What makes the film music of John Williams so memorable?


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John Williams could have probably called it quits after scoring the first Star Wars movie, given the film’s cultural importance: the soundtrack was preserved by the Library of Congress for its historical significance. Yet the industrious grandson of department store owners and cabinetmakers attributes his family’s hands-on work ethic to his own prolific career. The just-turned eighty-six-year-old is looking at yet another potential Oscar this year for his musical contribution to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”—his 51st nomination.

For the latest installment of this franchise, Williams employed 101 orchestra members and the 64-piece Los Angeles Master Chorale, who recorded 184 minutes of music over eleven days. He was so pleased with the results he hopes to release another version of the film, as he says, “without the dialogue and effects, just the music played in the foreground. All of the accompanimental music will be brought forward — every gesture, the music traveling along with the moods and textures, references to characters and so on.”

It’s easy to overlook the importance of music in films, as in life. Studies in background music started in Britain at the end of World War II, where it was shown that workers in armament factories had significant increases in job productivity when music was in the background (compared to silence). Music made a huge difference for these workers staying engaged and focused.

The same is true of movies. On YouTube you can find many examples of scenes stripped of sound. Highly dramatic moments become impotent without the sweeping strings and building percussion. Williams is a modern master of this craft. The terrifying appearance of Jaws’s fin or the boulder hunting down Indiana Jones would have likely not been imprinted on a generation without his sonic assistance. The crew’s first glimpse of a de-extincted Brachiosaurus in the first Jurassic Park would have been sad trumpet without the emotional cascade of violins.

 AFI Life Achievement Award recipient John Williams speaks onstage during American Film Institute’s 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute show to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. 26148_002 (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner)

AFI Life Achievement Award recipient John Williams speaks onstage during American Film Institutes 44th Life Achievement Award Gala Tribute show to John Williams at Dolby Theatre on June 9, 2016 in Hollywood, California. 26148_002 (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner)

Born in Floral Park, NY, during the Depression in 1932, his family moved to Los Angeles when he was sixteen. His father played jazz percussion, which influenced his early life. Williams spent a semester in a studio jazz band at LA City College before being drafted into the Air Force, where he arranged music for that institution’s band.

Following his service, Williams moved back east to study at Julliard, spending his evenings playing around Manhattan’s…

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