Who's who in the 'Star Wars' scores: Your guide to John Williams's musical motifs

Luke SkywalkerLucasfilm

November 18, 2015

One of the reasons that John Williams's Star Wars scores are so compelling is his use of musical motifs to represent different characters and themes in the saga.

The use of motifs, or leitmotifs, to represent characters in a narrative is most famously associated, in classical music, with Richard Wagner, who made pioneering use of the strategy in his Ring opera cycle — a major inspiration for Williams. Once such a theme is associated with a particular character or idea, it can help a composer to convey subtle shades of meaning: when you hear it, its timing and arrangement give you clues as to what a composer wants you to know or feel about that character's or idea's role in the scene.

With Williams — and several key characters — returning for the upcoming seventh film in the saga, you can certainly expect to hear some of the existing themes returning, in addition to newly-written music for the characters being introduced in The Force Awakens. With that in mind, we've created this crib sheet to help you study up on the top ten leitmotifs heard in the existing six films.

Star Wars theme

This is the big one: the roaring fanfare that heralds the opening of each episode, the music known as the score's "main title" or "overture" is also the closest thing Luke Skywalker has to his own leitmotif.

Though this music is most closely identified with the films' opening crawls, it also pops up in other contexts — especially at moments of high adventure. For example, it makes a triumphant accompaniment to the moment in Return of the Jedi when Luke strikes back against Jabba the Hutt's henchmen.

We know that actor Mark Hamill will make a significant appearance in Episode VII, but as of yet his character's role has remained somewhat mysterious. When you're watching the new film, listen closely for Luke's theme to provide hints about what he might be up to.

Rebel Fanfare

Here come the heroes! This fanfare, most easily identified as the theme heard immediately after the main theme at the beginning of each episode's end credits, signals the Rebel Alliance. It can be heard whenever the Rebels are on the attack in the original trilogy, and signals the rise of the Rebellion in Episode III.

The Imperial March

You might be surprised (I was, and I've seen the films about a million times) to realize that this march — probably the second most-recognizable piece of music heard in the Star Wars films — didn't make its debut until The Empire Strikes Back. Inspired by both Chopin's funeral march (from the Sonata No. 2) and Holst's Martian music, the music became a standby throughout Empire and Jedi, and was then used throughout the prequel trilogy to foreshadow the fall of Anakin Skywalker.

Listen for this tune in Episode VII whenever Darth Vader is referenced, and possibly to signal a resurgent Empire.

The Force Theme

This is the poignant melody that represents the mystical, all-encompassing Force. Unsurprisingly, it bears kinship to Holst's music for "Neptune, the Mystic." It's also known as "Binary Sunset," because it's first heard when Luke strikes his iconic pose on Tatooine in A New Hope, watching that planet's twin stars set behind the horizon.

The Force Theme appears in all six Star Wars films released to date, and Williams often uses it to indicate when a character is channeling the Force — particularly the good side of the Force, as when Luke is calling to Leia while he dangles below Cloud City in Empire. It will doubtless show up in Episode VII, and when you hear it, you'll know who's likely to be the next Jedi.

Princess Leia's Theme

Williams's use of his music for Princess Leia is a perfect example of the versatility and power of the leitmotif as a musical device.

The music first shows up in A New Hope, when Princess Leia's a maiden in need of rescue. In Empire, the theme is reinvented and incorporated into the new love theme for Leia and Han. Then, in the final prequel Revenge of the Sith, it appears again when we meet Leia as an infant.

Williams tends to use this music at Leia's most vulnerable moments, and she seems nothing if not vulnerable in our first glimpse of her from Episode VII, so it's a fair bet that Leia's Theme will return.

Yoda's Theme

This Jedi Master's music is one of the most distinctive new themes developed for Empire, when Yoda makes his surprise appearance. It's heard throughout the subsequent films — including a stepped-up version for Yoda's duel with Count Dooku, and a poignant reprise when he takes off for Dagobah.

Will Yoda's theme appear in Episode VII? Quite possibly, likely during a mention of his character or a surprise cameo from beyond the grave (which he's been known to make).

The Emperor's Theme

Williams really gets to flex his musical muscles with this theme, which makes its debut in Jedi as a roiling minor-key rumble accompanied by male choir. It's heard in darkly triumphant reprise when the Emperor reveals himself in Episode III, but its slyest use comes at the end of Phantom Menace when it's sung by a children's chorus (!) in a jubilant major key — signaling that the Emperor is present, but still in hiding.

Like Yoda's theme, this one might come back when the Emperor is mentioned in Force Awakens — or perhaps it will even be developed into a theme for the newest Sith Lord.

Duel of the Fates

This was the first "single" released from the Phantom Menace soundtrack: a thundering Orff-flavored choral accompaniment to the three-way duel among Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The lyrics are — wait for it — an ancient Celtic poem rendered in Sanskrit. The theme recurs in the next two prequel films, including during Obi-Wan's climactic Revenge of the Sith battle against Darth Maul's apprentice, you-know-who.

Will there be a Duel of the Fates in Episode VII? I'm going to call that unlikely, since it's so closely associated with the prequels — especially the now-infamous Episode I.

Shmi's Theme

Wait, who's Shmi? That's Anakin's mother — and you might remember her better when you hear her theme, an oboe melody that telegraphs the boy's feelings towards the only parent he ever knew. (Until Episode V, of course.) This is almost certain not to appear in Force Awakens, but its very existence demonstrates the detail that can be found in every nook and cranny of Williams's epic score.

Dies Irae

This melody, which has been a standby of classical composers since its first appearance in Gregorian chant, was appropriated by Williams for some of the darkest moments of the Star Wars saga: the deaths of Luke's aunt and uncle in New Hope, the slaying of the Sand People in Attack of the Clones, the slaughter of the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith. Listen for it in Episode VII if something happens that you have a bad feeling about.

With anticipation for The Force Awakens running high, we're exploring the musical world of Star Wars in a series of five features. Previously, we traced John Williams's classical influences and told the story of how Star Wars music hit the top of the pop charts.