How John Williams Creates Emotion (Part 2): E.T.
John Williams has earned 51 Oscar nominations, more than any other living person.
In fact, he also has the second largest number of nominations in history, only behind Walt Disney with 59 nominations.
So John Williams may very well catch up soon and beat that record.
But this raises the questions: Why are his film scores consistently good? What makes his scores stand out above the rest?
If you’ve read Part 1, you may be thinking to yourself that it’s because he closely writes music to fit the scene’s emotions. But it’s slightly more than that. His music has so much emotion because it consistently reveals the emotions of the characters.
In his mind, composers are a slave to the movie and are there to support the movie. Because the story is paramount in a movie, it makes sense that he puts story above all else.
Today, we are going to answer a couple questions related to his music and character:
- How does he relate an emotion to a character?
- How can he show the development of a character throughout the movie?
- Why is this such a big deal?
Leitmotifs are probably the single most popular method that John Williams employs to attach emotion to characters.
And if you remember the ending of Part 1, I ended with the opening to E.T., and for a good reason. Because this opening not only shows the subtly that he Mickey Mouses emotion onto the scene, but it also employs leitmotifs very clearly and to great effect in such a short time.
So we’re going to explore several ways in which his use of leitmotifs enhances the emotions of the characters in this scene.
What is a Leitmotif?
Normally, I would give you a definition right here. But a couple of years ago, I found this great video by Nerdwriter1 explaining just this concept:
Like Howard Shore, John Williams almost always attaches specific themes to certain characters, places, or ideas and then uses these themes to help tell the story.
To provide a different perspective than the Nerdwriter1 video, let’s look at how John Williams uses these leitmotifs to weave together a rich web of meaning rather than isolating a single theme to look at the big picture.
Leitmotifs in *E.T.*
- The movie opens with the “Wonder” theme (for E.T.)
- 0:30—The “Aliens” theme to help show the mysterious nature of the aliens
At this point, notice two things.
First, the music (with the leitmotifs) has outlined the important characters in the scene so far. When the government officials enter the scene in a couple of minutes, their theme will also join the mix.
Second, the transition to the “Aliens” theme perfectly matches the cut from the sky to the ground. Compare that to the Lord of the Rings music where the themes were approximately at the right time, and you start to see the importance of Mickey Mousing the emotion as well. These are not isolated techniques, and when used together help to create the emotion that John Williams is known for.
Let’s move on:
- Hold onto the “Alien” theme for a long time because the aliens are the focus for a long time
- 1:30—Fade to an alien wandering around the ship, this is a variation of the “Alien” theme that just
- 1:38—No leitmotif here, but the absence shows how little we know about what’s going on
- 2:01—Another shot of an alien walking around the ship with the same theme as at 1:30
- 2:42—“Alien” theme again, rhetorically showing that E.T. is one of the aliens
Still, we only have the two themes. And though much of the music is filling up the time rather than telling a story, it provides a pivotal musical background for what is about to happen with the government.
- 3:26—String riff that is closely tied to the government as the government shows up. If anything, this is the government’s secondary leitmotif
Notice how the bassoon background is the same thematic material as the “Alien” theme. Because John Williams took the time, in the beginning, to connect the musical ideas to the character, the overlapping of leitmotifs is literally showing the government invading the aliens’ space.
- 3:55—The real government leitmotif as we get the first clear shot of a government worker, it repeats several times as the focus stays on the government
- 4:11—Shot of E.T, but government leitmotif. E.T. is focusing on the government because they are causing him to need to leave
This is powerful and shows how the leitmotifs connect to the characters’ thoughts and feelings in John Williams’s music. Though the focus of the picture is E.T. at this point, he is focusing on the government.
If this cue were scored how leitmotifs are normally used, the music would transition to a variation on the “Wonder” theme. But because John Williams keeps the music focused on the government, it gives us insight into E.T.’s thoughts.
That further shows how he uses leitmotifs to emotionally enhance the film.
- 4:33—Government theme in the horns and louder, they are becoming more aggressive, and we feel the aggression
- The government theme grows in intensity as E.T’s situation becomes direr
- 5:16—Tone shift because the spaceship is taking off
- 5:48—“Wonder” theme again as we get the POV from E.T. looking at the spaceship flying into space
- 6:13—Government theme subdued for the rest of the cue
The entire time in this opening stretch, the leitmotifs focus on E.T. thoughts and feelings.
This is a classic form of “show don’t tell”. The music is showing us how E.T. feels rather than simply telling us, creating a strong emotional connection.
How Do We Know This Is What He Thinks?
So far, we’ve established three things with how John Williams uses leitmotifs:
- They connect musical themes to characters, places, or ideas
- The leitmotifs are played to communicate a character’s inner thoughts/feelings
- The variations of the leitmotif help shape the plot arc
Both 1 and 3 are standard uses of a leitmotif. But how do we know that he is really trying to communicate a character’s thoughts?
Here are some thoughts by John Williams himself:
His entire language shows exactly what we hypothesized: he focuses heavily on the emotion of the characters.
If Leitmotifs are Popular, then Why is His Music More Emotional?
In Part 1, we looked at Mickey Mousing and how John Williams uses that technique to paint emotion onto the film.
We learned that his music is very detailed, thoughtful, and rhetorically displays the emotion of the film through its timing.
And here in Part 2, we discovered how he uses leitmotifs to show us insight into each character’s thoughts to help us empathize with them. Furthermore, we learned that his use of leitmotifs doesn’t necessarily coincide with the literal imagery of the theme, but rather the emotional subtext of the scene.
However, these still leave us with a fundamental question. We now know how John Williams structures his music to enhance emotion.
But how does the content of his music elicit emotion?
In other words, how does he choose the notes on the page that draw out emotion?
That is the subject of Part 3, which will be interesting and completely unique to the internet. Because we’ll be going over the key ingredient to how he can effortlessly switch between emotions.
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. Be sure to check out Part 1