Davidson College

Q&A: Music Prof. Neil Lerner on John Williams, the Composer Behind the Indelible ‘Star Wars’ Score

By Jay Pfeifer
This article originally appeared on Davidson.edu on December 18, 2019.

Lerner, music professor and chair of the music department, has been teaching classes about music and cinema for more than 20 years—and every class covers the scores of John Williams, the composer who has defined the sound of movies for more than 40 years.

Williams is best-known for the scores he wrote for all nine “Star Wars” films. The upcoming release of “The Rise of Skywalker” marks the end of a four-decade engagement between Williams and the Skywalker saga.

In addition to the opening theme, Williams’s “Star Wars” scores are renowned for his skillful use of motifs, using music to convey the hope in Luke Skywalker’s journey or the lurking menace of Darth Vader. In fact, Lerner thinks he noticed a connection between two motifs that might hint at ties between Rey, the young star of the new “Star Wars” trilogy, and the sinister Emperor.

Music Prof. Neil Lerner offers insight into the famed composer behind the movie scores that help to make the movies we love. Videography by Alex Smith.

Of course, Williams also wrote dozens of other notable scores, including for the films “Jaws,” “Indiana Jones,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Schindler’s List”—to name a few.

Lerner shared some of his insight on Williams’ music and his place in the classical-music canon below.

What is John Williams’s place in classical music?

At the moment, he’s regarded chiefly as a film composer. And in the world of classical music, film scores are starting to get a little more recognition, but film music is still not seen as important as operas or symphonies or chamber music. I think as more time passes, that’s going to shift.

Is that because film is still a relatively young medium?

That’s right. Film scoring really didn’t start until the late 1920s or early 1930s, when we have the beginning of synchronized sound film. Also, film music is commercial entertainment. There’s no denying that. Yet some films can be really rich, complicated and interesting texts.

I predict that Williams’s music is going to be considered some of the most important and interesting music composed in the 20th and 21st century. And in the same way that listeners and scholars and performers can now go back and enjoy the symphonies of Beethoven or Haydn, or the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach, or the polyphonic masses of Josquin des Prez, they will go back to study and listen to the film scores of John Williams.

Why is that?

They’re masterfully put together. There is an imaginative, creative musical mind behind them; he’s a composer who is brilliant with the symphony orchestra. We now have digital sampling and the ability to create any sound we can imagine, but in the 18th and 19th century, the orchestra was the pinnacle of musical instruments. It’s a dying art in several ways. And Williams is, I think, one of the last great practitioners of that, the culmination of a symphonic tradition, and also in many ways the sunset of it as well.

Though “Star Wars” is his most famous work, he has scored for dozens of films that sound very different. Is his range what makes him so great?

That’s part of it but, to my mind, what makes him so important is his imagination for memorable melodies and his choices of orchestration—that is, how to make an orchestra sound sometimes incredibly huge and powerful and imposing, or how to make it other times sound incredibly delicate and intimate, and to know just when to use these different effects.

By the time “Star Wars” came out in 1977, Williams had already won two Oscars. He was an accomplished, successful composer. How did “Star Wars” change John Williams?

Star Wars” is regarded by many as a renaissance of the symphonic film score, but the success of “Star Wars” was part of the new Hollywood that was defined by cross-marketing. The music promotes the film, the film promotes the music.

And in the “Star Wars” score, you’ve got stylistic connections to many composers. There’s a strong tie back to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a composer who was an important composer of action scores in the 1930s and 1940s for the Errol Flynn swashbucklers. Korngold’s sound was part of what Williams was aiming for in “Star Wars.”

With Williams, you’ve this strange fluke that he would go on to compose music for “Star Wars” films for more than 40 years. What do you see in the long thread of all the “Star Wars” music?

We’re still seeing it all happen in real time, so as a historian I want to have time to let the dust settle. But he’s changed and developed as a composer at each of these stages. The prequel scores sound different from the first three. And in the same way, these last three scores, to me, sound more autumnal in style. Instead of pulling out all the stops to create an effect, he knows just how much to do to make it work. And that’s the sort of wisdom and experience of a lifetime of composing. I think now we’re seeing a master finishing off masterpieces.

