As a franchise, Star Wars is inseparable from its music. Back in 1977, John Williams ushered in a resurgence of the Golden Age of movie scores with his Oscar-winning, thunderously heroic work on A New Hope, and his legacy is being continued with Michael Giacchino’s score for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In honor of the new movie, and as a celebration of some truly astonishing film music, here are the most unforgettable score moments from the Star Wars saga.
25. Rey uses the Force: The Force Awakens
Many spines tingled when Daisy Ridley’s plucky heroine embraced her destiny at the climax of The Force Awakens, and faced down the fearsome Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Williams’ powerful scoring of the scene, including his careful placement of Rey’s theme (more on that later), Ren’s theme, and the Force theme, audibly constructs a thrilling new good vs. evil conflict right in front of us.
24. Yub Nub: Return of the Jedi
The much-maligned Ewoks, teddy bears who help bring down the might of the Empire, only come off better when placed next to the idiotic Jar-Jar Binks (“he makes the ewoks looks like f****g Shaft,” wails Simon Pegg in Spaced). Nevertheless, their hippy-dippy new age celebration concocted by Williams is hard to dislike: very silly but done with such earnestness one can’t help but smile. (It was replaced by “Victory Celebration” in the Special Edition.)
23. Anakin turns to the Dark Side: Revenge of the Sith
The third of George Lucas’ critically mauled prequels is widely considered the best, and indeed as pouting prettyboy Anakin Skywalker is transformed into the greatest villain of all, it’s hard not to feel a frisson. Responsible for much of the impact is Williams’ darkest, most mature and most despairing score of the saga, toiling choir reinforcing the tragedy and terror of Anakin’s tragic fall.
22. Darth Vader vs. Luke: Return of the Jedi
The two titans of the Original Trilogy, Vader and his son, Luke (Mark Hamill), clash during Jedi’s hugely dramatic showdown, and it’s here that Williams’ level of grandiose portent steps up a gear. With the Imperial March, Force theme, and the Emperor’s theme all going to war, backed by spine-tingling choir, it’s one of the most dramatically assured, intelligently scored moments in the entire series, the very essence of Luke’s soul hanging in the balance.
21. Torn apart: The Force Awakens
Quite possibly the key moment in J.J. Abrams’ movie (and almost certainly the most emotional) is the doomed showdown between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and estranged, rage-fueled son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). As a result, Williams treats the scene like a mini-symphony of torment, building from empathy to violent shock and ultimately desolate sadness that perfectly mirrors our own reactions.
20. Coruscant pursuit: Attack of the Clones
Say what you will about the prequels, but Williams never once dropped the ball during any of them. This 12-minute blast of Crouching Tiger-esque percussion and rip-roaring orchestral theatrics (much more aggressive and tightly orchestrated in the vein of Minority Report, composed around the same time) is one of the series’ greatest action set-pieces. Plus, it’s the rare John Williams track featuring electric guitar – perfect for reflecting Coruscant’s sleazy underbelly.
19. Across the stars: Attack of the Clones
Forget the insistence on sand and the lack of chemistry between Hayden Christensen as Anakin and Natalie Portman as Padme (not entirely their fault, to be fair). Williams’ swooning and beautiful ode to the likes of Nino Rota almost gives Anakin and Padme’s relationship the grandeur it deserves, the composer working overtime to make the movie more profound than it is. Interweaving graceful strings with militaristic rhythms, it’s a perfect encapsulation of their story.
18. Young Anakin: The Phantom Menace
The malleability of the musical themes in Star Wars isn’t to be underestimated. Williams’ approach on the prequels was to conjure a grand canvas of new themes while alluding to the classic ones that appeared in the Original Trilogy. The interweaving of the chilling “Imperial March” around young Anakin’s (Jake Lloyd) optimistic theme is an excellent example of musical foreshadowing.
17. The Falcon revealed: The Force Awakens
One of the clever things about Williams’ seventh Star Wars score is how it holds the iconic themes in reserve, only deploying them at key moments for maximum impact. One of the best is the brassy burst of the main title heroics when Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8 are revealed to be running towards a heap of junk that turns out to be the Falcon. Punch the air time, indeed.
16. Rey’s Theme: The Force Awakens
Williams’ score for the triumphant seventh episode in the saga was dismissed by some for not containing memorable themes. Objectively wrong: the entire Force Awakens score is anchored by the theme for Rey, one brilliantly mirroring her emotional development as it moves from a lilting, War Horse-esque flute solo into a statement of grandiose intent, signifying her awakening to the Force.
15. Cantina band: A New Hope
Anomalous within the wider Star Wars musical universe, this frenetic blast of acid jazz became one of the unlikely hits of the series. Not only seriously catchy in the composer’s usual style, it also performs a serious dramatic function too, reinforcing the scuzzy danger of Mos Eisley spaceport where Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) meet Han Solo for the first time.
14. The Emperor’s Theme: Return of the Jedi
Williams’ ability to conjure sinister and threatening music is somewhat underrated. There’s no denying he came up with a doozy for the third film’s cackling antagonist (played by Ian McDiarmid), a male voice throat choir practically emanating evil from the speakers as it builds into portentous majesty, hinting at Luke’s seduction by the Dark Side. It’s also clearly a direct influence on Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) material heard in The Force Awakens.
