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    Non-Holst in the Score to Star Wars

    On the new Film and Multimedia Interest Group list-serv, Frank Lehman and Mark Richards shared some of their terrific blog posts regarding the pitch language in the Star Wars saga, in advance of the release date of Episode VII a month from today. Inspired by their contributions, I posted to the FMIG list-serv a little something regarding rhythm. Mark asked if I would post it on SMT-Discuss. Here it is. (Hopefully the links transferred.)


    Much has been said about the resemblances between John Williams’s Episode IV score and specific works by prior composers (Holst, Stravinsky, Elgar, Korngold, etc.). I’m sure it is not news to FMIGers that the four pcs G, Ab, C, and Db that comprise the chord used for the penultimate hammerblows at the conclusion of Holst’s “Mars" from The Planets also comprise the same chord whose relentless pounding anticipates the explosion of the (first) Death Star.

    The rhythm is similar but different: both have both tripleted and straight rhythms, and both leave dramatic gaps in between the blows, but Williams has smaller gaps in between many more blows. One can safely say that Williams does not use Holst’s rhythm. But I think one could also say that Williams uses a non-Holst rhythm.

    Now, before you think I’m being clever for the sake of being clever (to violate Glenn Gould’s prescription for fugal writing), I’m actually channeling a bit of A.J. Griemas, who, in his semiotic square (a nod to David Neumeyer, one of film music theory's patriarchs), made a distinction between a opposition (e.g. male/female) and a contradiction (e.g. male/not male). We think of film composers as either quoting preexisting music or not quoting preexisting music or something in between (varying the temp track score, alluding to a certain style, etc.). But what about a composer employing some kind of opposite of some preexisting music? Sounds fanciful, but music theory is rather adept at setting up systems that can reify to some appreciable degree the concept of an opposite.

    Throughout “Mars,” Holst uses a recurrent rhythm in 5/4: starting on the downbeat, it is 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/4 - 1/4 - 1/8 - 1/8 - 1/4 (1/12 = triplet eighth). Here it is, plenty loud. In general, triple and duple beat subdivisions, relative to the undivided beats around them, typically appear anacrustically (like the beginning of the Star Wars main theme) or right before strong beats. Thus, by itself, without knowing the rest of Holst’s movement or his notation, it’s quite natural to feel Holst's triplet as a pickup: 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/12 | 1/4 - 1/4 - 1/8 - 1/8 - 1/4. Another aspect that makes it easy is that the division of 5 is the more common 3+2: the triplet immediately precedes the 3, and the duplet immediately precedes the 2: 1/12 - 1/12 - 1/12 | 1/4 - 1/4 - 1/8 - 1/8 - 1/4.

    However, this is not how Holst’s rhythm fits the meter: rather, the triplet is on the downbeat, as made clear throughout by thematic and harmonic onsets, and the duplet is on the other strong beat, as made clear by melodic onsets. Another way to say this is that, if we allow some spans of time to be accented (which I know irritates some), for every five onsets in accented spans (beats 1 and 4) there are only three onsets in unaccented spans (beats 2, 3, and 5). Thus, there is an inherent tension between how the rhythm “ought” to fit in the measure, and where Holst puts it. Rather fitting to have such tension for the musical depiction of war.

    The first example below transcribes Williams’s rhythm right up to, but not including, the point in time when the Death Star explodes. However, I’ve omitted barlines, system breaks, and a few other notational biases toward a particular meter.  I find it interesting that, while beginnings are one of the most efficient and robust providers of metrical orientation, the sound effects obscure any sense of beginning. On your first pass, you may not even hear all five initial quarter notes, but, trust me, they’re there.

    And yet, I imagine you begin to hear the music metrically as I’ve notated in the second example. One part of this hearing is probably because of the early triplet, and its reappearance halfway through the 12-measure unit. As Channan Willner and Ryan McClelland have shown with regards to Baroque music and the music of Brahms, hemiolas can orient us to a meter just as much as they can dissonate against it.

