The music of Star Wars – The Leitmotif and its use in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

On the occasion of the recent concerts of John Williams in London and Vienna, which unfortunately could not be carried out as planned (read news-1 and news-2), we had prepared an article that is a little bit different from what we usually bring you.


So here it is! In this article special article for SoundTrackFest, the composer, orchestrator and orchestra conductor Juanjo Molina, talks about the music of Star Wars, the use of Leitmotif (or musical themes), and the application of the various themes composed by John Williams, in one of the most emblematic films of the saga: “The Empire Strikes Back”.


The Concept of “Leitmotif”

One of the tools that every film composer has to build the soundtrack of a movie is the Leitmotif. The leitmotif (in German Letimotiv, “leading motive”), is a term that began to be used for the first time to analyze the operas of R. Wagner, and more specifically it is defined as a musical theme that is used to reinforce the dramatic action, give an identity to the characters, or establish reasons that the listener associates with a dramatic event. We could also define it as the “driving musical motif that individualizes a character, defines an idea or situation, which will have so much influence on the conception and deep psychological sense of film music (Colon, C., Infante, F. history and theory of music in cinema: affective presences. Alfar 1997).


One of the attractions and functions of the Leitmotif as a tool for the composer, is the ability to hook the viewer through the accumulation, because of what that means, and all this thanks to the memory of the listener, which makes him/her associate emotions when listening to the theme, and then can revive those again later. One of the most frequent uses of the Leitmotif is that when the character, object, situation or idea, appears on the screen: It is the moment in which the composer uses the musical theme in such a way that the viewer has the easiest identification of both elements; however, one of the great contributions of John Williams in the use of the leitmotif was to assign a theme to a character when it was not on screen. This happened in the movie Jaws, where the Shark does not appear on the scene until the second half of the film, and yet thanks to the Leitmotiv, the listener clearly perceives its presence managing to give the necessary suspense to the action, and associates the motive with the attack, without the need to appear in the image.


Another way to use the leitmotif, totally different from what we have commented previously, is when a musical theme is associated to each character, object, action… and this theme evolves as the characters evolve, so that we do not return to listen to the same themes on the following occasions. We can see this in movies like Star Wars. In the case of the galactic saga, Williams conceptually begins using the Wagnerian concept of Leitmotif but then expands it by varying it, depending on the characteristics and timing of the story in which he has to use it.


Another important element is the Thematic Unit, where we can say regarding John Williams, that we can see the rhetoric of romanticism and tonality, as well as the influence of composers like Prokofiev, as his great work base. We also see the tendency in all his soundtracks to have unity, that is, to try to use the same system throughout his work.


This idea of a thematic unity, in addition, is based on the previously discussed concept of the character theme. That is to say, the fact that he uses the Wagnerian leitmotif system for each character means that, when repeated during the film, the entire soundtrack is felt as a unit. It also happens that, as we have said before, if a theme is associated with a character, idea, action… then when repeated it also has many options that change throughout the film in terms of texture, tone, timber… in what some authors believe may be negative to recognize the theme by the viewer, but that nevertheless, working with the “theme and variation” mode, reinforces the unity of the work.


In pursuit of this thematic unity, the composer is then faced with the decision of what themes should be composed from the hierarchical, quantitative, and qualitative point of view. In this sense, we can talk about what authors like C. Xalabarder treat as “Pyramid of Power”, where he establishes the themes used in a film according to their importance. Thus, we can distinguish Main Theme, Central Themes, Secondary Themes, Subthemes, Motives, and Fragments.


The Leitmotif in “The Empire Strikes Back”

Within the movie “Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back”, which we will analyze next, and taking into account the previously defined ideas, we can check the number of motifs that have an association with some element in the story. Following this criterion, we can find the following themes:

  • Main Theme / Luke’s Theme
  • Millennium Falcon’s Theme / Rebels’ heme
  • The Force’s Theme
  • Leia’s Theme
  • Vader’s Theme
  • Han and Leia’s Theme
  • Yoda’s Theme
  • Boba Fett’s Theme
  • Lando’s Theme / City in the clouds
  • Androids’ Theme
  • Asteroids’ Theme


Taking into account the way in which John Williams hierarchizes all these themes, we could establish a criterion based on the classification of C. Xalabarder and in function of the importance that each theme has within the history.


