GCSE Revision

Music GCSE Set Work – Star Wars

Star Wars is the sixth set work in this blog series. This Edexcel GCSE Music Set Work is part of the “Music for Stage & Screen Area of Study”. If you haven’t read my previous blogs then please do have a look at those.

Who & What

Star Wars is arguably one of the most famous films of all time – and the music is very much part of this. Composed by John Williams for the 1977 film, this Main Title is well known to millions around the world. If you stopped someone in the street and asked them what this music was, they would undoubtedly say “Oh, that’s Star Wars”. It is great to study such a famous piece of cinematic music, and also an excellent opportunity to learn more about this genre.

WALT – We Are Learning To

It is always a good idea to consider what we are learning to do. The person on the street who recognises Star Wars is not being asked the same thing. Music Students are required to go deeper into a piece of music. When it comes to Cinematic music, we are learning to identify key musical features that help to enhance the drama on screen, brining to life the characters. The study of film music is the study of how much can create atmosphere, tell stories and heighten tension.

Arguably Star Wars (and many other films) would not be the same without the music. In this case, we are studying a Film Score rather than a collection of songs that feature in a movie. Film Scores are big businesses, and composers become well known for their music. In recent years Film Composers such as Hans Zimmer have taken Concert tours bringing their music to the biggest music venues in the world.

We are learning to unpack the process that a film composer goes through. We are studying all of the ways that they use musical elements to create atmosphere & tell stories. When studying Star Wars, it is important to imagine ourselves as John Williams being presented with this project.

Film Composer Brief

Film Composers, much like a GCSE Music Students, will be presented with a brief. That brief might be a finished script, a finished movie or just the vision of the director. Their job will then be to write music that fits this brief. The music will most likely work in its own right, but it is designed to enhance the on-screen action. A film composer doesn’t create music without knowing how that music is going to be used. They need to have a deep and clear understanding of the film and how the director is telling the story.

Let’s think about the brief John Williams would have received back in the 1970s. This brief will give us some threads or “Lines of Argument” that we can use for our studies.

  1. Sci-Fi film set in Space.
  2. It is about Good Vs. Evil – Jedi Vs. Sith
  3. The film is packed full of action including high speed chases & battles in space.
  4. There are strong and clear characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia & Darth Vader.
  5. Within the film there is some sense of military, troops and soldiers.

The above points help us to focus on the music and how the composer uses music to bring these aspects of the movie to life. These “Lines of Argument” can be used as starting points and musical elements can be attached to each.

Good Vs Evil

Let’s have a look at one of these points and start to think about the music. It is good to consider how John Williams uses music to achieve a specific goal. Imagine that you are George Lucas, the Director of Star Wars :

” Morning John, how are you? Can you tell me, how are you going to use music to portray Good Vs. Evil in my new film Star Wars”?

What would your answer be?

  • What instruments would you choose? Brass, Electric Guitar, Drum-kit?
  • How would you start off the music – a drum roll, a chord played by the whole orchestra?
  • Would you start with a Melody, Motif, Riff or Pedal Note?
  • Might you start with an Ostinato Bass Line?

Lets consider what John Williams did in his music for Star Wars:

  1. John Williams uses Brass instruments to create a clear sense of triumph, power and strength. The timbre of Brass instruments makes this possible.
  2. The Tonality is Major
  3. The main melody is memorable and uses a careful balance of stepwise movement and leaps
  4. He chose a 4/4 time signature to give it a March & Military style.

There are of course many other ways in which John Williams uses music to represent the themes in Star Wars.

Weigh & Wider

I have used this “Weigh” approach in previous blogs and it is all about comparing and contrasting. Weighing up one piece against another involves comparing their features. With film music, we can easily find pieces to compare to Star Wars. We can either look at similar films, maybe one of the new Marvel movies. Or we can choose a film that is completely different such as “Schindler’s List” or “Out of Africa”.

Encourage students to find Wider Listening examples that can be weighed against the set work. There are so many film scores to choose from, but maybe some good options include:

Why?

The simple answer to Why John Williams wrote the music in this way is because it was best suited to the film. This is an obvious point. But we need to give more detail and suggest Why his music is perfect for this film. He chose to use a Fanfare at the opening because it evokes a sense of strength and power. The March-style 4/4 time signature helps to establish a sense of the Military. We have touched on this above, but I think it is really important. We simply cannot avoid explaining the musical features within a piece of music. Every musical feature is there for a reason. Some features are more powerful and prominent, such as the fanfare. But all aspects of a piece ultimately help to create the sound the composer was aiming for.

The extension to this is to think about John Williams as a composer and how he personally approached his music making. Film composers are all very different in their approach and style. Rachel Portman for example, will often write music at the piano, and lots of her scores feature piano. Some composer use a more electronic approach and others write for large ensembles. It is a good idea to get to know John Williams and his unique was of orchestrating big memorial melodies.

Conclusion

Learning about Film Music is such a joy as it can and should involve watching movies. The more we can understand how composer use music to represent films, the more we understand about the power of music. Of course creating atmosphere and telling stories is nothing new for composers. Film Composers just have a slightly different approach and end goal. If we think about music & storytelling throughout history we can touch on Handel and his “Messiah” or Berlioz and his “Symphony Fantastique”. Music is amazing and it has the power to bring a movie to life.

Enjoy listening to film music and always keep in mind – Why is the composer doing this and how does it compare to other film music. And you can always use the 5 W’S (Who, What, Why, Wider Weigh) to help you with your analysis.

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