9 Things You Didn't Know About Star Wars' Music - IGN (2023)

For most people, the name "Star Wars," probably conjures images of lightsabers, the Millennium Falcon, and Darth Vader's mask. But for me, what really ties the series together -- and always has -- is John Williams' legendary orchestral score.
Every Star Wars fan can hum the iconic main theme, or the catchy Imperial March, but few possess the musical skill needed to dissect Williams' themes and connect the unseen dots within. For that, we teamed up with David W. Collins, a man who knows Star Wars music and sound better than almost anyone.

Collins is a musician, voice actor, and former sound lead at LucasArts. He's worked on well over a dozen Star Wars games, and you can hear his voice in The Force Unleashed, Battlefront II, and many more games. Together with radio veteran Jimmy Mac of Rebel Force Radio, the two host a monthly show called Star Wars Oxygen in which they break down Williams' work for the rest of us.I started listening to the show a few months ago and, as a die-hard Star Wars fan, learned more about score of the films than I thought possible. These are the nine things I didn't know about Star Wars' music, and which I think you probably won't know either.

Editor's Note: Because music is best heard, I've embedded a short clips into each section, courtesy of Oxygen. Grab some headphones and enjoy!

1. Luke's iconic

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Until this scene, Star Wars was all about cool looking bad guys, stolen plans, and blue milk. Binary Sunset is the first time we're given the cues and the time to empathize with one of our heroes. Luke wants something more from life; he can't have it. We see a human problem.

John Williams' beautiful score swells, and the masterful scene gets this close to melodrama. To Star Wars fans, it feels like it couldn't have gone any other way. But, it absolutely could have.

A Star Wars music box set released about 20 years ago included a track called "Binary Sunset Alternate," which you can hear in the clip above. Unlike the scene we know, the alternate track is much darker and more foreboding. George Lucas asked John Williams to replace that track with the theme we now associate with Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Force.

Good call, George.

2. Darth Vader had his own theme before the Imperial March was written, and then it disappeared.

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Darth Vader and the iconic Imperial March are almost inseparable. However, as Collins points out, the Imperial March didn't exist until The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980, three years after the first film.

Vader did have his own theme prior to the infamous March, but because you never hear it outside of A New Hope, it's largely forgotten. Give it a listen in the Oxygen clip below.

The theme evokes thoughts of ancient Samurai, whose armor Vader's closely resembles. You first hear it at the beginning of Episode IV when Imperials board the Tantive IV in search of the stolen Death Star plans.

3. The parade music at the end of The Phantom Menace is actually Emperor Palpatine's theme in disguise.

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This is perhaps John Williams' most cunning trick in Star Wars.

At the end of The Phantom Menace, the Naboo and the Gungans gather to make peace after defeating the Trade Federation's invasion army. During the parade, you can hear children singing a joyous tune. The "DNA" of this "Augie's Great Municipal Band" track, Collins says, is pulled from the Emperor's theme, which is prominently played in its more obvious form earlier in the film.

"[Williams] basically took it from a minor key and put it into a major key, and it's the same rhythmic phrasing," Collins said.

Congrats, everyone, on getting Palpatine one step closer to galactic domination!

4. The epic Duel of the Fates track was influenced by a Celtic poem about battling trees.

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Here's another Star Wars moment where the music is absolutely inseparable from the action on screen. Duel of the Fates scores the epic battle between Jedi and Sith at the end of The Phantom Menace, and it's since become some of the most recognizable Star Wars music, bar none.

In the clip below, John Williams discusses his influence for the choral track: a book of Celtic folklore, written by Robert Graves, called The White Goddess. In it is a poem about two fields of trees, animated and forced into battle by a druidic priest. The translated stanza Williams points out is:

"Under the tongue root, a fight most dread, while another rages behind in the head."

