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Composer John Williams: Biography, Music & Movies

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

In this lesson you will learn about John Williams, the American film composer and conductor. Get to know the composer's life, his music, and the films and collaborations which have made him famous.

The Man Behind the Movies

Quick - think of your five favorite movies.

It's possible, even probable, that one of them was E.T., or one of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones films, or maybe the more recent Harry Potter films. Maybe Schindler's List or Catch Me If You Can made the cut. The composer behind all of these films, the man who wrote the music accompanying E.T.'s flight across the face of the moon and our first glimpse of the Death Star, is named John Williams. His music is as important a part of the movies as the actors and director, and as responsible for many of our most treasured film moments as the images onscreen. And with a catalog that includes 108 film scores and counting, chances are he's behind some of your favorite movies.

Early Life and Beginnings

Williams was born on February 8, 1932, on Long Island in New York. His father, Johnny Williams, was an important jazz drummer, and young John grew up surrounded by music and musicians. After moving to Los Angeles and graduating from high school in Hollywood, John attended the University of California, Los Angeles and studied piano and composition before being drafted into the U.S. Air Force. Following his service, he returned to school, this time at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. While at Juilliard, he kept busy as a jazz pianist and composer.

After he finished school, Williams returned to Los Angeles and began working as an orchestrator, taking the film scores of other composers and arranging them to be played by a studio orchestra. In 1958, he got his first chance to score a film himself, and received his first screen credit in 1960 for the score to Because They're Young. From that point on, Williams composed new scores every year, gaining his first Academy Award nomination for best score in 1967 for Valley of the Dolls. Since these beginnings he has won four more Academy Awards, with over 40 nominations, and a whopping 20 Grammy awards. Williams continues to score new films as well as conduct orchestras and compose concert music.

John Williams
John Williams conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra. Photo by Chris Devers.

The Music

While Williams was working as an orchestrator he had the chance to work alongside some of the most important film composers of the previous generation, including Bernard Herrmann (who wrote the score to Psycho) and Alfred Newman (the composer of How The West Was Won). Like his predecessors, Williams prefers to compose scores for a full orchestra; many of his best-loved film scores were later turned into concert pieces. His musical style is connected to neoromanticism, a style characterized by a return to melodies and harmonies associated with the Romantic composers of the 19th century, such as Johannes Brahms and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Williams' film scores are also well-known for their use of leitmotiv, a musical device famously used by operatic composer Richard Wagner in the 1800s. In film and theatre, composers who use leitmotiv will compose individual themes (or 'leitmotivs') to represent characters or events in the work the music is accompanying. For example, when a given character appears onstage or onscreen, the accompanying music will be based around that character's individual leitmotiv. More advanced leitmotiv use can even symbolize things that aren't seen, like ideas or memories.

The Force Theme from Star Wars
The Force Theme from Star Wars. Image by Greg Simon, presented under Fair Use Guidelines.

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