Frank Lehman, an Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Undergraduate Studies at Tufts University, knows the score of the iconic music of “Star Wars” as well as anything in his life. In his lecture, part of the Musicology Colloquia Series, Lehman criticized the practice of over-interpreting “Star Wars” music for plot details, but also explained the musically complex use of motifs throughout the score.
He first pointed to the numerous self-proclaimed musical analysts on YouTube, who draw inaccurate interpretations of the “Star Wars” motifs. Some ‘analysts’ even incorrectly use his research to reach their conclusions, according to Lehman.
He argued that these articles “actually risk missing the point” and instead tried to interpret the score for its musical anomalies. Lehman played “Rey’s Theme” from “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” for the audience and pointed out ambiguities, both in terms of structure and musical continuity. According to Lehman, “Rey’s Theme” is one manifestation of the “incidental material” that appears throughout “Star Wars” music and is inappropriately connected to plot details.
Although fans laud John Williams, the composer of the scores for the “Star Wars” films, Lehman described him as “opportunistic and forgetful.”
Lehman explains that Williams spent significant time in the score transforming themes into something entirely new through key changes and rhythmic alterations, an example being Yoda’s theme from the 1983 film “Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi.” These transformations seem to indicate an important shift in plot, but the new motifs never return in any meaningful way, according to Lehman. He characterized this as the “unrealized potential” of film music, in which composers build to a point of climactic tension and fail to provide a resolution.
As directors and actors are replaced, Williams has proven to be one of the only constants over the course of the Star Wars franchise, leading many fans to view him as having some omnipotent power to view the overall picture. Lehman doubts this foresight.
Lehman pointed out that, in interviews, Williams has revealed gaps in knowledge about future story development, making the possibility of melodic plot hints essentially impossible.
Still, Lehman admitted, the newer episodes of “Star Wars” have used musical motifs from older films as nods to the past and to the “Star Wars” universe more broadly.
For example, in the closing credits of “The Force Awakens,” “Rey’s Theme” is interwoven “contrapuntally” — or is layered rhythmically — with the traditional William’s theme for “The Force” to highlight the rebirth of this central power. In “Star Wars,” The Force is a transcendent influence which unites all living beings and which Rey has the unusual ability to harness.
Contextually, Rey is important to connect the “Star Wars” of the present with the original George Lucas series. Williams recognized this by making Rey’s theme musically consistent with the previous melody, Lehman explained.
Furthermore, Episode VII’s reveal of the Millennium Falcon ship — which had not appeared since the film from 1983 — also marks the return of the musical “Rebel Fanfare” theme from the older movies. Lehman described these musical choices as a “punchline” for the sequence of the film, meaning they were crucial to inciting past “Star Wars” moments.
Lehman also explained how he explored the way that motifs are reused throughout the score. He argued for an analysis that accounts for the underlying arc of the music, meaning individual themes should be understood in the context of the larger piece.
“Like words,” said Lehman, “leitmotifs can be used both for musical prose and for mention.”
In other words, Williams recycled and manipulated small “Star Wars” themes — such as Yoda’s theme — to develop ideas or to refer to some past event. Several times, Lehman isolated well-known motifs and then played snippets of the theme as it transformed over the course of the music. He argued that the motif in its final form would be unrecognizable without these gradual alterations.
In his conclusion, Lehman asked the audience whether the lack of plot details in “Star Wars” music should be discouraging, but argued for a hopeful perspective. Lehman explained that there is plenty of rewarding work to do with “Star Wars” music.
Part of the challenge, he said, is trying to understand where and why the composer left musical open-ends.
As Lehman pointed out, “Star Wars: Episode IX” will be the culmination of the original series and could reveal that Williams had a master melodic plan all along.
Lehman, however, said that he doesn’t think so.
This event took place on Thursday in Woolworth 102 at 4:30 p.m.