Cinema and Media Studies John Williams
Emilio Audissino
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0367


John Williams (b. 1932) is one of the most successful composers to have worked in cinema. His background includes classical education in piano and composition and extensive experience in the 1950s jazz arena and as a pop-song arranger in the 1960s. The eclectic formative years endowed him with a vast command of virtually all musical idioms, and this multifaceted stylistic palette is the key to Williams’s artistic longevity. Williams has also been a prolific concert composer, accruing a rich catalogue of fourteen concerti, celebratory fanfares, chamber music, and symphonic pieces. Parallel to his principal career as a composer, he has also built up a remarkable track record as a concert conductor: he held a fourteen-year tenure as Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra and also guest-conducted such orchestras as the London Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Wiener Philharmoniker, and the Berliner Philharmoniker, to name only a prominent few. Yet, it is as a film composer that Williams acquired an outstanding fame and reputation. He took the first steps in the film business, in the 1950s, during the twilight days of Hollywood’s old studio system. He helped with the orchestrations of major films (for example, The Guns of Navarone, 1961, music by Dimitri Tiomkin) and played the piano in the studio orchestras of such high-rank film composers as Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman. From 1958, Williams became a staff composer of the Revue/Universal Television Studios and provided a steady musical output for M Squad (1958–1959), Gilligan’s Island (1964–1965), and Lost in Space (1965), among other shows. Composing for television meant to produce the most stylistically diverse scores in the shortest possible time, and this training was essential to further hone Williams’s dramatic instinct and musical versatility. In the mid-1960s he moved to feature-film productions, consolidating his reputation with a set of comedies that already showed a personal voice in addition to the Henry Mancini-influenced leading style of the period—for instance, How to Steal a Million (1966), A Guide for the Married Man (1967), Fitzwilly (1967). In the 1970s, Williams was the go-to name for disaster movies like The Towering Inferno (1974), Earthquake (1974), The Poseidon Adventure (1972). In the meantime, he also worked in Europe for the period films Heidi (1968), Jane Eyre (1970), and Fiddler on the Roof (1971), the latter bringing him the first of his five Academy Awards. If all these works demonstrate the composer’s versatility, Williams is nevertheless stylistic consistent and recognizable. Trademarks of his personal style are the richly symphonic design of his scores, the colorfully inventive orchestrations, the modal tinges and dissonant embellishments within his diatonic harmonies, the unforgettable melodies associated to characters and situations, and the tight adherence of music to the visual action—a result of the leitmotiv and the Mickey-Mousing techniques he inherited from the past Hollywood masters. These thumbprints came to gain overt salience in the score to Star Wars (1977), a watershed revival of classical Hollywood’s symphonic tradition. Williams has since been a household name, in particular thanks to the multi-decade collaboration with Steven Spielberg. A keen sense of drama, “modernized tradition,” and “versatility cum personality” are the traits that best define the film music of John Williams.

General Overviews

This section gathers texts that provide an introduction to John Williams and his film music. Despite the resounding box-office success and the many awards—or perhaps precisely because of these—John Williams has been given scholarly consideration only recently. Before the 2000s, academic coverage of his work was quite rare. Aschieri 1999 is the first book-length contribution to the John Williams studies, although the Spanish language and the limited distribution have impaired its circulation and usability. Valverde Amador 2013 sets to provide a biography and insights into the major works, also in Spanish, but for an academic readership it might present problems similar to Aschieri 1999, namely subpar standards in the referencing apparatus and peer-reviewing. Tylski 2011 is the first collection of essays presented in an academic format and specifics. Earlier and shorter introductions to Williams’s film work were Kalinak 1992 (focused on Star Wars), Darby and Du Bois 1990 (covering most of Williams’s career up to that point), and Thomas 1991 (which also includes an interview with the composer). Scheurer 1997 is an academic article that focuses on the return to symphonism as an aftermath of Star Wars and on Williams’s influence on Hollywood music. Audissino 2021 (the second expanded edition; the first edition was published in 2014) is the first scholarly book-length monograph in English, concentrating on the 1975–1983 period and tracing the connection of Williams’s “neoclassical” film music to the “classical” music of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Greiving 2018 is a newspaper article that investigates Williams’s early musical training in his teenage years.