Celebrate World Choral Day

By Olivia TenHuisen

In 1990, Helsinki became an epicenter for choral music when the International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM) approved an initiative put forth to set aside the second Sunday in December to celebrate choral music each year. Alberto Grau from the Latin American Vice-Presidency of the IFCM, proposed World Choral Day because of the strength and connection choral music can bring to a divided global community.

“It is time to show, with more power and strength, that our choral family contributes, through music to break down the artificial barriers product of politics, different ideologies, religious differences, and racial hatred that separate human beings. We must be able to show that music, the divine art, is more than the mere search of formal perfection and interpretative beauty, music should serve to extol the values of solidarity, peace, and understanding.”

Alberto Grau

Since its approval, millions of singers around the globe have been involved in World Choral Day concerts, festivals, or other events. In 2018, World Choral Day events were held in 69 different countries. Of these, 15 countries had never previously held any events to honor the holiday.

This year, World Choral Day falls on the 8th of December and to help you celebrate the choral arts, we’ve gathered a short list of favorite choral pieces from the WDAV staff! Links to these selections on ArkivMusic are also provided should you want to purchase the music for yourself.


Rachel Stewart

Gregorio AllegriMiserere
“This piece blew my hair back the first time I heard it; it’s so beautiful.”

Rachel Stewart, Associate Content Director & Host of Biscuits and Bach


Frank Dominguez

Ralph Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony
Using text from Walt Whitman’s poetry collection, Leaves of Grass, this symphony is about 70 minutes in total and is comprised of four unique movements.

Antonio Vivaldi, Gloria RV 589

Frank Dominguez, General Manager & Content Director


Ted Weiner

Handel, “Let none despair. Relief may come though late” from the opera Hercules from 1744.

Claudio Monteverdi, “Beatus vir” (Blessed is the man)

Ted Weiner, Music Director & Host of the Early Shift


Rodger Clark

Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture, Op. 49
While not all versions include the choral part, Rodger notes that it makes for a wonderful addition to the piece.

Eric Whitacre, Water Night
Whitacre’s Virtual Choir project began in 2009 and involves singers from around the world uploading recorded videos of their singing. These videos are then “Synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir.” More information on the Virtual Choir project can be found here.

Rodger Clark, Director of Philanthropy & Special Projects


Olivia TenHuisen is a student assistant at WDAV and majoring in psychology at Davidson. Olivia sang as an alto in the Davidson College Chorale and leads a worship team for an on-campus organization. Music has been important to Olivia throughout her life and she continues to find ways to incorporate it. 

Infrasound: The Terrifying Tonality

By Owen Wood

As my classmates have been demonstrating in their posts, sound design and music are crucial parts of horror films. From the use of tritones to music signaling or free atonality, audible sound has a long history of creating a terrifying experience for moviegoers. However, we are still very much terrified and unsettled by sounds that we are unable to hear, known as “Infrasound”.

 The normal range of hearing for human beings falls between 20 and 20,000 Hertz. Any sound below 20 Hz is known as infrasound. Infrasound occurs naturally, resulting from waterfalls, thunderstorms, earthquakes, and many other phenomena. Additionally, infrasound is produced by man-made sources such as aircraft, diesel engines, ventilation systems and more.[1]

While we can hear the higher frequencies produced by these objects and events, we are unable to hear the frequencies below 20 Hz. Nevertheless, we still perceive these sound waves through the sense of touch in the same way that we feel vibrations.The ability to perceive infrasound without being able to explicitly “hear” it is an unsettling phenomenon, as its effects are unexpected.[2]

In some cases, these effects are mistakenly attributed to paranormal activity and haunting. Tandy and Lawrence found that some infrasound frequencies caused both physiological (nausea, vertigo, etc.) and psychological (anxiety, troubling thoughts, etc.) responses, which strengthen fears and notions of paranormal activity.[3]

 Filmmakers use this harrowing phenomenon to their advantage. By utilizing the subwoofers of movie theaters, filmmakers can psychologically and physiologically manipulate the audience into feeling a sense of fear and uncertainty without their knowing. Professor Nick Redfern discusses the use of infrasound in the short horror film Behold the Noose.[4]

The film follows a deputy as he investigates the murder of a young girl at a farmstead. Throughout the film, infrasound of 10-20 Hz occurs in all scenes featuring the deputy, creating a sense of anxiety associated with his character.