Regarding the main theme, this is one of the typical examples of what a main theme is by definition, in the so-called “Star Wars Theme” or “Luke’s Theme”. It’s the main one in terms of that it’s the element axis of the whole story in the whole saga. It is not necessarily the main theme because it is the first one we hear in each of the films, but because the message and center of the story, is associated from the first moment to this theme.


Once the main theme is established, we would have to establish the central themes used by Williams in the film. A Central theme is one that although it’s not as important as the main theme, has the responsibility to tell the story and therefore has a great narrative importance. In this sense we could talk about central themes in The Empire Strikes Back with the theme of Darth Vader, the theme for Han and Leia, the theme of force (2:11), Leia’s Theme and Yoda’s Theme (3:28).


Of course, the main theme is also a central theme, although as we said before, it is the most important of all of them. In this sense it is necessary to emphasize the confusion that usually happens, especially in this film, with the “Darth Vader’s Theme” (1:27) that it is considered a main theme, and we must remember that the element that hierarchizes a theme is neither the quality of the composition nor the number of times we hear it throughout history, but the narrative importance that it has. In this case, the “Imperial March” is used as a counter-theme. As we see the struggle of good and evil in the history, musically we can also appreciate how we have the main music, protagonist, and its corresponding antagonist in the figure of Vader and his leitmotif.


From here, we can see how the rest of the themes can be included in the category of Secondary, as they do not have the same narrative responsibility as the previous ones. In this sense, they are used more as emotional and informative elements for very specific moments within the story such as the case of the Asteroids’ Theme, that sounds like a situation piece, every time we go to that part of the film inside that great parallel montage that we have, since Luke and the Millennium Falcon separate in the frozen planet of Hoth, until they meet at the end in Bespin. In this case, the music places us at the moment in which the action focuses on the persecution within the field of Asteroids.


We must also highlight certain sub-themes and minor themes that serve to highlight very specific actions such as the Millennium Falcon’s Theme, that is played at moments when we see Han Solo’s ship perform some remarkable acts, and that music marks as a gesture to accompany the action, but it does not have sufficient entity throughout history to categorize it as a theme.


As for the uses that are given to the themes, we can use Vader’s Theme as an example. Throughout the film, we hear it mostly whenever the montage takes us to a scene where the Sith Lord appears, or at least when his presence and/or influence wants to be transmitted by the director to the viewer. The question is how the theme is used. Normally, we listen to it with its characteristic rhythmic ostinato, as a military march using metals for the melody, wanting to give weight, power, and drama to what it represents (it is the figure of the antagonist). We can see it in the following example from 1:27 where we hear it for the first time in the film in all its glory. However, we can see how at certain moments Williams changes it in tempo, like in the pivotal scene when Han is frozen, where it is practically used as a funeral march, or even at the end of the film when Luke has been rescued from Bespin and speaks from the Millennium Falcon with Vader, used to hint his presence, but this time with the flutes, from 3:14, to insinuate his presence, taking away all the weight that until that moment had been shown, and trying to convince Luke to move to the dark side.


Another example can be found in Luke‘s main theme. We can see how Williams varies the melody depending on Luke‘s mood, for example when he tries to take his ship out of the Dagobah swamp using the force but fails, starting at 1:45, changing the melody from a major mode to a minor mode; the typical sad and dull sense that is usually assigned to this scale.


If we look closely at the use of the aforementioned themes throughout the film, we can see how Williams tells the story through music, providing the narrative subtext that this type of use of the music brings to the movies. They give meaning to what is seen on the screen, and what is not seen there, based on showing the themes and varying them in terms of timbre, tempo, harmony, or even the melodies themselves, although in a way that they still remain recognizable to the viewer.



Analysis written by Juanjo Molina