If there’s one thing the Star Wars fandom agrees on, it's that John Williams’ music score is one of the best things in the saga. It’s so good, in fact, that George Lucas compared the Force to the music that flows through all of us.
John Williams’ score fits Star Wars perfectly because he’s privy to where the plot is going, what the characters are thinking and how the scenes are going to play out (or, at least, how long they are going to last). This, coupled with a fabulous ability to weave universal musical motifs and classical musical quotes throughout his scores has allowed Williams to embed a whole other layer of meaning that communicates to the audience what is going to happen, what the characters are thinking, who is really pulling the strings and even how the saga is going to end. But to understand how he does that, there are a few basic musical concepts that we’ll have to explain really quickly -- using Star Wars examples, of course.
In general, any piece of music that you find in Star Wars is composed of two separate parts: The melody, or the “story” that you can hum in the shower, and the harmonies that prop up the melody, complementing it. For instance, Darth Vader’s theme, which appeared for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, has a very rhythmic, percussive, martial melody. It makes sense for the character, who is a determined, war-minded dark-sider standing on the Empire’s structure.
The music also tells us the characters' affiliations -- even before they reveal it themselves -- through the musical mode being used. The seven Greek modes are ways of using scales to transmit different feelings and ideas. They range from elevated, airier and more luminous to darker, colder and more sinister: Lydian, Major, Mixolydian, Dorian, Minor, Phrygian and Locrian. In Star Wars, the higher, more luminous modes are associated with the Light Side of the Force (Yoda) and the darker modes with the Dark Side. The Force theme falls right in the middle of Dorian, in perfect balance.
Finally, there’s the concept of intervals, or the distance between notes. The theme of the Force (and of most Jedi) starts with a four-note interval. Whether this was a pun on “the fourth of the Force” on the part of Williams or not, we’ll never know. Luke’s theme also contains the “heroic jump,” an interval of five notes or “perfect fifth” that you can hear too in Superman, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or The Lord of the Rings' "Rohan" theme.
With all of this in mind, let’s break down the music and sound in the two trailers that have been released so far for The Rise of Skywalker.
The April teaser opens with Rey’s rhythmic breathing and a softly rising orchestra, the sound of the wind and the revving of Kylo Ren’s ship, the Silencer. As Rey starts to run, all of these elements blend together until she leaps. As she rises, the theme that soars with her is Leia’s theme in full orchestral mode, underscored with heavy percussion. This suggests that her role and legacy as a constant defender of freedom and peace will be the most important takeaway of the saga.
After a second of silence, the Emperor’s cackle comes in, and then the music reprises something that is between the ending of Leia’s theme and the menacing notes of Darth Vader or Kylo Ren’s theme… but, and this is important, in a triumphant major tone, which has been historically used to indicate victory, joy and the Light Side of the Force. This intriguing ending, which weaves together Anakin, Vader and Kylo Ren, seems to suggest that the Skywalker line will end the saga on a high note, restoring the Force (which, again, Lucas represents with music) to its natural, mature, balanced state. Vader’s stand-in in the sequels is his grandson Kylo Ren, and this choice of music also suggests a relatively happy ending for him.
The music for the D23 trailer takes it into a very different direction: Despite its slow and airy beginning, it ends up being much more aggressive and exciting than the music in the first trailer. Instead of Leia’s theme, it opens with Yoda’s melody (Lidian mode, the brightest of them all) over a trilling harmony of strings. Yoda’s presence is clear but light at the beginning, guiding the backstory scenes until the orchestral wave and the conflict rise and dominate the composition.
When Palpatine’s voice says “This is your fight,” Poe’s X-Wings and ski speeders enter the scene, and Rey’s expression during her fight in the woods with Kylo Ren in The Force Awakens takes over the screen, the harmonic strings that were sustaining the “Light Side of the Force” melody rise like a massive wave and crest into an amazing orchestral part underscored by shooting percussion. The composition blends together the music with the booming of ships coming out of lightspeed, the thunder and lightning surrounding the characters, the impact of a red beam on a snowy planet, a tree falling in the forest and Kylo and Rey's lightsabers coming together as waves crash around them, underscoring the theme of violent conflict. This is battle music, Empire music, First Order battle music, Rebellion and Resistance music, with percussion that sounds like soldiers stomping their weapons on the ground in preparation for battle, and reaches its climax when the weapons finally clash together.
Then, a sudden silence, Dark Rey, and the last thing we hear are those Rey celesta chiming bells… but in a minor tone, associated with the Dark Side and accompanied by a final percussive stomp that wouldn’t be out of place in Vader’s theme. In other words, the opposite musical ending of the teaser trailer. Does this mean that Rey will turn much darker than we’re used to, despite her impeccable white outfit? It might be the case, because as the Force (or the music) tries to balance Kylo Ren, it is also moving her arc in the opposite direction.
On a partition, Kylo and Rey’s themes look like the same song, only reversed; when they dueled in Starkiller in The Force Awakens, the music ebbed and flowed between one and the other seamlessly. Musically speaking, it makes sense that, for the battle for dominance to end, their melodies will have to find a way to work better together, integrating but not overtaking the other’s. The same could be said for the Resistance and the First Order. Both opponents have tried to suppress and destroy each other for almost 60 years, feeding the loop of destruction represented by that overwhelming percussion. The only way to end that might be to find the fulcrum, the middle mode road, to achieve lasting peace and balance.
This article couldn't have been written without the exhaustive job of musical research of composer and YouTuber Jaime Altozano and conductor and composer Christy Carew, a usual collaborator at What the Force podcast.
Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker stars Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Billie Lourd, Keri Russell, Matt Smith, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Carrie Fisher, with Naomi Ackie and Richard E. Grant. The film arrives on Dec. 20.