Music / John Williams

"A lifetime is just simply not long enough for the study of music."

John Towner Williams (born February 8, 1932) is one of the world's most famous and prolific movie composers. Professionally active for six decades, he has been nominated for a whopping 50 Academy Awards (winning five), six Emmy nominations (winning three), 22 Golden Globes (winning four) and 59 Grammys (winning twenty). Only Walt Disney has been nominated for more Oscars, and Williams currently holds the record for most nominated living individual.

Before he rose as a famed composer, Williams was a studio pianist and has performed on film scores by composers such as Jerry Goldsmith (Studs Lonigan; City of Fear), Elmer Bernstein (Sweet Smell of Success; God's Little Acre; Staccato; The Magnificent Seven; To Kill a Mockingbird), Henry Mancini (he actually played the well-recognized opening riff to the Peter Gunn theme; Mr. Lucky; Days of Wine and Roses; Charade), Alfred Newman (South Pacific), and Jerome Moross (The Big Country).

Williams' scores make extremely liberal use of Leitmotif—practically every major character and concept has its own musical motif woven into the score. Williams is also fond of the Fanfare. Despite these stylistic preferences, he seems willing to experiment with every movie, adding different instruments and techniques with each new film. (For example, one piece of the Attack of the Clones score uses an electric guitar.) When a Williams composition is playing, you will generally be in for a good movie. If the movie's not good, well, the music certainly will be.

If you are not hearing impaired and have seen a movie in the last 30 years (or even if you haven't), you'll have certainly heard one of Williams' tunes. Most of his themes have become iconic in their own right, such as the opening fanfare of Star Wars, the famous string sting from Jaws or the theme for Indiana Jones. Williams has long been the go-to composer for Steven Spielberg's films (he even wrote the music for the Amblin and Dreamworks logos).

Interestingly, many fans of Classical Music actually hold Williams in rather low regard, as many elements of his compositions (including some of his most well-known themes and motifs) are borrowed from older pieces of music. Though even they admit he's less guilty of this than others. For most listeners this is one of his strengths; in the words of the founding editor of Film Score Monthly Lukas Kendall (whose all-time favorite score is The Empire Strikes Back): "His themes sound inevitable. They sound like they fell out of his sleeves; they sound like they've always existed. And it's extraordinary how you get just two notes for Jaws or five notes for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and have them feel like they've always existed."

Among his most famous scores are:

In addition to his film scores, Williams has composed music for four Olympic Games, The Mission suite for the NBC Nightly News and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, among many others. He also conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980-1993 and remains Director Laureate to this day.

Early in his career, Williams worked for producer Irwin Allen (under the name "Johnny Williams"), providing the themes (and pilot scores) for Allen's TV series Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants, and such disaster films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Williams himself credits much of his success to the collegial relationships he developed with his fellow musicians during his own stint in a studio orchestra. He also scored the pilot for Gilligan's Island (but he didn't write the theme song).

Not to be confused with John Williamson who is very very Australian singer/songwriter. Nor with the acclaimed classical guitarist John Williams. Nor with any of the dozens of other eminent historical John Williamses. He is however related to Joseph Williams, the singer from Toto— that would be his son.

He is also the man.

His work provides examples of:

  • Bootstrapped Theme:
    • Star Wars's main theme was originally intended to be purely "Luke's Theme", though it became so synonymous with the franchise as a whole, Williams forewent creating a new main theme for the prequels, and even included the theme in several places in the prequel scores. A rearranged but still recognizable version of the theme was later used for the animated Clone Wars.
    • Williams originally scored the scene where Luke looks out to the double sunset with his theme but George Lucas suggested he use the theme he wrote for Obi-Wan instead. Williams complied and now it is known as "Binary Sunset" and used for any scene involving the Force. (It's also one of the best examples of the power of music in film, as it turns a simple shot of a young man staring into the sunset into a powerful scene of desolation and longing.)
    • "Hedwig's Theme" has ended up being the theme of the whole Harry Potter series.
  • Call-Back: If you listen to the Star Wars soundtracks in particular, there are so many cues in pieces that appear in ANH and TESB that get brought back in ROTJ and the Prequels to nod back to those moments.
  • Fanfare: He's so good, he's gotten raves from the directors just from watching him conduct. Richard Donner even admitted he screwed up a recording take for Superman by running into the room shouting how great it was.
  • Music of Note: One of the biggest names in film scoring, and deservedly so. Think of huge film franchises like "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter" or "Indiana Jones"— that tune you now have stuck in your head is by John Williams.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The soundtrack of "Star Wars" strongly references Gustav Holst's The Planets. Does this remind you of anything?
    • Even worse, give some of this a listen.
    • As sort of a self Shout-Out, Williams uses a few notes of the music he composed for the first Harry Potter film in one of the final scenes of Revenge of the Sith. Fitting, since both scenes involve an infant with great potential being left with relatives after the death of their mother.
    • Another self Shout-Out that is easy to miss but very difficult to forget is in the Jurassic Park theme - when it really kicks in, it heavily references five other famous notes.
    • Yet another: Pay attention to the trombone-notes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, after the mother ship lands...and you will recognize a brief, but unmistakable, "duh-DUH, duh-DUH"!
  • Spoiler Title: Even his fans admit he's incredibly guilty of this with his track titles - arguably his greatest crime in this regard is Presumed Innocent. Seriously, if you don't have this soundtrack album do not get it before seeing the movie, as the penultimate track is called "Barbara's Confession."