It’s been just over two years since Rogue One was released, and it is one of the best regarded Star Wars movies of the Disney era. Yet despite its success, it has one major flaw.
The title sequence music.
Though Michael Giacchino did an excellent job to differentiate this Star Wars spinoff’s music from the other scores, the way he redoes the Main Theme in this title sequence makes the music not “Star Wars”. Furthermore, there is a particular reason why I say that. Because while he only makes a couple of seemingly minor edits, those edits completely change the fundamental nature of this theme.
Now before I get too far, I just want to point out that I think Michael Giacchino did a great job with this score. He is one of my favorite film composers alive and did an outstanding job with the very limited timeframe he was given. He literally only had a month to write, record, and edit the entire score. Most composers get two or three times that time.
Moreover, so while I don’t think he sought out to make the eliminate the Star Wars flair in the title sequence, the quick timeframe and desire to differentiate the music got the best of him.
May the Fourth Be With You
To understand how Michael Giacchino’s rendition removes the essence of the Main Theme, lets first look at the original theme to see what makes it unique.
And no, it’s not the loud opening chord that catches your attention every single time you hear it. That chord makes the entire movie more engaging, but it isn’t what makes the theme special.
Nor is it the lack of a title crawl. That has nothing to do with the music. That’s visuals.
So let’s zoom in on the music.
Here’s the opening fanfare. One thing you’ll notice is that the introductory fanfare is based around the notes Bb, F, Eb, and Ab. If I rearrange those notes to Ab, Eb, Bb, F, you’ll see that they are all a 4th apart!
Imagine that! The entire fanfare is based around the interval of a fourth!
Now, this can just be a conspiracy theory, because quartal harmony (harmony based on a 4th) is a well-defined way to make chords. It’s not common, but it’s used.
So we have to keep digging.
When we continue to the main theme, we find that the melody is also littered with 4ths (blue)! Furthermore, John Williams even uses chords based on a 4th. The bass line moves in 4ths. The flurry in the woodwinds at the beginning also spells out many 4ths.
Also, when we start looking for 5ths (in red and are the opposite of 4ths), we find countless more examples of 5ths.
Plus, there are so many more instances of 4ths and 5ths that I didn’t notate in this one example alone!
So we can start to see that the interval of a 4th is an integral part of the Star Wars opening sequence music.
But at this point, I don’t have enough evidence to even convince myself that John Williams was purposely trying to put 4ths everywhere. He could have just written a melody with 4ths, and quartal harmony sounds good with it.
But it isn’t enough to prove that he was basing the theme of 4ths.
Until I saw this next section.
That’s when my opinion changed.
Because not only does the next section (the B theme) include more quartal harmony, it includes this line:
The clarinet line is full of 4ths! There are so many other ways to achieve the same effect. And they’re much easier to play. And they’re so much more common. But he chose this line because he was thinking in 4ths.
John Williams was clearly basing this theme on the interval of a 4th.
And if you think I’m “cherry picking” these examples, go take a look at the score yourself. This interval is everywhere during the title crawl.
Rogue One Does the Opposite
If you don’t already know the Rogue One title sequence, take a listen to it so this will make more sense.
Michael Giacchino doesn’t change much to the original theme. He simply changes the order of a couple of notes and reharmonizes the chords a bit.
But these little changes have a massive impact.
Though the melody and harmony include some 4ths. However, the overwhelming interval here is the 3rd (in yellow).
As you can see, where the original theme is built on the 4th, this title sequence is formed on the 3rd.
Why Does This Even Matter?
Okay, so you get that the two are different on a fundamental level. But why even care?
How does the 3rd “take the essence out" of the Star Wars Main Theme?
What does the interval of a 4th have to do with the themes of Star Wars?
In short, there are two ways.
Way 1: Heroism
In music, the 4th is a unique interval because it is both dissonant and consonant.
One way to think about the difference is that dissonant intervals sound tense while consonant intervals sound relaxed.
This is not unlike heroism.
What makes heroes great is not the fact that they overcome the bad guys, but rather that they have to conquer an inner obstacle along the way.
This is, after all, the basis to Joseph Campbell’s A Hero's Journey.
Because the 4th is inherently and simultaneously dissonant and consonant, it perfectly parallels a hero overcoming their inner, tense obstacle while doing the right thing.
And throughout the scores of each of the original, prequel, and sequel trilogies, John William’s use of quartal harmony is closely linked with heroic moments.
Since it would be a stretch for anyone to say that heroism isn’t a massive part of Star Wars, you can see how the 4th becomes an integral rhetorical device in the franchise.
Way 2: A Galaxy Far, Far Away
Star Wars is set “in a galaxy far, far away”, so it would make sense for the music to reflect that.
Because 3rds are the building blocks of most popular and classical music, that sound is quite ordinary to all of us. Because it’s used all the time, we are used to it.
The sound of a 4th? Not so much. Quartal harmony has only been around for about 100 years (compared to 300+ years) and is only found in contemporary classical composers.
So just the idea of using the 4th as the basis for the music makes it seem much more out of this world.
I don’t like it because it destroys the essence of one of the most iconic pieces of film music of all time.
And though most people will probably never hear the two pieces in terms of 4ths and 3rds, the sound color changes. You can feel the difference even if you don’t understand it.
Which is why I believe that the use of 3rds makes the Rogue One title sequence suffer.
But perhaps it’s okay.
Unlike any other movie in the franchise, this movie doesn’t seem to be too concerned with heroism.
Because unlike Luke, Rey, or Anakin, Jyn isn’t an active protagonist for most of the film. For most of the film, she isn’t heroic or even on the path to becoming heroic. It’s only in the last 40 minutes that Jyn Erso could be considered heroic.
Then perhaps it’s actually rhetorically appropriate that the movie that doesn’t focus on heroism has a title sequence that lacks the musical embodiment of heroism. Perhaps it’s okay that the music isn’t based on 4ths.
Maybe, just maybe, the title sequence uses more than just 4ths to show us that the movie is about more than just heroism