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The John Williams' Harmonic Language

One of the main aspects that defines the personal style of a composer is his harmonic language. In history, many composers have used certain kinds of harmonies and, in many cases, even sequences of chords.

Repeated harmonic sequence is particularly evident among film composers. Due to the very limited amount of time they have to write a huge amount of music, composers in film music often use harmonic cliches as a tool.

Even though Williams is known for his usage of Lydian mode and themes that start with perfect fifths, he has not been attached to any specific harmonic language.

Williams harmony is broad and undefined. It ranges from the most traditional functional harmonies (ex: Schindler’s List) up to atonalism (ex: Close encounter of the Third Kind).

Of course he has been working as a film composer most of the time where a broad variety of language is important, but compared to several other great film composers, Williams stands out as being “unlimited” in his harmonic structure.

Before reading the explanations bellow, watch the following video and try to identify in the first listen what has been changed in the mock-up version in contrast to the original.


If you listened carefully to both versions you may have realized at first that the harmony is not the same. But how much of it has been changed?

The answer is: almost everything!

The interesting thing is that the overall meaning of the cue hasn’t been changed at all.

So, how can the chords of a harmonic sequence be changed completelly (not by transposition) and the meaning be kept the same?

Reharmonization is a common practice in jazz and popular music. Williams has a background in jazz music and because of this he is very familiar with reharmonization.

We can then suppose, in this case, that the notes that are chosen for each chord don’t matter at all. If so, is Williams just forming chords by a merely random combination of notes?

I don’t think so!

If not, there must be some other musical characteristics that he may keep in mind while composing those cues. What are they then?

All the answers will be found in chapter 1 and 2 of The John Williams Compositional Techniques book.


The benefit of not dealing with notes and thinking more about those characteristics may provide the composer a huge amount of possibilities far beyond traditional methods and Williams seems to be using this freeing technique in all his scores.

In the video, the harmony and some other aspects (rhythm, contour, orchestration and melody) of the original score have been changed. In this article, I will keep it short and will only show the reduced score of the first five bars of the string writing so that the changes in harmony can be easily grasped.

Note, the only line that has not been modified is the upper one (melody). There’s nothing special to it - it could be modified without compromising the original meaning.

To get an idea of how far we can actually go, carefully study the full score of both versions. They are available here:

Since you are now aware how much of the music has been changed, go back to the video and watch it again.


Now, how do you perceive the changes compared to your first listen?

OBS: the book The John Williams Compositional Techniques has not been released yet. 2017 is a good time for great development of this project and if you want to keep updated about it subscribe to my Blog and my YouTube Chanel.

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