John Williams & American Film Music


Having written over 100 film scores, as well as other symphonic and chamber works, John Williams is among the most prolific and celebrated composers of our time. His film scores, particularly those involving large-scale, orchestral forms, have earned him 51 Academy Award nomination and countless other honors. In addition, he has greatly influenced American symphonic repertoire and practices, as his work as both composer and conductor has helped bridge the gap between popular culture and classical music.


  • Music has been part of film since the beginning of cinema in the 1890s. Silent films were accompanied by live performance, and synchronized sound in film emerged in the 1920s. By the 1930s, music was an important part of the Hollywood film industry, with classical Hollywood film music involving large, orchestral scores, typically in the style of 19th century Romanticism.
  • By the time John Williams began working in TV and film in the late 1950s, film music had branched out to include all styles of popular music and modernism. 
    Williams quickly demonstrated versatility as a composer; his first Academy Award nomination was in 1967, and his first win was for his musical adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof  (1971). His second Oscar came for Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg, with whom Williams has collaborated ever since. A departure from trends of the time, Jaws was scored for large orchestra with music structured around the now-iconic, two-note theme that represents the shark.
  • Williams became known for such narrative, large-scale, orchestral film scores that reference the classical Hollywood style. This can be heard in Star Wars (1977) and other films in the series. Often called a “space opera,” the Star Wars films feature recurring musical themes for characters and ideas (leitmotifs), musical effects to complement the action (called “Mickey-Mousing”), and vivid orchestration.
  • He has written several other heroic, orchestral scores (e.g., Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.), yet has a remarkable capacity to adapt his music to different types of films and stories. One such notable achievement is Schindler’s List (1993), for which he won his fifth Oscar and features poignant, Hebraic melodies and violin solos performed by Itzhak Perlman. Also noteworthy are the first three Harry Potter films (2001, 2002, and 2004), which musically transport the audience to a magical and mystical world.
  • Even though some criticize Williams’ music for being rooted in 19th century idioms, a particular hallmark of his film music is how well it can stand on its own as concert music. His compositions as well as work as a conductor (Boston Pops) have brought symphonic music into popular American culture, and also advanced and revitalized symphonic repertoire.

Exploration Questions

  • What are some of the musical devices that Williams uses to create musical narratives in films?
  • How does Williams adapt his musical style to different types of films and narratives? For example, what are some of the stylistic differences between Star Wars and Schindler’s List?
  • In what ways do the musical themes in the Star Wars movies represent the characters and ideas? How does Williams interweave these themes throughout each film, and across films? How does he do this in other films, such as Jaws or Harry Potter?

Reflective Questions

  • Even though Williams’ orchestral style is based on 19th century musical idioms, why does his music resonate so well with audiences today?
  • What are some other trends in contemporary film music? Who might follow in Williams’ footsteps?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading & Listening

  • Audissino, Emilio. John Williams's Film Music: 'Jaws,' 'Star Wars,' 'Raiders of the Lost
    Ark,' and the Return of the Classical Hollywood Music Style. University of Wisconsin Press, 2014. 346 pages. While there are many popular articles about John Williams and his music, this is the first (and currently only) scholarly book in English. Audissino provides an overview of film music, particularly the classical Hollywood style of the 1930s-40s, and discusses Williams’s tremendous contribution to film music from that perspective. He provides insight on Williams as a composer with in-depth discussion of some of his most successful film scores, and examines his music’s wide reaching influence.
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  • Kalinak, Kathryn. Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University
    Press, 2010. 143 pages. As the title suggest, this is a brief overview of film music – it’s history from cinema’s beginning, how music functions in film, and different musical approaches and styles across the world of film. While not specifically detailing John Williams’s music, Kalinak’s general discussion puts his music into this larger perspective.
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