“It’s almost cheating when you have John Williams…he writes feelings”
—JJ Abrams, Force Awakens Director (source)
Amongst the film music circle, it’s very well known that John Williams writes emotion better than most (if not all) composers in the film industry.
Whereas Hans Zimmer writes “sound worlds” and Michael Giacchino writes based off an essential chord, John Williams writes the emotional underpinning of the scene.
So this series of posts is going to explain the main three ways that he creates scores with tremendous feeling. We are going to look at his well-known use of leitmotifs as well as other, less popular techniques.
And to start off the exploration, let’s look at one of the historical precedences for why his work carries such emotional weight: Mickey Mousing.
Guess where Mickey Mousing comes from?
Hint: they’re from the early Mickey Mouse cartoons.
Mickey Mousing is synchronizing the music to the actions that are on the screen. For instance, if there is a waterfall, the score will often have a bunch of strings descending in pitch. This is to mimic the water falling. As the water falls, the notes fall.
Take a look at the video above, and you’ll start to see the point. The video is the Skeleton Dance from Disney’s Silly Symphonies. The purpose of the Silly Symphonies is to tightly connect the cartoons to the music. That’s why this video is synced so tightly.
All the cartoons from Fantasia also use this technique. The difference here is that the cartoons were based on the music. For instance, the cartoon of Mickey being a wizard and using magic is based on music from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
As time went on, though, this style of writing music became synonymous with scoring for cartoons. Even ones not based on music. You can find Mickey Mousing in Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, and most other popular cartoons from the same era.
And I guarantee that if you start looking for it, you’ll find Mickey Mousing in many more places.
How does Mickey Mousing Relate to John Williams?
John Williams does not use Mickey Mousing in the traditional sense, because he almost never uses the music to depict what is on the screen.
That is redundant.
Instead, he Mickey Mouses with emotions. His music is perfectly timed with the scene to produce the emotion that the characters are feeling at the same time as they feel it.
Take a look at this example from the first Harry Potter movie (spoilers).
This is the scene on Christmas morning where first the first time, he gets a present. And that present is the invisibility cloak.
While watching this scene, you probably think that you see the point. As we start to get the mystery from the cloak, the music turns from excitement to an amorphous, mysterious mess. Though that’s true, that misses the point. That transition may be what happens overall, but Mickey Mousing is mimicking exactly what is on screen.
Here’s how the music really plays out with all the shifts in emotion:
- 0:08—Ron is yelling for Harry to wake up, we get a seed of excitement
- 0:14—Harry moves his hand to his glasses, as he gets more awake, his excitement grows, which is matched by the modulation and the added instruments
- 0:19—Harry gets out of bed as his excitement builds even more, now we get a melody for his excitement
- 0:24—As he sees Ron and the tree downstairs, there’s less anticipation, so the music descends and loses its vibrancy
- 0:33—Ron points out that Harry has presented, so we return to the original theme that fueled his excitement, showing that Harry’s excitement is growing again
- 0:39—The same melody as before enters (the same one when he started running the last time) as Harry runs downstairs, this time in a different key and lower strings because now Christmas means something different: he has presents
- 0:44—Notice that we get the same descending line as earlier when Harry sees Ron and the tree again
- 0:49—Except it’s shorter because Harry starts opening up his present, to mirror this, the music becomes a wash of notes as if it doesn’t know what it is, just like Harry doesn’t know what the present is
- 0:59—The score says "Mysterioso" as soon as he opens up this mysterious letter and starts reading
- 1:07—Texture change as Harry looks at Ron, he is no longer reading the letter, so John Williams changes the music
- 1:22—Harp polychords as Harry pulls out the cloak
- 1:31—Harry puts on the cloak, as we get a synth sound (transparent like Harry) in the same polychords because this is mysterious and magical, this idea carries to the end
See what I mean? At the precise moment an emotion changes, the music changes to follow suit! And this is just two minutes in an entire movie. Combine this with his 88 films, and that is a lot of detail!
The last thing to notice with this scene is how it ends. Or rather how the music doesn’t.
With traditional Mickey Mousing (and how most composers write film scores), the music stops at the end of the scene.
But at the end of this scene, John Williams doesn’t stop the music. That’s because the emotion at the beginning of the next scene is the same as the end of this current scene. When the emotion stays the same, he continues the same music thread.
This makes his movies feel like one big emotional arc. Whereas many other films feel segmented, because he writes emotion and bridges the emotion between scenes, his films feel glued together.
Mickey Mousing Emotion is Unique
To understand how John William’s use of Mickey Mousing emotions to this level of detail is unique, take a look at an excerpt from The Polar Express:
In general, this music matches the emotion of the scene. However, notice how long it is between emotional changes. It can be 20-30 seconds between shifts! Compare that with shifts every 4-10 seconds from the Harry Potter example, and you can see a difference in detail.
This means there are many subtleties of emotion that the characters experience that is not mimicked in the music.
Furthermore, during the action sequence, there are uncalled for changes in tone in the music. One classic example is modulating to enhance the excitement or suspense of a sequence. Notice, though, that none of these key changes occur at a major action beat. The modulations occur when it is convenient for the music, not when it serves a rhetorical purpose.
And the effect of less detail and not aligning the tone changes with the scene is a disconnect between the emotion of the film and emotion of the music. This can help create a sense of scale, grandeur, and fantasy. But the conflict between the film and the music makes it harder to emotionally connect to the characters.
For instance, if I were to ask you which of the two clips was more emotional, you’d probably say Harry Potter.
That’s the point.
This doesn’t make Alan Silvestri (composer of The Polar Express) a bad composer, it just means that his style can’t achieve the same emotional qualities as John Williams’ style.
Emotion with Subtleties and Character
On the topic of Mickey Mousing emotions, there’s just one more part to touch on briefly.
Because not only does John Williams differentiate between emotions that closely align with the scene, but he can write varying shades of each emotion.
Take, for instance, the opening to E.T.:
The first three and a half minutes deal with mystery and mysteriousness. But listen to how many ways he expresses this feeling. Come up with words to describe each moment.
This subtlety only helps to connect with the characters on the screen.
Emotion and Characters
By now, you may have noticed that I keep bringing up character and emotion. In the Harry Potter example, the analysis of emotion was even specifically through the lens of Harry’s feelings.
Because every note John Williams writes doesn’t simply convey emotion, each note conveys the emotion of a character. Alternatively, the Polar Express music conveyed the emotion of the scene.
And that’s how John Williams helps you sympathize with the characters.
However, that leaves us with two more questions:
- How does he attach emotions to specific characters?
- How does the music itself convey an emotion?
We are going to address those, but not in this post. So if you want to found out more, wait for Part 2.
P.S. Want more interesting articles/music stuff, check out my personal site.
P.P.S. Want to know what is in Part 3? Check out my recent posting on Star Wars to get an idea…
P.P.P.S. We’re not done with this clip from E.T. quite yet…