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The Williams Modulating Themes

Williams has composed many memorable themes for movies but the interesting thing is that he possesses one characteristic that is not very common among “tonal” composers - He tends to modulate on the themes.

This beautiful resource usually brings to the theme a certain felling of freedom and variation that goes beyond the boundaries of the long exposure to the same tonal center.

The criteria for a good modulation are: when, to where and how to modulate without disturbing the fluency of the music.

The tonal/modal Williams music rarely keeps on the same mode/tonality for a long time. This incredible sense of freedom that goes back and forth over different tonalities without disturbing the audience will be discussed in depth in The John Williams Compositional Techniques book.

For the moment we can take some lessons from him in the next two examples.


1 - The introduction of the theme is on a different tonal center than the theme itself. John frequently uses this technique in his themes.

2 - The theme modulates to F minor (0:55) while the variation modulates to Bb minor (2:08). In the variation the melody goes much higher which requires another orchestration.


These modulating themes are an advantage to the film composer because, if used well, they can create great shifts of drama by adapting the instruments range to the needs of the moment.


In the next example, the musical structure is also kept the same but the modulations follow the drama wanted.

1 - In the first modulation (0:15) the composer shifts the harmony one semitone higher (C minor to C# minor) and variation of it (1:08) shifts as semitone down (C minor to B minor).

2 - In the second modulation, Williams goes back to C minor (0:41) while the variation goes to G# minor (1:34) which is an augmented 5th above the original. G# minor is particularly good in this case because it puts many instruments in their upper range which creates more drama (Chapter 7). This is probably too much drama for a movie like Seven Years In Tibet but it is still worth illustrating the possibility.

Orchestration and arrangement must be changed in order to make the theme conform to the new tonality.

3 - The third modulation only takes place in the variation (2:05) (from G# minor to Eb minor). The original theme modulates a minor third down (another cue).

In this specific cue John made a variation that has no modulation.

Another possibility, that was used in the video above, is this:

After studying these couple of cues and their modulations can you come up with other shifts and variations?

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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