A Professor Turns to the Dark Side

Arts and Sciences

For a sci-fi fan, is anything more thrilling than a darkened theater, the flash of the yellow Stars Wars logo, and the first rousing notes of John Williams’ score ringing out? The 85-year-old composer, who wrote the music for eight of the nine films in the space saga and is working on Episode IX, is as integral to the success of the Star Wars franchise as the Force itself. And that’s not just fangirl talk—even serious music critics such as Alex Ross of the New Yorker have recognized that the films’ music is “superbly crafted and rewards close analysis.”Frank Lehman, an assistant professor of music at Tufts who, among other things, studies film music and the way it shapes a moviegoer’s experience, has analyzed Williams’ music more systematically than most, and recently updated his “Complete Catalogue of the Motivic Material in ‘Star Wars,’ Episodes I-VIII,” to include The Last Jedi, which premiered in December.
He documents 55 leitmotifs—bits of melody repeated in the scores that act as themes, evoking particular characters, places, or relationships. Luke, Obi Wan, and the Millennium Falcon have their own themes. Kylo Ren has three leitmotifs to call his own, which Lehman names “aggressive,” “hesitant,” and “menacing,” reflecting the conflicted nature of the sequels’ wannabe villain. For the serious student, Lehman also lists less-prominent “incidental” motifs, such as Ominous Upwards Arpeggio, which shows up in The Empire Strikes Back, roundabout when Luke loses his hand.
Lehman has written an essay about these and other themes, which will appear in the upcoming book, John Williams: Music for Films, Television, and the Concert Stage, to be published by Brepols.
Tufts Now talked with Lehman about Williams and Star Wars, what the scores reveal about the characters, and the pitfalls of using musicology to predict plot.  
Tufts Now: Why is John Williams’ movie music so …

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