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Priming your ears

John Williams’ Force Awakens soundtrack dropped on Spotify last night. I’m listening to it as I type—even though I haven’t yet seen the movie.

Does hearing the soundtrack count as a spoiler? It depends who you ask. For me, the music, disconnected from imagery and dialogue, gives away little about a movie’s plot. Yes, track titles can be dangerous, but composers have grown more cautious since the “Qui-Gon’s Funeral” debacle of Episode I.

So, no, soundtracks typically won’t spoil movies.[1] In fact, pre-hearing the score enhances the initial viewing experience. After all, it’s hard to appreciate instrumental music the first time through. Unfamiliarity holds you at arm’s length from the drama. Your subconscious brain whirs away, dissecting the new music instead of enjoying it.

With “primed ears”, you more easily link leitmotifs to character beats. Melodies hook your heart in a way they can’t the first time around. You hear the tension rising; you can feel the plot revelations as they land.


So… what’s my verdict on the Force Awakens soundtrack? It was fun to hear Williams rearrange the classic trilogy’s themes. But, if I’m honest, none of the new music really captured my imagination.

I blame my virgin ears. The next time I hear these melodies—in a darkened theater, popcorn at hand—I’ll be ready to really listen.


  1. A caveat here: you can be too familiar with a soundtrack. I know many John Williams scores (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark) by heart—measure by measure, modulation by modulation. I could tell you the exact moment when the hero’s theme gives way to the villain’s sinister melody. That knowledge would spoil a movie (if you hadn’t already seen it).  ↩
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How Disney kept its ‘Force Awakens’ secrets

Bill Whitaker, correspondent for 60 Minutes, tried to record a Force Awakens scoring session with his iPhone:

So, this is John Williams, and I’m here; let me record some of this. So I took out my cell phone. …. These two representatives of Disney came racing over and kind of demanded that I cease and desist.

When they first came over and asked me to delete it, I did. And then, as we were leaving, they asked, “So… did you delete the delete?” I said, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

It’s incredible how little anyone actually knows about The Force Awakens’ plot. The trailers reveal very little actual story. The actors promoting the movie have remained tight-lipped (citing brutal non-disclosure agreements). Even John Williams’ soundtrack won’t drop until premiere day (usually, film scores are released weeks before the movie itself hits theaters).

As another 60 Minutes producer explains, “Disney has a very tight grip on this film; they don’t want anything to get out. There are people whose full-time job it has been to make sure that nothing leaks to the Internet, or that nothing gets sent out to the world at large.” Judged by how little we know, those censors did good work.[1]

Contrast Disney’s secrecy to how The Phantom Menace was handled, back in 1999. Two months before Episode I premiered, Weird Al had written “The Saga Begins”, a parody song that accurately summarizes the film’s entire plot. His lyrics even mention never-before-seen characters like Jar-Jar Binks and Boss Nass, along with exotic locales like Naboo and Coruscant. It’s spot-on.

How’d he do it? Weird Al received no exclusive sneak peeks from Lucasfilm. No one snuck him a pre-release script. Instead, as Yankovic explains:

The song was entirely based on Internet rumors. I gathered all the leaked info I could about the movie from all the various Star Wars websites… and was able to piece together the basic plot.


  1. Yes, there are places online where you can find informed guesses at The Force Awakens’ storyline. Fans have sifted each trailer for clues and assembled a rough plot outline. I already know more than I wish I knew. My only solace? Maybe these superfans’ guesses are wrong.  ↩

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‘The hero of a generation’

Michael Giacchino composed the soundtracks for Up, Jurassic World, and Star Trek, among many others. Here, he writes about his admiration for John Williams, who has written the most recognizable movie music of the past forty years:

I was 10 years old in 1977 when I ran down the steps on Christmas morning to find the double album LP of Star Wars waiting for me. ….

On the verge of another Christmas, 38 years after that first Star Wars album debuted, I am privileged to still call John [Williams] a friend, and I couldn’t be happier to see my other friend, J.J. Abrams, get the opportunity to work with not just my hero — but the hero of a generation of filmmakers and composers.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that John Williams scored my youth. As a twelve-year-old, I nearly wore out the cassette albums for Jurassic Park and The Last Crusade. (Yes, I was a weird kid.) Even now, his scores comprise the core of my music library. Rarely does a day go by in which I don’t queue up a Williams track while I work.

On the list the Hollywood composers not named “Williams,” Michael Giacchino ranks high for me. He shares his mentor’s remarkable knack for inventing memorable melodies. But while I love his scores (LOST and Star Trek are particular favorites), I’m more impressed by the way he unabashedly adores his industry’s elder statesman. Giacchino seems to appreciate the extent to which Williams redefined an entire genre.

As the Star Wars composer approaches his eight-fourth birthday, I’m painfully conscious of the fact that he won’t be around forever. There’ll be a day after which we’ll never hear a new Williams theme.

For now, though, I’m grateful that John Williams continues his work unabated and undiminished. I’m nearly as excited to hear his Force Awakens score as I am to see the movie itself.


EDIT: Variety recently interviewed John Williams about his forthcoming ‘Force Awakens’ soundtrack.