Near the end of the film, when the deputy discovers a skull and is led to his death, infrasound of 5-10 Hz occurs to represent the deputy’s intensifying sense of dread and anxiety.[5]

This technique can be used in a number of interesting ways in film production, such as building anxiety before crucial scares, heightening unsettling feelings during disturbing scenes, and even as a constant drone which disappears right before jump scares to give audiences a false sense of safety.

Fluctuations in frequency and amplitude are also components of infrasound use in horror film, as heard in Behold the Noose.[6] Listen to an example of infrasound below:

17 Hz infrasound: Wearing earbuds, turning the volume to maximum, and pressing them into your ears with your fingers can help you feel the infrasound.

Even when we can’t hear it, music and sound design in horror play an important role in the overall impact that horror films have on viewers. As is the case for infrasound, which can cause feelings of dread and anxiety, supplementing the effects that visuals and audible sounds have on moviegoers. The next time you watch a horror film, consider the scenes that cause particular dread and discomfort, and consider the sounds that are being used, as there may be more than meets the ear.

Owen WoodSenior Owen Wood is a Psychology and Music double major from Winston-Salem, NC. A multi-instrumentalist, Owen plays drums in the Jazz Ensemble, bass in the Jazz Combo, as well as trombone, piano, and guitar. Owen enjoys performing, composing, and producing a wide range of musical styles from Jazz to Classical and everything in between.


[1] U. Landström, “Human Effects on Infrasound,” (paper presented at inter.noise 2000: The 29th International Congress and Exhibition on Noise Control Engineering, 27-30 August, 2000, Nice, France), available online.

[2] S. T. Parsons, “Infrasound and the Paranormal,” Journal of the Society of Psychical Research 76/908 (2012), 150–74.

[3] Vic Tandy and Tony R Lawrence, “The Ghost in the Machine,” Journal for the Society for Psychical Research 62/851 (April 1988), 37–57.

[4]-[6] Nick Redfern, “Quantitative Analysis of Sound in a Short Horror Film,” July 2015.

The Art of Anticipation in The Shining’s Bicycle Scene

By Morgan Potter

Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining has been lauded time and again for its masterful manipulation of the audience’s sense of dread and anticipation even—or especially—when no immediate threat is discernible. How can such scenes fill us with feelings of dread? 

The subtle but highly effective uses of cinematography, sound design, and scoring to evoke the audience’s terror is best exemplified by the suspense of a seemingly innocent scene—a young boy riding his tricycle. The scene begins with Danny riding his small plastic trike, emblematic of childhood innocence, through the empty, yet ostensibly benign halls of the hotel in which the movie is set.

Despite this benevolent setup, almost as soon as the scene begins can the audience be expected to feel a growing suspense; the steadishot used in the scene, placed right behind Danny’s trike as it rolls through the halls, creates an illusion of stillness in the trike as the walls instead rush and close in around us. 

In the beginning, there is no music—there are no sounds emanating from the various rooms of the hotel at all, apart from the clatter of the trike’s plastic wheels; not even the refrigerator buzzes as it flies by.

It is the subtle but expert framing of the scene that leaves the audience in dread, apart from any of the visual content of the scene itself, and while the dread is unmistakable, its source is not, amplifying the effect, punctuated by the brief moments of even greater silence when Danny rides his bike over carpet, in quietly disturbing moments of sensory deprivation.

When music begins, it is a low and quiet melody heralded by a trepidatious ringing, that is slowly overtaken by a wave of the quiet, but cacophonous shivering of violins—the sound like that of a swarm of flies.

When Danny stops his trike in front of room 237, there is nothing apparent in its presence to make us fearful; however, at this moment the strings drip into a disjoint, atonal melody—the music is obscure and unpredictable, evoking a similar fear for whatever lies behind the locked door.

The melody swells and the buzzing grows and it rises and falls like howling wind or distant screams—the ringing returns like blood dripping slowly to a puddle—and then are we finally given a source for our mounting fear—the twin girls that flash before Danny’s eyes before they are gone in an instant, and the music swells with the growing terror and suspense that the we were so carefully primed—by the cinematography, sound, and scoring all together–to experience.