    But another part of this hearing is probably for a reason that gets to my main point. Putting it quantitatively, in this metric interpretation, Williams has just about twice* as many onsets within unaccented spans as within accented spans on the quarter-note level, which is pretty close to an inversion of the ratio in the "Mars" rhythm.** Putting it qualitatively, this metric interpretation of Williams’s music flips around Holst’s rhythmic/metric relationship: the duplets and triplets are ultimately anacrustic, but there is little to no downbeat or third-beat content. That is, until the end, when the Death Star finally explodes on perhaps one of the most anticipated downbeats and hyperdownbeats in film music history.

    That’s my contribution to (what Frank called in recent private correspondence) the Star Wars "hype-train." Who’s up next?



    Scott Murphy

    Professor, Music Theory

    Director, Music Theory and Composition Division

    Editor, SMT-V: Videocast Journal of the Society for Music Theory

    University of Kansas


    * For the numerically interested, in Williams’s rhythm, there are 15 onsets within beats 1 and 3 and 31 onsets within beats 2 and 4. You might counter that the "Mars" rhythm ratio is 5:3 between strong-beat onsets and weak-beat onsets, which is somewhat smaller than the inverse of 15:31. I would counter by saying that, if we acknowledge that "Mars" is in 5/4 (with 1.5x as much time spent in weak spans as in strong beats) and this music is in 4/4 (with equal time spent in weak and strong spans), then the ratio of the density of onsets is 5:2, which is somewhat larger than the inverse of 15:31 and (if you allow, but I won’t be hurt if you don’t) counterbalances the inversional discrepancy.

    ** I suppose one could say that the notational values of my transcription are somewhat arbitrary, but, regardless of what you call it, the time span that I’ve notated as a quarter note for Williams’s rhythm is quite close to the time span of the notated quarter note for the average performance of "Mars."

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    • 3 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Wonderfully keen insights, Scott. It's nice to hear about rhythm in Star Wars as this is certainly one of the key ingredients in all these scores' success, both as film scores and simply as music. You mention Williams' use of offbeat accents in the lead-up to the Death Star's demise. The main title is another place that this occurs, with offbeat tutti chords in the accompaniment when the main theme is first announced. But here, I find it interesting that the accompaniment seems to be in a kind of dialogue with the melody, meaning that when the melody sounds a longer note, the accompaniment fills in with a tutti blast. These blasts are offbeat except when the melody is tied over on its sixth note.

      At this point, the accompaniment finally sounds a tutti chord on a downbeat, and it is precisely this moment that the melody is now imbued with some metric tension, as its triplet figure is sounded on a downbeat but sounds anacrustic. And this triplet then leads to a longer note tied over the next downbeat. This melodic note is not only the highest of the phrase and hence sounds climactic, it's tying over the downbeat gives it a feeling of (heroically) being sustained longer than expected, and we are left momentarily in musical awe as we wonder when this climactic note will return to a more "earth-bound" level.

      It is here that the accompaniment finally gives us a blast on a downbeat, heightening our sense of anticipation for the melody's fall away from the climax. Of course, once it does fall away, it only proceeds to rise up again, the accompaniment again heightening our anticipation in the same way, making the feat doubly awe-filled and thus superhero-like.

      All this is to say that the melody and accompaniment in this first phrase of the main theme work in tandem to create the kind of tension you cite in Holst's "Mars" between hearing the eighth-note rhythms in the ostinato as an anacrusis due to their leading to more stable quarter notes, and as downbeats due to their placement as such in the meter. And in the Star Wars main theme (which is of course Luke's theme), it is used in part to characterize our protagonist even before he appears onscreen.

    • Great points, Mark! I especially enjoyed your extra-musical connections. I cannot help but observing, however whimsically, that the initial anacrustic triplet of the Star Wars main theme (F-F-F) and the following triplet (Eb-D-C), shifted to a downbeat, are five beats apart. (They don't have to be: Williams could have instead made his third melodic triplet the second one after the initial one, or he could have written the main title in 3/4 [smile].) Therefore, you can play or sing the opening of the 4/4 main theme while drumming Holst's 5/4 ostinato rhythm and the triplets (not to mention the tempo) line up, albeit through only two 5/4 measures, but it's a fun two measures, as you get to hear Holst's rhythm in both metrical scenarios I outlined earlier.

