Sound Genius: What Is John Williams Best Known for?

John Williams is an American composer and conductor responsible for some of the most recognizable film scores of all time.

Feb 19, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology
what is john williams best known for

 

John Williams defined the sound of modern cinema. In a career spanning an impressive seven decades, he has written music for television, played in the US Air Force band, moonlighted as a jazz pianist, and composed and conducted several classical works. However, his most enduring legacy rests in his unparalleled role as the greatest film composer of all time. Enduring critical acclaim for scores like Star Wars (1978) and Jaws (1975) serves as a testament to Williams’ creative genius and profound impact on cinematic history.

 

Formative Career

West Side Story (1961) featuring a young John Williams on piano, Source: Wikimedia Commons
West Side Story (1961) featuring a young John Williams on piano, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

John Towner Williams was born in Queens, New York on February 8th, 1932. He came from a musical family – his father was a jazz drummer – and showed great musical promise from a young age. After moving to Los Angeles with his family in 1948 Williams began arranging music at High School. He studied music at UCLA and worked as a session musician for Henry Mancini and Bernard Herrman, two of the greatest composers of classic Hollywood cinema. In 1952, he joined the US Airforce band and when his service came to an end moved back to NYC to study piano at The Julliard School, where he also moonlighted as a jazz pianist and session musician. 

 

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Williams scored hundreds of television episodes and films. He also played piano on several musical productions, including Robert Wise’s West Side Story (1961), before in his early forties joining up with a young Stephen Spielberg to work on Jaws (1975). 

 

The John Williams Sound

John Williams conducting at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009, Source: Wikimedia Commons
John Williams conducting at the Hollywood Bowl in 2009, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Throughout his illustrious career, John Williams has cultivated an unmistakable musical identity, often characterized by critics as a fusion of romanticism, impressionism, and atonal orchestration. He is renowned for his ability to create memorable emotionally resonant themes, and his use of leitmotifs (recurring musical ideas) to animate characters, places, and ideas. In terms of orchestration, Williams frequently opts for the use of a full symphony orchestra to articulate his ideas.

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Notably, brass instruments (often the trumpet or horn) as opposed to strings are used to play the most important parts or melody in his arrangements. John Williams’ musical genius has earned him a plethora of accolades and set the modern standard for cinematic scores. Many of his themes have become ingrained in the fabric of popular culture itself. 

 

Jaws

Jaws, a novel by Rodger Kastel adapted for the big screen by Stephen Spielberg and John Williams, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Jaws, a novel by Rodger Kastel adapted for the big screen by Stephen Spielberg and John Williams, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Part of the success of Jaws (1975) was its film score. Together with Stephen Spielberg Williams work on Jaws changed cinema – and popular culture – forever. Jaws is the story of the hunt for a killer shark. It is a thriller about people out of their depth, in unfamiliar circumstances, trying to fight something they don’t know how to deal with. Yet, throughout the film, the shark is rarely seen. The tempo of the score famously indicated whether the shark was near or far, creating a terrifying sense of momentum, tension, and suspense. 

 

Ironically, the reason that the (mechanical) shark is absent from the majority of the film is that it kept breaking down. If the shark had worked then Jaws would have been a completely different film. In the end, Williams’ iconic score proved that what you don’t see is more terrifying than what you do. In the summer of 1975 Jaws became the first “blockbuster” in Hollywood history.  

 

Star Wars

The iconic image of Darth Vader, the primary antagonist of the original Star Wars Trilogy, Source: Wikimedia Commons
The iconic image of Darth Vader, the primary antagonist of the original Star Wars Trilogy, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Unlike the “Golden Age” of Hollywood cinema that began in the 1930s, films in the 1960s and 1970s tended to not be produced with their own score. Instead, films often incorporated popular music in brief segments, as a complement to the moving images. This all changed with Star Wars (1977). John Williams’ original score was a pivotal component of the film, to the extent that 88 out of the 121-minute total running time features Williams’ symphonic music. The music in Star Wars is almost on par with the importance of the images themselves.

 

Within the film, key musical themes infuse meaning and emotion to important symbols and subjects. Unique melodies and recurring leitmotifs collaboratively shape the narrative and help develop the plot. Such is the importance of Williams’s score that the famous “Main Theme” begins in advance of the images on screen. 

 

Additional Iconic Themes

Stephen Spielberg's Jurassic Park features some of John Williams most iconic leitmotifs, Source: Wikimedia Commons
Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park features some of John Williams most iconic leitmotifs, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Aside from Star Wars and Jaws, amidst the vast array of Williams’s musical works, a few iconic themes stand out. Arguably the most well-known of all is Raiders March, the title theme of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1984). This musical masterpiece has become inseparable from one of the most beloved action heroes of all time – Indiana Jones. 

 

Another enduring leitmotif is the majestic main theme of Jurassic Park (1993). This instantly recognizable, soaring melody is closely associated with the first glimpse of dinosaurs in the park. Like the main theme of Jurassic Park, the awe-inspiring Flying Theme in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) also stands as one of the most iconic film scores in cinematic history. 

 

In more recent times one of Williams’s most recognizable compositions is the main theme of the Harry Potter film franchise, known as Hedwig’s Theme. The association of John Williams with Harry Potter has ensured that his work endures in popularity across multiple generations. 

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with a doctorate in sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.