Morgan PotterMorgan Potter is a senior majoring in biology and music.

The Use of Character Leitmotifs in Bride of Frankenstein

By Emily Banks

In Bride of Frankenstein (1935), “the creation of a female mate for the monster” is the main concern of the film. 1 The viewer encounters horror with a twist of comedy in this film, which, according to Young, “refracts a series of social anxieties.”

Within this masterwork of horror film and horror film music, composer Franz Waxman supplies the audience with a film score that leads one through a panoply of emotional reactions. From joyful reunions to fits of terror, the film music consistently lends itself to the demands of the picture.

In addition to the familiar use of unprepared and unresolved dissonances and driving rhythmic devices to build tension with the arrival of the film’s titular monsters, Waxman also uses leitmotifs to clearly announce the approach or arrival of specific characters, such as Frankenstein’s creature and his newly-constructed bride.

To create a distinctive sound for the creature’s bride, Waxman utilized church bells upon her introduction in the film, bells that sound similar to the kind typically heard at weddings. This musical device clearly marks her as a bride, which helps to definitively establish her role in the film while simultaneously representing the joy of Frankenstein’s achievement.


Whenever the monster approaches or appears in a threatening manner, Waxman used what William H. Rosar describes as a “simple five-note motif for the monster…which suggests the monster’s growl in the fourth note by having the brass play with flutter-tongue,” and that fourth note in the creature’s motif rests on a dissonant minor second.2


The dissonance creates tension that easily leads the viewer to a feeling of anxiety and a yearning for resolution. An especially clever use of this motif occurs at the very end of the film. As the human baron and (potential) baroness flee the exploding laboratory, we hear the motif played at a much faster tempo, demonstrating the danger the monster is in.

Once the building has been destroyed, we hear the motif one final time, but instead of finishing the melodic idea, Waxman instead leaves it unresolved and moves into a consonant melody ending on a major chord, giving the viewer a feeling of finality and resolution and allowing us to conclude that the monster has at last been destroyed, and normalcy has been restored…at least until the next sequel.


Emily BanksEmily Banks is a senior music major from Austin, Texas. At Davidson College she participates in the Davidson College Chorale, Collegium Musicum, and voice lessons.


1Elizabeth Young, “Here Comes the Bride: Wedding, Gender, and Race in Bride of Frankenstein,” in The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (University of Texas Press, 2015), 361.

2“Music for the Monsters: Universal Pictures’ Horror Film Scores of the Thirties,” The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 40/4 (1983), 409.

Abject and Exotic Sounds in Nosferatu

By Will Messner

Films in the 1920s were accompanied by live music; the music would have been performed by a solo pianist, an organist, or a small orchestra, depending on the venue and the available musicians.

There were collections of pre-composed music, called photoplay music, that could be used typical scenes that would come up over and over again, like music for chases or music for sneaking around or music for death scenes.

Some of the photoplay collections included generic stereotypical music for anything regarded as exotic and non-Western. For example, volume one of the Sam Fox Moving Picture Music (1918), and there were even collections devoted just to exotic stereotypes, like Jacobs’ Piano Folio of Oriental, Spanish, and Indian Music for Racial and National Atmosphere (1917). (See figures 1 and 2 below.)

Sheet music: Oriental Music and No. 1 Jacobs' Piano Folio Oriental Spanish and Indian Music.
Sheet music: Oriental Music and No. 1 Jacobs’ Piano Folio Oriental Spanish and Indian Music.

These stereotypical cues often used the same interval of the augmented second to mark something as generally Middle Eastern or Asian.

German director F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized re-telling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula made nearly a decade before Hollywood cast Bela Legosi in the titular role; Hans Erdmann’s score, which was played live with the film when it was first released, has exotic sounds that trigger an abject feeling that transports us to the land of ghosts.


As Hutter, our protagonist, begins his travels to Count Orlock’s castle early in the movie, a pan-flute like recurrent musical motif begins to play. This motif creates tension due to the repetition and monotony of the exotic sounding melody; this theme gets gradually faster as the speed of the horses increases.

Soon after the men driving the carriage refuse to take Hutter further, the motif stops and is replaced by minor orchestral melodies as Count Orlock (actually the vampire Nosferatu) arrives to drive Hutter the rest of the way up to the castle. 

