How John Williams Mixed Major and Minor Melodies to Set the Tone For Good and Evil in ‘Star Wars’

Musician Howard Ho keenly observes the ingenious compositional strategy that John Williams used in setting the musical tone for good and evil in Star Wars. Ho explains that Williams didn’t just employ a major key for good and a minor key for evil but he reversed the melody keys.

John Williams composed the Imperial March and the Rebel Fanfare Themes to represent the good guys and bad guys in the Star Wars universe. But musically, each theme both does and doesn’t do what we expect, because John Williams played with our expectations of major and minor. This is why that works!

The “Imperial March” is actually based upon the finale passage of Beethoven‘s “Pastoral Symphony”, a very happy sounding musical phrase. Played in the minor melody key, however, it becomes chilling.

Chords are important but they are the background but in addition to the background there is also a musical foreground which means a melody that sits on top of the chords …the Imperial Melody…It’s menacing. Well, taken out of context this is actually the outline of a major chord in this case E flat major. The Imperial March has the happiest type of Melody you can write and yet here it’s being used in the minor key.

He also explains how the “Rebel Fanfare” is just the opposite, a minor phrase played as a major melody. He further observes that this phrase also includes unstable tritones and dissonent diminished chords, both of which makes for interesting interpretation.

The Imperial March is played for the bad guys, but every time we see the bad guys they are full of military might…they are so well funded and oppressively well organized. So in a way that major key melody on top signifies their military prowess and strength …meanwhile the diminished Melody of the Rebels is exactly that. They are always on the run poorly funded …their resources are literally diminished by the Empire and so even though their heroism deserves a major chord background, the foreground is their daily reality of being under the constant threat of being wiped out.

Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.