Here’s a vintage, rare clip from 1988 of John Williams talking with Gene Shalit about the score for The Accidental Tourist. I love when people unearth these things and post them!
We know how John Williams writes his scores because, fortunately, he’s told us, and his explanation has remained remarkably consistent over the years.
First, he spends some amount of time (he usually describes it as 2–3 weeks) coming up with the thematic material. This is the most arduous, unpredictable part of the process for him. The themes that we all adore and feel like we’ve always known—be they from Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones or E.T.—are actually laboriously sculpted. Watch the video above, he talks about it.
There seems to be an inverse relationship for him as to how effortless and timeless they feel, vs. how excruciatingly difficult they are to compose. (James Horner, incidentally, would describe coming up with a tune as a breezy, almost instantaneous act of creation for him; the labor-intensive, difficult part of his process was sculpting it to picture.)
In the video, Williams describes the hardest score he ever wrote as Close Encounters. I remember in another interview, he said he was having a terrible time with the main “signal” theme, he asked Spielberg if he could please do have more notes. Five notes, as Spielberg had requested—for the “handshake” between aliens and humanity—was too restrictive. If he could only have seven, it would be much easier. But Spielberg held firm, and in due course, Williams came up with the theme. And it sounds so perfect, it’s like, how could it have ever been anything else? (That’s the sign of a classic theme, and genius-level composer.)
As hard as his melodies are to create, they do have a lot of obvious logic behind them. Darth Vader’s theme has to be aggressive and militaristic; Yoda’s theme, wise and gentle. It sounds to me that the process is a combination of intellectual choices and musical training—and plain old, waiting for it to come.
Here’s an amazing bit of trivia. I forget where I read it—Jeff Eldridge, keeper of johnwilliams.org, will know. Originally, the main theme (Luke’s theme) of Star Wars only had one beat for the high b-flat. Think of the Bill Murray lyrics:
“Star Wars, nothing but STAR Wars...”
The high b-flat is the STAR I’ve capitalized. In the main title, and most usages, it’s two beats. Originally he wrote it as one (I presume the other beat went to the “Wars”)—and was actually a few weeks into writing the score when he suddenly realized how much better it would be if it were two beats. In other words—
This: “Star Wars, nothing but STAAAAAAAR Wars...”
Instead of this: “Star Wars, nothing but Star Waaaaars...”
So he went back and revised the score he had already written.
THAT is composing. That’s why we love him, and why he’s a genius.
After he has the thematic material, Williams writes the cues in what he describes as a three-step process:
1) First, he decides upon the tempo. Literally, how fast or slow, and where are the changes, if any.
2) Then he decides upon the TESSITURA. That’s a fancy word for what instruments will play—but not only that, in what ranges and with what techniques, and in what combinations. (Strings can sound dark and churning, or light and airy.)
3) THEN he fills it with the harmonic and melodic content.
I found it surprising when I first heard it, because I thought it would be the other way around—first he decides what themes will play, and then figures out in what form. Nope.
Three cheers for the G.O.A.T.!