  • Aschieri, Roberto. Over the Moon: La música de John Williams para el cine. Santiago: Roberto Aschieri, with the support of the Universidad Diego Portales, 1999.

    A chronicle of the life and film works of Williams; opens with an extensive anthology of Williams quotes gathered from diverse interviews. Sections cover each film, from the first television and cinematic works to Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace (1999). Includes a small chapter on Herbert W. Spencer (Williams’s long-time orchestrator) and a number of transcriptions of the main film themes. In Spanish.

  • Audissino, Emilio. The Film Music of John Williams. Reviving Hollywood’s Classical Style. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2021.

    Expanded and revised edition of John Williams’s Film Music (2014). A stylistic and historiographic study of Williams’s “neoclassicism”: his revival of the style of the film music from classic Hollywood. Focus is on the 1975–1983 period and special attention devoted to Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977) and subsequent films, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Dracula (1979). Includes biographical data, bibliography, filmography, and a few transcriptions from the scores.

  • Darby, William, and Jack Du Bois. “John Williams.” In American Film Music: Major Composers, Techniques, Trends, 1915–1990. By William Darby and Jack Du Bois, 521–545. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990.

    An introduction to Williams’s film output that focuses on his 1970s production and on his traditional approach. Includes transcriptions of the main themes from less-studied scores too, such as The Paper Chase (1973), Family Plot (1976), The Eiger Sanction (1975), and Monsignor (1982).

  • Greiving, Tim. “John Williams’ Early Life: How a NoHo Kid and UCLA Bruin Became the Movie Music Man.” Los Angeles Times, 18 July 2018.

    A journalistic reconstruction of Williams’s very first steps in the music bands of North Hollywood High School and at the University of California, Los Angeles.

  • Kalinak, Kathryn. “John Williams and ‘The Empire’ Strike Back. The Eighties and Beyond: Classical Meets Contemporary.” In Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. By Kathryn Kalinak, 184–202. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

    Provides a discussion of Williams’s role within the 1980s Hollywood music, namely his reintroduction of symphonic film scores. After some background information on Williams’s biography and early career, the focus then shifts and stays on the score to The Empire Strikes Back (1980, later rechristened Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back), including transcriptions of the main themes.

  • Scheurer, Timothy E. “John Williams and Film Music since 1971.” Popular Music and Society 21.1 (Spring 1997): 59–72.

    DOI: 10.1080/03007769708591655

    A reflection on film music from the 1970s to the 1990s and on the scope of Williams’s influence on the passage from the pop sound of the 1960s to the return of the symphonic language à la old Hollywood. Star Wars (1977) is discussed in terms of the music’s contribution to the film and its popularity onthe record charts.

  • Thomas, Tony. “John Williams.” In Film Score: The Art and Craft of Movie Music. By Tony Thomas, 324–340. Burbank, CA: Riverwood, 1991.

    An introduction to Williams that includes background information on the life and first works and then provides an original interview with the composer, conversing about his modus operandi, the function and aesthetics and dignity of film music, the difference between concert music and film music.

  • Tylski, Alexandre, ed. John Williams: Un alchimiste musical à Hollywood. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2011.

    A collection of essays on the filmic and extra-filmic works of Williams, ranging from the compositional techniques to the musical influences, to the formative years. Also includes brief contributions (lettres) on Williams by Michel Chion, Alan Silvestri, Bruno Coulais, Erwann Kermovant, and Mario Litwin. Appendixes offer a catalogue of the pieces written for TV, cinema, concert hall, and a discography.

  • Valverde Amador, Andrés. John Williams: Vida y obra. Córdoba, Spain: Editorial Berenice, 2013.

    First part is a biography and a chronicle of Williams’s film and concert works. Second part is about the use of the orchestra instruments (brass, woodwinds, strings, percussion . . . ), genres and situations (adventure, patriotic, war, western, Christmas, family . . . ), and the sagas the composer worked on (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter . . .). Includes chronology and discography. A compilation and informative recount. In Spanish.

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