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Music / John Williams

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

John Towner Williams (born February 8, 1932, in New York City) is an American film music composer and one of the world's most famous and prolific at it.

Professionally active for six decades, he has been nominated for a whopping 52 Academy Awards (winning five), six Emmy nominations (winning three including one for the 1968 Made-for-TV Movie version of Heidi of "Heidi Game" infamy), 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.

Born in New York City to a musical family (his father was a jazz drummer), Williams got his start as a session pianist in Los Angeles, performing 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 are known for their 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 to be 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.

Unless you're hearing impaired or haven't seen a movie in the last 30 years (or maybe not even then), 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 SKG logos). Likewise, his music for Superman: The Movie gave the Superhero film genre a rarely equaled feel of heroic majesty.

Interestingly, many connoisseurs 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."

In addition to his film scores, Williams has composed music for four Olympic Games, The Mission suite for the NBC Nightly News (Also used by Seven News in Australia) and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, among many others. He also conducted the Boston Pops Orchestra from 198093 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 the television series Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants and scoring 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 a very Australian singer-songwriter. Nor with John Williams the Australian classical guitarist, or John Williams the British character actor, or any of the dozens of other eminent historical John Williamses. He is, however, related to Joseph Williams, the singer from Toto and Simba's singing voice in The Lion King (1994)— that would be his son.

He is also the man. The podcast The Baton: A John Williams Journey is thoroughly recommended.

John Williams-scored films with TV Tropes pages:

TV series that John Williams did the theme songs for with TV Tropes pages:

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.
  • Creator Cameo: During The Rise of Skywalker, Williams can be briefly seen surrounded by objects referencing all 51 (at the time of filming the scene) movie scores he had composed that were nominated for an Academy Award. His character, Oma Tres dies as Kijimi blows up.
  • Deathly Dies Irae: Very common in his work. Multiple Star Wars films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman: The Movie, Jaws, Jurassic Park (1993), Home Alone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and War of the Worlds (2005) all feature the famous four notes of dies irae during suspenseful or dramatic sequences.
  • 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: The Movie by running into the room shouting how great it was.
  • Leitmotif: A technique favored heavily by Williams. Some of his more well known motifs include several character themes from Star Wars, the Jaws theme's menacing cello notes, and the mysterious 5 note melody from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • Never Trust a Title: A lot of his score for War of the Worlds (2005) was moved to different scenes than it was originally composed for. As a result, many of the track titles don't make sense. A standout example is "The Separation of the Family", which plays in the film when the family is reunited at the end.
  • Outgrowing the Childish Name: In his early career as a jazz pianist, he was credited as "Little Johnny Love" Williams. In his early work as a TV composer, this was reduced to "Johnny Williams," and he dropped the diminutives altogether once his career as a film composer started taking off. He was also more formally credited as John T. Williams and John Towner in his jazz days.
  • Shout-Out:
  • 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." That's right, the title gives away the killer!
    • Star Wars fans probably believe that honour goes to track 15 of the original 1 disc soundtrack for The Phantom Menace, which is entitled "Qui-Gon's Noble End". Followed by the track "The High Council Meeting and Qui-Gon's Funeral", in case that wasn't clear enough. For reference, the soundtrack album was released several weeks before the film came out in theaters.
    • His soundtrack for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban contains a whopping four — Lupin's Transformation, The Werewolf Scene, Saving Buckbeak and Forward to Time Past — that basically spell out what happens during the film's climax. One wonders if the reason Pettigrew's theme wasn't included on the soundtrack was to preserve the only major twist the movie had left.


Video Example(s):


Binary Sunset

John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra, everybody!

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Main / LeftTheBackgroundMusicOn

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