May the 4th be with you! Today is Star Wars day, and if you enjoy the movie franchise from a galaxy far far away like we do, you may be spending the 24 hours re-listening to your favorite Star Wars scores.
The instrumental music of Star Wars is known for being distinct and futuristic, yet possessing a classic Hollywood charm audiences across the universe can't help but fall in love with. The trumpet blares as lightsaber duels occur, the graceful trills as a character gently uses the force...it all enhances what's happening on screen tenfold. The Star Wars soundtrack is considered one of the greatest compositional collections in cinema history, and it's all thanks to John Williams' genius!
For this Top 10 list, we're ranking instrumental music from the Star Wars movies only, meaning you won't find any songs from the spinoff TV shows here. (The Mandolorian and Book of Boba Fett themes get honorable mentions though...we love Ludwig Göransson's work!)
SPOILER WARNING: we'll be talking about the scenes and moments each of these songs accompany, so if you need to catch up on the Star Wars movies, do that first before reading this list! From the original trilogy to the prequels and sequels, see which of your favorite Star Wars tunes made the cut below.
10. "Across the Stars"
This graceful love theme comes from the 2002 movie Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. It's meant to heighten the romance between Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christianson) and Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), while also expressing the sorrow they feel when separated.
The interesting thing about "Across the Stars" is that it's not a one-noted serenade. There's quite a bit of darkness and melancholy to it, especially towards the end. If you've watched the prequel films, you know Anakin and Padmé's relationship doesn't quite have the happily ever after viewers anticipate. Therefore, the darkness in "Across the Stars" underlines the Shakespearean-like tragedy that befalls the two star-crossed lovers.
9. "Battle of the Heroes"
A misery-tinged final battle theme that accompanies the epic lightsaber duel between master Obi-Wan Kenobi and apprentice Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. It's epic, intense, and just as sweltering as the lava planet the two jedi fight upon.
In "Battle of the Heroes," John Williams makes use of a strong horn melody, a crooning chorus, quick strings, and even some unexpected harp sounds. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, making you wonder who among the two skilled warriors will survive the quarrel.
However, Williams hints to attentive listeners the fight's conclusion: towards the middle of "Battle of the Heroes" he includes the iconic group of notes present in the songs "The Throne Room" and "Binary Sun." This projects that hope will prevail in the brutal fight. But as the rest of the song makes it clear, it's a very uphill battle.
8. "Rey's Theme"
When John Williams performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra's Film Night on May 13, 2016, he revealed to the audience that "Rey's Theme" was heavily inspired by his early encounters with the actress who plays Rey, Daisy Ridley. "Rey's Theme" was created to mix Ridley's warm, kindhearted personality with the struggles and goals of her character.
"Rey's Theme" can be heard all throughout the newer sequel Star Wars films, but it first appears during Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It includes a beautiful blend of flutes, strings, and xylophone in the beginning, then crescendos into a sweeping melody with added horns and melancholy notes. It heightens the hope for adventure and belonging Rey struggles with during The Force Awakens. It truly is a gorgeous piece, and one we recommend listening to while there's snow outside due to the pretty bell-like tones.
7. "Yoda and the Force"
One of the most memorable moments from Star Wars is the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda lifts the trapped x-wing from out of the swamp using only the force. It's a triumphant moment that teaches viewers an important lesson: a person is powerful no matter how small they are. And John Williams' composition for the scene, titled "Yoda and the Force," perfectly compliments the hope viewers feel.
"Yoda and the Force" starts off melancholy and mysterious, then gives a flowy recitation of that "Binary Sunset" melody before dipping back into tones of despair. Then with some twinkling sounds and rising notes, the music expands into a vibrant explosion of strength from the horns. (Thus accompanying the x-wing's rise from the water.) Afterwards, Williams concludes the piece with more mysterious tones and the dark "Imperial March" theme, showing the good times between Yoda and Luke won't last for long.
6. "Binary Sunset"
Many people claim to fall in love with Star Wars the moment they see Luke stare off into the binary sunset on his dusty home planet of Tatooine. The impactful moment from A New Hope communicates to viewers a relatable feeling: that Luke craves adventure. He wants more.
Part of the reason why audiences remember that scene so well is because of the moving cinematography. But the visuals are only half the reason why the moment works. The other half comes from John Williams' inspiring score underneath Mark Hamill's longing expression. The music is like a window into what Luke is thinking and feeling on the inside.