When he and his horses come into the scene, the motif returns with the same instrumentation, although it is nearly double the original tempo. At the end of the scene, Orlock leaves Hutter, and as Orlock and his horses leave, the motif comes back and rapidly trails off until Orlock is out of view.  This choice to have the exotic motif leave with the monster is a clever choice of association. The recurrent motif, one utilizing musical markers of exoticism, was meant to be for Nosferatu because he is the monster. 

William MessnerWilliam Messner is a Senior Music Major and Digital Studies Minor at Davidson College who plans on working in the Music Industry after Graduation.

African American Caricatures in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

By Emery Nash

The film scholar Robin Wood defined horror film as when “normality is threatened by the Monster.”[1] In early horror films, such as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), the monster often took the form of a literal monster. Sometimes these monster had racial characteristics.

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, when Dr. Jekyll transforms to personify his worst qualities, director Rouben Mamoulian chose an ape-like caricature—Hyde was sexually deviant and violent—that drew from frequently repeated stereotypes of African Americans. This representation of Hyde drew critics’ attention: a writer in the New York Times wrote that “the face of the handsome young [man]…becomes…a sabre-toothed baboon with pig eyes.”[2]

This evidence, paired with a changing musical score–from the Baroque organ associated with Dr. Jekyll, to English music hall drinking songs paired with Hyde—signifies a “dichotomy between nobility and brutishness…Hyde is…a savage who cannot…adapt…[to] Victorian Society.”[3]

Together, these facts indicate racist undertones in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s musical and cinematic elements.

Emery NashEmery Nash is a native of Nashville, TN and is a current senior at Davidson College. He is majoring in Biology and Music, and hopes to have a career in social justice, focusing on marginalized populations in American society.


[1] Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, edited by Andrew Britton, Richard Lippe, Tony Williams, and Robin Wood (Festival of Festivals, 1979), 14.

[2] Virginia Wright Wexman, “Horrors of the Body: Hollywood’s Discourse on Beauty and Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: After One Hundred Years, edited by William Veeder and Gordon Hirsch (University of Chicago Press, 1988), 284.

[3] Siegbert Salomon Prawer, “Book into Film I: Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in Caligari’s Children: The Film as a Tale of Terror (University of California Press, 1981), 86-107.

“Sing, My Little Pigeon!”: Mr. Hyde and the Musical Uncanny

By Max Lilburn

In his 1919 essay The Uncanny, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud theorized that things that are uncanny consist of a combination of familiarity and strangeness—things that we sort of recognize, but sort of don’t.

The doppelganger, an uncanny double of a person, features prominently in Freud’s theory as an example to illustrate the uncanny; in confronting a slightly different version of ourselves, we are forced to confront our own fears of mortality and death.[1] For this reason, doppelgangers are a common feature of horror cinema and are a central thematic element of the film discussed here.

In an especially chilling scene from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 horror masterpiece Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the uncanny is manifested through music. Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll’s terrifying doppelganger, forces Ivy to sing a song that was introduced only a few scenes earlier in a much more joyous context.

In this way, the audience becomes familiar with the lively tune; it is exuberantly sung out to a smiling crowd in a lively bar, and we associate it with Ivy’s delightfully radiant demeanor.


But in the context of Mr. Hyde’s bedroom, the song becomes jarringly and unbearably uncanny. Ivy herself cannot finish the tune without breaking down, and in this way, Mr. Hyde’s evil becomes apparent. While his counterpart, the noble Dr. Jekyll, summons forth Bach’s pious and upstanding Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with his own two hands at the opening of the film, Mr. Hyde can only force music into existence through his battered victim.

 

But in Hyde’s presence, nothing beautiful is left uncorrupted. The song, like Ivy’s life, is tragically cut short, and the terrible uncanniness of the music leaves a lasting impression in the mind of the viewer.

 

Max LilburnMax Lilburn is a senior music major and guitarist at Davidson College. He is the recipient of the 2018 Wilmer Hayden Walsh Prize in Composition and recently released an EP that can be found anywhere music is streamed. Max has a strong interest in songwriting and production and hopes to pursue them as a career after graduation.


[1] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” trans. David McLintock (New York: Penguin Books 2003).