      -Scott M.

    • Scott, what a refreshing way of looking at this music. And not only because it considers rhythm, so often a blind-spot in screen music analyses. Any approach to the question of film musical originality that doesn’t boil down to Brahms’s “jeder Esel” school of bland comparison is most welcome. It’s gotten me thinking of ways that film composers not only find techniques to sound "not" like other composers, but also "not" like themselves as well.

      Sticking with the case of Star Wars... After the first movie, Williams made far fewer overt references to his original Martian models, including at seemingly apposite moments like the destruction of Death Star 2.0 in Return of the Jedi. It’s only with the final prequel that he revived those hammer-blow chords that slam away with somewhat unpredictable rhythms and, relatedly, metrical/accentual structures. However, the routine in 2005 appears to be transformed and filtered through a new set of influences than 1977.

      There’s one or two leftover instances of “classic” Holstian assault rhythms, though the main one of which (from “Get ‘em R2”) was cut from the final film’s opening space battle. I’ve transcribed it to the best of my ability and, following Scott, freed it from prejudicing bar lines, though I'm not 100% sure where those would fall in the first place. There are quite a few short rests in this passage that are probably crucial for parsing the passage’s accents. But for the sake of simplicity (and emphasizing chord onsets) I’ve stretched out everything to full durational values. I’m curious what everyone makes of the implied metrical structure of this and other examples. I’ve indicated that the second half of the phrase feels syncopated, which is a shared feature with the Holst and later examples from Revenge of the Sith. And I've left in a few dotted bar-lines where I myself think strong onsets occur, but without recourse to the score, these are somewhat hypothetical. As with A New Hope (and unlike Mars), my sense is that lonesome triplet serves as an anacrusis.


      Later in Episode III, the composer begins translating old-school Williams into new-school Williams. And this process involves converting Holst into Adams (and maybe a bit of Tchaikovksy’s Romeo and Juliet too). The pertinent passages occur during the volcanic duel between Obi Wan and Vader. The original model is, I think, still the pounding music from A New Hope. But the chords are stripped of (harmonic) dissonance, being plain minor triads on the tonic. Or, in one instance, a subdominant that’s tonicized through pure, brutal repetition. This generally tonic-oriented sound is appropriately apocalyptic, more “this is decisively the end” than “hold your breath until this resolves in exciting fashion...”

      It strikes me as stemming at least as much from the opening of John Adams’s Harmonielehre  as it does Holst – Harmonielehre being a piece that Williams seems familiar with, based on a few lightly allusive pages from his score Artificial Intelligence. Adams’s trick is to vastly stretch out the Bartokian bouncing-ball effect, where durational values progressively accelerate and then reversing back to longer durations. Notably in Harmonielehre, syncopations and mixed durations set in once the deceleration phase begins.



      This is quite similar to the way the lava-splattering climax of the cue “Boys Continue” works, though over a much shorter time scale. Unlike the Adams, which had I think fairly audible changes of time signature, the rapidity with which durational values shift here removes the sense of definitive changing between one meter and another. In this case, for example, I’m quite conflicted over whether the quarter-note triplet articulates a strong or weak beat. 



      The two instances of this material that occur at the end of the "Battle of the Heroes" work similarly. Though here it’s worth noting how the final blows of D-minor are heard quite differently in the actually scene where Vader gets his limbs sliced off than on the soundtrack itself. Such micro-edits are a pervasive and fascinating issue in their own right in contemporary film scoring, irritating as they might be for transcribers like us.

      Incidentally: I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on this, but Jeremy Orosz just had an article come out in the Journal of Musicological Research entitled “John Williams: Paraphraser or Plagiarist?” that seems quite apropos of this discussion. I wonder if he’d chime in!