It's so hard to describe the intricacies of why the piece is so profound. We think there's a reason why the melody is constantly used throughout the franchise to embellish hopeful moments - it's just such a pretty score. Simply put, "Binary Sunset" shows of John Williams' mastery of composition, and its a perfectly-placed song within the film.
5. "Princess Leia's Theme"
An airy, reverent theme associated with everyone's favorite twin-bunned princess, Leia Organa. While we absolutely adore "Binary Sunset" and realize its importance, we've made the hard call of putting "Princess Leia's Theme" ahead of it due to how much brilliant control is present within this piece. It shows that John Williams is just as good at communicating hope and longing when he holds back just as much as when he has his instruments blare forward.
Not to say "Leia's Theme" doesn't hold back. The latter half of the song does crescendo, but it never feels excessive. It captures the intelligence and clean leadership Leia has when she's commanding the rebel forces. Additionally, "Princess Leia's Theme" can also be viewed as a love theme. It even plays during that heartbreaking moment when Han Solo is frozen before Leia's eyes.
In a 1999 essay, Princess Leia actress Carrie Fisher wrote about the experience of hearing the theme for the first time while watching a preliminary cut and said, “I’d never had a theme before.” A week after Fisher’s death in 2016, musicians gathered together in person and online to play this music in her honor.
4. "Cantina Band"
Possibly the most fun Star Wars song in the canon! This bouncy track plays when Luke, Obi-Wan, Han Solo, and the droids interact in the cantina in Tatooine. A band of aliens play the song on their intergalactic instruments. If they lived on Earth, they'd probably be playing for some kind of late night show like The Roots on Jimmy Fallon!
"Cantina Band" is a fan favorite due to its eclectic use of saxophone, steel drums, and clarinet. It's a standout in the discography of Star Wars songs due to how lighthearted it is. Usually Star Wars tracks are intense and classical in sound, but "Cantina Band" is actually something you could dance to!
3. "Duel of the Fates"
While "Cantina Band" is the most happy-go-lucky song in all of Star Wars, "Duel of the Fates" is the polar opposite. It's fierce, loud, stressful, and enormous in size. It's arguably the most memorable piece of music in all of the Star Wars prequel films.
In the scene from 1999’s The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Master, Qui-Gon Jinn, have their hands full with the powerful Sith Lord Darth Maul. This intense choral music heightens the amazing fight choreography present within the moment. It also keeps audiences on the edge of their seat, hoping the two jedi will beat the fighter from the dark side.
According to Genius, the choral lyrics were partly inspired by an ancient Celtic poem “Cad Goddeu” (The Battle of the Trees). Parts of the poem were translated to English and certain parts into Sanskrit. The Sanskrit translation is what you can hear on the track. The part of the Celtic poem that was selected, when translated to English, reads: “Under the tongue root / a fight most dread, / and another raging / behind in the head.”
2. "Star Wars (Main Theme)"
The iconic song that starts it all! Whenever we get a new Star Wars film, audiences go crazy when they hear this track blast in the movie theater.
According to CPR, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's music for the 1942 film Kings Row inspired the main Star Wars theme. Creator George Lucas asked Williams to write a score that drew from films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, which Korngold scored in the 1930s and 1940s. No wonder why Star Wars music sounds like Hollywood Golden Age orchestration, despite being made in the 70s.
This theme is so beloved, it even managed to break the charts back in its day! The 1977 London Symphony Orchestra recording of this track peaked at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
1. "The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)"
A good villain needs a good theme song. With one of the most recognizable melodies in cinema history, "The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme)" is up there as one of the most epic and iconic compositions John Williams has ever created. You can hear the pure evil within the song's rhythm, but there's also an unexpectedly fun grandiose to the piece that makes any listener want to march along with Vader's stormtroopers.
Like the main Star Wars theme, "The Impierial March" has a few classical inspirations. Holst's "The Planets" shows up in Williams' theme for archvillian Darth Vader. Appropriately, the movement is titled "Mars, the Bringer of War." Additionally, Frederic Chopin's "Funeral March" also turns up in Williams' composition.
"The Imperial March" is so important to cinema history, that it recently inspired another great piece from a beloved movie franchise. Batman's main theme from the new Robert Pattinson-led movie The Batman includes the same notes as "The Imperial March." Michael Giacchino, who scored the film, was inspired by John Williams when composing music.
All-in-all, when we think of the imposing yet magnificent sounds of "The Imperial March," one Vader quote comes to mind: "You don't know the power of the dark side!"
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