John Williams at 80: How to play your way through the composer’s career with 10 of his classic themes

GregJohnson February 8, 2012 0

Happy birthday to John Williams! The veteran film score composer is 80 today, and to mark the occasion, we’ve compiled a list of 10 vital pieces for players wanting to explore his long and varied career in Hollywood for themselves.

The suggestions below are not instrument specific but since many of his greatest pieces are written for orchestras and large ensembles, players shouldn’t struggle to find a solo or smaller scale arrangement to fit their requirements. Some players may even discover the inspiration for an epic cinematic jam along of their own design.

First up, Jaws

Melodically, Jaws’ main theme may be dominated by those two ominous notes, E and F, sawing away at your nerves, but the building, stabbing tension that slowly bubbles up around that simple yet effective motif feels great to play on instruments in the mid to lower registers.

Whilst pianists, cellists and their ilk can enjoy cranking up the anxiety from the depths, players in the treble clef can enjoy sharp stattacco and weaving melody lines that drive home the terror, uncertainty and confusion of Spielberg’s psychological shark thriller masterpiece.

The Imperial March from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

In comparison to the stressed out, flinching scare tactics of the Jaws main theme, The Imperial March is far more fluid and grandiose, with a memorable main melody motif reinforced by every section of the arrangement.

Recreating the bombast of The Imperial March for yourself is a lot of fun, and feels immediately epic and atmospheric, from the marching bass lines to the fanfare, soaring highs.

Lumos from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

There’s an almost whimsical feel to the drip-drop bass and woodwind lead of Lumos; a piece that takes us on from the full and heavy footed thrillers mentioned above.

With its almost spooky, main melody and floating, breathy accompaniment, Lumos is all about expression, demanding an eerie and delicate treatment from players in order to reproduce the theme’s mystical feel.

Minority Report – Sean’s Theme

Sean’s Theme is a track rich with emotion and nuance, conveying the jarring mixture of grief, guilt and warmly remembered memories of a lost son felt by the film’s protagonist, John Anderson. For the score to 2002’s Minority Report, Williams took inspiration from the work of Psycho composer, Bernard Hermann, and the soundtracks of film noir.

The piece is full of interesting melodic nuances and harmonic contrasts as the character’s emotions and thoughts flow and conflict through the music. Whilst written for piano, other instrumentalists can find space and purpose within but to the theme’s rich contrasts and layers.

Theme from Schindler’s List

It must be said first and foremost that the theme to Schindler’s List is not one for beginner pianists or violinists, and is rated as a grade eight standard piece.

Players comfortable with such difficulty levels however, will discover a tempered and gentle piece, reliant on a subtle, underlying sense of humanity and tragedy to accompany this unforgettable film.

Theme to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games

To many, John Williams’ Olympic opening ceremony composition is the definitive theme to not only the 1984 games in Los Angeles, but the Olympics itself.

Whilst obviously written for a full orchestra, amateur ensembles and soloists can enjoy picking out highlights to play from Williams’ regal sporting theme due too.

Theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark

The theme to Raiders is another big John Williams arrangement, and perhaps the greatest example of a swashbuckling action score from his vast body of work.

With its highly memorable leading motif, excitable, driving momentum and engrossing sense of frontier adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark will have you bobbing along as you play.

Theme to Catch Me If You Can

The theme to Catch Me If You Can is something of a departure on out list considering what has gone before it. Its jazz inspired could well shock listeners who have tended towards the large scale action adventure soundtracks that John Williams is perhaps most famous for. In many ways, it harks back to the composer’s early works within 60s cinema.

The main theme to Catch Me If You Can is a lively, jostling piece to enjoy as a listener or player, full of intricate contrasts and shifts to keep you on your toes.

Theme to Jurassic Park

Another iconic theme from John Williams, Jurassic Park captures the majesty and size of the film’s CGI dinosaurs with this stately, full orchestral score.

As with many of Williams’ large scale pieces, there is a real sense of gravitas and weight to the music, making Jurassic Park a fulfilling piece to play and enjoy.

Theme to E.T.

The main theme from E.T. is unmistakable, and one the best loved themes created by John Williams. It is at once suspenseful and climatic yet playful and calm with a main melody that sweeps you up off your feet every time.

As with all of the legendary composer’s blockbuster scores, it’s an engrossing and powerful piece to play full of emotion and imagery that sucks you right into musical narrative Williams masterfully conveys.

Discover John Williams in printed sheet music at! From woodwind guest spots to full band scores – lose yourself in the works of one of cinema’s all-time greats.

What’s your favorite John Williams theme? Are you a dedicated player of his music or just curious about giving it a try? What we to hear from you!