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How to compose like John Williams


Classical music doesn’t quite connect in the same way as it did in the past. With the advent of popular music forms like rock, pop, rap, and jazz, the traditional styles of orchestral music have largely fallen by the wayside, kept alive by proponents of high culture. But arranging and scoring music with classical leanings still plays a major part in the broader world of entertainment, even if general audiences aren’t struck with Lisztomania that much anymore.

The biggest medium for classical music is now in the scores of feature films. While film scores aren’t technically classical music as it would be defined by professional musicians, both forms often use the same setups and approaches when composing their music. And if there is one composer who has had the most notable impact on film scores of the past 50 years, it would have to be John Williams.

Immediately recognisable in his art, Williams has the kind of hit ratio that any composer would be jealous of: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Superman, and Closer Encounters of the Third Kind, just to name a small few. American audiences of all kinds hear his music every day through their use on TV programmes like Today, NBC Nightly News, and even Sunday Night Football. In a format known for being “incidental” to most casual viewers, Williams’ music can be hummed from memory by almost anyone who has ever been to a movie theatre.

Through his association with Steven Spielberg, Williams has established himself at the very top of the world of film scoring, so much so that he’s synonymous with the art. With over 70 years of scoring experience, Williams has landed 52 Academy Award nominations, making him the second most-nominated individual in history after Walt Disney. The fact that he’s only won five Oscars feels like a robbery even though some of the best composers of the art form don’t even have a single one.

So how does Williams do it? How does he make music that jumps out of the speakers and instantly sticks in your head? Well, there are a few elements to his composing and arranging that have remained consistent over Williams’ seven-decade, and once you start to pick up on them, the staggering amount of prestige and unbelievable accomplishment of Williams’ work starts to feel more tangible and understandable. It’s safe to say that there will never be another John Williams, but his techniques are still able to be picked up by any and all who want to follow in his footsteps.

The first, and perhaps most essential, element to Williams’ composing is easy: keep it simple. If you want an audience to remember your work, they have to grasp on to something that they can wrap their heads around. This most famously comes out in the shark theme from Jaws: two notes, only one half-step away from each other, repeated with increasing dynamics and intensity until you can feel the fear and terror that is happening on screen. Two chromatic notes are all it takes to fill an audience full of dread, and Williams is an expert at having the biggest impact with the smallest details.

But anyone who has heard Williams’ work knows that Jaws is mostly an exception: Williams’ scores are bombastic and dense productions that incorporates the full orchestra. This is true, and it’s another important tenet: utilize all of your musicians, but keep the most complex elements happening behind a central melodic figure. These are the frantic horns that spit out incredibly fast rhythmic figures as the central melody to the ‘Main Theme’ of Star Wars blares or the swirling strings that cascade around the arrangement of ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ while the memorable leitmotif bounces from bells to woodwinds to brass instruments. Scores should be expansive in scope, but only if you hone in on the most important element – the central melody.

On a more specific music theory level, Williams isn’t afraid of using tritones. In fact, they can be heard in some of his most famous works, including a number of his iconic Star Wars orchestrations. The tritone has a reputation for its unsettling, even demonic feel in music, but Williams often uses it for just the opposite. Triumphant escapes like those in Indiana Jones or Superman often have chords progressions that lean on the tritone. Williams uses the tritone to catch your ear, but adds additional tones to keep the sound from getting too unnerving.

But the tritone can be a tricky interval to lean on. If you use it too much, your compositions can sound muddled, chromatic, or even disjointed. Harmony is vitally important, especially when the audience can hear and feel something comforting without necessarily knowing what it is. This is why Williams’ other favourite interval is the perfect fifth. If you ever take a music theory class, the teacher will be happy to tell you that the perfect fifth interval in one of the easiest for non-music trained individuals to pick up on, and therefore is a bit of a cliche when used in composing.

But cliches are cliches for a reason, and no one used perfect fifths better than Williams. The interval is best heard on the ‘Main Theme’ from Star Wars (it’s the part we all sing when we imitate that piece), but it’s also used for ‘Discovering the Island’ in Jurassic Park, the fanfare for Superman, and the flying theme for E.T. Basically, when Williams wants to underscore a feeling of discovery or uplifting excitement, the perfect fifth is the interval he’s most likely to use.

Of course, Williams has a deep knowledge of musical theory, plus a lifetime of experience, to bring his compositions to life. He’s utilized almost every progression, every trick, and every musical instrument in his works, so to boil down his style into just a few bits of knowledge is pretty much a fool’s errand. If there’s anything to take away from Williams’ work, it’s that his main focus is largely on serving the scene and, when in doubt, make the music exciting.

All of Williams’ work uses dynamics and intensity, and that’s why you can still remember some of his most notable works in your head. Williams’ main legacy will be how memorable his works are, and that comes through trial and error, failure and random chance. If you leave yourself open to whatever musical possibilities can come through in your writing, then you are already emulating one of the most essential tenets of John Williams’ musical genius.