

Posted by mattpbrown on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:17

36 Wonderful Piece Empire
Written with real heart and knowledge. Big salute to Sir John! More

Posted by Blyman on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:10

37 Brings tear to the eye
What wonderful nostalgia. Skipping through decades of my emotional development through movies and Williams' music! So glad you mentioned the importance of Home Alone (it's our family's staple Xmas album). By the time we got to War Horse, that's it - I'm in pieces! Only snag is the general oversight of AI. Stored Memories/Monica's Theme is the most beautiful piece he wrote IMO (the slow beginning builds up to hauntingly beautiful & understated climax). And Catch Me If You Can, which has many great cues. But thanks Empire fo collating this for us. Made my day :-) More

Posted by oliraceking on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 10:04

38 Soundtrack of us
The importance of Williams as a greatest composer of our times - and I mean OUR - is confirmed simply by the grounds of those tracks. Just close your eyes and listen to them. And you can see the movies right there in your head. It's all you need. More

Posted by Pelle on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 09:24

that was amazing. thank you empire More

Posted by artaylor on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 05:43

40 Here's to another 80 years
Two disappointments were omissions of the last twenty minutes worth of empire strikes back. The reason that film is regarded as the best in the star wars franchise is its finale. The other is the prisoner of Azkaban there are at least twelve tracks worth mentioning. If you ever buy a Williams soundtrack buy these two I promise you its the best things he's done as an entire soundtrack since the first star wars a new hope 35 years ago. More

Posted by GrassyNol on Wednesday February 8, 2012, 00:49

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