13. “I am your father”: The Empire Strikes Back
The most shocking twist of the series (and one of the most shocking of all time) required expert spotting and intonation from Williams, both to accentuate the impact of the sequence and also to allow the audience to come to terms with the aftermath. Never did the blast of the “Imperial March” feel more ominous, or more laden with personal horror.
12. Yoda’s Theme: The Empire Strikes Back
One of Williams’ great abilities as a dramatist and musician is his ability to embody contradiction. His theme for the mischievous, wizened old Jedi master is a classic case in point, verging on the whimsical but harboring deep undercurrents of wisdom and profundity that fit the Frank Oz-voiced character. Truly one of the saga’s most charming pieces. (It also turned up during E.T.‘s Halloween sequence.)
11. Anakin’s death: Return of the Jedi
The final part of the Original Trilogy has its detractors, but there’s no denying that the Luke/Anakin side of the story is wrapped up in superbly emotional fashion. Jerking the tears out of us is Williams, whose superb, desolate inversion of the once-intimidating “Imperial March” adds tragic and humane dimensions to the saga’s most iconic baddie, capturing the essence of the frail man behind the armour.
10. Darth Vader is born: Revenge of the Sith
Let’s put the infamous “nooooo” to one side for a second and remember that, on first viewing, it was epochal to watch the Darth Vader mask being applied to Anakin Skywalker’s ruined face for the first time. And once again Williams’ masterful intuition, a mere breath of the “Imperial March” leading into piercing chorus alluding at what’s to come, is the icing on the cake.
9. Vader’s entrance: A New Hope
It’s easy to forget that Vader’s signature theme, “The Imperial March,” was first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, not A New Hope. In the first movie, he’s treated more with brooding, brassy tonalities and none are more memorable, or indeed chilling, than his majestic arrival at the start of the movie, Williams’ declamatory score announcing his terrifying presence in a big way.
8. The Battle of Hoth: The Empire Strikes Back
The lauded follow-up to A New Hope ramps up the darkness and emotional maturity, with Williams’ score following suit. The composer really ushers in a sense of urgency and tension with this rollicking, 15-minute behemoth for the pivotal ice planet battle, one that interweaves all the themes heard so far around each other in glorious fashion while also showcasing his instrumental complexity (listen out for those fiendishly complex piano and tuba solos).
7. Asteroid field chase: The Empire Strikes Back
A flautist’s delight, this incredibly intricate, undulating set-piece superbly mirrors the on-screen action as the Millennium Falcon attempts to outrun Vader’s forces while in the midst of massive asteroids. Williams’ ability to conjure different textures and nuances for a given scene has no finer showcase than this.
6. Assault on the Death Star: A New Hope
The first Star Wars movie broke ground with its special effects, but it was Williams who invested us emotionally in the setpieces. The climax of A New Hope is a barnstorming extravaganza as Luke uses the Force to obliterate the enemy’s primary weapon, but it’s the music, ranging from full-throttle excitement to nail-biting tension and, finally, grin-inducing relief, that makes us care.
5. Han and Leia’s Love Theme: The Empire Strikes Back
Of course, the Star Wars scores are celebrated for their multifaceted array of emotions. Not just capable of getting our adrenaline levels going, they can also jerk the tears right out of us, as Williams’ tender woodwind/string/horn theme for our central romantic pairing makes clear (albeit bisected by the looming threat of “The Imperial March”). It’s a fine example of juxtaposing how a composer can utilize a sense of intimacy to bring everything down to a human level.
4. Imperial March: The Empire Strikes Back
The musical embodiment of ruthless, totalitarian evil, Williams’ theme for Darth Vader has become so iconic that even non-film music fans can recognize it. Militaristic and brassy, with powerful emphasis on snares and timpani alluding to classic war scores from the likes of Ron Goodwin (a key influence on the Star Wars scores), it’s both massively imposing and enormously catchy. In other words: classic Williams.
3. Binary Sunset/The Force Theme: A New Hope
Williams is unparalleled for eliciting a visceral, emotional reaction in his scores, his mastery of the orchestra and sense of melodic intuition ensuring that his music transcends the visual medium. This moment where Luke Skywalker ponders his destiny during the Tatooine dual sunset is almost certainly transcendent, his musical fate seemingly written in the stars and brimming with heroic potential.
2. A New Hope’s opening crawl
AKA the moment where it all began. That heraldic opening fanfare is so much more than a passage of film music: it’s a statement of intent that the rollercoaster ride on which we’re about to embark is going to be unlike anything else we’ve experienced before. It also proved to be the triumphant curtain raiser on a new era of symphonic film music, paving the way for Williams’ 1980s contemporaries like James Horner and Alan Silvestri.
1. Duel of the Fates: The Phantom Menace
No it’s not the best Star Wars movie but for four glorious minutes, Williams has us thinking the opposite, his Sanskrit choral fireworks and blazing orchestra distilling pure adrenaline, as Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) go to battle with Darth Maul (Ray Park). A truly great score can make a bad movie seem better than it is, even if only for a short time, and that’s exactly what Williams achieves here.