Geeking Out on Jazz and John Williams
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If I asked you to name the first 10 jazz composers that come to your mind, I bet John Williams would not make your list. Even if I narrowed it down to “jazz-inspired” film composers, you’d probably be more likely to name Dave Grusin or Henry Mancini. However, in 1959, there was a relatively unknown jazz pianist in the Mancini band laying down the piano part for the Peter Gunn theme. He went by the name Jonny Williams. This jazz pianist went on to become the most recognized and prolific film composers of the last 60 years, scoring mega-hit soundtracks including Star Wars, Superman, E.T., Indiana Jones and Schindler’s List.
In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny and Joshua Foy discuss John Williams’ innovative use of jazz harmony in some of his most famous scores. You’ll also learn how Williams uses the following compositional devices:
- Harmony & Melody
- Motifs & Themes
- Modes & Emotions
- Orchestral Colors & Textures
- Symmetry & Asymmetry in Melody
Ironically, this compositional process is quite accessible if you know what to listen for. Nobody demonstrates this better them Joshua Foy—a pianist and film composer himself.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the topics Joshua unpacks in the interview.
Jazz Harmony and John Williams
No one would classify the film scores for Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Hook, or Raiders of the Lost Ark as jazz soundtracks. Yet, John Williams’ background as a jazz pianist informed his work as a composer on each of these projects. However, Williams cleverly frames the jazz materials in unique ways so that they don’t necessarily sound “jazzy.”
One example of Williams’ use of jazz harmony in orchestral writing occurs in the rebel theme from the Star Wars films. This theme uses advanced jazz chords called upper structure triads to create a memorable melody. You can take a deep dive on this topic in our course Coloring Dominant Chords with Upper Structures (Level 3).
John Williams and Leitmotifs
Another favorite melodic tool John Williams uses throughout many of his scores is the concept of the leitmotif. This German term translates in English as “leading motif.” The leitmotif technique is most associated with the operatic works of German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883). This technique uses specific melodic themes or motifs to represent individual characters, places or things. In fact, this video demonstrates 15 separate leitmotifs from the Star Wars films. These themes are embedded with tonal material to shape the audience’s feelings about the particular characters, places or things. In fact, the next section goes into further detail on the topic modes and emotions.
John Williams and Jazz Modes
John Williams and other film composers frequently use modes as a compositional tool to elicit specific emotions. Joshua Foy demonstrates a great example of this on piano at the opening of today’s Quick Tip. The excerpt is taken from Hook, which Joshua has transposed to C. This theme uses the Lydian mode, which is comparable to a major scale with a raised 4th tone. Therefore, the C Lydian scale is C-D-E-F♯-G-A-B. After the first four measures, the theme is taken up a forth to F Lydian (F-G-A-B♮-C-D-E). Film composers like John Williams frequently use the Lydian mode to produce a sense of mystery, magic or hope. You can take a deep dive on the Lydian mode in our course How to Improvise a Solo With the Lydian Scale (Level 2, Level 3).
Of course, modes are not the only tool Williams uses to paint particular feelings with sound. The following sections cover additional compositional techniques.
Orchestral Colors and Textures
In additional to melodic and harmonic materials, orchestration goes a long way in determining how audiences will experience compositional material. Orchestration refers to the particular instrument or instruments used for a compositional idea. For example, John Williams’ choice of the pan flute for the “Ewok Suite” in Return of the Jedi immediately endears these furry allies with the audience. By contrast, Williams’ use of solo tuba for Jabba the Hutt’s theme portrays this character as fat and menacing.
Orchestration applies to more than just melodic instrumentation however. Sometimes, orchestration is used to create colors, textures and effects. In the interview, Joshua Foy recalls the moment that sealed his fate as a future composer. It was a brief scene from The Phantom Menace in which Williams scores a soft texture of tremolo strings and harp to sonically personify the despair felt by Queen Amidala.
Symmetry and Asymmetry in Melody
Joshua Foy also demonstrates in today’s interview how John Williams uses asymmetrical form as a storytelling device. The love theme for Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones entitled “Across the Stars” is a brilliant example of this technique. From a musical perspective, symmetry implies consistent phrasing such as the 32-bar AABA form found in many jazz standards. By contrast, asymmetry describes the use of odd or inconsistent phrase lengths and meters. For example, in the piano score for “Across the Stars”, you’ll notice the intro is in 4/4 time. However, Williams makes an abrupt shift to 3/4 time as soon as the melody enters which immediately gives the piece a sense of instability that mirrors Anakin and Padme’s relationship. Williams also uses various phrase lengths that give a sense that the melody is never-ending. This portrays the cyclical conflict of their relationship until its final demise.
Congratulations, you have taken an important step in developing a conceptual approach toward film scoring and composition. For even more insights and demonstrations, check out the full Artist Interview Featuring Joshua Foy.
If you enjoyed today’s Quick Tip, then you’ll love our full-length Film Improvisation (Level 3) course. In addition, be sure to check out our Quick Tip on How to Play Piano Like Hans Zimmer (Level 2). If you want to learn more about modes, check out the following series:
How to Improvise a Solo With the…
Thanks for learning with us. We’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
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