In search of good choral words filled with vowel sounds, Williams asked his friends at Harvard to translate the poem's text into various other languages. The winner, he decided, was Sanskrit, which produced long, soft words like "matah," "korah," and "rahtahmah" -- clearly heard throughout Duel of the Fates.

5. The music you hear when the Millennium Falcon approaches Cloud City is a warning.

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It turns out Cloud City was a really, really bad place for our heroes to go. Han is tortured and frozen in carbonite, Luke loses his hand and learns a terrible truth, and C-3PO is blasted to bits.

Though the city is beautiful and Han seems to trust his old pal, Lando, John Williams subtly uses music to let us know that Cloud City is not as safe as it appears to be. As the Falcon flies closer, you can hear the only use of vocals in The Empire Strikes Back's score.

"Michael Matessino (who helped mix and master music for the Star Wars trilogy), said in the Special Edition soundtrack that it sounds like Siren song," Collins said. Sirens, according to the Greek mythology of Homer's Odyssey, lured sailors into destruction with beautiful, high-pitched songs.

If only Admiral Ackbar had been there...

6. George Lucas made a major musical change to the scene where Luke surrenders to Vader.

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In one of the most important scenes in Return of the Jedi, Luke leaves his Rebel friends and surrenders himself to Vader on Endor. The two talk in private, and Luke appeals to the sliver of good left in Anakin Skywalker.

"I can feel the conflict within you. Let go of your hate!"

When the scene closes, Vader contemplatively looks out the window while ominous music plays over the noise of his respirator. It originally was supposed to end in a different way, with a hint of Luke's theme (the main Star Wars theme), but George Lucas made a call to switch the score.

The change may seem small, but tonally, it's a huge deal. In the true version, Vader sends Luke to the Emperor and we're left in the cold. In this version, we're told, through music, that part of Luke's plea got through to Vader.

If this cue had been left in, would Vader's return to the light in the Emperor's throne room have been less exciting? We'll never know, but it's fun to speculate.

7. The eerily silent battle between Luke and Vader on Cloud City originally had music.

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Star Wars' music is so iconic and powerful that, when it's missing, we really notice its absence.

When Luke first crosses swords with Vader, he's not ready for the challenge and we know it. The tension of the scene is amplified by the eerie noises of the carbonite freezing chamber. The mechanical sounds of the lift, the pipes billowing smoke, and even the hums of the lightsabers themselves.

John Williams recorded lots of extra, unused music for scenes in Empire, and this battle between father and son was one of them. Listen to the difference in the Oxygen clip below.

I have to agree with the Oxygen crew. The music is great, but unneeded. In this case, silence does more work.

8. Luke and Leia's theme was pulled directly from the main Star Wars theme.

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Though not as recognizable as Han and Leia's theme, which we hear everywhere in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke and Leia's theme is beautiful and has a great origin story.

"It's got an emotional vibe to it, but filled with melancholy," Collins said. "The first time you hear this theme is when Luke and Leia are speaking in the Ewok village about their parents."

As Collins points out, if you take the rhythm out of the first few notes of the main Star Wars theme and play them separately, the DNA for Luke and Leia's theme becomes abundantly clear.

9. Music was removed from the scene where Luke talks to Obi-Wan on Dagobah after Yoda dies.

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As mentioned above, there were several scenes in The Empire Strikes Back where extra music was recorded and cut. In Return of the Jedi, however, this only happens once: when Luke talks to Kenobi on Dagobah about Yoda's death, confronting Vader, and Leia.

Like the scene in the freezing chamber, the environment, with its bubbly waters and distant swamp creature squawks, do most of the aural work.

Notice that because we grow used to the silence, Luke's revelation and the subsequent playing of Leia's theme is much more pronounced.

So, did you learn something about Star Wars music? Let us know your favorite theme in the comments below, and be sure to keep an eye on IGN's Star Wars: The Force Awakens wiki as we learn more about the film leading up to its December release.

Brian is an Editor at IGN. You can follow him @albinoalbert on Twitter.


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